A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow facts by @ChasquiPenguin (twitter).
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 story line surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.
Episode 1 – The Green-eyed Monster
This episode is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, Moor of Venice which is believed to have been written in 1603–1604.
The play was first performed at the Globe Theatre on 1st November 1604 with Richard Burbage playing the title role.
This is another of Shakespeare’s plays to be set in Venice and gives rise to speculation that he visited Italy. However, there is also a school of thought which dismisses this, claiming he never travelled out of England. Either way, there is little description of the city, with the plot centred more on the characters than their environment.
The episode title is within the well-known line, It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on (Act 3, Sc 3), spoken to Othello, a Moorish prince and army general, by Iago who is an ensign in the army. This is just one of several lines from this play quoted by the Upstart Crow characters.
While it is possible that Othello and his wife Desdemona did exist under different names and their story has an element of truth, it is believed that Shakespeare based his play on Un Capitano Moro (translation: A Moorish Captain), part of a collection of stories by Italian writer Cinthio in his book Hecatommithi, believed to have been written in 1565.
In Upstart Crow, Will’s claim to have invented the phrase ‘Manners maketh the man’ is disputed by Kate who correctly informs him that this first appeared in print in 1519 in the book Vulgaria (translation: Everyday Sayings) by William Horman.
Although the Latin phrase is not mentioned in Othello, in Upstart Crow Will pretends he’s sure amor vincit omnia (translation: love conquers all) is one of his, but he is also thwarted in this as Kate assures him that it dates back to the Roman writer Virgil. Will makes a note of the phrase, having concluded that it’s out of copyright! However, copyright as we know it did not exist in England in the 16th century. In fact it was not introduced till 1709, during the reign of Queen Anne, when the Statute of Anne became part of common law, with the Copyright Act passed in 1911.
However, Will’s reference to signing his name with different spellings is accurate. Spelling was not standardised till 1755, with the publication of Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.
Kate’s discussion with Will on the subject of the Carthaginians and Numidians being rivals isn’t strictly accurate, as they were allies at one time at least, and during the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), the Numidians fought as mercenaries on both sides, i.e. for the Carthaginians, led by Hannibal, and the Romans who were defeated by their North African foes.
As with most of Shakespeare’s plays, the plot of Othello is complicated (convoluted, even!) and so below is a synopsis of this followed by a summary of the Upstart Crow counterpart episode.
SYNOPSIS OF OTHELLO
The tale of Othello revolves around deliberate false information and jealousy resulting in the deaths of the leading character, his wife Desdemona (both by his hand) and other characters.
Prince Othello, although not young, is a boastful Moorish man and impresses noblewoman Desdemona with tales of his travels, military deeds and achievements. They marry without informing her father Venetian Senator Brabantio.
In his position as Army General, Othello overlooks Iago for the rank of lieutenant, in favour of Cassio. Iago is so infuriated by this, considering it an insult, he plots against Othello, with the plan of making him believe Desdemona is being unfaithful.
Iago informs Desdemona’s father of his daughter’s marriage to Othello, whereupon the senator is incensed and disowns her.
When Iago first hints that Desdemona is seeing another man, in fact Cassio, Othello believes him and not only decides to watch his wife for signs of her infidelity but also reverses Cassio’s new status of lieutenant.
When Desdemona asks her husband to reinstate Cassio’s new rank, Othello refuses amid his growing suspicions that the two are having an affair.
Added to this, Othello see another sign that Desdemona has lost interest in him, on discovering that she has lost the first gift he gave her: a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries. However, both are unaware that it was not mislaid but was stolen by Emilia, wife of Iago, on his instructions.
Iago hides the handkerchief in a place where Cassio will find it and orchestrates a situation whereby Othello will be listening in to the conversation Cassio has with his mistress Bianca, in which he explains how he found Desdemona’s missing handkerchief, then asks her to sew an identical one.
As a result, Othello’s suspicions that his wife and Cassio are having an affair are confirmed in his mind. He is so enraged and consumed by jealousy, despite Desdemona’s claims of innocence, he smothers her with a pillow in her bed.
