The Book of Will

There is little argument around the world that the First Folio of Shake-speare's plays is one of the most important books ever published, as it provides definitive versions of 36 of his 38 plays, the import of which have influenced global theatre to a degree unsurpassed by any other playwright.

(Left to right) Liam Craig as John Heminges and Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell
(L to R) Liam Craig as John Heminges
and Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell
Photo: Adams VisCom
In the world premiere of The Book of Will, playwright Lauren Gunderson weaves a tale of how the First Folio came to be, as told from the commonly held perspective that the plays were written for the public stage by William Shakspere, a grain dealer from Stratford who ventured to London and became involved in the theatre scene there. We describe it in this way, because there is no evidence that this fellow ever went to school or wrote anything except six signatures, all of which are different, and which, according to professional forensic handwriting analysts, show a person unfamiliar with writing his own name.

(Left to right) Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell and Liam Craig as John Heminges
(L to R) Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell
and Liam Craig as John Heminges
Photo: Adams VisCom
Since scholarship over the past three decades or so has uncovered a great deal of evidence that undermines the view that Shakspere—who, according to his own will, owned no books—Gunderson's story rests largely on a mythology that began long ago, in which the actual author and his family were involved, and has grown exponentially with every academic who, by rote, learned it from their teachers and further regurgitated and embellished it for their students, much like the childhood game of passing a secret around a circle, and ending up so far afield that the resulting sequence is hilarious, logically unsupportable, and wholly without merit.

The truth aside, Gunderson story adeptly tugs on our emotional attachments to the impressive canon to sell its tale, at least for those unaware of biographical details of the actual playwright.

(Left to right) Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell, Rodney Lizcano as Ralph Crane, and Jennifer Le Blanc as Alice Heminges
(L to R) Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell,
Rodney Lizcano as Ralph Crane,
and Jennifer Le Blanc as Alice Heminges
Photo: Adams VisCom
As the story begins, two of the actors associated with the theatrical company (the King's Men) that eventually produced many of Shakespeare's plays for the public stage (years after they were performed at court), John Heminges (Liam Craig) and Henry Condell (Kurt Rhoads), whose names appear on two sections of the preface to the First Folio (which they may or may not have written), are contemplating mortality after the death of their good friend and fellow company member, Richard Burbage (Triney Sandoval) who, just days before, after a pompous and bombastic rant regarding his acting expertise and the sanctity of the King's Men's approach to Shake-speare, expired from various over-indulgences (including drink, food, and, apparently, ego).

The transitory nature of life weighs heavy on Heminges' and Condell's shoulders as they reminisce about the glory days of their company and what Shake-speare's work continues to mean to them years after they have, for the most part, ceased to perform it. It occurs to them that the only way in which future generations will be able to enjoy these transcendent plays will be if they (Heminges and Condell) personally gather the manuscripts and publish them. And thus, they begin their quest, in this tale, to resurrect the canon.

(Left to right) Jennifer Le Blanc as Alice Heminges, Miriam A. Laube as Elizabeth Condell, and Nance Williamson as Rebecca Heminges
(L to R) Jennifer Le Blanc as Alice Heminges,
Miriam A. Laube as Elizabeth Condell,
and Nance Williamson as Rebecca Heminges
Photo: Adams VisCom
Aiding and encouraging them are Heminges' wife, Rebecca (Nance Williamson), and daughter, Alice (Jennifer Le Blanc), as well as Condell's wife, Elizabeth (Miriam A. Laube). Gunderson stresses the difficulty of the task of piecing the canon back together, as many of the company's scripts went up in flames, and the actors were only given the text to their cue lines and parts. The plan is that the actors will take some bad and mediocre quartos and correct them from memory, and thus reproduce in print the greatest dramas ever written.

