Shakespeare’s “She-Wolves” Part One

There has often been quoted a well-known phrase, especially when writing historical summaries or stories that “History is written by the Victors”, and yet to my understanding and experience it seems more likely that history is more often recalled and written by the male patriarchs who were on the winning side. By that I mean that it is usually MEN who write or record the numerous details of wars and conflicts in history. How often do we read any history recorded from a feminist perspective and indeed a female historian? I am struggling to find any historical references expounded solely by women in history, unless we turn to the Greek poet, Sappho. Therefore in this series of essays I am exploring the role of strong women who, for want of a better phrase “got a bad press” whenever they personally donned armour and became on occasions notorious for fighting bravely and successfully in a man’s world. During the 15th and 16th centuries they were known as “She-Wolves” for a variety of reasons.

An artist’s impression of the Greek poet, Sappho

Stay, for one more hour or one more day my love
Or better still stay here forever close to me;
Abjure the battle-axe, the spear and shield,
The roar of battle?

Oh, would that I might but honour bids me on
To join with comrades true in those distant lands,
There to protect the humanity that’s ours,
The peace and freedom?

What peace might I possess in my night time vigils,
Or what freedom might my limbs enjoy back here,
Drawing pitchers from a well or milking goats
While you’re waging war?

Would you have me stay here and plait laurel crowns
Or to pour perfumed libations to the gods,
While they suffer under the yoke of tyrants?
It’s unbearable!

Well, my heart is heavy, but in truth resigned
To all life’s burdens and to sweet love’s bitter fruit,
That falls in storms, whose flesh decays what lies
In dark persuasion.

Firstly, it fills me with dread and secondly
With anger and remorse to think of all the
Lives lost in pursuit of honour in battle
-It’s a tragedy!

Yes, it’s a tragedy of intervention
The lack of harmony and education
The brutal agony with indignation;
Can we save the world?

No, it’s a tragedy of their religion,
The lack of harmony and comprehension
A bloody parody, state intervention;
Pointless sacrifice!

Well, here is my Argosy and I must leave
You with your lady-friends again in misery.
I’ll no doubt linger longer in your memory,
If your love suffice?

It’s a crime to enjoy life while others die,
To enjoy life’s pleasures on this distant isle,
While Assyrians shake spears at Athens gates,
It’s selfish I know.

Now, one last embrace or kiss before I go
Fair Sappho, reluctantly I’ve made my vow
So, bid me well, and hopefully more loved when
I return to you.

Queen Elizabeth Ist

Not many people readily accept that the Shakespeare play “The Taming of a Shrew” was secretly alluding to Queen Elizabeth’s unmarried status as well as her virago tendencies. The idea of a woman who was by her irascible and stubborn nature unable to find a suitable husband is not entirely new and a very popular and entertaining subject in Elizabethan times. In other words, in Elizabethan England women were expected to marry and produce offspring, purely for the delight and status of their men folk. However, this Italian story of a virago woman has its origins in Aristo‘s I Suppositi (1474-1533) which the poet and courtier, George Gascoigne had translated. For this reason and many others many people think that Gascoigne was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays. There is a quarto text entitled The Taming of a Shrew which might have been a source for revision by Shakespeare himself. The theme of a shrewish woman unable to marry persisted in Elizabethan times, partly because Queen Elizabeth Ist herself cleverly adopted that enigmatic and cool persona. Plays of this sort became a focus of political debate because they clearly contained allusions to the time. During her most eligible period Elizabeth was wooed by many prospective suitors including: Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the French Duke of Alencon, Sir Christopher Hatton, The Earl of Essex, Robert Devereaux, King Henri Navarre of France, and many more perhaps. But in the end none of them succeeded. Her early sexual abuses at the age of sixteen in the hands of Sir Thomas Seymour had educated her to respond coolly to the advances of men and to understand their underlying motivations and expectations. She saw parallels in Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece to her own treatment by Thomas Seymour. In his book “The Mystery of William Shakespeare” Charlton Ogburn suggests that a clandestine affair took place between her and the Earl of Oxford and that this encounter was the inspiration for the poem Venus & Adonis. This would have portrayed Elizabeth herself as lustful and predatory especially towards younger courtiers. However, Elizabeth understood and presumed that marriage would severely undermine her supreme authority and role as Queen, and that any clandestine sexual scandal might equally do the same. Fortunately, her ministers both Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil (Lord Burghley) saw to it that sexual scandal did not arise or attach itself in any way to the Queen. Despite their efforts British diplomats abroad had difficulty convincing other nations that the Queen’s Court was anything but a hotbed of incest, controversy and vice. It was highly unlikely therefore that she would seriously consider any marriage proposal during her early reign when she had styled and promoted herself as the “Mother of the Nation”. The following poem is presumed to have been composed by either the 17th Earl of Oxford or to Queen Elizabeth herself:

When I was fair and young then favour graced me;
Of many was I sought their mistress for to be.
But I did scorn them all, and answered them therefore,
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.