Emilia alerts the household to the murder and realises that she was tricked by Iago into stealing the handkerchief, so tells Othello the circumstances of its disappearance. When Iago hears her accusations he stabs her to death, is arrested and sent for trial.
Othello, overcome with remorse at the loss of the love of his life at his own hand and scared by the prospect of his trial and punishment, kills himself.
The final act sees Cassio reinstated as lieutenant and then appointed Governor of Cyprus.
SYNOPSIS OF UPSTART CROW’S THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER
While there is no violence in Upstart Crow, there are parallels with Othello.
Separate from the Othello storyline, Will is attempting to convince Robert Greene, as Chief Herald, to grant his father John Shakespeare a coat of arms. However, despite a £5 ‘gift’ from Will, Greene refuses the coat of arms as Will is not socially well-connected. In reality the Shakespeares’ 1570 request for a coat of arms was withdrawn, for unknown reasons, though their application in the 1590s was successful.
As a side note, Robert Greene was never Chief Herald, though the officials authorising the granting of coats of arms were (and still are) employed within the College of Arms, also known as the College of Heralds, as mentioned at the start of this episode.
Moorish prince, General Otello arrives in London and befriends Kit Marlowe, and later Will. He is an exciting new person in their lives, full of tales of his travel to exotic places and his military prowess.
At Kit’s suggestion, Will holds a dinner party so he can meet and ingratiate himself with Otello. He invites Robert Greene in an attempt to prove to him he does have friends in high places, thus hoping his bid for a coat of arms will be successful. After some persuasion from Kate, Will has allowed her to attend as his guest, the Duchess of Northington, to further enhance his status. She has borrowed the dress which Condell wore when playing Queen Margaret in Will’s ‘Henrys’. Kit is also on the guest list, with Bottom as the waiter. Needless to say, Robert Greene sees through Kate’s disguise and her plan to impress General Otello and feels he can use this situation to set a trap for Will, his arch-enemy whom he called an upstart crow.
As another side note, whether the title Duchess of Northington implies Duchess of Nothing or Nowhere is open to speculation.
When Kit arrives with Otello, Will introduces the prince to Robert Greene, describing the writer of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay as a great and renowned poet. Otello’s reaction is via this line spoken by Othello in Act 1, Sc 3 of Shakespeare’s play:
Rude am I in my speech and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace
Robert Greene seizes the opportunity to encourage Otello to regale them with his tales, in the hope it will impress Kate and then he can proceed with his plan against Will.
Meanwhile, despite his initial enthusiasm for Otello, Kit is beginning to find his new friend’s boastful tales rather tedious.
On meeting Kate, Otello speaks Othello’s lines from Act 2, Sc 1 of the play:
But soft, what fair lady is this? O, my fair warrior! It gives me wonder great as my content to see here before me. My soul’s joy.
Will, Kit and Robert Greene realise that Kate is already smitten with Otello, and Greene declares in an aside that the trap is set.
Otello continues with another line spoken by Othello in Act 2, Sc 1:
If after every tempest come such calms, may the winds blow till they have awakened death.
Kate replies with more of Othello’s words from Act 2, Sc 1:
I cannot speak enough of this content. It stops me here. It is too much of joy!
It is obvious at the dinner party that Otello and Kate are drawn to each other – she to him because of his impressive tales of his travels and military achievements, which he speaks of in his alluring accent, he to her because she is an attractive member of English aristocracy.
Greene reveals in another aside that, as Kate and Otello seem to love each other, he can proceed with his plan to create the illusion that Will is also in love with Kate, making Otello so jealous of the crow (Will) he will murder him. During the dinner Greene intentionally spills wine on Kate’s dress and asks Otello to offer his handkerchief, which as can be seen on camera is embroidered with strawberries, to mop it up. Otello hands it to Kate as his first gift to her.
Robert Greene takes Will to one side and implies that the handkerchief cannot be returned to Otello and another should be made. Greene wishes to present this to the Moor, asking Will to borrow the original from the Duchess and arrange for an identical replacement. During this conversation Greene also hints that if General Otello puts in a good word for Will, his application for the family coat of arms may be looked upon favourably.
