Matinee at the Swan
A Topical Interlude In Oxford-Shakespeare Research
Copyright 1944 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, January 1944.
Documentary Notes On The Swan Theatre
During 1596 a Dutch scholar, Canon Johannes De Witt, visited London and wrote an account of notable sights he had witnessed there. His manuscript found a resting place in the Library of the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, where it lay unheeded for centuries, until it was discovered about sixty years ago.
The portion of De Witt’s papers in which he describes the public theatres of London is of very great historical interest for it is embellished with a detailed drawing of the interior of The Swan Playhouse as the Dutch Canon saw it in the days of Shakespeare. His sketch is, moreover, the only strictly contemporary picture of an Elizabethan theatre that has ever come to light. The work of a trained and intellectual observer, Canon De Witt’s realistic drawing was destined to cause a furor among present-day Elizabethan stage authorities, for it upset many stubbornly held conjectures regarding the architecture and the size of Elizabethan playhouses and has also illuminated a very foggy chapter in the chronology of “Mr. William Shakespeare’s” stage presentations.
The descriptive matter that accompanies the De Witt picture has been translated from his original Latin as follows:
“There are four amphitheatres in London (the Theatre, Curtain, Rose and Swan) of notable beauty, which from their diverse signs bear diverse names. In each of them a different play is daily exhibited to the populace. The two more magnificent of these are situated to the southward beyond the Thames and from the signs suspended before them are called The Rose and The Swan.
“Of all the theatres, however, the largest and the most magnificent is that one of which the sign is a swan, called in the vernacular The Swan Theatre for it accommodates in its seats 3,000 persons, and is built of a mass of flint stones . . . and supported by wooden columns painted in such excellent imitation of marble that it is able to deceive even the most cunning. Since its form resembles that of a Roman work, I have made a sketch of it above.”
So appear the first-hand impressions of the Dutch scholar, Canon Johannes De Witt of Utrecht, regarding the size and importance of The Swan. Puzzled and chagrined, the accepted Shakespearean authorities refused to admit that any of the Bard’s works could have been occupying the boards of this great theatre when De Witt visited it in 1596. They had “Mr. William Shakespeare” neatly pigeon-holed in their chronology as the leading light of the “Lord Chamberlain’s Company” at this time with no known Swan affiliations. But these opinions were to be upset.
In 1931, when Professor Leslie Hotson published his discovery of a previously unknown Petition for Sureties of the Peace, legally entered in the Surrey courts in the autumn of 1596 by one William Wayte against “William Shakspere. Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death and so forth,” the same authorities hurried to conform to Professor Hotson’s conclusion that Shakespearean plays were evidently being produced at this time at The Swan. This appeared logical because of the association of the names “William Shakspere” and “Francis Langley” in Wayte’s rather startling petition. From many sources it is known that Francis Langley was the builder of The Swan Theatre and its ostensible proprietor in 1596. Wayte, it was opined, feared the vengeance of these two men as the result of the miscarriage of some quasi blackmailing scheme he had devised, affecting their interests in The Swan, which the politicians at Westminster had ordered closed. Neither Hotson nor any other accepted authority has been able, however, logically to explain the larger ramifications of this provoking mystery. Whv, for instance, was “the gentle Will,” late of rustic Stratford, considered the more dangerous of Wayte’s enemies—instead of the highly-connected and wealthy Langley—as the placement of his name in the petition would indicate?
Such questions deserve careful analysis if we are ever to arrive at an evaluation of the dramatist’s true personality. Could it be that he had an even more poignant personal interest at stake in the attack on The Swan than Langley himself might have as its proprietor?
Was it Shakespeare the man who could be blackmailed by an admitted scoundrel such as William Wayte? Or was it some play of his that might be subject to public proscription if sufficient evidence of its intent to ridicule prominent personages of the era could be slanted in the right quarter? Or had Wayte—mayhap—tried to “shakedown” the men responsible for the productions at The Swan by threatening them with prosecution for the type of over-realistic impersonations given by the actors?
In any event, contemporary proof of the production of a Shakespearean play at The Swan in 1596, when Wayte’s undercover activities caused him to stand in “fear of death and so forth” at the hands of the persons mentioned in his petition, might help clarify conjecture.
This evidence was soon forthcoming. In 1937 the Oxfordian scholar, Mrs. Eva Turner Clark, identified the stage scene depicted in Canon De Witt’s 1596 sketch of The Swan as Scene 4. Act III in Twelfth Night, at the point where Malvolio, “fantastic in manners, speech and attire” enters the garden of the Lady Olivia to strut and babble the ridiculous phrases of the counterfeit love letter with which he has been victimized, while the mystified Olivia and Maria, her mischievous maid in waiting, look on. The truth of Mrs. Clark’s identification and the realism of Canon De Witt’s spirited sketch will be equally apparent to any open-minded person who has witnessed a performance of Twelfth Night. Of course, such facts knock important props from the already sadly sagging Stratfordian creative chronology—the writing of Twelfth Night being assigned by authoritative conjecture usually to 1601 or 1602—but by the same token they can be shown to corroborate and amplify the hundreds of other circumstances that point to the gifted bohemian Earl of Oxford as the real author of these every-mysterious works.
Against the background of factual research, the imagination should find legitimate scope to reanimate some of these interesting scenes and personalities of the long ago. Hence, this recreation of a MATINEE AT THE SWAN. If it is found worth while, other chapters designed to explain some of the merry doings and the strange dramatic conspiracy that centered in this famous playhouse in the autumn of 1596 may follow in due season. C. W. B.
Matinee at the Swan
A Topical Interlude In Oxford-Shakespeare Research
And in her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly makers (of poetry), Noblemen and Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford. . . . Th’ Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s chapel for Comedy and Enterlude . . . for such doings as I have seen of theirs do deserve the highest praise. The Arte of English Poesie (1589).
Rippling windpuffs of laughter, the clapping of many hands and an occasional roar of unrestrained delight reverberated from the open amphitheatre of the new Swan Playhouse on the south bank of the River Thames one mild November afternoon in the year 1596.
Occupying one of the “lords’ rooms,” as the enclosed boxes overlooking the stage were then known, three Elizabethan courtiers leaned from their seats attentively as a comedy called Twelfth Night or What You Will charted its merry-mad course upon the boards below.
The eldest of the trio, a paunched and jowled dignitary whose beard and hair were obviously touched up in a none-too-successful effort to belie his more than three score years, glared in distaste at the scene of action unfolding while the cachinnations of the general audience grew in volume. His small round eyes hardened and the veins in his ample nose were throbbing when he turned to his companions.
“Ye may laugh, my friends,”‘ he wheezed, “for as yet ye are young and careless, but I say no loyal upholder of the Queen’s dignity should give so open a libel his voice of approval.”‘
“By your leave, my Lord Cobham,” replied the man nearest him, a handsome fellow in his early twenties with yellow hair and laughing brown eyes, “by your leave, sir, foolery is the best of medicines as Erasmus himself has said. Moreover, if I may make so bold as to ask why did you invite us to share these chairs with you today if you would withhold us the right to laugh at this masterpiece of mockery?”
“I wished you to see the lengths to which license will go, Master Perrot, but not necessarily to approve the proceedings.”
The third man, whose face was burned a deep brown and scored on one side with blue powder scars, ceased twirling his mustache to chime in at this point.
