“smooth comforts false”

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Wednesday saw the opening of the new RST. To mark the occasion BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio station broadcast live through the day from the new theatre building. A regular feature of Mark Powlett’s broadcast is a section on Showbiz Gossip, in which Mark looks at all of the recent goings-on in the world of celebrity. Seeing that Wednesday’s show would be broadcast live from Stratford, Mark thought that it would be fun to look at what sort of things set tongues wagging (and curtains twitching) in Shakespeare’s time. I received a call and was asked if I’d appear on the show and chat about some of the scandals in Shakespeare’s life.

The show’s producers had drawn up a list of juicy facts and rumours attached to Stratford’s famous son, and they were keen to separate fact from fiction. So, what did they want to know? Was it true that Shakespeare had married an older woman, and that she was three months pregnant at the time of their marriage? Was it true that William Davenant was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son? And what about the rumours that John Shakespeare lent money at the inflated rate of 25% interest? They also wanted to know about Shakespeare’s connections to Edward Arden, who was (wrongly) executed for treason thanks to a misplaced word from his son-in-law John Somerville. And they also thought that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been drawing up conspiracy theories of their own when they heard about Christopher Marlowe’s death in a tavern brawl in Deptford.

We had a bit of fun digging through Shakespeare’s dirty laundry, and hazarding a guess at what would have been some of the hot gossip in Stratford during the 1590s. Shakespeare was of course well aware of the power of ‘gossip’ as a dramatic ingredient for his plays. ‘Henry IV pt. 2’ opens with the character of Rumour himself (possibly dressed on Shakespeare’s stage in a robe painted full of tongues). Full of mischief and “smooth comforts false” Rumour confesses that:

Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

Salacious stuff! Iago also reeks havoc with an ‘airy word’ in Othello’s ear – something about a lost handkerchief, and an over attentive lieutenant. Hero’s honour is challenged by a malicious rumour in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and rumours about Antony and Cleopatra’s love-life make Caesar’s hair stand on end when the gossip wings its way to Rome.  Rumour has played an important role in Shakespeare’s afterlife as well. Half-truths, conspiracy theories, and flights of fancy have been passed from generation to generation until what perhaps began as a tall-tale has come to be taken as biographical certainty. Stanley Wells’s super book “Is It True What They Say About Shakespeare?” should be the starting point for anyone looking to separate Shakespearian fact from fiction. And, Rumour has it that this book (the perfect stocking filler) can be bought from our very own bookshop bookshop@shakespeare.org.uk

You can hear the whole of Mark’s live broadcast form the RSC, with lots of people giving their first impressions of the new theatre at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00c6vzl/Mark_Powlett_24_11_2010/
The Showbiz Gossip section comes towards the end at around 2hrs 29 mins.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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