Monday, July 14, 2008

Thomas of Woodstock - Oh No He Di'n't

Once more into the interim, dear friends!

A wonderful perk of summer and its generous grant of a free hour here and there is the ability to read peripherally. I don't know if this happens to you, but reading one book usually inspires me to pursue others, and I end up keeping a book list cataloging the inspirations, most of which I never expect to get to. For example, I'm currently reading James Salter's novel A Sport and a Pastime, in which I came across this line:

“Henri is forty, perhaps. Juliette about twenty-nine. But Dean has read Radiguet. Twenty-nine isn’t old.”

That’s it. A one word allusion to a French writer who died young, having written only two novels. I’ve read Radiguet’s curious and spare Count D’Orgel’s Ball, but what Salter is probably evoking here is his other, The Devil in the Flesh, a love story set in France, as is Salter’s book, that Radiguet wrote when he was 17. I put it on my list.

Sometimes the peripheral connection is more oblique, a barely visible path of implications and associations, blazable only with the luxury of time. I followed such a path as I was re-reading The Tragedy of King Richard the Second and Bolingbroke’s accusation against Thomas Mowbray:

“Further, I say and further will maintain
Upon his bad life to make all this good,
That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester's death,
Suggest his soon-believing adversaries,
And, consequently, like a traitor coward,
Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood."

Prodded by my Signet Classic's tiny superscript degree symbol indicating a footnote next to "Duke of Gloucester," I glanced down to read the agate type: "Gloucester Thomas of Woodstock, who had been murdered at Richard's orders." Now during the school year, this results in a brief “isn’t that interesting,” but during the summer, I’m off to Google to see what other information I might turn up about Thomas of Woodstock.

The Google search turns up two Wikipedia entries, the first biographical, the second an odd reference to Richard II, Part 1, "an untitled, anonymous, and incomplete Elizabethan play." Hmmm. Amazon reveals a copy of the play, also titled Thomas of Woodstock because the script that was discovered lacked a title page as well as the final pages of the text, edited by Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, and priced at $75, too rich for my blood. Back to Google.

I love the Internet. The Hampshire Shakespeare Company (Amherst, Massachusetts) staged the American debut of Thomas of Woodstock in 1999, and because the play is incomplete they had a contest challenging people to write a conclusion. They posted the play online and the winning text, by a musician and supermarket porter named Frederick Carrigg.

As one begins to dig up commentary on the anonymous play, one finds a frequent provocative suggestion that Shakespeare had something to do with it. The play may never have been published and even its initial performance date is hazy, but some scholars place it circa 1592. That, combined with its topical relation to Shakespeare’s Richard II, begs the question: could Shakespeare have had a hand in writing it?

Well, before we get to that, let me fill you in on the play, believed to be, by some, Richard the Second, Part One.

1.1 – We begin in medias res as Sir Thomas Cheyney has alerted Richard’s uncles, the Dukes of Lancaster and York, to a plot by Richard’s flatterers – Bagot and Greene – and a lawyer named Tresilian, to poison them. They avoid the wine. Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, arrives and they discuss what Thomas should wear to Richard’s wedding. “Country habit” is passé.

1.2 – Tresilian, Bagot, and Greene moan about the failure of their plan. Tresilian tries on the title he expects to get from Richard – Lord Chief Justice of England – and trades insults with his henchman, Nimble.

1.3 – Woodstock has shown up at Richard’s wedding dressed in pounds’ worth of clothes, not measured in money, but weight. Despite this, celebrants make fun of his usual “tother hose,” an antiquated and common fashion. Woodstock boorishly politicizes the conversation by suggesting that haute couture leads to overtaxation of the poor. A verbal scuffle ensues and the king’s uncles try to warn him about the evil designs of his flatterers. Thumbing his nose at his elders, Richard bestows titles on Bagot, Greene, and Tresilian. There is word of rebellion in the land.

2.1 – The king’s flatterers give Richard a history lesson. They do not say “Edward the third had seven sons.” But they do point out that Richard is older than he thought, 22, and old enough not to be bossed around by grumpy uncles. York arrives to invite Richard to parliament.

2.2 – At the parliament, York and Lancaster are discussing how much they like Richard, when he shows up, pissily points out that he’s a full king, watches Woodstock, York, and Lancaster hand over their various symbolic implements of protectorship, and dismisses both them and their parliament. After they are gone, Richard, Bagot, Greene, and Scroope discuss their budget. Scroope says “we must have money to buy new suits.”

