Shakespeare and the Resistance

The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion, and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny


By Clare Asquith

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Shakespeare’s largely misunderstood narrative poems contain within them an explosive commentary on the political storms convulsing his country

The 1590s were bleak years for England. The queen was old, the succession unclear, and the treasury empty after decades of war. Amid the rising tension, William Shakespeare published a pair of poems dedicated to the young Earl of Southampton: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece a year later.

Although wildly popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, to modern readers both works are almost impenetrable. But in her enthralling new book, the Shakespearean scholar Clare Asquith reveals their hidden contents: two politically charged allegories of Tudor tyranny that justified-and even urged-direct action against an unpopular regime. The poems were Shakespeare’s bestselling works in his lifetime, evidence that they spoke clearly to England’s wounded populace and disaffected nobility, and especially to their champion, the Earl of Essex.

Shakespeare and the Resistance unearths Shakespeare’s own analysis of a political and religious crisis which would shortly erupt in armed rebellion on the streets of London. Using the latest historical research, it resurrects the story of a bold bid for freedom of conscience and an end to corruption that was erased from history by the men who suppressed it. This compelling reading situates Shakespeare at the heart of the resistance movement.



THE PRACTICE OF detecting covert contemporary references and hidden political allusions in the works of Shakespeare has a long and derided history. The Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne joked that Romeo must be a hidden caricature of Elizabeth I’s all-powerful minister, Lord Burghley, precisely because of the cunning dissimilarity.1 Shakespeare’s universality, the fact that he speaks to us all on a profound level, means that we resent any attempt by academic, social, nationalist, religious, or political groups to appropriate him, to label and therefore limit him. This has not stopped thousands from trying. He has been variously portrayed as an Italian, a covert homosexual, a Jesuit, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford; he has been by turns a loyalist, a dissident, a Tudor apologist, an atheist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Puritan, an elitist, a populist, a proto-Marxist, and the love-child of Elizabeth I.

The unenviable task of Shakespeare scholars is to preserve the integrity of the text in the face of this barrage. But two awkward elements stand in their way. One is Shakespeare’s famously undocumented background, which has been fully exploited by biographical fantasists in particular. The other is the fact that his work lacks a contemporary context, compounding the sense that Shakespeare exists in a kind of historical vacuum. His plots, situated at other periods or in other countries, are taken almost entirely from books, not from contemporary events. Even the themes are difficult to relate to the accepted view of the age and country in which he lived, and of which he has become almost a symbol—England on the rise: buoyant, self-confident, the victor of the Spanish Armada, a newly independent nation launched on the path of expansion and empire by a canny and charismatic queen. Their extraordinary creative vigour apart, Shakespeare’s plays and poems seem curiously detached from all this. His themes revolve around social and political division, usurpation, the destructive work of time, coercion, tyranny. One of his biographers, Peter Ackroyd, highlights what he sees as Shakespeare’s main preoccupations: they include divided loyalty, exile, the murder of innocence, the unquiet conscience, the perils of oath-taking, disguise, and sympathy with failure.2 Literary critics locate the genesis of this conflicted material either somewhere in his shadowy private life or in the source of his universality—his insight into human nature.

Over the past fifteen years, however, certain historians—some of them, like Peter Lake, cautiously deferential, others, like Curtis Breight, angrily incensed—have begun to invade the territory of Shakespeare scholarship. Initially this was to challenge the recent ‘New Historicist’ angle on the sixteenth century, which aimed to reassess the literature and drama by setting it in what was understood to be the cultural and intellectual context of the time. Normally the first step in studying the creative work of the past, this approach, especially in the case of the context-free Shakespeare, was long overdue. But the historicists found they had stumbled into a hornets’ nest. Elizabeth’s reign, the last years in particular, have been undergoing a lengthy and contentious process of reassessment. According to many current historians, the New Historicists were working on an outdated and misconceived version of the period. They had been given the wrong handbook.

Stephen Greenblatt’s influential 1989 analysis of the plays, Shakespearean Negotiations, drew on a series of long-held assumptions about Elizabeth’s reign.3 Power lay with the queen: yet, in material terms, she was weak. She had no standing army, no bureaucracy, and no police force to speak of. She relied instead on theatrical display and rhetorical persuasion: and with such success that, though ‘a weak and feeble woman’, she retained power for almost fifty years—and commanded the devotion of her subjects throughout, which, as she often declared, ‘I do esteem more than any treasure or riches’. This was an age, then, when theatricality was the source of power: a great starting point for Shakespeare scholars.

But late Tudor power is not seen this way anymore. Instead, the latest body of evidence indicates that Elizabeth presided over a highly successful police state. In the view of Curtis Breight, her weakness had from the start compelled her ‘to make alliances with some of the most clever and ruthless men ever to control the English state, lawyerly humanists who knew how to weave plots and engineer harsh legislation’.4 Scholars such as Breight paint a picture of a country kept in check by terror and by the deliberate fomenting of aggressive wars abroad. They have highlighted damning evidence of the corrupt political dominance of Lord Burghley (William Cecil) and his son Robert, and have revised the traditional image of their doomed opponent, the Earl of Essex. So brilliant was the propaganda machine under the Cecils that Essex has been seen ever since his fall as an inept victim of a struggle between court factions. Over the past twenty years, however, thanks to the work of scholars led by Paul Hammer and Alexandra Gajda, Essex has emerged as a political and intellectual heavyweight whose ideals and character mobilised all those who had become disgusted by the self-serving rule of what was then known as the regnum Cecilianum, the reign of the Cecils.5 Power, it now appears, resided not in the dazzling spectacle of the queen, but in the iron fist of her ministers: and this means, say historians, that as far as Shakespeare goes, the historicists have got the story wrong. Elizabeth’s men, as hitherto marginalised evidence demonstrates, were experts in the use of torture, intimidation, propaganda, and the use of agents provocateurs to create the ‘mass paranoia’ of a society ridden with informers.6

A further aspect of the opposition to the Cecils has also recently come under scrutiny: the huge and varied corpus of political writings by Elizabethan exiles, many of them senior academics from Oxford and Cambridge. In 1594, the Jesuit Robert Persons’s Conference About the Next Succession, a controversial analysis of the English political system and the problems of succession, was circulated in England. Merely to possess it was treasonable. Often vilified but rarely read, it has recently been described as a ‘great tract’ by the historian Peter Lake—an attitude unthinkable even ten years ago, when these often lucid and well-informed works were dismissed by mainstream academics as mere Catholic propaganda.7 Altogether, says Breight, ‘it is necessary that someone yank the Elizabethan Myth from its traditionally privileged position and thereby help to counter some four centuries of what Christopher Haigh calls “reverential historiography”’.8 But the myth has deep roots.

In 2016, Peter Lake published a study of Shakespeare’s history plays interpreting them in the light of the newly rehabilitated opposition discourse. The long preface is diffident, even apologetic, attempting—in vain, as it turned out—to deflect the disdain of Shakespeare scholars. Yet what Lake unearths is, he believes, of such importance that, as a historian, he has no hesitation in regarding the plays as source material, as an insight into the ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries ‘actually thought about “politics”’. ‘If I noticed these parallels,’ he asks, ‘might not members of an Elizabethan audience have noticed them as well?’9

There is a world of difference between reading in meanings and unearthing them. The new directions pioneered by recent historians amount to a radical shift in the consensus on what it was like to live in England at the turn of the seventeenth century. It is becoming clear that successive generations have bought into a diligently documented propaganda myth spun around the Elizabethan state by leading ministers of the Crown. Now crumbling, this myth has for centuries formed the foundation stone of an England which dated the birth of its empire and the establishment of its national church back to the days of the Tudors, and adopted Shakespeare as its national figurehead.

My own interest in this shift of historical perspective—and its impact on sixteenth-century literature—began almost twenty years ago. My ancestry includes multiple countercultural strands, from French Huguenot immigrants to an early member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who, after his imprisonment in Dublin, became a journalist and campaigner for human rights in New York. My father’s great-grandfather, an artist and architect, was a close colleague of Cardinal John Henry Newman. His son was the scholar John Hungerford Pollen, who almost single-handedly researched, transcribed, and saved for posterity the records of the Elizabethan exiles. Growing up, I was always conscious that there was an alternative view of the Elizabethan period, but never questioned the traditional version, which was revitalised for my own generation by the ebullient Tudor apologist A. L. Rowse. However, living in Moscow in the 1980s, I experienced at first hand the way art, cinema, and drama operate in a totalitarian state—ostensibly toeing the government line, but actually using covert references to give release to the frustrations of a silenced population. I returned to England at the point when the ‘revisionist’ history of the sixteenth century was beginning to seep into the mainstream, and it encouraged me to look again at the neglected Catholic records and the recent work of scholars such as Patrick Collinson and Michael Questier, who explore the way in which religious dissidents survived—or did not—under Elizabeth.10

In 2001, I published an article in the Times Literary Supplement proposing a contemporary religious context for Shakespeare’s mysterious poem ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’.11 It was developed two years later in the same journal by the lawyer and historian Patrick Martin and the distinguished legal philosopher John Finnis.12 My 2005 book, Shadowplay, drew on the work of many other scholars to propose a continuous religious and political subtext underlying Shakespeare’s work and seamlessly integrated with the universal meaning. It was welcomed by historians and others, including the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd, who commissioned programme notes on his history play cycle along with a series of talks to the cast. But it was vehemently rejected by Shakespeare scholars, who portrayed it as merely another attempt to prove that he was a Catholic. For David Scott Kastan, the search for allegory in Shakespeare’s work is simply a ‘category error’, and Alison Shell’s Shakespeare and Religion firmly distances her own view of Shakespeare’s work from ‘would-be allegorists’ like myself and G. Wilson Knight.13 Shakespeare is, she says, ‘highly attentive’ to religious tradition, but his ‘invariable practice’ is to ‘subordinate religious matter to the particular aesthetic demands of the work in hand’.14 In other words, topical issues may be visible—and Alison Shell is one of the scholars most sensitive to their presence—but their purpose is merely to intensify the impact of what was intended to be, first and foremost, an aesthetic work of art.

In this book I examine a single event, the Essex Rebellion of 1601, which, like so many other events of the time, has been reassessed over the past twenty years in the light of new work in local county records and the British National Archive. It sets the latest version of the rebellion side by side with two works by Shakespeare which are now rarely read: his full-length narrative poems. The purpose is to demonstrate that the poems remain impenetrable without the historical context; and that once understood, they, in their turn, serve to illuminate the causes and the consequences of this dramatic turning point, one of the most momentous of Elizabeth’s reign, and, until recently, one of the most consistently misread.

This approach confirms the latest assessments of the widespread appeal of Essex and his cause. It also seeks to persuade readers that the supposedly detached, apolitical Shakespeare had opinions and was deeply engaged. The focus on his neglected writings is intended to sidestep the traditional resistance to topical readings of his universal work. By highlighting political subtexts in the marginalised narrative poems, this book demonstrates that a readiness to detect a highly sophisticated contemporary subtext does not diminish our appreciation of Shakespeare’s work; on the contrary, it can actually make sense of its many obscurities. This book challenges the view that Shakespeare always subordinated the topical to the universal, that he never referred directly to the events of his own time, and that if he had done so it would have made him in some way a lesser genius. Instead, Shakespeare and the Resistance argues that in certain works Shakespeare took universal characters and ideas and applied them quite deliberately to the political circumstances of his own time. He did this partly because his era was one in which overt criticism of the regime was dangerous and allegory a useful deflection. But more important to Shakespeare were the themes that characterised sixteenth-century Europe, a time of such bloody upheaval and national convulsion that nothing less than the soul of England, its historical and spiritual essence, was at risk. It required a writer of extraordinary genius to find a way to adequately depict the passions of those days. To do so, he drew on classical scenes, reworking them brilliantly to speak to his fellow men and women about the deep divisions that threatened to break the country apart.



HANGING IN THE collection at Boughton House in Northamptonshire is a curious portrait of a young nobleman incarcerated in the Tower of London. It was painted around the year 1603 by the distinguished court artist John de Critz, and the subject is Henry Wriothesley, the thirty-year-old Earl of Southampton. For a man condemned to indefinite imprisonment for treachery, he looks surprisingly at ease as he lounges at a window, a cat at his elbow. The diamond panes and wooden paneling suggest a comfortable cell suited to his rank. His black clothes are trimmed with lace. Celebrated for his beauty, Wriothesley was depicted from an early age with long, often elaborately coiffed hair—a deliberate affectation in an era when men normally wore their hair short. Here, the famous hair is spread loosely over his collar. Always a dandy, he wears a single glove with a striking design of large black ribbons on white cuffs: his left hand is conspicuously extended, apparently to display his unusually long, delicate fingers. There is a ring on the little finger and a bracelet of tiny red coral beads at his wrist. Next to him lies a book bearing his coat of arms.

To the top right is a cameo of the Tower of London, indicating where he is and why. He was a key player in an abortive plot against Elizabeth’s regime in 1601, a rising widely viewed by later historians as an impulsive act of folly on the part of Elizabeth’s onetime favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The long hair, the jewellery, the gloves, the cat, all suggest the immaturity and love of display which many believe drew Southampton to the circle of the charismatic Essex, and which, cited at his trial, saved him from following his leader to the block. The apparent vanity behind this Tower portrait fits this traditional view of Southampton as a narcissist and a hothead, a man who could be dismissed by one of his contemporaries, Lady Bridget Manners, as too ‘young, fantastical and easily carried away’ to be taken seriously.1 The commission of an elaborate painting of himself in the role of state prisoner appears to be just one more instance of his ‘fantastical’ tendency, which clearly went too far for some of his descendants. In a copy which once belonged to the Wriothesley family, the picture of the Tower in the top corner has been omitted, presumably to erase embarrassing evidence of the disgraceful episode.2

But back at the turn of the seventeenth century, such pictures were read differently. Early viewers of the portrait would have interpreted its oddities symbolically, and for them it would have carried a political message. To Essex’s many highly placed sympathisers, the imprisoned Southampton was an emblem of courage and integrity. In a sombre, thoughtful poem, their protégé, the influential poet Samuel Daniel, expresses admiration and support. Southampton’s stance during the rebellion and afterwards clearly took those who shared Bridget Manners’s opinion of him by surprise. He was not, it turned out, the playboy they had all assumed. ‘How could we know’, asks Daniel, ‘that thou coulds’t have endured / With a reposed cheer, wrong and disgrace?’3 Later generations may have viewed the young Southampton as misguided, but Daniel presents him as a model of constancy and virtue, comparing him with classical opponents of injustice, corruption, and tyranny.

Closer examination indicates that we are indeed looking at a man who saw himself as a prisoner of conscience. Under the picture of the Tower is inscribed ‘In vinculis invictus’—‘in chains, but undefeated’: defiant words which suggest a man suffering for a cause. Moreover, the conditions, and the prisoner, are not as comfortable as they at first appear. The elegant folds around Southampton’s left arm in fact form a sling, a reminder of the serious but unspecified illness he suffered in the Tower, which left him unable to raise his arms or walk, and which almost killed him. His right arm is swollen; he is leaning against the windowsill for support, rather than striking a pose. A crack in the window reveals bright daylight outside, showing up the patchy, greenish grime on the glass as well as on the wall behind his head. The hair, beard, and moustache are wispy and unkempt, and his eyes, gazing steadily at the viewer, are deep-set and hooded. The book bearing the Wriothesley coat of arms is turned upside down, a reminder that he had been stripped of his wealth, estate, and rank. In another symbolic touch, the book is also imprisoned—attached by a ribbon to a metal fixing just under the window ledge. The jewellery on the unnaturally white hand now takes on a new significance. Coral was the traditional protection against infection and poison. The black and gold mourning ring is a reminder of the fate of his leader, the Earl of Essex, who had been executed as a traitor within the walls of the Tower, a fate which for three years, as his enemies plotted against him, was a daily possibility for Southampton. And finally, as in earlier portraits of Southampton, there is an oblique but emphatic religious motif. The window, book, and cuff all carry images of the cross—there are eight of them in all on the left-hand side of the picture, while four cross-shaped arrow-slits have been superimposed on the image of the Tower walls.4

A picture of this quality could of course only have been commissioned after Southampton had recovered his freedom, money, and status. The painted calendar under the Tower ends in April 1603, the month Southampton was set free by Elizabeth’s grateful successor, James I, whose claim to the throne of England had always been supported by the Essex circle. And this brings us to the most disconcerting feature of the picture—the black and white cat crouched at the window, its head alertly cocked and the claws only partially sheathed. There is no evidence that Southampton ever had such a pet while he was a prisoner. But for Southampton’s contemporaries, the image of a business-like cat sitting between a prisoner and his cell window would have recalled the widely circulated tale of a man who did. Around a century earlier, the courtier Sir Henry Wyatt had also suffered imprisonment for supporting a disputed claim to the throne of England—that of James I’s great-great-grandfather, Henry VII. Richard III had imprisoned Wyatt for refusing to withdraw his allegiance to Henry even under torture. According to family legend, he was saved from starvation when a cat he befriended brought pigeons to his cell, which were cooked by an obliging jailer. Afterwards, Sir Henry, who became one of the new king’s leading councillors, ‘would ever make much of cats’; the story itself was made much of by the Wyatt family, ever keen to proclaim their loyalty to the Tudor successors of Henry VII.5

Here, then, is one reason why Southampton can describe himself as ‘invictus’. Mystifying to us, the carefully depicted cat, its black fur merging companionably with the black jacket of the prisoner, would have reminded the Stuart court of Southampton’s early, costly adoption of the cause of King James by aligning it with the story of Henry Wyatt’s equally costly allegiance to James’s Tudor ancestor. The portrait begins to look less like a piece of vain self-publicity, and more like evidence of a sharp political mind at work. And this fits with what we know of Southampton. He continued to play his cards shrewdly during the Stuart reign, beginning as a court favourite and becoming a leading player in affairs of state, one of the few to retain his political integrity until his death some twenty years later.

Attempting to step back into the mindset of the original viewers of this picture not only deepens our enjoyment of the skill of the artist, but invites us to reconsider crucial aspects of the key events of the day. Evidently not everyone thought Southampton was a flighty playboy and the Earl of Essex an ambitious hothead. In fact, a wide circle of nobility and literati in both England and Scotland, including James VI, supported Essex until his fall. But when it came to open confrontation, almost all of them remained on the sidelines. Their caution is understandable. Essex’s programme included policies considerably more dangerous than support for the Stuart succession. He was denounced at his trial for proposing religious toleration and for attacking the corruption of the leading politicians who engineered his downfall, and who continued to dominate the country after his execution. The nobleman and poet Fulke Greville burned his play about Antony and Cleopatra in case it was read as an allegory of Essex, while Samuel Daniel and other writers were closely interrogated and punished by the Privy Council for suspect references in their work.

Powerful figures in the Privy Council ensured that the reasons for Essex’s immense popularity in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign were comprehensively erased and forgotten. Instead they laid the groundwork for his later portrayal as an unstable lightweight who owed his advancement to the queen’s attachment to him, overreached himself, and became the naïve victim of factional infighting at court. Accounts of the more disreputable episodes in his life were widely circulated at the time, and they have been repeated ever since in countless histories, films, and novels—the moment, for instance, when Essex reached for his sword when the queen slapped him, or the infamous incident when, spattered with mud, he burst into the queen’s bedroom before she was dressed. Consistently overlooked are his military and political achievements, his charm of character, his personal code of honour, his huge popularity at court and in the country. Essex has been presented to us as an emotional and irresponsible court favourite whose intemperate actions were outmanoevred, happily for the country, by wiser and steadier counsellors close to the queen.

As for Southampton, he would have been forgotten by now, along with the rest of Essex’s inner circle, were it not for a chance connection. He is the only person to whom William Shakespeare dedicated any of his literary works. These two long poems—Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece, published one year later, in 1594—are barely read now. But on the strength of their dedications, particularly the warm and intimate preface to the second poem, expressing love ‘without end’ from a writer wholly ‘devoted yours’, he has been excitedly identified by many with the ‘Mr W.H.’ to whom the far racier sonnets are dedicated. As many of these are love poems addressed to a fair young man, and as Southampton as a young man cultivated a bisexual image, the assumption is that the link between the two men was romantic; that ‘Mr W.H.’ was code for Henry Wriothesley; and that the young and beautiful Southampton was, as Shakespeare puts it in one of his sonnets, ‘the master-mistress of my passion’.6

So Southampton survives in popular histories as Shakespeare’s wilful, beloved young man, just as Essex survives as Elizabeth’s beloved, unstable favourite—both of them glamorous appendages to the two greatest figures of the age. But de Critz’s odd portrait, and Daniel’s obscure, neglected poem, suggest that ‘the world’, as Daniel calls those fellow admirers, took a different view. And the more closely we examine these two works, the more surprising that view becomes. The epigraph to Daniel’s poem is taken from Seneca, the classical writer who, along with Tacitus, was one of the favourite authors of the Essex circle.7 Like the poem, the quotation praises fortitude in adversity. But for both Seneca and Tacitus, the adversity was very often of a particular kind—the oppression endured by victims of tyranny. The same disturbing suggestion underlies the Tower portrait. Richard III, a popular embodiment of tyranny, was supposed to have personally stretched Sir Henry Wyatt on the rack; his grandson added one of the instruments of torture that had been used on Sir Henry—a wrench known as a ‘barnacle’—to the Wyatt coat of arms. Southampton was not tortured; in fact, considering he had been one of the leaders of a seditious rebellion, he was let off lightly. And very few historians have portrayed Elizabeth I, even in her later years, as a tyrant. So are the shadowy links with Richard III and Seneca’s wicked rulers a step too far? Could the opponents of the late Elizabethan regime really cast themselves as enemies, not simply of injustice, but of tyranny?

This book will propose an answer to this question, which draws on the latest researches into Southampton and Essex, the nature and extent of their following, and the volatile political context in which authors like Greville, Daniel, and Shakespeare wrote their plays and poems. But it will also suggest that the most eloquent and penetrating witness to the true motivation behind the suppressed opposition to the Tudor regime is Shakespeare himself; that it is only now, as scholars begin to uncover the nature and extent of the late Elizabethan resistance, that we can begin to hear his testimony, and to appreciate its breadth and sophistication. But a further question remains. If this testimony does indeed exist, why has it been hidden for the past four hundred years?


  • "A wonderful book and an important contribution to Shakespeare studies. It flows like a good novel, taking the reader into the argument and illuminating the neglected poems with scholarship and infectious enthusiasm."—Michael Scott, author of Shakespeare: A Complete Introduction; Honorary Senior Provost ofthe University of Wales Trinity St David
  • "Insightful and enjoyable.... A vivid and persuasive argument that we can and should renew our enquiry into Shakespeare's complex and disguised responses, under strict censorship, to the fraught and dangerous cultural politics of post-Reformation England."—Sir Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RoyalShakespeare Company, 2003-2012
  • "Compelling ... written with lovely clarity and verve."—Emma J. Smith, professor of English, OxfordUniversity
  • "Continuing her learned and provocative account of Shakespeare's religion and politics in Shadowplay, Clare Asquith turns her attention, in this beautifully written and informative book, to the narrative poems ... demonstrating that Shakespeare would have been as gripped by such events as Russian writers were by the communist terror, and as unable as they to express his thoughts directly. If you love Shakespeare, England, and our Christian heritage, you will want this book by your bedside and that of your guests. Buy the book now, and prepare for long evenings of fertile argument."—Sir Roger Scruton, editor of The Salisbury Review
  • "Another distinguished achievement ... among other things, an excellent narrative of the last poignant months of Essex and his importance to Shakespeare and Southampton. Asquith leads the way in impressing on our culture the power of the Catholic presence in Shakespeare and in England."—Dennis Taylor, emeritus professor of English atBoston College, editor of Religion and the Arts

On Sale
Aug 21, 2018
Page Count
288 pages

Clare Asquith

About the Author

Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, is the author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. She studied English literature at Oxford, where she gained a congratulatory First. Her ideas about Shakespeare’s politics and religion were first raised in the Times Literary Supplement in 2001. Since then, she has written numerous articles and lectured widely on Shakespeare and his background.

Learn more about this author