Shakespeare, Conspiracies & Boycotts, oh my!

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, led me your ears.

(Note, this is a corrected update)

This has been a crazy (and I mean it in the literal sense) week regarding Shakespeare & conspiracies. I’ve been meaning to write this blog post since last Tuesday, after what I was sure would be a calming of the storm, but the crazy is spiraling out of control. Someone is going to get hurt, all because of a Shakespeare play.

In case you have been blissfully unaware, this year the New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production is Julius Caesar; a very modern production, with Caesar having blond hair, a blue suit, and long tie. The play is aimed at a modern audience who just happens to have a sitting president that has dyed blond hair, and seems to only wear blue suites and long ties.

This is not the first time a Shakespeare theater company has depicted a sitting president as Julius Caesar. My friend Jason reminded that in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis also produced a modern retelling of the story, this time with a black man in a dark suit as Caesar. I’m sure if we were to go back in time, we’d find other theaters doing the same thing to other leaders. Modernizing Shakespeare is nothing new. What is new is the outrage this particular production has sparked.

The outrage, the distorted news stories, and silly boycotts are all clear examples of something I have talked about in the past; the dumbing down of America. Though I cannot now think of a better example than this one. It seems everyone is getting this play wrong, and asserting things that are not true, simply because the have not bothered to read the play. Hell if they had bothered to read this cliff notes we’d all be better off. So before we get into the conspiracy and boycott, let’s talk about Julius Caesar, the play.

Julius Caesar is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s first plays to be performed at the newly constructed Globe Theater. Shakespeare’s audience would have been fully aware of the history of Rome, and the controversy surrounding the emperor’s murder. It was a subject of debate at the time and continued to be debated up to the early 17th century. Dante put both Brutus and Cassius, the two main co- conspirators, in the 9th circle of hell as traitors, but by the 16th century, philosophers like Philip Sidney thought Brutus was brave by trying to save the republic (spoiler, he didn’t). Shakespeare seemed to weigh in by giving his audience a play that showed the assassination and its aftermath; both bloody, and both seemingly pointless.

Here is a mini version of the cliff notes version of Julius Caesar:

Several members of the senate, fearing Caesar has become too powerful, decides the only course of action is to assassinate him. They think they will be “greeted like liberators” to quote anther modern politician, but they are not. Anthony, horrified by what they have done, gives a moving speech in which repeatedly calls Brutus “honorable” but clearly means the opposite. The speech works, and results in its intended effect; the crowd calls for the blood of those who killed Caesar. The conspirers, now fearing for their lives ,flee Italy only to be hunted down by Anthony and Caesar’s nephew, Octavius. Realizing they cannot win, Brutus and Cassius kill themselves. In the end all of the conspirers are dead and Roman order is restored.

There are several lesson this play gives us, all of which seem to be lost this week. The first is the error of the lust for power. The Senate, fearing they are losing their collective power of privilege, decides to take it upon themselves to grab it back. And in doing so, act worse than the leader they all fear. The second, is assuming the end justifies the means, or assuming you are in the right. The conspirers are so determined to “save” the republic they assume all will agree with their actions, even if it means getting rid of a beloved emperor. The people turned on them because they miscalculate how the deed is taken by the masses. Thirdly, this play shows what happens when there is a loss of balance of power. When one part of any government becomes too strong, the other side pushes back. Julius Caesar demonstrates this cycle with no defined winners. I could do a whole post about this one topic alone, but we will skip the analysis for another day. My main point to this brief outline is to assert that this particular play is not about the assassination of a leader; rather it is an argument against the assassination of a leader. Anthony’s moving and often-cited speech, along with the death scenes of Brutus and Cassius, are proof of this claim. Anyone who tells you differently has not read the play. And here my friends, is where my ranting begins, or in the words of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know, “here is where it gets crazy”.

Last weekend Fox Faux News reported that New York’s Public Theater was hosting a play depicting the murder of Donald Trump. Clearly knowing nothing about the play, or the history of modernizing Shakespeare, the news site reported this as part of an alarming trend of how the left is disrespecting the president. How they did this straight faced is beyond my comprehension. They seemed to forget this happened to Obama in 2012, and clearly have selective amnesia when it comes remembering that many on the left put up public signs with illustrations of nooses that read “Hang in there Obama”. Where was Fox’s outrage then?

