Country Life, Shakespeare and midsummer madness

Country-Life-May-20-2015-400px-300x387Like most people, I suspect, I was surprised by the news that someone had discovered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare. And bemused, too, that they would chose to reveal the fact in Country Life.

My heart sank, though, when I saw that the case relied on ciphers. I am sure there are carefree souls for whom the word ‘cipher’ conjures up the happy image of Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberpatch at Bletchley Park. Well, happy-ish. For anyone with any knowledge of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, however, it brings back the chilly absurdities of Baconianism, which twisted language, logic and sense with ciphers in order to torture Bacon’s hand from the handiwork of Shakespeare.

Would the much-trumpeted discovery of botanical historian Mark Griffiths be any different? The promise of identities encoded in flora was at least novel and refreshing. But what level of certainty could the argument possibly claim after 500-odd years?

I think you know where this is going.

The answer is: Not much.

Are there any actual facts in Griffiths’ piece associating Gerard with Shakespeare? No. What Griffiths presents are a range of speculations – typographical, literary, historical – which mutually reinforce each other without any reference to provable evidence.

The maker’s mark
The keystone of his argument is the mark beneath the portrait of “the fourth man”, having identified the first three portraits as Gerard himself; Rembert Dodoens, Gerard’s collaborator until the latter’s death a decade before; and Gerard’s patron of twenty years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

You will have to read Griffiths’ piece yourselves to see the heavy lifting he has to do to turn what has usually been regarded as a printer’s mark known as a sign of four into a cipher for Shakespeare’s name. It involves far more wishful thinking than any decent argument should, finding a bewildering range of nuances in character widths, Latin puns, and other factors besides. It requires the presumed owner of the book to identify Shakespeare by knowing the colour of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and relating what looks like an A in the mark to his maternal familial roots in the Forest of Arden. It also involves ignoring the very evident numeral 4 in the mark.

Mark Griffiths clearly regards his discovery as following iron laws of logic. The identification he puts forward is not a suggestion. It is incontrovertible fact. This is far from the case. Ockham’s razor is an imperfect tool but I fear Griffiths was rash to discard it.

He describes the title pages as being full of “encoded, typically Cecilian cleverness”; but the cleverness – an excess of it – is all his. The laboriousness of it; now that is authentically Cecilian.

It is through Burghley that Griffiths seeks to bring Shakespeare and Gerard together. But he fails to make the case that this ever, in fact, happened. His argument is based on the premiss that Cecil’s political reputation was so damaged by his handling of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 that three years later he needed to hire the then unknown William Shakespeare as a kind of Tudor Dan Draper to restore his fortunes.

The former is, to say the least, wildly over-stated; the latter without historical basis.

He also asserts that Shakespeare addressed Venus and Adonis to Southampton on behalf of Burghley, the latter’s guardian. Is there any evidence adduced for this? No. Yet the idea that Southampton himself might have been Shakespeare’s patron is brushed aside with reference to an 18th-century anecdote about Shakespeare being given £1,000, which is as convenient a straw-man argument as you will find.

Of course, none of this necessarily means that Shakespeare and Gerard weren’t familiar with each other’s work. Shakespeare’s writing is famously full of detailed observation of English flora; they both share a sense of the landscape and its infinite possibility, great riches in a little room. But the lack of corroborating evidence ought to at least to cause Griffiths – and his editor at Country Life – some concern.

Certainly, Griffiths pads his argument with a range of speculative readings of plays and entertainments. None of the latter have been attributed to Shakespeare before, although Griffiths clearly wishes to do so with regard to the 1591 Theobald’s Entertainment. A “new” Shakespeare play is promised next week; perhaps that is it. But the readings do little to enhance Griffiths’ case.

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Ralegh and Gerard
One last thought, a little mischievous perhaps.

As regular readers will know, I have written a book about Walter Ralegh. It seems to me that if the figure in the engraving represents any contemporary figure – a tendentious claim, still – Ralegh is a more plausible candidate than Shakespeare. A low boast, I agree.

The mysterious fourth figure is holding an ear of maize, a clear reference to the Americas, with which Ralegh was publicly – even notoriously – associated. Moreover, Ralegh, a known patron of and enthusiast for scientific knowledge and progress, was the dedicatee of Gerard’s Catalogus Arborum, published the following year.

Griffiths notes that the two men were friends and comments that Gerard was an investor in Ralegh’s first Virginia colony – something Griffiths dates to 1589 rather than 1585 for some reason.

So: Ralegh was a friend of Gerard’s, one of his patrons in the late 1590s and was closely associated with one of the plants apparently linked with the mysterious fourth figure in the engraving.