How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe;
How many sighing hearts I have no skill to show;
Yet I the prouder grew, and answered them therefore,
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.

Then spake fair Venus’ son, that proud victorious boy,
And said, you dainty dame, since that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes that you shall say no more
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.

When he had spake these words such change grew in my breast,
That neither night nor day I could take any rest.
Then, lo ! I did repent, that I had said before
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.

For comparison one should examine John Fletcher’s own response to the marriage problem posed by the Queen “The Tamer, Tamed” (The Woman’s Prize-1611) whose alternative text attempts to set the record straight at least from a feminist perspective:
I’ll make ye knowe and feare a wife Petruchio,
There my cause lies.
You have been famous for a woman-tamer,
And bear the fear’d name of a brave wife-breaker:
A woman now will take those honours off,
And tame you;

Scene from Taming of a Shrew

Elizabeth was alluding to Anne Cecil and acutely aware that Edward de Vere was commenting via poetry and dramatic innuendo for a circle of cognoscenti enclosed within a secret literary or Masonic Circle, Elizabeth employed John Fletcher to prosecute her case and record her displeasure. These matters are naturally absent from conventional ideas about Shakespeare and the Queen or their true relationship. Unfortunately, the supposition by Charlton Ogburn that Edward de Vere had a sub-rosa love affair with the Queen would give wide passage to the tabloid headline: “Shakespeare Shagged the Queen”. Neither party could have profited should the rumour or the scandal have become widespread knowledge; while the nation would have been shocked beyond all expectation and the Tudor dynasty vilified by its enemies in Europe and at home. In actual fact in some counties in England the news had escaped and was being reported locally (Norwich). One should bear in mind that the incidence of incest or sexual scandal among the aristocracy or by courtesy of the monarchs themselves was not entirely a new or rare occurrence. Medieval English history is rife with numerous sleazy tales of indiscretions and dire chronicles of Kings and Queens who married or had sexual affairs with near or distant relatives. In particular many Queens who were predisposed to indulge themselves in incest, while scheming against their husbands and usually coupled with ruthless political ambitions were known as “She-Wolves”. The lives of the Empress Matilda, Judith of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of Angouleme, Isabella of France, Catherine de Medici and Margaret of Anjou read like today’s saucy novels (Fifty Shades of Grey) laced with blatant nepotism, casual adultery, overt greed, murder, witchcraft, incest, and diabolic treachery.
The Christian clergy, eager to reinforce the edicts of the Church in matters of marriage, if nothing else, were often morally compromised by the lustful actions and sexual proclivities of their ruling monarchs (eg: Henry VIIIth). According to the orthodox conventions of the 10th to 14th centuries women were expected to take on a passive, supportive role in matters of state and were often perceived as “dangerous” when they practised what their male counterparts often indulged in themselves as a matter of course. As always, the power of the feminine to subvert the natural order was as dangerous a phenomena then as it is today where contemporary orthodox society prefers to advocate or promote a form of sexual hypocrisy. Moreover, just as it is perceived today, women were often more severely castigated for their errant sexual behaviour than were the men, the latter often expected or obliged to follow a licentious or promiscuous trend in order to prove their “manhood”. Moreover monarchs who rarely indulged themselves sexually were often suspected of being homosexual or worse still lesbian. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Mary, Queen of Scots for as soon as she married a man (Lord Darnley), the man in question attempted to take over the management of royal affairs. Darnley’s lust for power in the Scottish dominions over the other lords led to even more deaths and conflicts. Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”, Macbeth could really be an allusion to the assassination of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley by Bothwell. Although the de Vere Society claim analogies and allusions firstly to Henri, Duke of Guise assassinated by King Henri III of France (Macbeth) and Catherine de Medici (Lady Macbeth) by E. T. Clark suggests the play was written as early as 1589/90. There is no adherence to historical accuracy in Macbeth by Shakespeare, the murder of his uncle Duncan is actually derived from the murder of an earlier Scottish King Duff. In reality Duncan was killed in the battle of Bothnagowan by his rival Macbeth (reigned 1040-1057).