But, it gets even crazier. Last week’s Twitter hashtag game #ShakespeareSunday’s theme coincidentally was ‘Rebellion”. For those who don’t know what I may be talking about, every Sunday hundreds of people engage in a Twitter hashtag (#) game hosted by a an amazing lady (not several as noted before) with the Twitter handle, @HollowCrownFans. This game was started when the first of the BBC Hollow Crowns series aired, and we’ve been playing ever since. The rules are simple. Each week a theme is picked and players use the theme to quote Shakespeare; more often than not, accompanied by a picture that links the quote to our modern world. This is our way of demonstrating Shakespeare’s relevance to the modern world. Because last week’s them was “Rebellion”, Twitter was overrun with bard quotes and Star Wars pictures and memes.

Henry IV, Part 1 Act 5

But, because of the dumbing down of America, Trump supporters smelled a conspiracy between the players and the Public Theater. A call to boycott the hashtag rose up among them. Some even tried to warn New York taxpayers that their money was being used by a group that sought to undermine our democracy by disrespecting our president. Let me put this another way, there are some some on Twitter who think @HollowCrownFans, a private Twitter handle, is owned by unknown left leaning public entity. That’s how fucking crazy this is getting! And now, these same people are trying to connect anything from a playwright, who has been dead for over 400 years, to the anti-Trump movement. This is how insane and ignorant this is getting.

Shakespeare in the park is not only being disrupted and boycotted by Trump supporters, Delta Airline and Bank of America have pulled their support of the theater, even though the play is not a celebration of the death of a leader. Nor is it a call to assassinate the president of the United States. If anyone at Delta or B of A had bothered to see the play they’d know this.

The media is not helping. The News Week’s author, on writing about the production, admits he has not viewed the play. He quotes the director as saying “ Julius Caesar is a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means”. Yet this quote is lost on the author who ignores it and goes on to talk about how the critics have a point. No. They. Do. Not. The director, by choosing to Trump as a stand-in is warning us that, no matter who is in charge, we must always let democracy rule. How much more clearer can this message get?? Yet the author goes on to talk about his own reading and understanding of the play, but his later message is hollow because of his argument against the production of a modernized version of the play. This author claims to have taught Shakespeare, yet he is ignorant of the history of modernizing the plays and worse, shows his ignorance of why plays are often modernized. We modernize them in order to show how relevant Shakespeare’s work is even today, and historically human behavior has not changed much over time. By modernizing Shakespeare we keep him close to us and allow him to continue to teaching us many much needed lesson.

There is no doubt that America is divided today and any little spark tends to result in a firestorm. I get it. But this catering to the dumbing down of America by the media and big businesses is only adding fuel to the fires. I cannot help but laugh at those who are boycotting Shakespeare as they are allowing their own ignorance and hate to shine for all to see. Yet, by the same hand, I fear for our country, as episodes like these are further dividing our country.

No there is no big conspiracy. Shakespeare doesn’t hate Trump, #ShakespeareSunday is a just game for fans of Shakespeare to enjoy, and Julius Caesar is not a celebration of murder. Oh, and I have a new game for you. Its called, #GetoffTwitter&GoReadaBook.

Yes, player and playwright meant the same thing in Shakespeare’s day

Here we go again!
Here we go again!

In case you have missed it, last week saw a new chapter emerged concerning Shakespeare and the dreaded authorship argument. Long time readers and friends know why I use the word dreaded; it is an argument born from ego and suspicion of all things labeled accepted academic. I’ve learned to stay far away from this fight as no good usually comes from it. But, if you haven’t heard of Heather Wolfe, I’d like to introduce her to you, as I have a feeling she is going to become a leading figure in Shakespeare academia.

Wolfe holds my dream job as a curator at the Folger’s Library; her expertise as a paleographer is in old English manuscripts. She has been dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of the library” due to her ability to not only find often overlooked written clues, but forensic clues such as hair and odd bits of DNA. Scholars hold Wolfe in high esteem, which is why when she announced she had found proof that the playwright known as Shakespeare, and the Stratford born Shakespeare were one and the same, the academic world took notice.

I will link to the full news article below. For our purposes we only need to know that Wolfe found a 1602 list of “mean persons” (deemed unworthy) whose applications for a coat of arms was wrongfully “preferred” by Sir William Dethick, the Garter King of Arms. Among those who were called out as being unworthy yet somehow “preferred” was Shakespeare the player. The only application noted in the official College of Arms record at the time was an application by William Shakespeare of Stratford. This Coat of Arms Shakespeare of Stratford was petitioning for included the motto, Not without right.

The Guardian article reminds us that “Around the same time Ben Jonson, in his satire Every Man out of his Humour, poked fun at his artistic rival (Shakespeare the player) as a rustic buffoon who pays £30 for a ridiculous coat of arms with the humiliating motto ‘Not Without Mustard‘.”

So it does appear that Wolfe is right, that Shakespeare of Stratford, Shakespeare the player, and Johnson’s rival are one and the same. But what about Shakespeare the playwright? Why did the list include the word player and not playwright? Sigh, here we go…

As soon as I read the article I knew, I just knew, someone from anti-Stratfordian camp would argue that player and playwright did not mean the same thing. In fact, I mentioned this on Twitter while discussing the subject with some friends. And sure enough, a couple of days ago, a self-professed “expert” Oxfordian, tweeted out this very argument. But instead of letting my gut reaction take hold, I asked myself, “Does he have a point?”

My quest to find the answer first led me to wanting to know when the word playwright was first used. The answer was a little surprising; it seems Ben Johnson coined the term (at least this is the first recorded use of the word) in an epigram (49 to be exact) in which Johnson counterfeits a complaint against those that dare shed light on man’s darker nature:


PLAYWRIGHT me reads, and still my verses damns,
He says I want the tongue of epigrams ;
I have no salt, no bawdry he doth mean ;
For witty, in his language, is obscene.
Playwright, I loath to have thy manners known
In my chaste book; I profess them in thine own.

Epigrams, in case you are wondering, are what I would call the anti-sonnet. Sonnets by definition are usually love poems, while epigrams are usually humors complaints; mostly about women. As you might expect the use of epigrams as poems were not as popular as sonnets and so their use as poetry devices quickly died out.

Johnson uses the term playwright in a derogatory manner. The context in which he uses it begins to form an argument against the idea that player and playwright are not the same thing. You see in Johnson’s and Shakespeare’s day wrights were craftsmen; ploughwrights made ploughs, cartwrights wagons, etc. These craftsmen, or wrights were of the labor class, and as such were not looked upon as worthy for consideration. By attaching the word wright to play, Johnson was liking a dramatist to a laborer. In other words, someone unworthy for consideration. The fact that this playwright draws attention to the bawdry and obscene makes him all the more unworthy of attention. The term as we know it today was not widely used in the early 17th century. And, as I soon learned, any mention of a writer of plays during this period of history is hard to find at all.

A good primary source of information for this subject is G. Blakemore Evan’ book, Elizabethan-Jacobean Drama, The Theatre in its Time. This delightful book contains primary sources that give us a better understanding of how the theatre was viewed by critics, officials, noblemen, and ordinary people. It contains pieces of long forgotten plays, and beautiful illustrations you’d be hard pressed to find outside of academic libraries. My copy is dog-eared from the many times I’ve used it as a reference guide.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances. Jaques to Duke Senior in As You Like It

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In all of Shakespeare’s work he never uses the term “playwright”, although he does reference players several times; most notably in his stage directions for Hamlet’s play-within-a play. The acting troupe that visits Elsinore is referred to both singularly and collectively as player(s). The more I researched the subject of player vs. playwright, the more this began to make sense. Of all of the primary sources I read,( both in print and online) none used the term playwright. It’s clear that this term was not in vogue during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and therefor would not have been used in a list of “mean persons”. As a matter of fact, the term for he who writes plays in any form is hardly worth mentioning at all. The writer is absent even in the most grievous of complaints against the theater.

In an official letter against the theater from the Lord Mayor of London and the Aldermen to the Privy Council dated 28 July 1597 the word “stage-plays” shows up four times. The mayor, convinced playhouses are the “refuse for all sort of evil-disposed and ungodly people that are within and about this City”,goes on to detail the many opportunities for vice that stage-plays afforded the masses but oddly never complains about the actors and writer who put on the stage-plays. They are secondary to his concern.

In a letter about street brawls and the theater, William Fleetwood to Lord Burghley date 18 June 1584, does take the time to concern himself with the players. He uses the term collectively when talking about a particular troupe, “Upon the same night I sent for the Queen’s players and my Lord’s players”. Fleetwood’s collective use of the word player is consistent with what we see from this time period when talking about an acting troupe as a whole or in part. Fleetwood goes on to talk about the “Chiefest of the Highest players” (what ever the hell that means).

The Royal license for the King’s men, dated 19 May 1603 starts off with a list of who they are and what they do:

Pro Laurentio Fletcher et Willielmo Shakespeare et aliis.
James by the Grace of God, etc., to all Justices, Maiors, Sheriffs, Constables, Headboroughs, and other our Officers and lovinge Subjects, Greetinge. Knowe ye that wee of our Speciall Grace, certeine knowledge, and mere motion, have licensed and authorized, and by these presentes doe license and authorise these our Servaunts, Laurence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Phillippes, John Hemings, Henrie Condell, William Sly, Robert Armyn, Richard Cowly, and the rest of their Associates, Freely to use and exercise the Art and Facultie of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Enterludes, Morals, Pastoralls, Stage Plaies and such others…

As you can see there is no direct reference to a playwright, Shakespeare or not, in this listing.

John Marston’s 1599 play Histriomastix Act II further bolsters my findings. The term player is used as a catch-all for everyone involved in a stage production. The scene opens up with Usher welcoming Lord Owlet’s men. The stage direction calls for the Players’ (King Owlet’s men) Song; not the actors, and playwright’s song, even though the writer of troupe’s plays is present . It is not until the song is over that one of the players is marked as the group’s “poet” but get ready for how he answers this…..

Belch: Here’s a gentleman scholler writes for us: I pray, Master Posthaste, declare for our credits.

Posthaste: For mine own part, though this summer season, I am desperate of a horse.

Yes, you just read that correctly. Marston’s gentleman scholler (his spelling) just admitted that he spends his summer acting in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III.

In all of my research of primary sources none besides Johnson refers to the word playwright. Nor could I find the word author, dramatist, writer, or any other word that divided he who wrote from he who acted. I am not saying the distinction is not out there, only that it would be uncommon. We also have Marston telling us that writers, or poets, are also actors. And let’s not let this nugget slip past us; Marston uses a nod to a Shakespeare play in order to get his point across. This could either mean that Richard III was a very popular play at the time of Histriomastix so he included it as a piece of cultural reference, or he used it because it was well known at the time that Shakespeare was both an actor and poet. Either way, his audience would have known exactly what Posthaste meant by that line.

Wolfe is right. This list of “mean persons” in which “Shakespeare the player” is one of, does make it clear that Shakespeare the player, and Shakespeare of Stratford are one and the same. It also seems perfectly clear that player and playwright, at least in Shakespeare’s day, meant the same thing after all.

If you can find a primary source that shows the use of the word playwright, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to argue over who wrote the plays, you’ve come to the wrong blog. And if you want to point out that Shakespeare’s home town is Stratford-upon-Avon, yes I am well aware that this is the official name, but for brevity sake, it’s okay to say Stratford, just ask the Guardian.

Works Cited

Evans, G. Blakemore Elizabethan Jacobean Drama The Theatre in its Time. New Amsterdam Press. Print edition

The Guardian, Sherlock Holmes of the library cracks Shakespeare’s identity. Online

Luminarium. Org Ben Johnson, epigram 49. Online

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