Is this a strong case for Ralegh? Not particularly. But it is far stronger than anything Griffiths has to offer for Shakespeare, alas.

13 thoughts on “Country Life, Shakespeare and midsummer madness

Add yours

    1. Thanks Sandra. Yes I will have a look at that definitely. I imagine you’re right about the “play” Griffiths is touting – though it’s a very loose description of what is a profoundly different kind of piece.
      Have you read it? What are your thoughts?

  1. Julie, the Judd memorial image is a beautiful piece of art, thank you for pointing that out here.

  2. Your readers also may be interested to know that the merchants wool mark has been identified by Dr. Alexander Marr on as bearing a very close resemblance to a woolmark in the background of a painting circa 1560 “Judde Memorial “that depicts a family in mourning. This family lived on the manor of Great Canfield Essex over which the 16th Earl of Oxford served as lord. On another hand, the flower Fritillaria meleagris being held by the mystery man is very rare but is a famous sight along Addison’s walk on the campus of Oxford.

  3. Hi Mathew,

    My – this topic has engendered so many hasty and ill advised conclusions on all sides. People should research deeply before publicly taking stands. I am fairly agnostic on this puzzle. However I do want to take issue with one of your conclusions.

    “The mysterious fourth figure is holding an ear of maize, a clear reference to the Americas,”

    How clear is that? Have you dismissed all alternatives? How deeply have you researched the presence of maize in the engraving? The question anyone should be asking is, What is the connection between the maize and the fritillaria?

    in my opinion, any researcher worth his salt would first look at what Gerard in that 1597 Herbal says about both plants. And I’ve got 5£ to wager that says you didn’t perform that particular piece of due diligence. If you had, you’d notice the common names Gerard assigns to both plants.

    The fritillaria is “Turkie or Ginnie-hen flower”

    The maize is “Turkie Wheate” or “Turkie Corne.”

    Do you notice a common denominator here? Something that has NOTHING to do with the Americas? Both share the term “Turkie” in their common name.

    Do you still stand by ” a CLEAR reference to the Americas?” I doubt you do. But If you did look up both plants in the 1597 Herbal, I’ll kindly send you 5£ via PayPal.

    It might be worth examining which courtier in Elizabeth’s court was known as “The Turk.” OED definition 4a of Turk is helpful in this regard. That defintion seems to fit a certain bad-boy Earl to a “T.”

    In other news, I’ve found the closest link yet to the cipher – it’s a wool merchants mark. You can see it here –

    Respectfully and with Best Regards,

    Geo Chapman, who is seriously considering changing his nom de plume to Lawrence of Bavaria 🙂

    1. Hello there, George. Thanks very much for your comment! You are half right: I looked at what Gerard had to say about the fritillaria but not the maize. I am not at all persuaded that there is any kind of code hidden in the choice of flora, so I did not feel the need to any kind of comprehensive review of the evidence for Ralegh since that “identification” of Ralegh was avowedly glib – there to make the point that Shakespeare was far from the most obvious candidate, even assuming there is anything to be candidate for.

      As I understand it, the crop was called turkey-corn because it was associated as a food stuff with the turkey itself – which had been introduced to Europe from the Americas decades earlier. As with the bird, I am not sure that the word “turkey” in its name necessarily implies any link – figuratively or otherwise – with Turkey itself – or any Turks.

      I don’t actually agree that all claims such as this from Griffiths require a great depth of research before commenting on. As it stands Griffiths’ argument requires a notional reader in 1598 being familiar with
      1. Shakespeare’s coat of arms before it had been formally awarded
      2. Shakespeare’s matrilineal ancestry
      3. The width of the strokes with which the printer cast their Ns – in order to eliminate what looks to the casual eye very much like the letter N in the mark
      Even before you get to the evidence adduced from the flora, I think those three requirements are so implausible as to make the identification more or less ridiculous.
      The other evidence with regard to the association of Shakespeare, Burghley and Gerard presented in the article is no stronger.

      My apologies for the hasty reply. I will have a look at the wool merchant mark later!

      1. I’m looking for what I can find now. The link to the pdf provides only one speech, the gardener’s speech, which doesn’t have WS’s voicing in it. I’m buckling down for the next couple of weeks to explain that crucial point, and see what else I can find. If you happen to come across anything, I’d love to hear about it.

        I wrote “probably” about his claim (he did state it was the play he was looking at in the article) because, frankly, if I were running Country Life, if this issue did not work the way they planned, I would pull the next story. I think Mr. Griffiths received a huge shock, coming from a fairly non-contentious field into one of the most contentious literary fields possible! But in the end, the magazine invested in a story they felt would raise revenue and subscriptions. Did it? Will they continue their support of his ideas? We’ll see.

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