Monday, April 23, 2012

St. George's Day

I've grown accustomed to the idea of the Droeshout Figure as a figurative defacement or decapitation of the Earl of Oxford, fancying that in a strange way it prefigures the actual or literal decapitation of Charles I. The Protestant Reformation, with its attending suspicion of heirarchy and community brought calls for political as well as religious reform. Eventually Stuart absolutism would be refigured as tyranny, and King Charles would be executed by the forces that formed a British Republic. It seems to me that Oxford/Shakespeare's love of the southern European cultures and his positive depictions of Catholic monarchies may be an attempt to heal some of the political and  religious rifts that were dividing and destroying relationships between the European powers, and to help prevent England's complete ideological alienation from these great cultures. In this sense, I think of Oxford as a 'canary in a coal mine' - his personal and literary reputation fell to the militant Protestant faction, and eventually even King James policy of appeasement would not be enough for the radical faction as demands for reform would expand to include the form of government itself.

In this blog, I have collected what I believe to be criticisms of both Oxford and Shakespeare, assembling these under the rather blurry rubric of 'Shakespearean and Oxfordian Deformations'. Yet many of these 'deformations' seem to be nothing other than the unreformed opposites to the many 'reformations', social, political and theological, that were emerging in the early modern period, and in this way the offense (deformity) appears to lie in the refusal to accept new ideas and orders that were held to be more rational and ethically superior to old ways, which were refigured as the ways of ignorance, error, and even barbarism.

Oxford's 'sin' seems to lie in his refusal to conform - his unique sense of style was termed self-love, his aristocratic pride became a mark of tyranny, and as an artist his  refusal to follow the classical rules of good composition indicated intemperance and a lack of self-control. A broad sense of humour and an inordinate love of jesting and punning were condemned as scurrility and obscenity and for setting an ignoble and base example. For the reformers only virtue could give fame, and according to the new standards Oxford was weighed and found wanting. Thrust from court, far from sacred Thamesis, the Stratford monument memorialized Oxford's 'base' fame while his energetic and unpredictable humours and influences were safely bounded and immured in this relatively undeveloped region of Warwickshire that was controlled by Fulke Greville and other powerful 'Sidneians'.

Most damaging to Oxford was his life-long opposition to the militant Protestant faction at court. This group, its power originating with the Queen's favourite the Earl of Leicester and descending to his nephew Sidney and his step-son the Earl of Essex, would remain a constant thorn in the sides of social and political conservatives. Apparently pious and indisputably energetic and popular, this highly literate group mobilized authors as well as armies in their mission to correct and purge a disjointed England and Europe. Even Oxford's son and heir Henry would be attracted to their militant Protestant philosophy. Preferred or 'removed' from Oxford's household at a young age by King James to act as a companion to the young Prince Henry, he apparently grew to share Prince Henry's militant views. After Henry's early death he remained active, joining with Essex's great friend the Earl of Southampton in military efforts to secure Protestant victories in Europe, and was cited by Gondomar the Spanish Ambassador as a dangerous leader of a Puritan faction.

The politically conservative, dovish rather than hawkish grandee Oxford (what would be the name for an Elizabethan High Tory type?) was one of the high-profile 'mighty opposites' attacked by this proto-Whiggish faction. King Charles I would prove to be another, but perhaps a more interesting comparison might be found in Charles' son James - James II, the Catholic King of Great Britain who was deposed after a Sidney drafted an invitation to the militant Protestant William of Orange (Fortinbras?) to take the British crown.
Making his escape from England, James threw the Royal Seal into the Thames. By this action, it was decided that he had 'abdicated', leaving the throne clear for James'  more politically correct son-in-law William of Orange and James' Protestant daughter Mary.

At a stretch, this might provide a parallel to Oxford's fate - except what Oxford dropped as he was being ushered off the scene was not a Seal but his Book. A Protestant King would pick up the Royal Seal but in King William's hands it bore a different weight and significance as Stuart absolutism and Royal Catholicism and cryptocatholicism were banished forever. A Protestant England would pick up Oxford's Book, making way for a Protestant Shakespeare; in their hands the Book would take on new meanings as well.

Perhaps nothing more so than Hamlet. Hamlet, that to a Catholic mind presents a picture of a man who would be good, but whose belief in predestination seemingly obscures the line between sin (murder, forgery, treason) and the will of God. Hamlet's dilemmas are Protestant dilemmas, and for the English Protestant scholars that picked up the play in the following centuries - some of Hamlet's dilemmas were their own.


Hamlet, Protestantism, and the mourning of contingency: not to be

By John E. Curran

…the Catholic Thomas Hill, writing at a time quite close to that of [Hamlet], complained pointedly of how Protestantism effectively abdicated moral deliberation:

Protestants, says Hill, find no need to “beat their brains” over moral problems, no need to work through the subtleties of particular cases and to make discriminations, for one’s elected status will empower one to see all clearly and cut through ambiguity, and everything is pre-decided anyway. (p.52)

Hamlet's Sense of Sin:


...wilt thou know...The effect of what I wrote?
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.

How was this seal'd?

Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.
...They are not near my conscience…

Melville, Billy Budd

Aside from his qualities as a sea-officer, Captain [note-Edward Fairfax]Vere was an exceptional character. Unlike no few of England's renowned sailors, long and arduous service with signal devotion to it, had not resulted in absorbing and salting the entire man. He had a marked leaning toward everything intellectual. He loved books, never going to sea without a newly replenished library, compact but of the best. The isolated leisure, in some cases so wearisome, falling at intervals to commanders even during a war-cruise, never was tedious to Captain Vere. With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias was toward those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines; books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era--history, biography and unconventional writers, who, free from cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities.

In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reasoned thoughts--confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions, which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired. In view of the troubled period in which his lot was cast this was well for him. His settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own. While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.


Hamlet - A Counter Reformational Play?

Two qualities that are surprising and disturbing about Hamlet's character and behaviour are his apparent lack of remorse at the murders of Polonius and Rosenkrantz and Guildensterne, and the fact that although he denies that others can 'pluck the heart out of his mystery' he seems to believe that he can 'hold a mirror' up to the souls and wills of others.

Although I am attracted to Hamlet's eloquence, I find myself deeply unsettled by many of his actions.
Hamlet appears to believe that he can make windows into men's souls, and judges accordingly. His judgements of others are harsh and lacking in charity. Hamlet prefers his own 'inwardness' (carving for himself?) to the effort that is required to achieve community and consensus, and this has catastrophic results for the Danish court. I cannot believe that generous Shakespeare, with his genius for comedy and social life, could have immortalized himself as this disaffected malcontent. Hamlet's spirit is the antithesis of the Comic Spirit - he is a satirist at heart. His preferred 'theatre of one' is Jonsonian in spirit - Jonsonian in its rejection of the undiscerning and therefore undeserving. His theatrical precepts would not be out of place next to Philip Sidney's 'Defense of Poesie', with its laundry list of abuses of poetry and stage-poetry.

But most disturbing is Hamlet's lack of remorse for the killings of Polonius and Rosenkrantz and Guildensterne. Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes are a loving family unit, and the children's distress at the death of their father testifies to his worth. Rosenkrantz and Guildensterne, like Polonius (and almost everyone else), are ignorant of Claudius's guilt because of Hamlet's secrecy. All behave as subjects loyal to the man the Court understands to be their elected king. And yet Hamlet secretly condemns them to death as the corrupt cronies of an illegitimate king. Hamlet aims at truth, and yet fails to take in account the differing perceptions of others.

Is Hamlet mad? By his own testimony he must be mad, because he has already announced that he 'knows not seems'. According to his own stern standards, if he 'knows not seems' then he must be mad or a liar. Does it matter is he is mad in truth, or mad in craft as he pursues the 'truth'? For Ophelia, her truth was clear - she perceived him to be mad. The man she loved and admired had murdered her beloved father, treated his corpse like garbage and compared her to a whore - and the reality of this has driven her insane.  Where is truth in Hamlet's travesty of love? Of what significance is Hamlet's protestations of 'inward truth' when his outward effect on others is so vile?

