Shakespeare and Southampton could have met in, or through, the playhouse. Southampton became a regular attender of plays. Indeed it seems to have been his principal London recreation. There were other connections. In the year after the publication of Venus and Adonis Southampton’s mother, the Countess of Southampton, married Sir Thomas Heneage; Heneage was Treasurer of the Queen’s Chamber, and therefore responsible for arranging payment for the players at court. It is a tenuous connection, perhaps, but in the small and overcrowded world of the English court an interesting one.
The poet and the earl might also have met through the ministrations of Lord Strange; Southampton was an intimate friend of Lord Strange’s younger brother, who was himself an amateur playwright. What could be more natural than that the young earl should be introduced to the most promising author of the day? And one, too, whom he had seen act? Lord Strange and the Earl of Southampton were also part of that group of Catholic sympathisers which Lord Burghley suspected, and indeed Southampton was considered by many to be “the great hope of Catholic resistance.”1 Shakespeare was well adapted to such a group. The young earl was also, by a complicated set of circumstances, related by marriage to the Ardens of Stratford. Shakespeare could therefore have claimed a further connection. It is also intriguing to note that Southampton’s erstwhile spiritual adviser, the poet and Jesuit Robert Southwell, was also related to the Arden family. It has plausibly been suggested that Shakespeare read, and copied from, some of Southwell’s poetry. A poem by Southwell, “Saint Peter’s Complaint,” was preceded by an epistle “To my worthy good cousin, Master W.S” from “Your loving cousin, R.S.” There are affinities and unwritten alliances that are now largely hidden from view.
There is also a possibility that they met through the agency of Southampton’s tutor in French and Italian, John Florio. Florio, born in London, was the child of Protestant refugees out of Italy. He was an excellent linguist, a capable scholar, and a somewhat censorious lover of the drama; he professed that he was living in a “stirring time, and pregnant prime of inuention when euerie bramble is fruitefull.”2 This “stirring time” was Shakespeare’s time. Florio also translated Montaigne into English, and in that work provided phrases and allusions for King Lear and The Tempest. Now all but forgotten, Florio was a contemporary of great significance to Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare’s comedies of this period are Italianate in setting, if not in sentiment, and their atmosphere can plausibly be attributed to the influence of Florio upon the dramatist eleven years his junior. There are occasions when Shakespeare seems to evince so specific a knowledge of Italy that it is believed by some that he must have travelled to that country in his youthful days. But, again, the presence of Florio may account for that knowledge. Florio helped other dramatists also. In the preliminaries to his Volpone, set in Venice, Ben Jonson wrote an autograph dedication to Florio “the ayde of his Muses.” Florio also possessed a great library, filled with Italian books. We need look no further for the Italian sources that have been identified in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare borrowed many phrases and images from Florio’s Italian dictionary, A World of Words-” it were labour lost to speak of love,” Florio writes—and he may have composed an introductory sonnet to Florio’s Second Frutes, published in 1591. Florio is one of those somewhat elusive figures who appear from time to time in Shakespeare’s biography, whose significance is out of all proportion to their visibility.
There are many connections, then, between Shakespeare and Southampton. That they did meet is certain. Shakespeare’s second dedication to Southampton, in The Rape of Lucrece, is sure evidence of greater intimacy. It has also been assumed that he addressed his sonnets to some noble youth, but the case is more uncertain. One recently discovered portrait does nothing to resolve the controversy over the matter. It was painted in the early 1590s and shows a young person dressed in a somewhat effeminate manner complete with rouge, lipstick, a double earring and a long tress of hair. For many years it was mistitled as a portrait of “Lady Norton,” but in more recent times it has been identified as a portrait of Southampton. If Southampton were in fact the recipient of Shakespeare’s love sonnets, as some have suggested, then his androgynous appearance might afford some reason for the poet’s attentions.
There is also the possibility that for a short time in 1593 Shakespeare became secretary to Southampton. There is a comic scene in Edward the Third, between the king and his private secretary, which suggests the ironic presence of some shared experience. He may have worked for the young nobleman at Southampton House, along Chancery Lane, but there are many scholars who have found buried allusions to the family estate at Titchfield in Hampshire in the texts of the plays of this period.3 It would have been more sensible and appropriate to have removed to the country at the time of plague in London. It may have been here that Shakespeare wrote his second long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, that was dedicated to Southampton.
It was not at all unusual for young writers to be pressed into the service of noblemen. Thomas Kyd had for a while become secretary to the Earl of Sussex; Lyly had been secretary to the Earl of Oxford, and Spenser had been in similar employment with the Bishop of Rochester. In fact at a later date Southampton enlisted the poet and dramatist Thomas Heywood into his household in precisely that role. Shakespeare’s own employment is an un-provable hypothesis, but it does no violence to the chronology or to Shakespeare’s known expertise in matters of composition and handwriting. He would have made an excellent secretary.
It is a matter of historical record that, at a dinner in Oxford in 1593, Southampton sat with the four principal patrons of the English theatre—the Earl of Essex, Lord Strange, the Earl of Pembroke and the Lord Admiral Howard. No account of Elizabethan society, or the Elizabethan theatre, can omit this almost claustrophobic sense of belonging. That claustrophobia, or closeness of association, is echoed in a play that Shakespeare wrote during this period. Love’s Labour’s Lost is something of a puzzle. It seems in part to be a satire on some of Shakespeare’s more notable contemporaries, and is so highly allusive and ironic that it hardly seems designed for the public playhouses. It has sometimes been assumed that it was commissioned in some sense by Southampton, and there has even been speculation that it was first performed in Southampton House or at Titchfield. In a ground-plan for Titchfield House there is an upstairs chamber designated as the “Playhouse Room,” just to the left of the main entrance.
With its cast of young noblemen and noble ladies, its affected pedants and its schoolmasters, its nimble wits and its dunces, it has been variously interpreted as a playful satire upon Southampton and his circle, upon Lord Strange and his supporters, upon Thomas Nashe, upon John Florio, upon Sir Walter Raleigh and the notorious “school of night.” There are references to a thundering rival poet, George Chapman, and to other Elizabethan notables who are now less well known than the characters in the play. And it may indeed refer to all of them. But if it is so densely allusive a play, then it could really only have been intended for a very knowing audience. Shakespeare even went back to the work of John Lyly, the court dramatist par excellence, for the tone and structure of his play. He was also thinking of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. This was the courtly and noble milieu in which his mind and imagination were working. It was played before Queen Elizabeth in 1597, and Southampton staged it for the royal family of King James I at Southampton House eight years later. Southampton had a particular, and perhaps proprietorial, interest in the play. Yet it was not only a coterie drama. It was also performed at a public theatre, and there is a poem of 1598 which begins:
LOVES LABOR LOST, I once did see a Play
Yclepéd [called] so …
The essential plot is a simple one. Ferdinand, King of Navarre, persuades three of his courtiers to join him in three years of study during which they will renounce all contact with women. At the same time, however, the Princess of France and three of her noblewomen arrive in his kingdom, with predictable results. The King and his nobles fall in love, and forswear their oaths. At the close of the play a messenger arrives to announce the death of the Princess’s father, and all the revels are ended. It is a strong yet slender thread upon which to hang a range of allusions, characters and witticisms as well as assorted comic business. The range of parallels and references is indeed a wide one. The dramatic court is loosely established upon the real court of Navarre, from whom Shakespeare even borrowed the names of his courtiers. The names of Berowne, Longauille and Dumaine are taken from the Due de Biron, the Due de Longueville and the Due de Mayenne. It is unlikely that Shakespeare was alluding to the internecine rivalries of French politics; it is much more probable that he found the names in contemporary pamphlets and lifted them out of their immediate context. That was his characteristic practice, which may be described as one of inspired opportunism. The character of Armado, who is described as “an affected Spanish Braggart,” seems to be based upon Gabriel Harvey, a notably affected scholar and poet. There is little doubt that his page, Moth, is a caricature of Thomas Nashe; when Armado calls Moth “my tender Iuuenal” it is a pun on Nashe’s assumption of the role of the Roman satirist Juvenal. The joke is that Harvey and Nashe were in fact bitter enemies, and for several years engaged in a pamphlet war with one another. To have them appear on stage as a Spanish grandee and his witty page was a stroke of great comic invention. Shakespeare had a keen eye for the vagaries of his contemporaries. It is also relevant, perhaps, that in this period Nashe was vying with Shakespeare for the patronage of Southampton. His was a good-humoured way of dealing with a rival.
The part of Holofernes, or “Pedant” as he is described in the list of characters, is no less clearly based upon John Florio; he talks as if he had swallowed Florio’s dictionary, quotes some of its definitions and also employs Italian phrases to be found in Florio’sSecond Frutes. There are other connections with the life of the time. To give the name “Ferdinand” to the King of Navarre is to pay passing reference to Ferdinando, Lord Strange, who may have watched the play in the company of Southampton. There is also a reference in the text to “the school of night,” although some scholars believe it to be the “scowl” or “suit” or “stile” of night. If it is indeed a school it is likely to be a reference to the scholarly coterie around Sir Walter Raleigh, whose adventures in alchemy and speculation led to their being known as a “school of atheism”.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is written in Shakespeare’s most artificial style, reminiscent of the sonnets and the longer poetic narratives that he had written or was in the process of writing. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, it is the most heavily rhymed; the use of rhyme in couplets, in particular, emphasises the closed nature of the experience that the play offers. It is a world of artifice in which pattern and symmetry are the single most noticeable features. But the word “wit” is also used more than forty times. It is a world of play. That is why it is also a play of puns. As evidence of Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic virtuosity it is little short of a wonder. As he rushes forward in composition, he sometimes stumbles on an image which he will recall later. Will Kempe, playing the clown Costard, utters the line: “My sweet ounce of mans flesh, my in-conie lew”(865) in anticipation of The Merchant of Venice.
In Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, the composer Adrian Lev-erkuhn conceives this play, in musical terms, as “a revival of opéra bouffe in a spirit of the most artificial mockery and parody of the artificial; something highly playful and highly precious.” The narrator of the novel describes it as “Leverkuhn’s exuberant youthful composition,”4 like the play itself. Yet Love’s Labour’s Lost is almost opéra bouffe already. With its extravagance and lasciviousness, its rush of inventiveness, its prolificity, its ornamentation and decoration, its rapid changes of verse-scheme, its general testing of sixteenth-century English to the very bounds and limits of its capacity, it is one of the cleverest plays ever written. As one of the French courtiers admits of female wit (2010-11):
… their conceites haue winges,
Fleeter then Arrowes, bullets, wind, thought, swifter thinges.
Shakespeare wrote some sonnets for the play itself, and these were later incorporated within an anthology, The Passionate Pilgrim, which included two of Shakespeare’s “real” sonnets. The “dark lady” of those sonnets seems to have some connection with one of the Princess’s entourage, Rosaline, who is described as being “as blacke as Ebonie”(1487). The connections are there. Whether they are real, or fanciful, is another matter.
Any interpretation is made more complicated by the evident fact that, after its first performances in 1593, Shakespeare revised the play before its presentation at the court of Elizabeth five years later. Many references would have been deleted or changed, and much additional material included. When the text of the play performed before the queen was published, it declared itself to be “Newly corrected and augmented By W Shakespere”. The printer did not always mark Shakespeare’s changes, however. It seems that the dramatist added material in the margins of his papers, or inserted additional sheets, while only lightly marking the passages to be deleted. So it is that, in the quarto text, two alternative versions of speeches may be printed one after the other.
The puzzle of Love’s Labour’s Lost is rendered more puzzling by references to a sequel entitled Love’s Labour’s Won. It is part of an inventory of Shakespeare’s plays compiled by a contemporary in 1598, and a bookseller’s catalogue of 1603 proves that it was printed and sold. But it has entirely disappeared. There have been attempts to identify it with The Taming of the Shrew and with As You Like It, but the difference in title remains a clear obstacle. We must simply assume that it is a “lost” play by Shakespeare, to be placed with another “lost” play entitled Cardenio.
Shakespeare was at ease with his courtly audience, and with the composition of the gentle comedy of Love’s Labour’s Lost he played the role of a privileged servant. He knew the formalities and informalities of court life, just as he knew the exact tone with which noblemen addressed each other. He was at home with the learning of the period, and with the most important scholars and literary men around him. He was, in other words, part of one of the inner circles of Elizabethan society. There are also allusions inLove’s Labour’s Lost to the military campaigns of the Earl of Essex—to the extent that one biographer has suggested that the play is in part a tribute to him5—and of course Southampton himself was a close ally of Essex in the world of court intrigue. If Shakespeare was not part of “Essex’s affinity,” to use the formal word for the noble earl’s friends and associates, he was well acquainted with those who were. We may note in a similar spirit of kinship that if Shakespeare was not himself a recusant, he was in close association with fervent adherents to the old faith. Within this cluster of interests—Essex, Southampton, Strange, Roman Catholicism—his own affinities lay.