Thursday, 17 May 2018

Shakespeare’s beagle scents Raleigh 400

Continued from ‘Silly Billy, followed by Worthy Wally?’

Image based on the portrait of Raleigh in All Saints Church East Budleigh, and the 'Chandos portrait' of Shakespeare, possibly by John Taylor, National Portrait Gallery’s collection  

Still with cheerful memories of Budleigh’s light-hearted Shakespeare-themed show on 21 April which raised valuable funds for Brain Tumour Support, it was good to read how Budleigh’s efforts on Raleigh 400 were being recognised by Shakespeare enthusiast and blogger Sylvia Morris, aka Shakespeare’s Beagle.

Sir Walter was in her words, ‘one of the most remarkable men of Shakespeare’s period’.  She agrees with me in dismissing the Raleigh ephemera of cloaks and puddles, spuds and ciggies. There was much more to him, she wrote in a post dated 4 April at

He was, she points out, among other things, ‘a poet and writer of distinction’.  And this reminded me that there have been those who believe Raleigh to have been clever enough to have written at least one of Shakespeare’s plays. The American scholar Delia Bacon was one of the first to publish such a theory in her book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857). Another American who claimed Sir Walter as the author of the plays was Henry Pemberton Jr in his book Shakspeare and Sir Walter Raleigh, published posthumously in 1914.  

Apart from such theories it’s been recognised that there are lines in Shakespeare’s plays which could allude to Raleigh. Not surprising in view of Sir Walter’s prominence in Court life. The most widely known are the lines in the early comedy Love’s Labours Lost, believed to have been written in the mid-1590s.  ‘Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the school of night,’ says the King of Navarre in Act IV, scene iii: it’s a line supposedly referring to the group of poets, scientists and intellectuals headed by Raleigh. 

The name of ‘The School of Night’ is modern. It’s based on the theory, launched by the scholar Arthur Acheson in his 1903 book Shakespeare and the Rival Poet, that this so-called school was a clandestine intellectual coterie composed of people like the writers Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman together with Raleigh’s scientific adviser Thomas Harriot.

Father Robert Persons, English Jesuit, founder of the English colleges of Valladolid, Sevilla and Saint-Omer. Scanning of an old engraving  from Lamy's book Gallerie illustrée de la Compagnie de Jésus, 1893

The idea that Raleigh headed such a group originated with the tract ‘Response to the Edict’ (‘Responsio ad Edictum’) penned in 1592 by the English Jesuit priest Robert Persons under the pseudonym Philopater. Published simultaneously in Rome, Antwerp, Lyons, Prague and Cologne, it was a piece of Catholic propaganda printed and translated at the expense of Philip II of Spain.

A miniature of Elizabeth I in 1572 by the Exeter-born artist Nicholas Hillard. Two years previously she had been declared a heretic by Pope Pius V

For English Catholics who had taken refuge in Europe, there to await the overthrow or assassination of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, no allegation was too extreme provided that it blackened her character and that of her favourites.

Raleigh did not escape such slander. Persons evidently enjoyed dreaming up the idea of ‘Sir Walter Rawley’s school of atheism’; he wrote of ‘the diligence used to get young gentlemen to this school, wherein both Moses and our Saviour, the Old and the New Testament, are jested at, and the scholars taught among other things to spell God backward.’

However little substance there was in Persons’ allegations the notion of Raleigh’s atheism stuck. A few years later he would have to defend himself against such charges at a court hearing in Cerne Abbas.

Sir John Popham (1531–1607), Lord Chief Justice.

More seriously, as sentence of death was passed on him in his 1603 trial for treason the presiding judge, Lord Justice Popham, repeated the slander, telling the accused: ‘You have been taxed by the world, Sir Walter Ralegh, with holding heathenish, blasphemous, atheistical, and profane opinions, which I list not to repeat, because Christian ears cannot endure  to hear them. But the authors and maintainers of such opinions cannot be suffered to live in any Christian commonwealth.’

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury in 1602 by John De Critz the Elder.  National Portrait Gallery collection 

It was a slander that the treacherous Secretary of State Robert Cecil had used to good effect to blacken Raleigh’s character for his own advancement.  Even while the ageing Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne Cecil was writing secret letters to the Scottish King James who would succeed her in 1603.  In one of them Cecil described his supposed friend Raleigh as a person ‘whom most religious men do hold anathema’.

Some commentators link the theme of voyages in Shakespeare’s work to the influence of Raleigh – at least half a dozen of the plays feature shipwrecks, including Twelfth Night (c.1601) and The Tempest (1611). 

It’s highly likely that the playwright would have read or at least read about Raleigh’s Discoverie of Guiana, published in 1595. In Act II, scene iii of Othello the central character describes to Desdemona the strange things he has seen on his travels: of ‘the Cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders.’  The Tempest’s Gonzalo also refers laughingly in Act III, scene iii to ‘such men Whose heads stood in their breasts.’

Part of a map in the Hulsius 1599 edition of Raleigh's Discoverie of Guiana showing the Ewaipanoma or headless men

There’s an echo here of Raleigh’s claim in the Discoverie about the existence of a tribe of headless men: ‘A nation of people, whose heads appear not above their shoulders; which though it may be thought a mere fable, yet for mine own part, I am resolved it is true, because every child in the provinces of Aromaia and Canuri affirm the same: they are called Ewaipanoma: they are reported to have eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and (…) a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders.’

The 19th century scholar Joseph Hunter believed that Shakespeare is mocking Raleigh’s belief in such things. However the notion that headless people existed in distant parts of the world had been around since antiquity, recorded by writers including Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.

Raleigh, left, as Captain of the Guard at funeral of Queen Elizabeth I  A drawing in the British Library collection

One can conclude only that the extent of Raleigh’s influence on Shakespeare’s work is uncertain. What is likely, however, is that ‘Shakespeare’s Beagle’ will have drawn attention to Sir Walter’s legacy in a positive way in 2018. Just one of the memorable items she mentions is this charming image of Raleigh as Captain of the Queen’s Guard at the funeral of Elizabeth I.

It’s one of many Raleigh-related treasures in London’s British Library. Others, it seems, are manuscripts of some of his poems, the handwritten notebook that he compiled during his imprisonment for treason in the Tower of London and his Journal recording his last voyage to Guiana.    

Sylvia Morris’ blog was started in 2011 and contains hundreds of posts to choose from about Shakespeare’s works, his world, and his plays in performance. In 2016 the blog was looked at over 230,000 times. I’m not sure that my Raleigh 400 blog will match that but I will try.



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