But this may all be part of a larger critique of the Protestant religion. If my general theme of Edward de Vere as the great unreformed/deformed opposite to the militant Protestant reformers (Sidneyan/Essexians) holds true, then Hamlet, the militant Protestant scholar Prince may embody the forces that judged and destroyed the noble reputation of the 'catholic' De Vere. De Vere's reputation charts a downward trajectory - his early years were stellar, and yet, as Fulke Greville's portrait of De Vere's encounter with Philip Sidney clearly shows, De Vere was ultimately portrayed as a willful tyrant (Caesar to Sidney's Brutus, the Saul to his David, Turnus to his Aeneas). After reading Greville's account of Oxford's character in his Life of Sidney, I'm left with the strong impression that both Sidney and Greville express a self-determined 'virtuous' disdain of Oxford that appears to match Hamlet's self-determined contempt for others. The extent of the insupportable assumptions inherent in Greville's examination and judgement of Oxford's character are astounding, as is his apparent claim to have mastered an understanding of the inner workings of Oxford's mind and motivations complete enough to have left to posterity this supposedly authoritative portrait. By what authority? Oxford is reduced to nothing in this biography of Sidney - he merely serves as a foil for Greville's beloved Philip's 'virtue and truth'. Sidney is immortalized as Virtue personified - with his foot firmly on Oxford's neck.

Sic semper tyrannis

What is madness is believing that you can see into the souls and minds of others, that you can see past 'shows' and forms. Perhaps even that you can see 'into' words and texts:

I Know that no man can see into another mans hart or conscience, (although Luther, and his followers bragged that they could so doe) and therfore we cannot iudge thereof by suspition only; but yet wee may be bold to giue our censure of them, by the plaine wordes, and manifest deedes of the parties. Wee dare not be so rash in this matter as the Protestantes are, who by onely coniectures iudge the harts of one another, and sticke not to write, that they speake and write against their consciences knowledge: whereby we may gather that they vse so to do: for otherwise how could they suspect such a detestable fault in others, for commonlie a man thinketh othersto be as himselfe is. (Thomas Hill)

Copies of Two Papers Written by the Late KING CHARLES II. OF BLESSED MEMORY.

The First Paper.

THE discourse we had the other day, I hope satisfied you in the main, that Christ can have but one Church here upon Earth, and I believe that it is as visible as that the Scripture is in Print; That none can be that Church, but that, which is called the Roman Catholick Church. I think you need not trouble your self with entring into that Ocean of particular disputes, when the main, and in truth, the only question is? Where that Church is, which we profess to believe in the two Creeds? We declare there to believe one Catholick, and Apostolick Church, and it is not left to every phantastical man's head to believe as he pleases, but to the Church, to whom Christ left the power upon Earth to govern us in matters of Faith, who made these Creeds for our directions. It were a very Irrational thing to make Laws for a Country, and leave it to the Inhabitants to be the Interpreters and Judges of those Laws; For then every man will be his own Judge, and by consequence no such thing as either Right or Wrong. Can we therefore suppose that God Almighty would leave us at those uncertainties, as to give us a Rule to go by, and leave every man to be his own Judge? I do ask any ingenuous man, whether it be not the same thing to follow our own phancy or to interpret the Scripture by it? I would have any man shew me, where the power of deciding matters of Faith is given to every particular man. Christ left his power to his Church even to forgive Sins in Heaven, and left his Spirit with them, which they exercised after his Resurrection: First by his Apostles in these Creeds, and many years after by the Council at Nice, where that Creede was made that is called by that name, and by the power which they had received from Christ, they were the Judges even of the Scripture it self many years after the Apostles, which Books were Canonical and which were not. And if they had this power then, I desire to know how they came to lose it, and by what Authority men separate themselves from that Church? The only pretence I ever heard of, was, because the Church has failed in wresting and interpreting the Scripture contrary to the true sence and meaning of it, and that they have imposed Articles of Faith upon us, which are not to be warranted by Gods word? I do desire to know who is to be Judge of that, whether the whole Church, the Succession whereof has continued to this day without interruption, or particular men who have raised Schisms for their own advantage?

This is a true Copy of a Paper I found in the late King my Brothers strong box written in His own hand.