“But I heard you say yourself, my gracious Lord, that the Queen’s Majesty had approved this show—”
“Aye, so she has,” rasped Cobham, “but don’t think from that, Captain Pointz, that even the anointed of God cannot themselves be misled and abused by undercover plotters against princely prerogative. Know you what this allegory means?” He waved his puffy hand toward the stage on which the Lady Olivia, her household steward Malvolio, her attending maid Maria and the disguised matrimonial go-between from overseas, Viola, were sharing honors with the drunken Sir Toby Belch and the bumptious Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
“I’m not too young to decipher the riddle of the love affairs, as they seem shaping,” said Pointz slowly. “And by all I’ve heard and seen so far, they do very much appear to recall some of Her Majesty s own courtships during that time when she thought of marrying with the Duke d’Alencon but—so they say—fell in love with the French heir’s capering little man-monkey, Simier, instead.”
“Right,” muttered Cobham, “it’s plain as grease and holds Her Majesty up to ridicule. And mark, if you will, the fellow who plays the part of Lady Olivia. Barring the dark head of hair, he’s made up to represent the Queen in every particular. That voice is hers, to the fraction of a note as I knew it twenty years ago—as every veteran courtier within sound of it here today must recognize immediately.”
“Who acts the part?” put in Perrot.
“They say some lewd knave by name George Bryan. The rascal should be birched.”
“I must admit he’s a genius as a counterfeiter,” remarked Pointz. “He’d make a cunning spy for Continental service. With some practice in the languages, mayhap, he could seduce even the icy Philip of Castile. Hark to that female twang in his pipes, now! A soprano of pure gold, neither clipped nor cracked in the ring.”
“Perchance,” whispered Perrot mischievously, “they’ve gelded him for the part, like those sopranos in the Vatican choir.”
Lord Cobham blew through his pursed lips humorlessly.
“Gelded or gilded,” affirmed Captain Pointz, “the fellow’s the best woman counterfeit I’ve ever seen or heard. Real art has also gone into the creation of that alluring form he wears. I could almost swear I see cherry-buds peeping through the latticework of his bodice.”
“These bawdry slaves are not above such tricks,” growled Cobham. “Listen to that, now—”
On the stage the queenly Olivia was eyeing the disguised page Viola with undisguised interest.
Are you a comedian?
No, my profound heart: and yet, by the very fangs of malice I swear I am not that I play. Are you the lady of the house?
Olivia curtsied archly.
If I do not usurp, myself, I am.
“Did you catch it?” cut in the fat baron. “That’s a bare-faced slap at her Virgin Majesty. If I have ears, it repeats the ancient scandal that her father of glorious memory had her booked down as illegitimate after the affair of Anne Boleyn—and—”
James Perrot, Esquire, peered down his nose narrowly at his host. The young man was himself a love-child, and so had his father been before him. Sir John Perrot, late Lord President of Munster, Knight of the Bath and Vice-admiral of the seas about South Wales, had been not only the unlawfully begotten son but the living image of Bluff King Hal.
Slightly taken aback, the tactless Cobham cleared his throat with a heavy attempt at jocosity.
“Of course, my masters, Her Majesty, as you may know, doesn’t mind laughing at herself occasionally.”
“Of course,” purred Perrot, smiling with easy suavity. “And, moreover, my Lord. I’d have you note that it was the Lady Olivia of Illyria who spoke that line and not, in point of fact, Her Majesty at Westminster.”
“Why, so it was, my merry baw-cock, so it was,” grudged Cobham. “But the ‘make-up, costume and voice of the Lady are close coincidents—quite, quite too close to be mere accidents.”
Captain Pointz broke the tension with a hearty laugh.
“And by your gracious permission, my Lord, these life-like impersonations add extra spice to the comedy. Now that you’ve helped me to the key o’ the mystery, I find a relish here that exceeds my expectations. Though, indeed, the bills of advertisement for this gala opening that I saw set up in the City did hint broadly at sportive revelations to be made today in a merry-conceited history.”
“Exactly so, my dear Pointz,” affirmed Perrot. “And saving the right honorable, our host, who may trend a shade toward over-serious officialdom in his outlook, I say our goddess Diana has set us all a good wholesome example in putting her seal of approval on this comedy. Those same bills you mention stated that she had been much taken with the piece when it was shown to her one Twelfth Night in the past.”
“I’d put that at a dozen years ago,” said Cobham.
“None the less, my Lord, if the Queen—God bless her—could laugh at her own affairs under this shady veil, I also can roar at my own flesh and blood. For, look you, yon Sir Toby Belch is my late lamented toss-pot of a sire, Sir John Perrot, from weaving heels to ale-crammed nose—even to his love of soft ditties, twittered at midnight in a voice of brass.”
“By the mass, you’re right,” said Cobham, stretching his neck out of his fluted ruff for all the world like a monster turtle. “I hadn’t quite translated that antic disposition. But now ’tis plain. The good Johnny—my Lady Olivia’s ‘cousin’—she should have called him her brother, as all the world knows him to have been. But, James, this Belch is a rank aspersion on Sir John Perrot. See what a wastrel and a trouble-maker he’s setting out to be.”
“My old dad loved mischief, wine and women, God rest his soul,” replied James Perrot. “If this fellow libels him ’tis not so far apparent that the naked eve need wince. Lord, how he’d laugh himself to see this anagram unfurled!”
“‘I think,” mused Captain Pointz, “that this Belch has a goodly dram of the Brave Lord Willoughby in his make-up, too—as I’ve heard my Lord described by his early drinking mates. Certainly, the little Lady Maria, his stage love here, recalls the wren-like Lady Mary Vere before she married my noble General. I remember her vividly when I was a page at Court and she was one of Her Majesty’s maids of honor. This impersonation paints my Lady Mary to the life—her quick-darting movements, her biting wit and Tom-boy humors. She was a pretty shrew and a rough and ready jokester. Many an unsavory kettle of fish did that sweet minx set a-boiling just like this forged letter episode before us.”
“I’d say you’re right there, too.” observed Cobham. “Maria’s no slander on Mary Vere as a maid. She was at the bottom of much mischief in her day. They say it’s a knave called Tom Poope or Puck who is doing her part.”
“He’s as good a woman in his way as Bryan is in Olivia s part,” said Perrot. “The voice rings quite as true in the upper scale, and the tom-tit’s figure must also have been moulded from a real female’s. Such art is most amazing to me, after the years I’ve spent in wild Wales.”
“Art misapplied,” growled Cobham, patting his frontal protuberance. “There’s something plainly indecent in such parading of private characters at two-pence and a shilling a look, although it seems to be the accepted fashion nowadays. Even the highest in the land are not exempt from such gross puppet-play.”
“But, see,” broke in Pointz in an excited under tone. “Malvolo’s the late Sir Christopher Hatton when he served Her Majesty’s personal steward. That signature to the forged letter he has just read—’The Fortunate-Unhappy’—is the equivalent of ‘Fortunatus Infoelix,’ the Latin posy which Sir Christopher used to write verses under. Ah! Now I see the connection, clear as crystal. This is truly ‘a merry-conceited history of over-hasty climbers’ as the advertising bills had it. And if Malvolio is Hatton, then Sir Toby Belch certainly must be his sworn adversary. Sir John Perrot, just as they appear here.” He nudged his younger companion. “That would also mean, James, that Sir Andrew Aguecheek is none other than your father’s friend and your own pattern of knightly chivalry, the lamented Sir Philip Sidney.”
Grimacing with uprolled eyes, Perrot nodded.
“I had some such dread suspicion when Aguecheek was first announced. The player’s physical get-up strengthened the illusion. And now that I’ve heard his dialogue, there can be no doubt that your identification is correct. Tugh! tugh-h! And I’ve just finished writing Sir Philip’s biography! Well, I still contend that laughter’s the most wholesome outlet life has to offer.”
