My Elizabethan summer: book report

Elizabeth Summer’s well over. There’s no use kidding myself. My book report is now due. I have to write it. Here it is.

I had a theme this summer: Elizabethan England, and three books: on Shakespeare, Drake, and Walsingham (playwrite, explorer, and spymaster respectively).

Why Elizabethan England? They’re a lot like us. Lots of assumptions suddenly in question and up for grabs. The nature of man, God, the state and nature, the rules of inquiry, the intellectual, cultural underpinings of the enterprise, all of these were being reworked.

One thing was clear: Elizabeth. So was another: that England was the object of continental ambitions and the antipathy of Rome. This little nation of 6 million people was large enough to look worth taking over or putting down, but not large enough to defend itself reliably. It had something like a navy and nothing like an army. If the Spanish could make it to shore, the invasion would be a route.

I’m no expert but I get the sense that the English went about the renovation of their world roughly the way Microsoft used to write code. Everyone worked on their own little corner of things, and leaves to someone else the task of threading everything together. Of course, this is consistent with the way the English do lots of things still, including gardening and the law. But it does mean that no one, as near as I can tell, is asking (go figure) what we might call the French questions: what difference do all these differences make? What changes if these things hold? What holds if these things change?

And it’s surely a good thing. If every Elizabethan was fully informed of the innovations being undertaken by all other Elizabethans, some of them would surely have lost their nerve, and not even the genius of Elizabeth, her courtiers and counsellors, could put humpty dumpty back together again. Cunning and courage, there was lots of that, and that was going to have to do it.

I was looking for patterns and nothing worked till I put Bacon into the set. He and Drake make a pair. Bacon used exploration as his metaphor for the new knowledge: that it would break out of the Mediterranean, once a figure for classical knowledge, but he uses the metaphor to say that only when explorers are prepared to let concept follow percept as it were, was the new knowledge possible. Shape knowledge to the world, not the world to knowledge, that kind of thing.

And Bacon really is the guy here, a man who uses a logic so contemporary you get goosebumps reading him. Everyone calls him the "father of science" but this misses it. Bacon understood (perhaps he was the first to glimpse) what Virginia Postrel calls the verge. He gets that his culture would eventually be in a state of constant reformation. He insists that the limits of what is known, done, thought and thought possible, all of this is not for stopping at but for passing trhough.

Enter Sir Francis Drake captains the little ship that Bacon puts on the edge of knowledge and he pilots it around the world, breaking out virtuoso acts of seamanship (especially coming around the horn), working his way up the west coast of the new world, well up the coast of what we now call Canada, helping himself to Spanish gold and silver as he goes. This latter he "returns" to Elizabeth who uses it to build up her navy so that when the Spanish do come finally in 1588 they are find themselves contending with the wealth they stole from South America. (It was a great time for conversions of this kind.)

Shakespeare and Walsingham make another pair (a "correspondence" in local lingo), both of them investigating the properties and the limits of a new, emergent, human nature. Shakespeare’s goal of course was entertainment, first, not foremost, but Walsingham examined men’s souls for another reason, to find out the spies that threatened England, the first invaders, as it were. And they say of Walsingham that he had a strange patience. While the Inquistors were famous for their instruments of torture that would break the vessel that kept a secret (and of course those that didn’t), Walsingham was more restrained, seeming almost to believe that if you took away their liberty, men would eventually interrogate themselves and spill…as if there was an indwelling, involuntary, (Baconian?) skepticism that could be used against the spy. It’s even possible that he entertained the possibility of a possessive individualism and the notion that men would give up their secrets to protect themselves and that you had better leave them something to protect.

When Shakespeare examined the souls of men, he found new complexity, new self awareness with which to think about it, and still less often new agency with which to make choices. His characters were not the bold portrayals of this passion or that vice. They were Lear, a man who gets to contemplate his demotion in the large scheme of things, and decide whether it means and what it means and to endure an intractible universe (his own daughters!) that does what it wants in any case.

The way Greenblatt tells the story it sounds as if the world was conspiring to give this yokel his shot at greatness. All these conditions were bestowed upon him. All now seem critical:

that he lived in the country gave him access to bodies of knowledge and points of view he might not have seen as a city boy

that his father was a mayor meant that visiting threatre companies were obliged to call on his house and ask his father for permission to play. Masterless men were feared in this period. Unless a company moved swiftly to dispell the impression, they would be taken for men inclined to mischief or worse. (Lock up your daughters.) They were in this fluid countryside a little like pirates without ships. But what Will saw, we may suppose, were adults asking permission to act like children by promising not to act like children. And this might have been proof for young Will that there were some professions in the world where childhood could be carried into maturity and, more delectably, that there were inventive exercises in which someone could bend the world to their will (sorry) with nothing more than an imagination and a band of men masterful and masterless in roughly equal proportion.

that his father suffered a sudden change of fortune and demotion in the world, which meant that Will was not shipped off to Oxford where his talent would hvae been spotted and commandeered by the church or the law.

that his family had Catholic sympathies which Greenblatt suggests got him a teaching job in the vast household of a great northern family, an enterprise so vast that it sustained its own company of players where Will, we gather, could see a theatre in small play out in a world in little.

I believe it’s correct to say that Shakespeare, Walsingham, Drake and Bacon were active in the 1580s.


to be supplied when I get home

please forgive the choppiness of this post and the fact that I do not yet have a resounding finish. I have 8 minutes to catch my flight.

2 thoughts on “My Elizabethan summer: book report

  1. Peter McB.

    Grant —

    I think the latest scholarship believes that Shakespeare could not attend Oxford (or any other University) officially because of his Catholic origins. However, he may nonetheless have done so, unofficially, auditing classes without enrolling. This would explain the great richness of classical references in his plays. It could also provide an explanation for his father’s sudden impoverishment, if, perhaps, WS was caught and fined.

    If you enjoyed Greenblatt and you like Shakespeare’s plays, you would enjoy this new book:

    Clare Asquith (2005): “Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare” (Public Affairs Publishers).

    Asquith argues that throughout his plays, Shakespeare was using a coded language to send messages to and about the Catholic situation in England. Certainly, there is a richness of detail in his work (plays and poetry) which this book explains and compellingly.

  2. Ralph Heading

    Enjoyable reading of the connection of Drake as a contemporary of his time . Seems that he is dragged into our modern logic, as a heroic figure who seems somehow always to be connected with the writer. It is as if John Wayne movies play in their heads and Drake is the star in the show. Drake could not have sailed through the queen’s court without help. I chose John Dee as his mentor, thay is separate from his cousin John Hawkins. Someone had to expand Drake’s swahbuckling bravado into a time wise worldlyness that encompassed the whole nation and the future. I chose John Dee to try to connect. He held the queen’s spiritual interest and was a master of mathematics. He did train Frobisher an Davis in navigation on board their ships in the Thames . Drake would have met Dee and they would have complemented each other. Dee to follow through on his manifesto which outlined the theory of deep water naval supremecy and taking the battle to the enemy , not waiting for them to come to you. .And drake who practiced the techique without having to be told. Dee released a map of the Arctic shortly after Drake’s return that is tantalizing in its similarities to Drake’s voyage. These explorers needed help Bacon was contemporary , but was he near the privy council and the then site of power and decision. Could Drake be trusted to not only do what was required , but could he be counted on to say only those things that were to be said as benifited the queen’s inner circle?

    A truly novel idea and has given me a delightful time thinking about who else would have championed the voyage. For sure those who subscribed to underwrite the voyages expence and I now wonder who else.

    Ralph –Pacific Coast Exploration Society

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