The English Catholic writer Thomas Hill wrote a very eloquent pamphlet describing the reasons why he could never convert to Protestantism and instead preferred to live in exile:


...They are not near my conscience…


Title: A quartron of reasons of Catholike religion, with as many briefe reasons of refusall: By Tho. Hill
Author: Hill, Edmund Thomas, ca. 1563-1644.

Date: 1600

THE XV. REASON. Diuinitie.


And besides all this there are taught Cases of Conscience, in which is set downe, what is sinne, and vvhat not: the differences of sinnes, which great, which lesser, and which is a most fruitfull and a most profitable kind of knowledge, and therefore is much studied, and practised by Catholike Priests, and Diuines, who teach the people thereby to rule, and to order their liues and actions. Neyther doth the Protestant meddle with these matters of Conscience, but fraighteth his ship only with Faith, and neuer beateth his braine about sinnes, for that he thinketh none to be imputed to such Predestinated, as they all weene themselues to be, vvhich causeth the people theyr followers to be vtterly ignorant of the nature, differences, and quality of sins, and consequently nothing fearefull, or stayed by any conscience to committ the same.



If your mind dislike any thing, obey it. I will forestall their
repair hither, and say you are not fit.


Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the
readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't
to leave betimes, let be.


Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.

Thomas Hill, con't.

THE XXI. REASON. The Protestantes beginning, and proceeding against then consciences.

I Know that no man can see into another mans hart or conscience, (although Luther, and his followers bragged that they could so doe) and therfore we cannot iudge thereof by suspition only; but yet wee may be bold to giue our censure of them, by the plaine wordes, and manifest deedes of the parties. Wee dare not be so rash in this matter as the Protestantes are, who by onely coniectures iudge the harts of one another, and sticke not to write, that they speake and write against their consciences knowledge: whereby we may gather that they vse so to do: for otherwise how could they suspect such a detestable fault in others, for commonlie a man thinketh othersto be as himselfe is. Luther confesseth that hee began this Tragedie against his conscience, and therfore he thought others to doe the like. Zwinglius saith, that he beleeued not the Reall Presence for manie yeares together before hee brake off from the Catholike Church, but yet hee vvarilie dissembled his mind, and outwardly shewing himselfe a Papist, and in his opinion others doe the like. Nenno openly telleth that before he was an Anabaptist, hee sought after nothing, but his bellie, and the desires of the flesh, and therefore hee thought that all Catholicke Priestes did the like: but you may aske me, if Luther, who first began the protestants Religion, had at his entry such repugnance of conscience, why did hee not leaue off that course, and returne to his Cloyster againe. I answere; for that he had proceeded so farre, as he himselfe thought, that by desperate necessitie hee must goe on, howsoeuer the matter would fal out. Euen as Iu. Caesar, who doubted much, and had diuers Combats with himself, whether he shuld march forward with his army against the Romanes or no: but at the length when he had proceeded so farre, as that hee had passed ouer the riuer Rubicon, hee burst out into these words: Now is the chaunce throwne, now must we needs proceed wheather we will or no. In like manner Luther, after he had gone further then his conscience woulde haue suffered him to haue done, hee vtterly dispairing the recouery of his credit (much like as one Thomas Bell who yet liueth, in England, hath done) iustified his actions, and so began his hell in this life, hauing his conscience euer after vnquiet, and still reproouing him, and causing him to repent, as Iudas did, for that he had proceeded so farre, and to wish all his Bookes buried in the earth, and was so troubled in disputations that as one ready to die, he would goe out into the next chamber, and there throw himselfe vpon a bed.

The tessera of Antilia: utopian brotherhoods; secret societies in the earlyseventeenth century ... By Donald R. Dickson

...About a decade later Edmund Bolton (1575-1633), an ardent antiquary himself, proposed that royal patronage be granted to an Academ Roial to be housed at Windson Castle and "encorporated under the tytle of a brotherhood or fraternitie, associated for matters of Honour and Antiquity." Matters of honor would be superintended by the upper circle of the academy, drawn from the Order of the Garter under the marshallship of George Villiers, then Marquis of Buckingham and Bolton's distant kinsman. Concentric to these would be a working group of scholars, termed the Essentials, who would have "the superintendencies of the review, or the review itself of all English translations of secular learning" and the power to authorize all non-theological literature. First broached in 1617, the design was advocated to parliament in 1621 by Buckingham and approved in 1624, but the death of James meant Bolton would have to win over Charles who did not share his father's scholarly interests.


[Bolton's] 'earliest version of this proposal was directed to King James through the mediation of the Duke of Buckingham, to whom Bolton was distantly related; the pages reproduced in Plate 21 capture the spirit of the entire venture. The primary function of the new Academy - the proposal grandly, if somewhat vaguely promised - was to be the promotion of ORDER, DECORUM, and DECENCIE (words emphatically described in large upper-cased letters) and the SUPPRESSION of Confusion and DEFORMITIE. As Bolton's thoughts developed, he proposed more specific functions to the Academy: that it should control the licensing of all non-theological books in England, for example, keep a constant register of 'public facts', monitor the translation of all learned works, hold meetings every quarter and annually on ST GEORGE'S DAY. (Donaldson, Ben Jonson, a Life, p.366)


The Earl of Essex, in his Apologie, describes his love for the nation's 'chief men of action' and opposes them to Cecil's group of 'peacemakers':

(Is it a surprise to see Essex's son as the commander of the Parliamentary forces at Edgehill? Or Algernon Sidney executed for plotting against Charles II, declaring on the scaffold: "We live in an age that makes truth pass for treason."? Or that it was a Sidney who drafted the Immortal Seven's Invitation to William of Orange, then claiming that the Catholic King James II's flight to France was an 'abdication'(an age when treason passed for truth)? Could Hamlet ever be played as an Elizabethan 'High Tory' tragi-comedy after that Glorious Revolution?

Earl of Essex, his Apologie
I haue nowe shewed you (worthy Maister Bacon) with what minde I vndertooke these forraine imploimens and actions of the warre. A word for my friendshippe to the chiefe men of action, and fauour generall to the men of warre: and then I come to the maine obiection, which is the crossing of the treatie in hande. For most of them which are accounted the chiefe men of action, I doe intirely loue them: they haue beene my companions both abroad and at home: Some of them began the wars with me, most of them haue had place vnder me, and many of them had me a witnesse of their rising, from Captaynes, Lieuetenants, and priuate men, to these charges which since by their vertues they haue obtayned. Now I knowe their vertue I would chuse them for friends, if I had them not, but before I had tryed them, God in his prouidence chose them for me: I loue them for my owne sake, for I finde sweetenesse in their conuersation, strong assistance in their imployment with mee, and happinesse in their friendshippe, I loue them for their vertues sake, for their greatnesse of minde: For little mindes though neuer so full of vertue, can be but a little vertuous. For their vnderstanding: For to vnderstand little or thinges not in vse, is little better then to vnderstand nothing at all. For their affection: For soft loing men, loue ease pleasure and profit. But they that loue paines, daunger, and fame, shewe they loue the publique profite more then themselues. I loue them for my countries sake, for they are Englands best armour of defence, and weapons of offence. If we may haue peace, they haue purchased it, if we must haue warre, they must manadge , yet whilst we are doubtfull, and in treatie, we must value our selues by what may be done, and our enemie will value vs by what hath beene done, by our chiefe men of action. That generally I am affected to the men of warre, it should not seeme strange to any reasonable man: Euery man loueth those of his owne profession: the graue iudge fauours the student of the lawe, the reuerend Bishoppes the labourers of the ministerie, And I, since her Maiestie hath yeerely vsed my seruice in her late actions, must reckon my selfe to the number of her men of warre. Before action, prouidence makes me cherish them, for the seruice they can doe, and after action, experience and thankefulnesse makes me loue them for the seruice they haue done. I know great scandal lieth vpon the profession of Armes, as if it were a schole of dissolutenesse: but that groweth by commandement and charg giuen to dissolute chiefs, and it is a fault of the professors not of the profession.

