The stuff that dreams are made on

By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 24, 2017 at 10:00 PM EDT
Aidan Monaghan/TNT
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Will is back with more rock music (the Bard of Avon gets dressed to David Bowie’s “Fame”) and even more chances for Will to scribble down lines he won’t use in a play for another 20 years (“oh brave new world that has such people in it”). This week, Will experiences the first rush of fame (and uses it to justify wearing an earring — give it up, Will; it’s never going to be cool); he attends an Elizabethan rave; and he wrestles between his cousin’s calls to help the Catholic cause and his lust for Alice Burbage the stage.

Without much ado, let’s take a look at four ways “Brave New World” flirts with historical fact.

Black is the school of night

Invited by Marlowe, Will attends a party at Sir Francis Bacon’s estate and finds a house full of debauchery and even deeper secrets. This includes an upstairs party filled with luminaries of Elizabethan London, including Bacon himself and Sir Walter Raleigh. This is the “School of Night,” the shadowy group that many have links to Marlowe’s mysterious, murky past.

Identified by a Jesuit priest in 1592 as the “School of Atheism,” this grouping of intellectuals and explorers purportedly included Marlowe, Raleigh, the poet George Chapman, and scientist Thomas Harriot, among others. The men met to discuss exploration of the so-called New World, scientific discovery, and other taboo intellectual topics of the era (think of them as the climate scientists of their time). Their secrecy earned them a reputation as “atheists” studying the occult. No definitive proof of the existence of this cabal has been found, but it’s clear the men in question knew each other through their writings.

Shakespeare was never identified as a potential member, but he did provide the grouping with their more popular name via Elizabethan subtweet. In a 1903 biography, Arthur Acheson posited that the lines “Black is the badge of hell/The hue of dungeons and the school of night” in Love Labour’s Lost referred to Marlowe’s clandestine “School of Atheism.” The name has stuck ever since, inspiring plays (Peter Whelan’s The School of Night), novels (Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night), and more.

Francis Bacon is not typically associated with the School of Night, but speculation about his relationship to the occult and possible ties to the Freemasons and other organizations has raged for centuries, so it’s not all that far-fetched to associate him with another shadowy Elizabethan group. Bacon would have likely known Sir Walter Raleigh, as he was instrumental in the founding of many North American British colonies later in the 1600s. If that’s not enough, Bacon was one of the first subjects of the bonkers theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays; in the mid-19th century, many believed Bacon was the true author.

Scrying wolf

At this occult gathering, Will makes the acquaintance of one John Dee, a man Marlowe describes as “the most brilliant mind in all Europe.” He continues, “His private library is larger than that of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He astrologized the defeat of the Spanish Armada; some say he actually conjured the storm.” Dee proceeds to conduct a magical communing with the spiritual world. Will, taking a hit off an Elizabethan bong, has what you might call a “bad trip.”

So was Dee the real deal? Or was he was the equivalent of a late-night infomercial psychic?

Bizarrely, we don’t really know — John Dee was a mathematician, scientist, alchemist, and astrologer studying at a time when the lines between magic and science were blurry. He was Queen Elizabeth I’s most trusted advisor on astrological and scientific matters, even naming the most auspicious day for her coronation. He really did possess one of the greatest libraries in Europe at his home in Mortlake (we’re guessing Marlowe never saw Beauty and the Beast). Many believe Dee was the inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (drawing a link between Raleigh’s comment about the “brave new world,” which Shakespeare will crib for that play in 20 years time, and Dee’s appearance in this scene).

The most fascinating and misunderstood thing about Dee was his obsession with learning the secrets of nature through communing with angels (sure, John, the angels told you we should explore the New World, sure). He did this through the practice of “scrying” or crystal-gazing, in which he used mirrors, crystals, and scryers to divine the secrets of the universe, including how to heal religious and political rifts in the country (on second thought, maybe we should see about bringing Dee back from the dead).

What’s even more insane: While the “School of Night” were secretly discussing the earth being round and circumnavigation of the globe as occult notions, Dee was talking to angels with the blessing of the queen, treating it as a religious venture that required fasting and prayer.

Dee claimed he found success in his attempts to contact the angels when he took Edward Kelley into his services to act as a “scryer”/intermediary. Through his experiments with Kelley, Dee maintained that the angels dictated several books to him (you can still read them!). While Dee was earnest about his findings, historians are suspicious of Kelley and his motives, positing that he may have been a charlatan taking advantage of Dee (or at best, that he was self-deluded).

We see Kelley in “Brave New World” being overtaken by a supernatural force and speaking in tongues. Marlowe visits Kelley the next day and calls him out as a fake. Kelley worked with Dee from 1582-1589, so we’ll forgive the writers for fudging the fact that by the time this show takes place, Kelley was in Prague, acting as the chief alchemist to Emperor Rudolf II. Dee had parted ways with him after Kelley told him the angels said they should share Dee’s wife – yeah, you read that right. (Recap continues on page 2)

Given Shakespeare’s rising fame (cue the David Bowie) and ability to appeal to the masses, Topcliffe decides Will is the perfect man for the job. Rather than run away, Will assents to Topcliffe in an effort to protect Alice and her family. I once had a t-shirt with Shakespeare’s face on it that said “Prose before Hoes” (not proud of it); methinks Will should perhaps take that to heart.

The real Topcliffe was a notorious interrogator and torturer who appears in Catholic correspondence from 1592 onwards as a sadistic servant of the Crown, one they called “the cruellest tyrant of all England.” His actions were so infamous that in the 1590s, the rack and other instruments of torture were known in court circles as “‘our Topcliffian customs.” His pursuit of Robert Southwell was his most famous case, but we won’t spoil the ending for you (but really, if it’s historical fact, is it a spoiler???).

Like a strutting player

While Will is a tale of young Shakespeare, it is also, by necessity, the story of the young Richard Burbage, one of Will’s closest lifelong friends and the actor who breathed life into some of his most famous creations (Hamlet, Richard III, King Lear, etc.). Burbage’s skills as a tragedian are often credited as a major inspiration for Shakespeare’s writing, and we begin to see the glimmers of that here.

Richard is in top form again as a “strutting player,” a young man who deludes himself into thinking he’s the hottest thing in London (lover, actor, you name it). He tries to talk his way into the “School of Night” gathering by telling the guards he’s the “greatest actor in London.” But they quickly (rightfully) point out that he’s not Edward Alleyn (or, as Shakespeare in Love fans know him, Ben Affleck). In 1589, Alleyn was the toast of London for his portrayal of Tamburlaine in Marlowe’s play of the same name. It would take some years for Burbage to become his chief rival, but Henry VI would mark the beginnings of his rise. Playwright Thomas Nashe praised Henry VI and especially the “tragedian” portraying the military hero Talbot, whom most believe was Burbage.

Here, it’s Burbage who sets that very play in motion. When Shakespeare bemoans that it’s not easy to write good parts for his friend (well, yeah, if you think your friend is a bad actor), Burbage responds, “Yes, it is moron,” and hands him a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Wales — one of Shakespeare’s chief sources for his history plays, as well as Macbeth, King Lear, and more. Our 21st century complaint that “everything’s been done” in Hollywood gleefully transports itself to 1589, suggesting that throughout time, it’s not the story you’re telling so much as how you tell it.

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