Marlborough’s own strolling player Nick Fogg reveals Shakespeare’s hidden history
Fogg, born in Stratford-upon- Avon where the very town itself totally trumpets the genius of the world’s greatest dramatist.
He has been breathing in the myths and mysteries of Shakespeare’s life since his own early days in Stratford. That has resulted in three books and now, at almost 70, his fourth and most important tome, a biography called Hidden Shakespeare.
Nick returned to his native Stratford on Saturday, for his book’s official launch in Shakespeare’s own birthplace, the evocative timbered house on Henley Street owned by the Bard’s father, as well as signing copies for devotees in Waterstone’s.
And as the sun shone for once, he recalled how his introduction to Shakespeare was inevitable and how his mother, Ann, now a fragile 101 and in a care home, used to be the cashier in the restaurant at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
“The quick route from the restaurant to the door from which she exited was across the stage,” he told me. “She would stop in the middle and take a little bow when she crossed the stage.”
|More than 50 people attended the civic launch of Nick’s Hidden Shakespeare.
The Mayor and Mayoress of Stratford, Councillor Keith Lloyd and his wife, Elaine, were there, so too Professor Stanley Wells, Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, the Revd Dr Paul Edmondson, Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, and Richard Mullins, former stage door keeper at the RSC and his wife, Maggie.
And, of course, Nick’s own wife, Edwina, the diamond jubilee Mayor of Marlborough.
Such is the reverence that honey-tongued Shakespeare still produces. Indeed, as Nick writes: “I’m proud to have given my share of genius to William Shakespeare – and there are compensations in so doing.”
“One of my companions on the school bus was a rose-cheeked lass called Sue Hathaway. When I came to man’s estate, the barmaid in my local was called Judith Quiney – the married surname of Shakespeare’s younger daughter.”
“I must mention also my sister-in-law is a descendent of Shakespeare’s Aunt Kate and that therefore my genes must mingle with his through my brother’s children.”
“Even when I became the Mayor of my adopted town of Marlborough, I couldn’t escape the Bard. One of my predecessors, John Walford, was sued by the poet’s father for debt.”
But though he estimates that we know more about Shakespeare than any other Elizabethan apart from the Queen herself, the Shakespeare blood line has disappeared. Much of what know is based on aural history passed down probably within the 50 or 60 years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, and that provide the only clues to his identity.
Which is why Nick follows in Shakespeare’s footsteps like a faithful hound, sniffing, searching, seeking out but scraps of additional knowledge not previously accounted for by scholars and Shakespeare lovers over past centuries.
It is these that Nick has assiduously followed up with extensive research over the past three years that has given him access to an enormous amount of historical detail on which to base honest conjecture in unravelling possible distortions while trying to discover the truth.
For instance, was Shakespeare, he of the auburn hair and hazel eyes, a covert Catholic? Was this is why he poached deer and rabbits from the estate of Protestant activist Sir Thomas Lucy?
Why did he suddenly disappear to London, a three-day journey away possibly made with a passing troupe of actors, leaving behind his wife and three children?
How did he survive in such a dangerous city full of violence and vagabonds, rioters against immigrant weavers, criminals hung, drawn and slaughtered, bear baiting a popular rival to the theatre, itself at the mercy of State intervention?
Nick has used his prodigious knowledge and understanding -- he quotes Shakespeare as if he is has just come off stage himself -- that comes from a lifetime’s obsession.
He has talked to students galore about Shakespeare since his early days teaching English in an East London school, later at Marlborough College, has run Shakespeare tours of the South Bank, lectured at the international Shakespeare festival held in Stratford, Ontario, at the Edinburgh Festival too and Marlborough’s own literary festival.
As he dissects and examines every angle, you begin to understand that it is a true labour of love, one he kept alive by ensuring that he wrote something every day while compiling Hidden Shakespeare – “Otherwise you find yourself in despair and depressed that it all gets too big for you,” he explained.
In many ways his book is a history of the theatre itself as he reveals that Elizabethan playwrights cheerfully lifted each others plots and scenarios – Ben Jonson described the poet as a bee going round other men’s flowers – most plays written by two or more authors, like today’s collaborating TV scriptwriters, while Shakespeare was unique in largely working on his own.
“Shakespeare is almost alone amongst his contemporaries, the epithet genteel applied to him,” added Nick. “And that is particularly significant. He wasn’t a bruiser, there isn’t any record of him getting into any kind of bother with the authorities.”
Nevertheless, he exposes a certain lack in the Bard’s education. “Shakespeare often got quite a lot of his geography wrong,” he explained. “He makes Milan into a seaport and gives Bohemia a sea cost and he populates Germanic Vienna with Italians.”
“There are one or two instances where he seems to use an Italian source where there is no known English translation. So that’s quite fascinating and raises the question of whether Shakespeare actually understood Italian and knew about Machiavelli’s The Prince, used in his Richard III, which wasn’t translated into English until the 1630s.
“So one of the things I stress is that Shakespeare is a genius, he has the largest word power of any man who has ever lived. But he was equally a genius of his time as well.”
“The Elizabethan age was the apotheosis of the English language. It reached its greatest heights of expression in Shakespeare’s time. He was part of a great mountain range of hugely talented writers and received just the right amount of education for his purpose.”
“And his background was exactly perfect. His father was a glover by trade. Ben Jonson’s stepfather was a bricklayer, Christopher Marlowe’s father was a shoemaker. It is from this rising artisan class that these amazing Elizabethans came.”
He is convinced that Shakespeare speaks to him, but that is nothing mystical.
“He is a great dramatist who speaks to all ages,” he declares. “He is both a contemporary figure and a universal figure, though it is quite difficult to sort out which is contemporary and which is universal. That is why I decided I had to write down all my thoughts and what I knew.”
“I didn’t want them to get lost. It might be mad but I wanted them to be passed on.”
And Nick, perhaps like Shakespeare, shrugs off the word satisfaction with a joke at the end of his labours and brilliantly successful mission – “It’s the nearest we chaps can get to childbirth,” he said.
Hidden Shakespeare: A Biography by Nicholas Fogg (Amberley Publishing, £20) available in Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop.
Picture: Richard Morris