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The Brightest Heaven Of Invention: Shakespeare and Anne Boleyn

April 23, 2015

On Shakespeare’s 451st birthday, it seems only fitting to write about his place in the world of Anne Boleyn fiction. Since Shakespeare wasn’t born until almost thirty years after Anne’s death, you might reasonably conclude that his place in that world is “nowhere”, and you’d be almost right. However, there are a handful of interesting exceptions.

Shakespeare was, of course, one of the first (though not the first) to make Henry VIII into a stage character, and his take on Anne Boleyn, written only ten years after her daughter’s death, is a cautious one: she’s portrayed as young, earnest, sympathetic towards Catherine of Aragon (who’s the real female lead) and only occasionally saying anything interesting, as when she says of Catherine that

I swear, ’tis better to be lowly born
And range with humble livers in content
Than to be perked up in a glist’ring grief
And wear a golden sorrow.

The play’s audience would know that Anne herself would eventually wear “a golden sorrow”, so this could qualify as foreshadowing, but since the play ends safely with Elizabeth’s birth, we never see it pay off. Shakespeare did inadvertently influence at least one future novel, though, by giving Catherine of Aragon a servant woman named Patience. Three hundred years later, Patience would appear again as the heroine of My Friend Anne (1900), in which she’s been fleshed out as Patience Linacre, daughter of Dr. Thomas Linacre and best friend of Anne Boleyn. Torn between loyalty to her mistress and loyalty to her friend, she finally elects to stay with Catherine and, as in Shakespeare’s version, is present when Catherine dictates her last letter.

That letter was most sweet and touching, as I heard, for the queen would not let me leave her. In it she did beg his Majesty’s forgiveness for any wrong she had ever done him, though unconsciously, avowing that his memory was dear to her yet …. Truly it was most touching to hear that sweet and injured lady thus speaking, as it were, to the man who had so wronged her!

One year after My Friend Anne appeared The Tragedy Of Anne Boleyn (1901), supposedly written by Francis Bacon (masquerading as “William Shakespeare”) and decoded by dedicated Baconian Elizabeth Gallup. This farrago takes material from half a dozen Shakespeare plays, Bacon’s essays, Robert Greene, and a few others, but it’s basically a wedding of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII to the last half of Othello. Shakespeare may have been the unwitting co-author of most of the text, but sewn together as it is from the bodies of so many unrelated works, it’s one of the least readable texts I’ve ever encountered.

Nineteenth century works tended to play just as fast and loose with chronology as Shakespare himself, but so far as I know only one was so abandoned as to make the Swan of Avon into Anne Boleyn’s contemporary — Mystic Events (1830). Considering that this is the same novel which features George Boleyn being repeatedly abducted by Italian noblemen, Anne Boleyn’s nonexistent sister being accidentally given a love potion, Anne being framed for incest by her own siblings, and similar surprises, the mentions of Shakespeare are pretty low-key in context. We never actually see him, but George Boleyn praises him repeatedly and eloquently:

I can only speak of [my fool] as our favourite poet, Shakespeare, does of a character in his excellent play of the cruel Jew of Venice, lately produced by him, “Heaven made him, and therefore let him pass for a man;” and quoting the same authority, I may add — “The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder.”

Later on, we learn that Shakespeare’s fame has spread to foreign shores. The first time George is kidnapped by an Italian nobleman, he’s understandably somewhat trepidatious but is reassured on hearing his captor admires “the rising genius of our English poet, Shakespeare; and convinced me, by his conversation, that his talents and his erudition were of the most brilliant nature.” The real George Boleyn may never have been to Italy, but he did write poetry, so it was entertaining to see him so enthusiastic. I did regret that the novel spent most of its time on George’s Italian adventures, and so we never got a chance to see Shakespeare playing before the English court about seventy years ahead of schedule.

Back in his proper time frame is the Shakespeare who appears in Blood Royal (1988), in which he encounters not George Boleyn, but George Boleyn’s granddaughter, one Emilia Lanier. Her backstory is gradually set up throughout the earlier portion of the novel, with George mentioning an illegitimate daughter named Margaret Johnson whom he’s had fostered out. Margaret Johnson, we learn, grew up and eventually had Emilia, who in her turn had an affair and, very likely, a child with Henry Carey, son of Mary Boleyn. (This affair does seem to have happened, although Margaret Johnson’s connection with George Boleyn doesn’t exist outside the novel). After learning of her pregnancy, Henry Carey arranges to have her married off to a nonentity named Lanier, and at a “music-party” held a few years later, she happens to encounter an actor named Richard Burbage and a certain friend of his.

Will was slender and modest of mien, somewhat thin, as though he had never had quite enough to eat, balding early. His only charms were his beautiful voice with its slight rustic tone, and his eloquent hazel eyes, which seemed to change colour like jewels.

Will, whom Burbage occasionally suspects of being “a trifle this-way that-way in such matters”, doesn’t see Emilia’s appeal at first.

Will was not fond of creamy skin, especially of such a dark tone. It brought to mind real cream, so often sour. Her curls had been stiffened with some glue-like preparation, which made them seem more like wire than hair. They looked as though they would crackle when one touched them — he almost put out a hand to try whether they did: he found it strangely hard to resist this impulse.

After the party is over, Burbage decides to tease Shakespeare a bit by revealing the story of “Mistress Em’s” exotic antecedents (he knows the story of George’s daughter since his grandmother “had an ear for court gossip”). Shakespeare’s only reaction is to nod and say nothing, and Burbage leaves, disappointed that his spicy story seems to have fallen flat.

In fact, in his friend’s eyes, it had encircled Emilia with a halo of borrowed light. To her odd personal attractions was now added the glamour of a dead, tragic Queen and a doomed handsome brother. He had written it somewhere: “ladies dead, and lovely knights”: Anne and George Boleyn, their blood running in the veins under that dark creamy skin …. And in the boy-child crawling round the floor under the feet of the company, the infant his mother called Enrico. In him ran that double stream of Boleyn blood, and that of Mary, Lord Hunsdon’s [Henry Carey’s] mother. Will had heard that she had been both beautiful and wanton.

The relationship lasts for roughly a page and ends about as well as you might expect: Shakespeare, who both dislikes Emilia’s attempts at writing “masques” and is under the impression that her affection for him is exclusive, is roughly disabused of the latter idea. Emilia herself, going respectable in her later years and having written several plays, is merely surprised that her erstwhile lover seems to be so revered decades after his death, to the point where King Charles actually studies his plays. She doesn’t see what the fuss is about. “There had been some amorous nonsense between them, and she had read verses he had written to her — very poor stuff.” So as it turns out, we have Anne and George Boleyn to thank for the existence of the Dark Lady.

It’s a silly storyline (not least because the real Margaret Johnson was born ten years after George Boleyn’s death) but I enjoyed it immensely. As for Shakespeare, who happily bent chronologies and dramatically altered historical relationships in order to achieve maximum drama, I like to think that he would be amused as well.

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