“What’s that you say?” asked Cobham in a hoarse undertone, leaning closer. “That this coistrel and braggart of an Aguecheek is a take-off on the sainted memory of Sir Philip Sidney, the flower of our patriotic English tradition? By Saint George, that’s a scandal, indeed!”
“‘But the satire’s uproariously keen to anyone who had the honor to know Sir Philip,” replied Captain Pointz, wiping his eyes. Then, as a brief pause came in the play at this juncture, the soldier continued:
“I see now how the Earl of Oxford has been applying his talents as the wittiest comedian in the realm, since he retired so completely from Court circles.”
“Hush!” cautioned Cobham with glance over his shoulder. “Don’t compound a misdemeanor by open commendation of such renegade doings. The author of the libel will answer for his pranks, but not under the ancient title he has brought into disrepute in a hundred other ways.”
“So be it, my Lord,” replied Pointz, bowing slightly. “But may I compare notes with our friend Perrot, here, then, in analyzing some of these characters further?”
“Aye: of course—if ye will not make the matter too public,” said the choleric nobleman. Staring from right to left at the Skylarking audience in pit and gallery.
“The Earl of Oxford or whoever it was who wrote this,” interposed Perrot in a whisper, “must have known Sir Philip Sidney intimately to draw so apt a caricature. Take, for instance, that ‘Castiliano volto’ or ‘Put on a Castilian face’ phrase that heralds Aguecheek’s entrance. It’s like a tucket flourish, reiterating the fact that Philip Sidney was a godson of Philip II of Castile and bore the Spanish tyrant’s Christian name. (1)
“Then the reputation that Maria gives Aguecheek as ‘a great quarreller’ traces to Sidney’s efforts to force Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormonde, into a duel over some political gossip; also to the fire-breathing letter the young cock wrote to poor Ned Molyneux, Sir Henry Sidney’s secretary, in which Master Philip threatened to dagger old Ned, if he read any more of the family correspondence! The comedy dialogue also travesties very closely the great quarrel that occurred on the tennis courts in August 1577, between Sidney and Lord Oxford, when such epithets as ‘puppy’ and ‘liar’ were bandied to the amusement of the French envoy’s suite. Sidney overshot himself then by sending his fellow-poet a peremptory challenge to mortal combat which he later had to retract. The whole affair was just a piece of fireworks, but I’ll admit Oxford has the last laugh here.”
“Wasn’t there also some kind of a battle of verses between the same two poets?”
“True enough, there was. Oxford, in one of his melancholy moods, pondered the uncertainties of fate:”
A doubtful choice of three things one to crave,
A kingdom or a cottage or a grave.
“Sidney, who saw in this an excellent chance to squelch his rival, advised a quick and final way out of the dilemma:”
An easy choice of these things which to crave,
No kingdom nor a cottage but a grave.
Pointz rubbed his chin.
“Ah, yes, the whole episode comes back to me now. And there’s an echo of those verses in Maria’s description of Sir Andrew Aguecheek:”
. . . but that he hath the gift of a coward to allay the gust he hath in quarrelling, ’tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave.
“I see the point. And spoken, appropriately enough, by the comedienne who corresponds to Lady Mary Vere, Lord Oxford’s favorite sister.”
“As I remember Sir Philip Sidney in his salad days,” Said Pointz, “he was very slightly built and much too serious-minded to take a joke readily. His brother has told me that he worried so much about his lack of heft that he got a special dispensation from the Archbishop to eat meat during Lent.”
“I’ve heard that, too. The fact gives humorous pungency to Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s wistful confession:
Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.
“What was that about his hair? I heard Aguecheek regret that ‘it will not curl by nature….’ They say his Mistress Penelope used to help Sidney curl it for Court appearances.”
“So I’ve heard my old father say.” He quoted Sir Toby Belch’s lines:
It hangs like flax on a distaff ; and I hope to see a house-wife take thee between her legs and spin it off.
“Seems to me I also scented a reference to those seasons of amateur theatricals that Sir Philip used to put on for his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, at Wilton.”