As the momentum for the work builds, others are drawn onto the team, including the writer and playwright Ben Jonson (characterized by Gunderson as too far into his cups to be strategically involved in the First Folio, with his heartfelt tribute to the playwright taken as a "nice to have" addition, rather than the door to a much deeper conceit), who penned some interesting prefatory passages for the First Folio, as well as the printer of the First Folio, William Jaggard (Westley Mann) and his son, Isaac (Andy Nagraj), who is taking over the operation due to his father's failing eyesight and reputation for literary appropriation. Another key helper is the Jaggards' editor, Ralph Crane (Rodney Lizcano), who is presumably familiar with Shake-speare's work, given the bad and mediocre quartos, as well as the fake manuscripts, that Jaggard has printed under the Shake-speare brand.

In this way, it is the First Folio, as the title suggests, that becomes the main character in this greater-part fictional, lesser-part historical tale. The ensemble, directed by Davis McCallum, does excellent work all around, and the scenic design (Sandra Goldmark) and costumes (Camille Assaf) are superb, delivering a rich verisimilitude for the period.

The effort to print the First Folio runs into financial problems and must seek aid, which is found in the person of Emilia Bassano Lanier (Laube), who, according to this speculative account, is the woman represented by "the dark lady of the Sonnets." To make Lanier's timely contribution plausible, Gunderson must choose to have Lanier remain anonymous to posterity, which "explains" why Lanier receives zero credit in the prefatory remarks to the First Folio.

Finally, at the end of the story, Heminges and Condell take one of the first editions and bring it to Shakspere's widow, Anne Hathaway Shakspere (Williamson), who was illiterate, and one of her daughters, Susannah (Jennifer Le Blanc) who, in this version, is portrayed as consummately literate, rather than, as the only historical record indicates, able to write her name, unlike her father.

Much like the CIA report on "Russian hacking," which has been debunked by IT professionals, including former NSA and CIA top-level executives, "The Book of Will" makes a slew of "assessments," which in intelligence lingo means "unfounded assumptions."

But what happens when—instead of shoe-horning events to fit our sentimental desires—we actually rely on research of the historical record, as it has been uncovered up to the present?

Triney Sandoval as Ben Jonson
Triney Sandoval as Ben Jonson
Photo: Adams VisCom
There are a number of angles to take on this, but starting with the First Folio itself, note that it contains the first mention of the monument to the Stratford man (the bust), which is located in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. The monument is generally taken as proof that Shakspere wrote Shake-speare, but upon detailed examination of the messages left by Ben Jonson on the monument and by the Stratford man on his own tomb, it becomes clear that all these "tributes" are part of a sophisticated and satirical ruse to misdirect from the nobleman who actually wrote the canon.1

Such a call, to anyone capable of translating and deciphering Jonson's message, begs us to offer an alternative storyline. Returning to the metaphor of "Russian hacking," look not to the corporate press or to traditional academia for truth, but to alternate sources, which have no commerical and political stakes in the outcome. Additionally, like the plays themselves, the First Folio must be taken in the context of what was topical at court when it was presented.

Two days after Christmas, 1604, about six months after the death of the seventeenth earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, his third daughter, Susan (i.e., Lear's Cordelia), married into the Herbert family, whose matriarch, Mary Sidney Herbert, dowager countess of Pembroke, was a literary legend. Susan's husband, Sir Philip Herbert, later became the Earl of Montgomery.2

Susan inherited her father's love of letters, and often performed in Jacobean courtly masques and had been the subject of many literary tributes by leading writers. She also helped various writers in tracking down literary sources.3

Jaggard, as Gunderson's play details, was an ambitious man who was trying to be the publisher of Shake-speare's works, and had rushed into print 10 Shake-speare reprints, two of which (The Yorkshire Tragedy and Sir John Oldcastle) were not written by Shake-speare.4

In an effort to convince Susan de Vere Herbert, now the countess of Montgomery, of his worthiness for the task, Jaggard wrote a profusely florid dedication to her and her husband for The Ancient Treasury (1619), an anthology of European folk tales:

To the most Noble and Twin-like pair of truly honorable and complete perfection: Sir Philip Herbert ... earl of Montgomery ...