2.3 – The Queen, Anne of Bohemia (referred to consistently as “Anne-a-Beame”) and the Duchess of Gloucester discuss the Queen’s practice of selling her valuables to provide money for England’s poor (“The wealth I have shall be the poor’s revenue.”) so that they will not rebel against Richard. Woodstock’s right-hand man, Cheyney, arrives to tell the Duchess they’re going home (Plashey) since they are no longer needed/wanted at court, where Richard and his cohorts “sit in council to devise strange fashions … such as this Kingdom never yet beheld: French hose, Italian cloaks, and Spanish hats, Polonian shoes with peaks a handful long, tied to their knees with chains of pearl and gold.”

3.1 – Tresilian arrives at court with an ingenious plan to fleece the English people. Sheriffs and officials all over the land shall be enjoined to have landed men put their names on blank charters, “documents with blank sections (for the insertion of names and amounts of money) for the collection of loans by … ‘executores’” (Dickinson, 377), an exotic loan method the lawyer believes will bring the king “cartloads of money.” Tresilian also intends to have the same sheriffs take down the names of anyone who grumbles about it, an early form of warrantless eavesdropping, and they shall be accused of being “privy whisperers” and have their goods and lands confiscated. Think of that the next time you mutter to yourself while you’re in the bathroom.

3.2 – At Plashey, Woodstock, Lancaster, and York do not go gently into retirement. Cheyney shows up with a blank charter, says the woods is full of them causing the people much distress. The Dukes magnanimously head off to tame rebellious thoughts among the people. A courtier shows up with a message for Woodstock, but mistakes him for a groom because of his plain attire. Once identities are cleared up, the two discuss, at length, what the king is wearing these days, then the courtier tells Woodstock his presence is requested at court.

3.3 – Cue the clowns. Nimble is out with blank charters, getting illiterate people to put their names on them. He is assisted by the Bailey (bailiff) of Dunstable, one Master Ignorance, whose favorite word is “pestiferous.” He says it every time he speaks.

4.1 – Back at the castle, the king is dismayed to learn that Woodstock has refused to visit. Simply forcing him to come won’t work because it will arouse rebellious thoughts in the people. Tresilian proposes that they disguise themselves as masquers, go to Plashey, catch Woodstock unawares, bop him on the head, dress him up as a masquer so he can’t be identified when they kidnap him, and drag him off to court. Richard says “I like it well.” The difficult business dealt with, Richard and the flatterers agree to divide up the kingdom with Bagot, Bushy, Greene, and Scroope as renters and Richard as their landlord.

4.2 – At Plashey, the masquers, including Richard, arrive and kidnap Woodstock, accusing him for good measure of treason. They plan to deliver him to Lapoole in Calais, far from any English people who might be inspired to rebellious thoughts, where he can be killed.

4.3 – The king’s policemen hear complaints from local sheriffs, who point out that blank charters are not in keeping with a) ancient liberties from William the Conqueror sparing the men of Kent from any fines or taxation and b) the rights of “free-born” men. These arguments, for some reason, are ignored and they go to jail. Word comes that the queen is sick. Oh, she’s dead. Richard arrives, very sad, and repents his harsh sentence on Woodstock. “Send post to Calais and bid Lapoole forbear/ On pain of life, to act our sad decree,” he says. Uh oh.

5.1 – Best scene in the play. At Calais, Lapoole wants Woodstock’s murder to look “a common natural death.” It’s a busy night in Woodstock’s cell, as he is visited by the ghost of Edward the Black Prince, the ghost of Edward III, Lapoole who suggests he write some letters to Richard airing his grievances, and finally two murderers who strangle him with a towel then smother him with a mattress. Everything seems to come in pairs in this scene.

5.2 – Tresilian and Nimble review the lack of success at pressing commoners into service in the coming war between Richard and the Dukes. They argue about which of them will run away the fastest.

5.3 – On the field before battle, the Dukes meet with Richard. Lancaster reveals Richard’s greatest crime – he’s not a king, but a landlord. Both sides call each other “traitors.”

5.4 – In battle, Cheyney and Arundel fight with and kill Greene. There’s no word of what he was wearing when he died. Richard finds Greene’s body and speaks words that might be misconstrued by future Queer Theory critics.

5.5 – Nimble and Tresilian in full flight consider their plight. Nimble realizes that he can escape punishment (and even earn a thousand marks) if he “captures” Tresilian and turns him over to the authorities. So much for honor among thieves.

5.6 – Richard’s flatterers are routed. Nimble arrives and turns Tresilian over to Lancaster.

Scholars may argue over authorship for centuries, but clearly Thomas of Woodstock is a play written by a tailor.

I have left off a summary of the final scene written by Mr. Carrigg as not relevant here. I am fascinated instead by the argument that one finds Shakespearean fingerprints on this play. In the journal Early Modern Literary Studies (Sept. 2003), for example, Michael Eagan writes, “It is impossible to come away from the text without an overwhelming sense of Shakespeare's presence – one way or another. Either he wrote it or knew it extraordinarily well, stealing scenes, characters and lines with ruthless abandon.” It turns out Mr. Eagan is fairly convinced Shakespeare actually wrote the play. He has recently published a four-volume, 2100-page argument supporting his claim. One reviewer, Ramon Jimenez, finds the argument convincing.

I haven’t read Eagan. But I have to say, I put down Thomas of Woodstock and my first thought was “no way Shakespeare wrote this.” And the only argument I have on my side is Malcolm Gladwell. Not too long ago New Yorker writer Gladwell wrote a book called Blink in which he argues that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately” (11-12), like in a 2100-page essay. This process, if one can call a two-second impression a “process,” is called the “adaptive unconscious,” and with it Gladwell raises one’s intuitive decisions to the same level as our conscious ones, then supports his conclusion with a pile of entertaining anecdotes.

Now I’m a Shakespeare amateur, so my decision that Shakespeare had nothing to do with this play is surely suspect. I strongly encourage anyone with brains, evidence, and more than two seconds to spend on this to write and point out my varying levels of idiocy here. Please.

That said, the William Shakespeare Experience has just spent that last two and a half years reading all of Shakespeare’s early work, and the would-be Richard II, Part 1 is unlike anything we’ve read in a number of significant ways.

For one, I’m suspicious about the poetry. The text I read, and lord knows where the Hampshire Shakespeare people got their version, made it difficult to distinguish iambic pentameter from prose because even though different characters clearly speak in one or the other, all the lines are broken as if they are poetry. So I did a lot syllable counting, out of curiosity. And I found, in passages that tend toward iambic pentameter, consistent over-syllablizing of lines. Yes, a lot of them were 11 syllables, and Eagan argues that this is typical of Shakespeare’s early use of feminine verse endings. Thinking back to Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labor’s Lost and the Henry VI plays, I don’t remember the lines, even if they included a lot of feminine endings, feeling like this. Instead I came away with a clear impression of a playwright struggling to maintain poetic form. (Again, I admit the difference between impression and scientific method here.)

And that’s interesting because one thing I remember clearly about Love’s Labor’s Lost is the show-offiness of the language. (I checked three speeches at random – King, Princess, and Berowne – and found few feminine rhymes.) Perhaps a better comparison is one of the Henry VI plays. But rather than embark on an odyssey myself (what page am I on already?), I’ll throw it out as a question: aside from the evolving tone, temperament, and maturity, have you felt in reading the first 13 plays, that Shakespeare has moved from rough poet to polished? Is there even a way to distinguish between these characteristics?

And when you have blinked and decided, take at look at or scan this Thomas of Woodstock speech of Richard’s, again chosen at random:

“Methinks it is strange, my good and reverent uncle,
You and the rest should thus malign against us,
And every hour with rude and bitter taunts
Abuse King Richard and his harmless friends.
We had a father, that once called ye brother:
A grandsire too, that titled you his son;
But could they see how you have wronged King Richard
Their ghosts would haunt ye; and in dead of night
Fright all your quiet sleeps with horrid fears.
I pray, stand up; we honour reverend years
In meaner subjects. Good uncle, rise and tell us:
What further mischiefs are there now devised
To torture and afflict your sovereign with?” (Woodstock 2.1)

Second, if Shakespeare did write this play as Richard II, Part 1, then I am suspicious about the continuity. The playwright of Thomas of Woodstock records events that make no sense in relation to Shakespeare’s Richard II. For example, Greene dies, slain on the filed of battle in the first play. Then, oddly he’s resurrected in the second play, until Bolingbroke captures him and has him beheaded.