For a campe ought to be, (and if it be well governed) is the best schoole, to make religion truely felt, and piety and honestie to be duly practised. For my selfe I am sure, they that loue me least, (if thou know any thing of my gouernment when I am abroad) wil taxe me rather for being to be too seuere, then charg me for being to remisse and popular. But I long to leaue these disputations, which are but skirmishes, and will come to ioyne with my aduersies in that encounter, wherein they labour both to ouerthrowe my credite, with my Soueraigne, and my country. They [note - the peacemakers] say that England cannot stand without peace, peace cannot growe but by treatie, treatie cannot bee had, but when the enemie offers it, and now when the enemie offers to treate, the doubtes I cast, and argumentes I frame, doe shew I would not haue her Maiesties commissione sent ouer. I answere in a word: that if I saw them to build vpon any true principle, I should not so much dissent from them as I doe: but if they will promise themselues, they may haue peace without ground, or thinke that peace may be good for vs without reason, or leape blind folded into a treatie, without due circumstances, I say then I do not suspect too much, but rather they too little.


'Counter-Reformation Versions of Saxo: A New Source for Hamlet?' by Julie Maxwell proposes the Historia Olai Magni (1567) as the source for 'local details (like the sledded Polacks) in Hamlet'. Taken from Renaissance Quarterly 57 (2004): 518-60.

"Johannes Magnus (1488-1544) and Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) of Sweden were brothers, prelates, and scholars who opposed the Lutheran Reformation of Sweden that occurred in the 1520's and 1530's. Consequently they lived as exiles in Poland and Italy. Johannes Magnus had claims on the archbishopric of Uppsala. His Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sveonumque regibus (History of All the Kings of the Goths and Swedes) was first published in Rome in 1554. It includes a brief life of Amleth's father, Horvendil, that is unknown in Shakespeare studies. Although this work has never been translated into English, Shakespeare himself could read Latin to some extent. He also read extensively, and often combined widely scattered materials.

Olaus Magnus Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Description of the Northern Peoples) was first published in Rome in 1555, and proved a dazzling success....When the heir to the Swedish throne (Erik XIV r.1560-68) attempted in 1559 to court the new English Queen Elizabeth I, *both Magnus histories were given to the Secretary of State William Cecil*(1520-98) in a bid to prove the Swede's respectability." (Maxwell, p.520)
The purposes for which the national legend had been deployed by both Christian II and Gustav Vasa were converted by the Magnus brothers to an alternative, Catholic reading of world history. Their Sweden had been led astray by the Danish invasion that had precipitated Protestantism. It could be steered back on course if people (Swedish nobles, the papacy) could only be made to recognize that it was a historically great country that deserved to have a strenuous Counter-Reformation effort made on its behalf. The literary vanguard was led by Johannes Magnus's Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sveonumque regibus, with its pro-Swedish but anti-Protestant retelling of Saxo.
Pertinently, at the turn of the century from which Hamlet dates, political events in Sweden gave a new lease of life to the histories of the Magnus brothers and, in particular, to the dream they had consistently cherished of re-Catholicizing their country. The Latin reprint of Olaus Magnus's work that appeared in Hamburg in 1599, (minus the illustrations) may have been connected to this excitement. The Magnus brothers had advocated a Swedish-Polish religio-political alliance. Protestants in both countries feared that this might at last be realized, since Gustav Vasa's Catholic grandson Sigismund III was now king both of Poland (1587-1632) and of Sweden (1592-99). These events precipitated the Swedish Civil War (1598-1604) which ---as Shakespeare could not possibly know when he was writing Hamlet - the Protestants would win. There were implications for England's situation in Europe. If a combined Swedo-Polish Catholic power were to conquer Protestant Denmark, it might then join with Spain to attack England" (Maxwell, p.544)

"*Religiously motivated civil war* was also the context for the next significant literary project in which the Hamlet legend was involved: the Histoires tragiques of Francois de Belleforest, which appeared in seven volumes and in a great many editions between 1560 and 1616. Belleforest's career in letters, first as a minor follower of the Pleiade and then as a historian, spanned the most troublesome decades of sixteenth-century France. The Wars of Religion raged (1562-63, 1567-68, and 1568-70), to reach a bloody crescendo at the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. In the light of these events and Belleforest's polemical participation in them (detailed below), his selection and handling of Amleth's story needs some reappraisal. Typically, Shakespeareans bemoan Belleforest's tedious expansions of Saxo and his failure to understand the heroic code. We're told of Belleforest the Christian, struggling 'reluctantly' with ethically unprepossessing materials. Nothing is said of why Belleforest the Catholic, chose to translate this story, how it related to others in the volume, or what the specific religious and political interests of his writings were. These connections are all the more important to establish because, as most critics agree, Shakespeare is very likely to have read the Belleforest translation.