As also to the truly vertuous and noble countess his wife, the lady Susan, daughter to the Right Honorable Edward Vere, earle of Oxenford, Viscount Bolbvec, Lord Sandford and of Baldesmere and Lord High Chamberlain of England, &c.

Jaggard goes on to invite his readers to enjoy this book with Lady Susan's help, but saves his most important appeal for last:

... an orchard stands wide open to welcome you, richly abounding in the fairest fruitages: not to feed the eye only, but likewise to refresh the heart, inviting you to pluck where and while you please and to bestow how and when you list.

The fruits of the orchards are her father's manuscripts. Nevertheless, Jaggard's appeal went unanswered for a couple of years, until international politics brought an urgency to the Herberts' need to get the plays published. In short, King James' son, Prince Charles, was being pressured to marry the Spanish Infanta Doña María, which would bring England back into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. The political infighting amongst the nobility over this issue was bitter. Those opposed to the Spanish Marriage were led by the eighteenth earl of Oxford (Henry de Vere), as well as Susan de Vere's husband the earl of Montgomery, her brother-in-law the fourth earl of Pembroke, and the "fair youth" of Shake-speare's Sonnets, the third earl of Southampton.

The title page from the first edition of the <i>Sonnets</i>, 160
The title page from the first edition
of the Sonnets, 1609
Both the eighteenth earl and Southampton were thrown in the Tower for their opposition. But their side did have one powerful weapon: the works of Shake-speare, including some generally ignored pamphlets, which were decidedly anti-Spanish and pro-Protestant. This is why the first publication in nearly 14 years of Shake-speare's work begins in 1622 with Othello and the villain Iago (the patron saint of Spain being Santiago).

Given the political climate, it remained necessary for de Vere's family to use the hyphenated pen name that was adopted for the first edition of the Sonnets as well as a few plays, including the 2nd quarto of Richard III (1598). It should be noted that in all the clerks’ rolls in England, there is not one listing of a hyphenated Shake-speare. But hyphenated names were almost de rigueur for pen names, which were common in those days, as it was the literary protocol of nobility to mask themselves before their subjects, emblem books being the prime example. Even the cover of the Sonnets contains hidden geometric gems.5

The political and religious stakes continued to rise, with King James and his lover, the venomous Buckingham, pressing for the Spanish marriage and imprisoning the eighteenth earl a second time. By the end of 1622, when Prince Charles and Buckingham were preparing to go to Spain to finalize the marriage deal, the anti-Spanish Marriage coalition understood that if England came under control of the Catholics, the censorship rules for publication would change, and the generally strong anti-Catholic sentiments of Shake-speare's work might be forever buried.6

At this time, still unpublished in any form were: The Comedy of Errors; The Taming of the Shrew; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; As You Like It; Twelfth Night; All's Well that Ends Well; Measure for Measure; Henry VI, Part I; King John; Henry VIII; Julius Caesar; Macbeth; Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Timon of Athens; Cymbeline; The Winter's Tale; The Two Noble Kinsmen; and The Tempest; that is, 19 plays or half the theatrical canon.7

Around the time that Henry de Vere was thrown in the tower for the second time, Jaggard's presses started to roll with what would become the First Folio. As a precaution, the project began without Jaggard registering the previously unpublished plays with the Stationer's Company or the state's censors. Susan's husband and brother-in-law served as the patrons, bankrolling the project. "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets," to whom Gunderson attributes financial backing, was actually Anne Vavasor, one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies in waiting, with whom de Vere had a scandalous affair that landed both of them, and their "illegitimate" offspring, in the Tower of London. Later, revenge by Vavasor's family resulted in a number of street skirmishes with the de Vere clan, which are detailed, down to the exact number of encounters and deaths, in Romeo and Juliet.