I am a fellow o’ the strangest mind in the world; I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether.
“Sir Philip was nimbler with his pen than with his feet, so I’ve been told.” Said Perrot. “He never did manage to outskip or outkick the Earl of Oxford in that respect. My poor father hated all dancers, as you know, for they galloped him to his death in the Tower.”
“Yes. Hatton gained more by dancing at Court than Sir John Perrot did by quelling the Irish rebels and ridding the Welsh seas of pirates. That paradox gives an appropriate twist to the speech of Sir Toby Belch when he urges Aguecheek to increase his power and prestige by dancing:”
Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before them? . . . Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard, and come home in a coranto? My very walk should be a jig; I would not so much as make water but in a sink-a-pace.
Perrot sighed through his chuckle.
“Ah, yes, and that last line you just quoted from Sir Toby contains a phrase that brought my merry old father to his death inside damp walls. You remember how he referred to the Queen’s tendency to display her weakness in the face of Spanish aggression? (2)
“Aye, that I do. Like many another honest soldier, he was too outspoken for his own good.”
This low-pitched dialogue in the “lord’s room” of The Swan, with its realistic commentaries on certain characters in Twelfth Night, was typical of other whispered conferences that went on in various parts of the theatre.
And as the comedy wended its hilarious way toward a climax, scores of wide-awake patrons with their wives and doxies were sure they could identify one or another of the personalities who gave life to the fable. A few of these patrons expressed somewhat the same reactions of disapproval that had been voiced by Lord Cobham. But in general there was enthusiastic endorsement of the realistic dynamics that sharpened the bite of the satire.
That “the Lady Olivia’s house in Illyria” really represented Elizabeth Regina’s household in England, even the vagabonds and truant apprentices in the pit had taken for granted by the time the first act was well under way.
Malvolio, the egotistical and self-seeking steward of this royal menage, was plainly a free-hand caricature of the over-dressed and pretentious Sir Christopher Hatton who had served (mainly his own ends) for many years as Vice-chamberlain to the Queen. Although this once-important individual had been dead for only five years, few among the audience in The Swan that day remembered him with any feeling of warmth or regret or cared a farthing how keenly his well-known foibles were exploited for their entertainment. For, like Malvolio, Hatton had been an avowed adventurer, bent on getting up in the world. With no particular abilities to recommend him, beyond regular features, a fine physique, nimble legs and a taste for striking raiment, he had indeed climbed high—over Elizabeth’s own private couch, as credible evidence testifies. Like an actor mastering various roles, he had danced, smiled, dressed and plotted his way by the Queen’s favor, ever upward into the powerful and lucrative post of Lord Chancellor of England.
But every law clerk and barrister present at this first public performance of Twelfth Night, who might be led to compare Malvolio to the same eventual Lord Chancellor, also recalled the fact that Sir Christopher Hatton had been the most lamentable fizzle of a Chancellor that the Elizabethan age had known—a man so ignorant of the statutes he had been appointed to administer that several of the most prominent lawyers in the kingdom had refused to plead before him. The politically wise among The Swan’s patrons were also quick to scent a reference to Sir Christopher’s sly dickerings with the Puritan party in Parliament when the shrewish Maria bent her tongue on Malvolio:
The Devil a Puritan that he is, or any thing constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affection’d ass, that cons State without book, and utters it by great swaths: the best persuaded of himself, so cramm’d, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his ground of faith, that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.
John Hemmings, one of the keenest comedians of the day, enacted the role of Olivia’s over-ambitious and well-duped steward. Dressing his characterization in the same type of feathered hat that Elizabeth’s Vice-chamberlain had made familiar, Hemmings also wore the same kind of long-chained locket about his neck; while the text of the play made much of a type of cross-gartered stocking that Hatton had affected in the woven design of his own nether-hose when he had posed for his full-length portrait by the Dutch master, Cornelius Ketel. (3)
The playwright had made Malvolio’s identity vocally unmistakable by boldly putting phrase after phrase of Hatton’s own vintage into the mouth of his clothes-horse caricature. Thus the Queen’s “Sheep,” as the Vice-chamberlain loved to style himself, had become in the comedy “the niggardly rascally Sheep-biter.”
