A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by @ChasquiPenguin
Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.
Episode 3 – The Apparel Proclaims the Man
- The title of this episode is taken from a line in Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 3), spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes: ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’, implying that a person is judged by the manner in which he dresses. This proverb has been used, with varied wording, from at least the days of Ancient Greece, so is not a Shakespeare original. In 1500 Erasmus quoted it in Latin but it is better known to us as ‘Clothes make the man’ and, though often erroneously attributed to Will, it is generally credited to Mark Twain.
- Shakespeare’s three plays all called Henry VI are usually performed separately and are thought to have been written in 1591 and 1592. However, there is much discussion as to whether Will wrote these alone or with another playwright. The claim by Oxford University academics that they were co-written by Christopher Marlowe is much disputed. However, in 2016 Oxford University Press published all three parts, crediting both Shakespeare and Marlowe as co-authors.
- It is widely believed that Kit was part of Queen Elizabeth’s spy ring, headed by Sir Francis Walsingham, and is likely to have been involved in seeking out Catholics who were plotting against the monarch, reporting his findings to HQ. However, Walsingham passed away in 1590, two years before the first Upstart Crow series is set, but under his guidance over 50 government agents were working in the spy network.
- Lord Southampton was known to be a patron of many writers of his day, including William Shakespeare. However, whether he ever held literary salons or “saucy prancings” seems to be unrecorded!
- The ‘upstart crow’ insult was printed in Robert Greene’s pamphlet A Groat’s Worth of Wit. However, it was not published until after Greene’s death in September 1592, albeit only two and a half weeks later, fulfilling one of his dying wishes. The full phrase is ‘upstart crow beautified in our feathers’ and is widely considered to have been aimed at Will, though there are other contenders. However, as Greene was apparently criticising an actor trying his hand at writing, Shakespeare seems the most likely candidate. The phrase ‘The green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on’, from Othello and spoken by Iago (Act 3, Scene 3), sums up the view that Greene wrote this jibe out of jealousy, as William Shakespeare was making a success of writing. We can only wonder whether Greene would have become more jealous or accepting of Shakespeare’s talent had he lived beyond 1592. However, this and other derogatory comments made by Robert Greene about his fellow writers seem to bear out the view that he was not the most pleasant of people – so well-portrayed by Mark Heap in Upstart Crow.
- Greene’s bluff which convinces Will to wear purple puffling pants and yellow tights with really silly cross-garters is taken from Twelfth Night. In this play, Malvolio is also the butt of a joke, though perpetrated by Olivia, the lady he loves, and servant Maria, via a letter. Finding the letter, which he believes Olivia has written to him, Malvolio learns that he would be even more attractive to her if he were to wear yellow stockings cross-gartered and so attires himself in this manner to the amusement/horror of all. From the Upstart Crow scripts book, I understand that this cross-gartering is the second funniest of Will’s visual jokes, after the donkey’s head in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. If only we’d had the benefit of seeing Will and Kit so attired when we were studying Twelfth Night for O-level English Lit about half a century ago! We might then have understood the gag but, despite our teacher assuring us it was hilarious to a Tudor audience, it fell flat among the class of teenagers as we couldn’t even picture the get-up!
- With Will handing over The Jew of Malta to Kit towards the end of this episode, he not only repaid his ‘cool’ friend for supporting him by wearing identical and ridiculous attire at The Prancings, thus making his appearance there a success, but also managed to rid himself of a controversial play. Of course, within the Upstart Crow story, this has explained how The Jew of Malta has been attributed to Marlowe and also shows Kit to be devious and lazy, though the reality is that Marlowe was the prolific star playwright of the day, with Shakespeare probably trying to emulate him.
- In actuality, The Jew of Malta was written by Christopher Marlowe, probably around 1589/90, and first performed at The Rose Theatre in early 1592 with Edward Alleyn in the lead role. This almost certainly pre-dates, by a few months, the timeline in which this episode is set. Between 26th February 1592 and 1st February 1593 there were 17 performances of this play at The Rose with Edward Alleyn likely to have portrayed the main character Barabas on each occasion. The play has long been considered controversial and today’s academics are still discussing whether Kit was prejudiced or, as the free thinker he was known to have been, he was highlighting and satirising bigotry.
In Episode 4 some mysteries surrounding Will’s sonnets are revealed – or are they?