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 2 – I Know Thee Not, Old Man
The title of this episode is a quote from Henry IV Part 2. Although the episode is not based on this or any other Shakespeare play, there are elements within the plot which are reminiscent of his dramas, and this line is spoken by Kit to John after their night out together.
The first scene is set in Lucy’s tavern, which is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Lucy almost certainly existed and is thought to have worked in such establishments which Shakespeare frequented, and it has been concluded that they probably knew each other. There is even speculation that Lucy was the anonymous Dark Lady to whom 28 of his sonnets were dedicated.
While it is widely considered that Christopher (Kit) Marlowe worked as a government agent, seeking out Catholics, there is no evidence to suggest that Robert Greene was part of this spy ring. However, the only indication of Marlowe’s involvement is in the form of an extant letter written by members of the Privy Council to the Cambridge University authorities, explaining his absence from college – he was on a mission in Rheims (the home of an English Catholic seminary) for Queen Elizabeth’s government. His MA, which was being withheld because of his prolonged absence, was subsequently granted to Marlowe.
There is little likelihood of Marlowe openly discussing a secret mission in a tavern, but from this episode we understand that a Jesuit priest is thought to be hiding in Warwickshire, Will’s home county, and that Will has particularly horrific memories of a cruel school teacher, named Simon Hunt. As a footnote, although Kit refers to Walsingham sending him to Warwickshire, this episode is set in 1592 or later and Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster who headed the spy ring, died in 1590. After this there were two branches of the spy ring run by the Earl of Essex and Robert Cecil.
As the episode moves to Stratford, Will is paying a visit home, accompanied by Kit, Kate and Bottom. Soon after, Simon Hunt arrives for an uninvited stay with the family and admits that he is a Jesuit spy. The real Simon Hunt is listed as a teacher at the King Edward VI School in Stratford when William Shakespeare was almost certainly a pupil there. Simon Hunt left England in 1575, as Will mentioned in this episode, travelling to the Catholic seminary in Douai where he trained to become a priest. In 1578 the seminary moved to Rheims temporarily. Later he moved to Rome, joining The Society of Jesus (known as the Jesuits). He never returned to England, dying in Rome in 1585 – a few years before the setting for Upstart Crow. Therefore, his visit to the Shakespeares would not have occurred, but it makes a good story.
In this episode Will is keen to write a new play about Henry VIII – an idea which is not met with much enthusiasm by the family. Kate feels he should write about a more worthy king, suggesting Henry V, the hero of Agincourt. This does not appeal to Will who describes Henry V as a self-righteous bore, though he does consider lightening the drama with the introduction of a comedy character but has failed to progress with this idea. However, Shakespeare did write his famous Henry V towards the end of the 16th century and it was first performed in 1599. Years later Shakespeare added Henry VIII to his extensive list of dramas. Initially entitled All is True (the name of Ben Elton’s recent film), it was first performed in 1611. However, during its performance at the Globe on 29th June 1613, the theatre burned down when a live cannon on stage misfired. There is speculation, to which not all academics subscribe, that he co-wrote this play with John Fletcher. However, in the First Folio John Fletcher is given no recognition for this.
Meanwhile, in this episode Will’s mother Mary reveals that her husband is not highly regarded by the residents of Stratford and is known to them as John Foulstuff. Whether the real John Shakespeare resembled this description seems unlikely. Although he was fined for illegal wool dealing, he was a successful and respected businessman and member of the town council, rising to the position of Mayor of Stratford in 1568.
The confusion which ensues over Gertrude and Gertie is not, to the best of my knowledge, taken directly from a Shakespeare play but cases of mistaken identity are familiar in much comedy drama, including Shakespeare’s. While the girls’ names give rise to the crossover of visitors to Simon Hunt and Kit, there is a tenuous link to Hamlet via Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
The ploy to get Kit out of the house by sending him out drinking with Shakespeare Senior led to the penultimate scene, in which Kit, in no uncertain terms, makes it clear that he is not impressed by John’s behaviour the night before, describing him as ‘a sad-act town foul-stuff’ and telling him to his face:
‘I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’.
This is a quote from Henry IV Part 2 (Act 5, Sc 5), spoken to Falstaff by Henry V who wishes to distance himself from his disreputable old friend and fellow drinker, in the Boar’s Head tavern, now he is no longer a gadabout prince but the king.
While it seems unlikely that Shakespeare based the character of Sir John Falstaff on his father, there are contenders for this dubious accolade. In the first edition of Henry IV the name of this comedy character was originally John Oldcastle. However, as history records, he was a friend of Henry V but later led a rebellion against the king. He died in 1417 and it is understood that his descendants objected to Shakespeare’s use of his name for the drunken buffoon in the play and so it was changed to Falstaff in 1598, a year after the play was written. The name itself is said to have been inspired by Sir John Falstolf who had no descendants to object to use of his name!
Falstaff is considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest comedy character. He appeared in three of his plays: Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor in which he married two of these ladies. He does not appear in Henry V but Act 2, Sc 3 of this play is devoted to musing on his death. It is not known who originally played Falstaff but William Kempe’s name has been suggested. However, this seems unlikely, if the date of 1600 for the play’s first performance is accurate, as Kempe parted company with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the troupe which performed most of Shakespeare’s plays, in 1599 and in 1600 he undertook his Nine Days’ Wonder during which he morris danced from London to Norwich, over a few weeks.
Although this episode is not based on a particular Shakespeare play, there are quotes from a few of his dramas which Will drops into conversation:
When discussing his former schoolteacher Simon Hunt, Will claims that if he ever meets him again he will insult him with quotes from his plays:
- ‘Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog’ – a quote from Richard III, spoken by Queen Margaret to Richard in Act 1, Sc 3
- ‘Villain, I have done thy mother’ – a quote from Titus Andronicus, spoken by Aaron to Chiron in Act 4, Sc 2
Watching with the family on the stairs while Simon Hunt gives communion to Mary, Will remarks:
- ‘And live a coward in thine own esteem, letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”, like the poor cat in the adage’ – a quote from Macbeth, spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband in Act 1, Sc 7
When Anne tells Will he must act now, his response is:
- ‘For there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all’ – a quote from Hamlet, spoken by Hamlet in Act 5, Sc 2
In addition, Will is geared up to lay claim to the invention of any saying he hears:
- A change is as good as a rest, which Bottom claimed his grandmother used to say when he was a young lad, seems to be a far more modern proverb and its first known appearance in print was in a magazine published in 1825.
- You can’t judge a book by its cover is even more modern and apparently first appeared in The African Journal of American Speech in 1944, as the phrase you can’t judge a book by its binding.
- No sooner said than done – while not one of Shakespeare’s inventions, it may well have been known to him as it surfaced in the mid 16th
- All’s well that ends well – as we all know, Shakespeare wrote a play with this title, but the proverb was not his own and dates back to around 1425 when its first appearance in print was in The Middle English Dialogue between Reason and Adversity.
An interesting episode with many strings from Shakespeare’s plays all brought very cleverly together to form an Upstart Crow story. Next time we will be scribally travelling to Verona to look at the similarities between one of Will’s plays and ‘I Did Adore a Twinkling Star’.