Several other followers of Elizabethan literary fads, besides Captain Pointz, already quoted, had recognized Hatton’s nom de plume of “The Fortunate-Unhappy” in the forged letter episode of Twelfth Night’s second act. Some of these auditors also knew that the lyrics signed with the Latin original of this “posy” had first appeared in the anthology called A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres which Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford had issued in 1573. [NOTE: The idea that Oxford issued this collection of poetry is speculation.]
That Hatton had supplanted Oxford in the Queen’s affections and had later lost no opportunity to do the playwriting nobleman an injury whenever the occasion arose, was common knowledge to all experienced courtiers. And many, who, like Pointz and Perrot, were qualified to put two and two together, looked at one another, smiled and winked, or exchanged whispered observations.
The general opinion among those who had cut their eye-teeth on contemporary theatrical fare and still retained curiosity regarding such matters as authorship was that only one comic writer in the whole of England would have the brain to conceive and the audacity to present so life-like a satire. That would be the same eccentric nobleman—the best for comedy among us—who had his own playful grudges to settle with his gone-but-unforgotten rivals, the monumental false-front. Hatton, and the plaster-saint of Protestantism, Sidney.
“Why, see,” observed Captain Pointz with a startled grin as Sir Toby Belch announced the abashed Aguecheek’s prowess as a duellist to the shrinking Viola in the third act, “that’s ‘the most unkindest cut of all’ at Sir Philip’s desire to be known as a dragon-slayer:”
He is a knight, dubb’d with unhack’d rapier and on carpet consideration; but he is a devil in private brawl . . . and his incensement at this moment is so implacable, that satisfaction can be none but by pangs of death and sepulchre . . .
Lord Cobham grunted unpleasantly. But young Perrot, whose manuscript volume entitled A Book of the Birth, Education, Life and Death, and Singular Good Parts of Sir Philip Sidney was a sincere tribute to his late father’s friend smiled philosophically. For, despite his youth, he knew quite as well as did Pointz and Cobham that Sidney had indeed been a “carpet knight” “dubb’d with unhack’d rapier.” The fact that Sir Philip’s knighthood had come to him—not in recognition of heroic feats performed in the heat of patriotic conflict—but merely so that he could stand as proxy for Prince Casimir of the German Palatine at a ceremony of the Order of the Garter—had been a source of no little chagrin to Lord Oxford’s tennis court challenger.
And while both Pointz and Perrot may have felt that the playwright was beginning to lay his local color on a bit too crudely, the audience as a whole let no scruples regarding real or assumed offenses against aristocratic dignity restrain its gaiety. Great John o’ London and his women folk had journeyed across the Thames this day by bridge, barge, skiff and row-boat for entertainment, let the chips fall where they may. So, throwing their collective heads back in tribute to the witchery of irreverent genius, the vast majority of the three thousand who filled the flint-toned walls of The Swan to capacity guffawed and cackled to their hearts’ delight.
So ran the merry world of make-believe away as the sun dipped low across the soft blue Surrey hills that autumn afternoon more than three hundred years ago.
1. It is one of history’s strange paradoxes that Philip II, the fanatical champion of the Roman Church militant, should have acted as personal godfather and given his own name to Philip Sidney who became so outstanding a representative of English Protestantism. As it happened. Philip was nominal King of England through his marriage to Mary Tudor when Sidney was born in 1554.
2. See Sir Robert Naunton’s Fragmenta Regalia (Arber ed.) p. 43.
3. In the collection of the 20th century Earl of Winchelsea and Nottingham.