By the time Greene leaves the dinner party he has invited Will, Kit and Otello for a meal at his house, of course not revealing to them that this is to work further on his plan to bring about Will’s downfall.
Following Greene’s recommendation, Will writes to Anne, enclosing the handkerchief, and asks her to make a copy so he can impress Greene sufficiently for him to grant the coat of arms. Susanna reads the letter aloud and then Anne muses that two hankies will no doubt cause confusion, adding ‘Sounds like the sort of convoluted bolingbrokes your dad would get involved in’.
Will returns the handkerchief to Kate before setting off for the meal at Greene’s house, taking the copy with him and handing it to his host. Of course, Otello proceeds to take over the conversation with incredible tales of his travels around the world. During the meal Greene deliberately gives Will a surfeit of pepper causing him to sneeze and use Anne’s homemade handkerchief which Greene surreptitiously gives him. Greene then points out to Otello that the Duchess of Northington, has obviously given this to Will because she is in love with him.
In his rage Otello speaks these lines of Prince Othello in Act 3, Sc 3:
Oh, that the slave had forty thousand lives! One is too poor, too weak for my revenge.
This is countered by Greene quoting Iago, also from Act 3, Sc 3:
‘Tis the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on
This calms Otello slightly and gives Robert Greene the chance to advise him to speak to Kate, as it may prove that Will is innocent but if not then he should kill him.
Otello leaves Greene’s house abruptly, shouting Othello’s words from Act 3, Sc 3:
Arise black vengeance from thy hollow cell. Ah, blood! Blood!”
Will realises he has been tricked by Greene, and he and Kit also leave.
Otello arrives at Will’s lodgings where Bottom tries to restrain him from going into Kate’s bedroom. She emerges after spending the evening reading Sir Walter Raleigh’s book The Discovery of Guiana (to abbreviate the title). Having been primed by Will to praise him highly, in the hope the general will speak well of him to Greene, when asked by Otello her opinion of him Kate gives Will a 5-star rating.
Jealous and upset as he believes Will is his rival, Otello picks up a pillow and walks towards Kate who backs away till she is sitting, then lying, on the bed in the corner of Will’s room, with Otello quoting Othello again, this time from Act 5, Sc 2, when he approaches Desdemona’s bed, just before smothering her:
‘Tis the cause. ‘Tis the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars. ‘Tis the cause.
Yet, I’ll not shed her blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster.
Will, Kit and Bottom burst into the room and suspect that Otello is about to smother Kate with the pillow. Will begs him to stop and briefly explains how he has been tricked by Greene, to which Otello exclaims in more of Othello words, from Act 3, Sc 3:
Perdition catch my soul
When Kit asks, Otello denies that he was going to smother Kate, explaining that when he’s upset he always hugs a pillow. He throws it down, declaring he is no longer upset, as Kate loves him.
However, Kate has something to say to Otello regarding the details of his adventures with which he has regaled her, and she goes on to reveal that these are all described in Sir Walter Raleigh’s new book. She then adds that she doubts he is an exotic prince or that he is from anywhere interesting. In answer to Kit’s question, with no hint of his African accent, Otello confesses that he is from Bristol.
Interestingly, although Sir Walter Raleigh did travel and his book does contain some facts, much of the content appears to be from his imagination but seemed plausible at the time, due to his writing skills.
It is also interesting to note that Otello bears some similarities to the Prince of Morocco, the boastful warrior in The Merchant of Venice, a play believed to have been written at least four years before Othello.
The final scene takes place back in Stratford with Will and Anne discussing Otello and the fact that he makes a living as a conman, convincing people he is a true African prince. Believing Kate to be a rich aristocratic woman, he befriended her to steal her money. Anne, with her innate insight into Elizabethan theatre, suggests to Will that he should write a play on ‘the noble Moor’ (Othello/Otello) corrupted into false jealousy by an evil snake (Iago/Greene) and suffocating his true love in her bed. And so, we are led to believe, that is how Othello came to be written by William Shakespeare!
The next Facts List will dwell on Will’s time in Stratford, with his old schoolmaster Simon Hunt staying in the Shakespeares’ home, and whether John was the inspiration for Falstaff!