As a young man, Belleforest had been taken under the wing of Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), the sister of the French King Francis I and the wife of Henri d'Albert, the King of Navarre. Marguerite offered patronage to many humanists, and she primed Belleforest for a literary career. Her intense personal piety, her belief that the Catholic church should be reformed from within, and her writing of novella in the manner of Baccaccio's Decameron (ca. 1351), were all important formative influences on Belleforest. But there was one project that he did not adopt. Marguerite advocated tolerance of Protestants in France and attempted to protect writers accused of the Lutheran heresy. The mature Belleforest was instead harshly uncompromising in his views on Lutherans and Calvinists, as may be seen from the nature of the works he chose to translate during the Wars and the persons to whom he addressed them.

One clear example is the Reprimand to French Princes not to Make any Peace with Mutineers and Rebels, to Monsieur the Duke of Aumale, 1567) Claude, Duke of Aumale (1526-73) was a younger son of the first Duke of Guise, and thus an immediate family member of the ultra-Catholic Guise faction. Belleforest's Remonstrance translated for Aumale a poem by the neo-Latin poet Leger Du Chesne (1503-88). Published on the eve of the Second War of Religion (1567-68). It repudiated utterly the idea of any peaceful settlement between Protestants and Catholics, and insisted that all Calvinists must be exterminated or banished." (Maxwell, 544-545)


"The politicization of Belleforest's version also shows in the way that he uses scripture. The books of Samuel are recurrent points of reference. He mentions children hastening the deaths of their parents "as Absalom would have done to the holy King David his father," , how compares Amleth in his antic disposition to "King David, who counterfeited the mad man among the minor kings of Palestine," and then, when Amleth's uncle attempts to have him killed, to another Uriah, placed in the front of the battle by King David so that he would certainly be slain. We are also referred to David's deathbed charge to Solomon to revenge him on his enemies. The ostensible reason for this choice of narrative analogies is that we are leaving profane fables behind in favor of spiritually superior ones. Thus Shakespeareans find Belleforest a dreary moralist who stuffs Saxo with biblical allusions and ethical harangues at every possible instant.

But pertinently, the books of Samuel are those in which kingship in Israel is first tentatively established, by transferral from the divine to the human realm, and is then repeatedly challenged. The first king, Saul, flies into passions - fully as murderous as any of Charles IX's- against his divinely chosen and popularly preferred successor, David. It is during his protracted flight from Saul that David, like Amleth, pretends to be mad. Later, after David has displeased God by taking Uriah's wife Bathsheba out of her and into his own divan, it is his rulership that is under constant attack. His own son Absalom, as Belleforest mentions, is the first, but not the last attempt to wrest the crown from his aging hands. It would be difficult to think of any biblical book that could have described more aptly the dynastic struggles of sixteenth-century France." (Maxwell)

"It seems extraordinary, however, that the legend's place in Counter-Reformation polemic has one unremarked, especially in view of recently renewed claims for Shakespeare's Catholicism or alternatively, Greenblatt's brief that "we do not need to believe that Shakespeare himself was a secret Catholic sympathizer; we need only to recognize how alert he was to the materials that were being made available to him". Reading Hamlet in the light of the Counter-Reformation histories discussed here may have a bearing on critical investigation of Shakespeare's religion and his use of sources, and which remain topics of perennial interest. That the Saxo, Krantz, Magnus and Belleforest versions all either commented, or were used to comment, in some way on Europe's Reformations increases considerably the likelihood that Shakespeare selected the story precisely for its pertinence in this respect, as well as for its narrative fascinations." (Maxwell, 554-555)

(note- according to Maxwell, no English translations of these texts appear until 1658, although 'editions appeared all over Europe in many languages' before that.)

"The Magnus histories deserve some attention, then, not least because they make one fact absolutely certain: neither Hamlet nor the Ur-Hamlet was responsible for introducing Protestant-Catholic issues to the pre-Christian setting of the original saga. ....