In Gunderson's play, the earls of Montgomery and Pembroke are said to get credits as patrons of the First Folio solely on the basis of agreeing to turn over the rights to one previously published play, Troilus and Cressida (for which the King's Men did not have the rights), while Heminges, Condell, and friends quickly found editable versions of all the unpublished plays (!), half the canon (!), lying around here and there (!). So much for what passes as historical research these days, much like Gunderson's earlier work, The Taming, loosely based on Shake-speare's The Taming of the Shrew, which seizes on a couple of popular political memes and passes them off as Constitutional analysis. Too bad Gunderson's talent in dialogue and structure aren't put to more coherent uses.

As for editing the manuscripts, in Gunderson's version, Ralph Crane (Rodney Lizcano), Jaggard's editor, is assigned the task; whereas, it was actually Ben Jonson, "a friend to the Herberts and to Henry de Vere, who was hired to edit and oversee the Folio. Some scholars have also concluded that Heminges and Condell's tracts are also the work of Jonson, since he was in on the ruse and wrote the quizzical epitaph engraved onto Shakspere's Trinity Church monument in Statford-upon-Avon."8

Another reason why the earls of Montgomery and Pembroke are front and center in the Folio, and not King James, who enjoyed the canon, is because, as we have noted, the earls are Protestants who opposed to James' Spanish Marriage. No one at court would miss this strong political statement, even if Stratfordians, including Gunderson, don't have a clue and give no explanation for this glaring slight toward the King.

Apparently, in early 1623, the King's pro-Spanish, pro-Catholic supporters got wind of the earls' plans and registered with the Stationer's Office, "by His Majesty's special command," Edmund Bolton's Nero Caesar, dedicated to Buckingham, to counter-balance Shake-speare's First Folio by disingenuously arguing that the greatest flourishing of English civilization occurred when Britain was ruled by Rome during the first four centuries of the Christian era, ignoring the fact that Roman historians such as Tacitus reported the opposite: that Rome had corrupted the Britains.9

While preparations were being made at St. James Palace and along the presumed parade route of the presumptive princess, the negotiations in Madrid broke down, and a fallen prince Charles and the duke of Buckingham returned home in October. The vast majority of Londoners celebrated, with bonfires in the streets, as if the Spanish Armada had been defeated once again.10

Once the Folio had been fully printed and bound, Jaggard registered it on November 8 with the London Stationer's Company. It's price, £1, was the equivalent of over $165 today, hardly designed for the groundlings. The original run of 750 copies (of which approximately 238 survive) sold well and warranted a second printing 9 years later.11

(Left to right) Rodney Lizcano as the Compositor and Thaddeus Fitzpatrick as Marcus
(L to R) Rodney Lizcano as the Compositor
and Thaddeus Fitzpatrick as Marcus
Photo: Adams VisCom
Henry de Vere was released from prison on December 30, 1623, and shortly thereafter married Lord Burghley's (William Cecil) great granddaughter, Diana Cecil, and took part in a public reconciliation scene with Buckingham. "As a Florentine correspondent, Amerigo Salvetti, reported of the detente between the earl of Oxford and the duke of Buckingham, "all's well that ends well.""12

To sum it up, as Ben Jonson puts it in his "To the Reader" poem across from the famous, controversial, and emblematic Martin Droeshaut engraving in the First Folio:

... look:
Not on his picture but his book.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Lauren Gunderson's The Book of Will runs through February 26th. For tickets:

1 Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, pp. 369-71.
2 Ibid., p. 371.
3 Ibid., p. 371
4 Ibid., p. 371
5 Ibid., pp. 371-373
6 Ibid., pp. 374-5
7 Ibid., p. 375
8 Ibid., p. 376
9 Ibid., pp. 376-7
10 Ibid., p. 377
11 Ibid., p. 377
12 Ibid., p. 377

Bob Bows

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