An engraving the Witches scene in Macbeth

Historical accuracy, as is common with several of Shakespeare’s history plays, is sacrificed purely for dramatic effect. For example, Henry VIth was only 9 months old when his father, Henry Vth died and England was ruled by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester and the hero of the play, Talbot never actually captured Rouen but topical allusions are made to the Earl of Essex’s adventures and triumphs in France. The Temple Garden scene is also pure fabrication and an expression of English, romantic idealism on the final outcome of the protracted “Wars of the Roses”, in which roses were never picked or for that matter employed as emblems to identify the rival house of York and Lancaster, at least not till the 18th century. The obvious question naturally arises; “what was Shakespeare’s view, intention and philosophical approach to the subject of English history when he composed these plays?” Was he highlighting God’s wrath on Henry IVth for his cruel deposition of a rightful monarch (Richard 2nd) or simply retelling an already “tall tale” of English national identity? Nor do the history plays unfold instinctively as if the “players” are merely victims of fate or their own poor attitudes or failed decisions. Instead they unfold as some events that took place in the fantasy land of national pride. Today, of course we would simply have labelled these stories as “fake news”, which was heartily “sucked up” just after the Spanish Armada was vanquished largely by poor weather conditions and maritime incompetence by the Spanish fleet rather than by any single military strategy or singular heroic action. What the play actually highlights is that internal, petty rivalries, quarrels and tribal divisions can destroy and undermine an army more effectively than any vast and overwhelming invasion. The “boy-King” makes it known in act 3, scene 1:

Believe me Lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.

In this sense the play is a clarion call for “National Unity” just as the news of the Armada would have united all hands on deck. However, what emerges out of this maelstrom is a juxtaposed drama featuring England’s alpha male, Talbot pitted against France’s alpha female, Jeanne D’arc, protector of the ailing Dauphin. In fact the play appears to favour an over weaning masculinity against an unpredictable feminism and falls in a national sense on the side of a longing for a male heir on England’s throne after so many tired years of Elizabeth’s reign; as she remained childless and unmarried.
In Act 4, scene 6 Talbot’s son undergoes a rite of passage synonymous with a girl losing her maidenhead or having her first menstruation:

The ireful Bastard Orleans, that drew blood
From thee my boy, and had the maidenhead
Of thy first fight, I soon encountered,
And interchanging blows, I quickly shed
Some of his bastard blood.

Portrait of Francis Beaumont

For an alternative approach to gender equality we have to turn to the work of Francis Beaumont, the third son of Justice Beaumont of Grace Dieu Priory, who was born in Leicestershire. He entered Broadgates Hall, Oxford in 1587 but failed to take his degree and was much later admitted to the Inner Temple in 1600 to study law although there is no evidence that he ever practised. He established a reputation as a renowned poet and playwright although even his poetry was published posthumously but a comic lecture for the Inner Temple Christmas Revels was followed by a comedy, “The Woman Hater” which was written for St. Paul’s Boys about 1606. Beaumont had a vocational interest in erotic Ovidian verse which was expressed in his Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602). However he was also a prolific playwright, his most famous comedy being “The Knight of the Burning Pestle”(1607) but he also worked extensively in collaboration with John Fletcher between 1608-1613 on some seven plays for the Revels for the King’s Men and Lady Elizabeth’s Players eg: “Philaster” and ”The Maid’s Tragedy”. He writes:

What a wild beast is uncollected man!
The thing, that we call honour, bears us all
Headlong to sin, and yet itself is nothing.

Between them they replaced Shakespeare as the leading playwrights from 1609, filling that literary vacuum with their humanist leanings. Their writing partnership must have fostered many more plays of passion and desire inspired by The Arcadia (A King and No King-1611) most of which were performed for the Blackfriars audience and some at court especially after Shakespeare’s retirement.

Secret scorching flames
That far transcend earthly material fires
Are crept into me, and there is no cure;
Is it not strange, Mardonius, there’s no cure?

The sublime humanism of the early plays gave way to a preoccupation with the commercial demands of the public theatres and the necessity of aristocratic patronage. These later plays, of which some 50 are attributed to their writing partnership represent the transition from the populist Elizabethan drama to the elitist Jacobean and Caroline theatrical scope. Many of these were romantic tragedies, some comi-tragedies bordering on melodrama (eg: Cupid’s Revenge c.1611, The Coxcomb c.1612, plus The Captain and The Scornful Lady-c1613) with moral overtones on duty and honour with almost too predictable denouements. In 1613 after writing a masque for the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding (20th February) he married the heiress Ursula Isley and soon after ceased writing altogether. A folio of Beaumont/Fletcher plays with an introduction by Shirley was published in 1647. A later publication added some seventeen more plays published in 1676.

Queen Elizabeth in all her Royal Garb

Towards the end of her life Queen Elizabeth became increasingly ill and depressed partly because of old age and possibly because she used a lead compound (known as “spirits of Saturn”, or Venetian Ceruse) as a make-up to hide her bad complexion caused by smallpox which would have slowly poisoned her. Despite the fact that she refused to give permission for a post mortem her servants noted that all her teeth had fallen out, her hair was thin and her face emaciated. Confined to Richmond Palace, she was unable to stand and spent hours in bed as the poison and old age finally wreaked havoc on her health. Still she remained indecisive, stubborn and vain to the end and failed to name her successor, except perhaps with a gesture of her hand when asked if she had any objection to James VIth of Scotland acceding to the throne of England. After her death she was laid in a lead coffin for 14 days, her lady in waiting, Mary Southwell recorded that prior to burial her body actually exploded in the coffin giving off noxious vapours.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,