Similarly, I found myself disoriented by the chronology of the two plays taken together. Thomas of Woodstock concludes with a bellicose confrontation between Richard and the Dukes, a battle the Dukes appear to win. Yet at the beginning of Richard II, we seem to have not only reconciled but turned the table of power to Richard’s side, restoring Bagot, Bushy, and Greene to their lofty perch as flattering “favorites.” I looked to Antonia Fraser’s The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England to see if historically they reached some sort of truce between the events of the two plays, but I found myself even more confused. Gloucester (Woodstock) dies in 1397, but there’s no battle afterwards. There is a battle earlier in 1387 when Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick “forced Richard to agree to the trial of five of his friends” (Fraser 113). The friends flee but they are caught by the Dukes’ army, which incidentally now includes Mowbray and Bolingbroke, two characters who do not appear in Thomas of Woodstock. The result of this skirmish is the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388.

Where this particular parliament falls in either play, I’m not sure. But that’s how disorienting the timeline is between the two. I don’t remember the three parts of Henry VI having the same disorientation. But I may be mistaken. Surely Shakespeare is effective at collapsing and rearranging history to suit his narrative purposes. Still, as we moved from 1 Henry VI to Richard III and as we go from Richard II to 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare did not provide and is not providing us with a comparable continuity paradox.

Finally, I am suspicious about a thematic element. One of the dominant motifs in Richard II, indeed an idea that unifies Richard’s character throughout, is the idea of his divine right to rule. Each of Richard’s modes – Machiavel, Greedy Opportunist, Coward, and Poet – I described in the “Faces of Richard” section of the Shakespeare and Company review can be connected by Richard’s sense that he is god’s “deputy.” Reading the play, I felt it is Shakespeare’s least secular play, so fundamental is Richard’s connection to God. When Northumberland and Bolingbroke show up at Castle Flint, for example, to ask Richard to submit, the king responds:

“We are amazed, and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:

If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship” (3.3.71-73,76-77)

And he returns to this conviction throughout. (With his dying breath, he tells Exton: “That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire/ That staggers thus my person.”) And it is a conviction completely absent from Thomas of Woodstock. “God” is mentioned 14 times in Act I of Woodstock, but 12 of them are by Woodstock, the most devout character in the play. This ratio continues in the subsequent acts. In fact, Richard, in the entire play only mentions God once. When he does, though, it is fascinating, because the speech is so unlike anything he has said previously:

“Although we could have easily surprised,
dispersed and overthrown your rebel troops
that draw your swords against our sacred person,
the highest god's anointed deputy,
breaking your holy oaths to heaven and us:
yet of our mild and princely clemency
we have forborne; that by this parliament
we might be made partaker of the cause
that moved ye rise in this rebellious sort.” (5.3)

In this we find Eagan’s Shakespearean hint, for Richard’s words echo those Gaunt will speak in Richard II:

“God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.” (1.2.37-41)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare used Thomas of Woodstock as a source. So many of his plays make use of antecedent texts. But I remain unconvinced that Shakespeare collaborated on or wrote much of this play. Maybe next summer, with a few more hours to spare, I’ll dig into Eagan’s argument and learn just how wrong I am.

Wow, all that and not a single joke about rock and roll or Max Yasgur’s dairy farm!


1 comment:

Malvolio said...

I very much enjoyed your argument on Woodstock. It's nice to read somebody write on Shakespeare in a manner that admits he might be wrong. I do think it's a wonderful play, and in some ways it remind me most of all of the language (feminine rhymes excluded) of Coriolanus, not just the theme of rioting commoners and certain nobles that take their side, but also the sparseness of the poetry, which seems much more typical of later Shakespeare than earlier. I wonder, too, if Richard II was in some ways a parody of Elizabeth, if Woodstock might not be a play aimed satirically at King James I and his flattering courtiers (which might explain why it was so much more secular in tone, as you noted).

I've always been amazed at Shakespeare's knowledge of court and policy, but if anything this author seemed even more knowledgeable. This play was written, I'd wager, by an insider to policy. It wouldn't shock me if Shakespeare had a hand in it, and if not then whoever wrote it was obviously influenced by Shakespeare, but my hunch (and you were allowed yours) is that this a later play rather than an earlier one.

Again, I was swayed by your argument. I'd just read the Jimenez essay and was leaning his way.