Show Hide image

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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Why we, and Theresa May, will be watching George Osborne carefully

Osborne will use the Standard as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

In his biography of the man who, in May, will become the new editor of the London Evening Standard while remaining as the MP for Tatton, the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh described how from an early age George Osborne “possessed a searing ambition to be a person of consequence”. Ganesh called Osborne “a psychological seer” and a “perspicacious analyst of people, including himself”. Moving through the gears, he added: “He has been a Pauline, a Bullingdon boy and a Bilderberg panjandrum, but he now belongs to the most truly privileged elite: those who are happy in their work.”

The Austerity Chancellor was published in 2012 when Osborne, who is 45, was considered to be David Cameron’s inevitable successor as leader of the Conservative Party and thus a future prime minister. As we all know, it did not quite turn out that way, the small matter of the EU referendum disrupting even the best-laid plans. Since being unceremoniously sacked last year by Theresa May, Osborne, who is an unapologetic liberal globaliser (he once told me that the book that had influenced him the most was Mill’s On Liberty), has been assiduously plotting his return to public life while assembling a portfolio of well-remunerated stipends, including a four-days-a-month contract with the asset management firm BlackRock, for which he is paid £650,000.

Before Christmas, Osborne was telling friends that he felt “unrepresented” by May’s Conservative Party. Because of the collapse of the Labour Party, he had concluded that the Brexit debate amounted, in essence, to an argument within the conservative family, among the Tory party, the press and the business community. The Scottish National Party naturally had a different view.

The first significant conversation I had with Osborne was at a Notting Hill drinks party – where else? I found him congenial and candid, and soon afterwards he invited me to accompany him on tours of the Nissan plant and the Hitachi factory, both in the north-east of England. The private Osborne is quite different from the public Osborne, who was booed at the 2012 Paralympics and has been caricatured as a “sneering Bullingdon boy”. Those who have worked closely with Osborne, including the former Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, speak well of him – of his intellect and knowledge of and interest in history, but also of his decency and, most surprisingly, his shyness.

As chancellor, Osborne’s record was mixed. At least two of his Budgets unravelled calamitously, undermining his reputation for strategic intelligence. His dogmatic pursuit of expansionary fiscal contraction delayed Britain’s recovery from the Great Recession and his “fiscal surplus rule”, by which he attempted to bind future governments to a Budget surplus, was humiliatingly abandoned.

Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Standard is fascinating on many levels. For a start, it throws up any number of potential conflicts of interest between his role as an MP and his duty as an editor to challenge power, break stories and create mischief; between  his being a champion of the “Northern Powerhouse” and a celebrant of all things London; between his advisory role at BlackRock and the integrity of the Standard’s City pages. There is, too, the conflict of interest between Osborne, the spurned Remainer, and the Prime Minister, who is thought to resent the insouciance of the Cameroon chumocracy.

It’s certain that Osborne will use the Standard, a free newspaper with a daily distribution of nearly 900,000 copies, as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

As an editor, I was relaxed about his appointment, even excited by it. It used to be common for politicians to write more than party propaganda for newspapers and magazines and for there to be free movement between Westminster and Fleet Street. Nigel Lawson is a former editor of the Spectator, as is Boris Johnson, who attempted and failed to be both an editor and an MP. Richard Crossman, a long-time contributing writer for the New Statesman, was our (unsuccessful) editor from 1970 to 1972 while staying on as an MP. John Freeman was a Labour MP before becoming a journalist; he edited the NS from 1961 to 1965. Michael Foot edited the Standard in his twenties, as well as Tribune after he entered the Commons.

I’ve no doubt that Osborne can succeed as an editor. Credentialism is overrated. He understands power, he has great contacts, he can write and, as a former applicant to the Times and Economist graduate trainee schemes, he has a long-standing interest in journalism. Whether he can combine editing with his obligations as an MP is for his constituents and his own conscience to decide.

Editing the Standard is no sinecure. Evgeny Lebedev is a hands-on proprietor and his staff have endured deep budget cuts. Osborne will bring to the role a touch of what Saul Bellow called “event-glamour”, as well as serious political purpose. The former austerity chancellor does not lack self-belief and his searing ambition to be a person of consequence is undiminished. Downing Street will be watching him very carefully, and so will his fellow journalists.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution