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The Bard’s untamed shrew: Shakespeare and the Countess by Chris Laoutaris

The Countess Russell drew up a petition to prevent Blackfriars Theatre from opening and to drive the dramatist and his wretched troupe from her turf.

Drama queen: the Countess Russell. Image: Red Edge/Girts Gailans

Shakespeare and the Countess:
The Battle That Gave Birth to the Globe

Chris Laoutaris
Fig Tree, 503pp, £20

Shakespeare was the neighbour from hell, according to Elizabeth Russell, the dowager countess of Bedford and Puritan zealot who had the misfortune to live next to his newly built Blackfriars Theatre.

Not only did she put up for months with the hammering and clattering of builders, whose carts of rubble rattled ceaselessly past her front door, but once the “house of Satan” was complete, she faced a future of roads gridlocked with revellers as well as the interminable racket of “drums and trumpets” rising from the stage. Shakespeare’s business partner James Burbage was hoping to create a state-of-the-art playhouse to attract a quality audience, but as far as Elizabeth was concerned, any audience was corrupting public morals. Preferring the “divine service and sermons”, she considered the theatre to be at best a “market of bawdry” and at worst the focus of civil unrest.

It was 1596 and these were nervous times; so, to preserve the peace, Elizabeth did what any soldier of Christ and servant of the queen would do. She drew up a petition to prevent the den of iniquity from opening and to drive the dramatist and his wretched troupe from her turf.

In doing so, she derailed Shakespeare’s career, but only temporarily. He avenged himself, Chris Laoutaris suggests, by sending up her kinsmen in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor and immortalising her son, Thomas Posthumous Hoby, as the Puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Several scenes from her life are encrypted in his plays and Elizabeth’s final appearance in Shakespeare, Laoutaris moots, is as the dowager countess of Rousillon in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Shakespeare and the Countess is a work of historical and literary detection which takes us straight to the heart of religious politics in Elizabethan England. Homing in on the countess’s petition, Laoutaris – a lecturer at Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute – vividly reconstructs the neighbourhood of Blackfriars in the City of London, where courtiers, tradesmen and French émigrés lived cheek by jowl, and unravels the relationships between the signatories. These are not as straightforward as you might assume: the author shows how one of the petitioners was Shakespeare’s own patron George Carey; another was the publisher of his Venus and Adonis, Richard Field, a childhood friend. It was quite normal, in the extreme world of Elizabeth Russell, for everyone to be deceiving everyone else almost all of the time.

There is a great deal to admire in this hugely ambitious book but the title is misleading. The Bard has only a walk-on role in the overall drama and, strange to say, the scenes in which he appears could be cut without any great loss. His presence will obviously appeal to the audience and his name does not appear without a drum roll, but Laoutaris is less interested in Shakespeare than in Elizabeth Russell: occasional poet, pushy parent, self-promoting Puritan and the most litigious woman who ever lived. Putting the playwright out of business was as nought in comparison to the punishments meted out from her country estates to neighbours with whom she fell out. Kidnap, forgery and hanging men by their heels were Elizabeth’s usual responses to disputes over land. Ironically, she had a lively theatrical streak and blossomed in battle.

She was an extremist in all things and her life was organised around promoting her children, acquiring and protecting her property (she was the first woman to be the keeper of her own castle) and destroying the Catholic cause. Her afterlife has been just as hectic, with Bisham Abbey, one of her houses, reputed to be home to her furious ghost. Mysterious green lights flicker in the tower room and a hooded woman has been seen rowing a boat on the river in a swath of blue mist.

In the only living likeness of her that still exists, Elizabeth stares out like a cobra from beneath a white headdress of astonishing dimensions, and Laoutaris paints an equally striking biographical portrait. She was given the education of a king because her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, was tutor to Edward VI and Elizabeth shared the boy’s lessons. As such, she was raised to believe in her social superiority, her civic duty, and the importance of crushing those who were not on her team. The Cooke family operated at the centre of
the court: one of her sisters married William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England, and another married Sir Nicholas Bacon and became the mother of Francis Bacon. Elizabeth married twice; first to Thomas Hoby, the English ambassador to France, and then to John Russell, heir of the Earl of Bedford. Russell died before he inherited the title, but this detail did not deter his widow from calling herself the dowager countess.

Probably wisely, Laoutaris at all times takes the side of his subject, even if this involves giving credit where none is due. She was, he argues, a pioneering “feminist” who stood up for women as independent owners of property. Elizabeth Russell, however, was concerned with the rights of no woman other than herself. He praises her courage as a “single mother”, a modern expression that has little meaning for an age and class in which the requirements of parenthood were so different. She seems to have been singularly unpleasant as a mother; iron-willed, she manipulated the marriages of her children, alienated her sons and was rumoured to have beaten one of them to death when, as a boy, he marred his copybook. Laoutaris swipes this story aside like an irritating fly.

In attempting to destroy Shakespeare’s career, Elizabeth inadvertently gave it a boost: had she not shut down the Blackfriars Theatre, he would not have crossed the river and built the Globe. And without the Globe, Laoutaris suggests, we might never have had Hamlet, Othello, King Lear or Macbeth, all of which appeared in the first six years of its opening. He ends on bended knee, thanking Elizabeth Russell for these late, great tragedies and for her role in the flowering of our culture. She is celebrated for giving us the very thing she fought to take away. The world’s turned upside down.

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred