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Welcome to Episode #106 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime one of the most widely circulated and reported on current events was the state of the Holy Roman Empire. Ruled for much of Shakespeare’s lifetime by an eccentric named Rudolf II, who secluded himself in Bohemia to the neglect of his Empire. Rudolf II and his weird choice to isolate himself in Bohemia would have been enough to make Shakespeare’s references to Bohemia in his plays make sense, but on top of Rudolf II there was also Don John of Austria, the half brother to King Philip II of Spain and a threat to the English throne, with many in England concerned he might take over England should the Spanish Armada have succeeded in 1588. For historians, we can look back and see that the Spanish Armada was defeated, but for 28 year old William Shakespeare, that outcome was far from a certainty. Later when William Shakespeare was 49 years old, the eldest daughter of James I, named Elizabeth, married the Frederick V, a senior prince of the Holy Roman Empire, who would go on to become the King of Bohemia–and the irony of that situation could hardly have been lost of William for whom the entirety of his life had been spanned by upheaval in the Holy Roman Empire and an odd relationship to Bohemia. We see glimpses into the contemporary mindset of England and the poltics aborad with the Holy Roman Empire as Shakespeare as well as his contemporaries comment on the threat of Don John, the war between the Spanish and Dutch, and even the oddities of the strange, isolated, King of Bohemia, Rudolf II, in plays like King John, which was written the same year Rudolf II died, and Jonsons’ The Alchemist which specifically calls out, and insults, the Hapsburg family with his multiple references to Austrian princes. Here to help us unpack this veritable mountain of history packed into just a few lines of text, and introduce us to the life of Rudolf II, the Hapsburg family, and this part of 16th century current affairs is our guest, Peter Wilson.

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Peter H. Wilson is Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls College and Principal Investigator of a five-year research project on the ‘European Fiscal- Military System 1530-1870’ funded by the European Research Council. His books have been translated into Chinese, German, Italian, Polish, Macedonian and Japanese, and include The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History (Penguin/Harvard UP, 2016), and Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (Penguin/Harvard UP, 2009) which won the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award. His latest book, Lützen, was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press in its Great Battles series.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Peter Wilson about :

  • In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare gives the name of the Bastard character Don John. Peter, is this name specifically an association for the very real fear Elizabethans had during Shakespeare’s lifetime that the real life Don John might have become ruler of Britain if the Spanish Armada had been successful?

  • The notoriously thick under-lip of the Habsburgs was not explicitly mentioned in Shakespeare’s works (despite some potential connections with the disfigured Richard), but several of his contemporaries do, specifically in Jonson’s The Alchemist. In Act iv, Scene i, Doll Common, and when another character tries to flatter her he instead comments on her inescapable lip. Peter, explain the notoriously thick-under lip of the Habsburg Family. Was this a source of ridicule generally used for Elizabethans or is Jonson unique?
  • In 1519, the Hapsburg Family officially achieved the position of a true world power and for the first and only time in their history—Charles V was the “World Emperor” ruling an “empire on which the sun never sets.” As Elizabeth I built the British Empire, do you think she considered the Hapsburg Dynasty a model to follow, or that she herself might have wanted to achieve a similar status in the wake of the fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire going on during the late 16th century?

  • … and more!

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Austria! thou dost shame
That bloody spoil: thou slave, thou wretch, thou coward!
Thou little valiant, great in villany!

Constance

King John (III.1)

John of Austria (1547 –1578) was an illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He became a military leader in the service of his half-brother, King Philip II of Spain, and is best known for his role as the admiral of the Holy Alliance fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. This anonymous 16th century portrait shows Don John subduing a lion with his staff. Despite fears of his eventual take over in England, Don John of Austria died in 1578, well before the invasion of the Spanish Armada (a Hapsburg Spanish Fleet) in 1588. Source

The Real Don John

In Shakespeare’s King John, the Duke of Austria is portrayed as the antithesis of England, not only by his alliance with France but also by his support of Cardinal Pandulph, the Machiavellian legate from the Pope. This portrayal is arguably unfavorable, but represents the actual political nad religous climate in England between the Austrian Hapsburgs and England at the time the play was written. (in 1594, when Shakespeare was 30 years old and around the same time he was writing Titus Andronicus, Rape of Lucrece, and Richard III).

Peace was brokered in 1604 with the Spanish Dutch War Settlement. The Hapsburgs were not a family to be trusted. By the time peace came about, James I was on the throne in England. He tried to adjust the policy and we see a Spanish faction appear in England. 

The lines Shakespeare puts in King John to comment on the Hapsburgs, Austria, and the Duke specifically would have been controversial in their day. As Peter shares, the mainstream opinion in England at the time was anti-catholic and anti-Hapsburg. 

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare gives the name of the Bastard character Don John. This name is a specific reference to the very real fear Elizabethans had during the life of William Shakespeare that the real Don John might become ruler of Britian if the Spanish Armada were to suceed.

 

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In this episode, Macolm Hebron shares the history of John Dee and his relationship to the character of Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest. A Magus was a real position one could hold, and John Dee is one of the most famous.

…As friendship wears at feasts, keep with Bohemia…

Camillo

Winters Tale (I.2)

Portrait of Rudolf II (July 18 1552 – January 20 1612) Rudolf II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1576-1612, King of Hungary and Croatia as Rudolf I from 1572–1608, King of Bohemia from 1575-1608/1611, and Archduke of Austria from 1576-1608. He was member of the House of Hapsburg. This 16th c. portrait was painted by Martino Rota. Source

Rudolf II

House of Austria was the Hapsburg family, middle of the 16th century. There were two branches to the family: the Spanish and Austrian branch. The Austrain branch had the imperial title, and is the branch of which Rudolf II was the head. In the Spanish branch, Philip II had the power and was the head of power in the new world with a powerful army and navy. Philip II is the one with whom Elizabeth I is at loggerheads. The Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family wanted to have a mediating role between England and Spain. Rudolf II does a few things to mediate various disputes, but is ultimately ineffective. Overall, Elizabeth I did not really interact with Rudolf II since he was so reclusive. 

In 1519, the Hapsburg Family officially achieved the position of a true world power and for the first and only time in their history—Charles V was the “World Emperor” ruling an “empire on which the sun never sets.” As Elizabeth I built the British Empire, it would be incorrect to assume the British Empire, which would also go on to become the empire on which the sun never sets, based their progress on the success of the Hapsburg Dynasty since while it is true they wanted to achieve a similar status in England, no one, not even Elizabeth I, knew that the British Empire would become later in history. 

 Rudolf II was so reclusive, he became known as a “strange man” and he lived, by choice, in isolation in Bohemia while ruling the Holy Roman Empire. As Peter shares with us, given the timing, it is certain that Shakespeare's choice to set several of his plays in Bohemia is a commentary on the situation with Rudolf II as the real life Bohemia, and Rudolf II would have been well known in England, as well as representative of massive current events for William Shakespeare.

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His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.

Casca

Julius Caesar (I.3)

This is an image of Edward Kelley (Aka Kelly), who worked with John Dee in the 17th century. This particular image is a copy from an 18th century book by Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) National Library of Wales. Source

 

Edward Kelley

Shakespeare is not the only playwright to use connections with the Haspburg family and Rudolf II in their works from this period. Ben Jonson alludes to the Hapsburg family in The Alchemist when he writes:

“A man, the Emp’ror
Has courted, above Kelly: sent his medals,
And chains, t’invite him”

Peter shares that this Kelly is Edward Kelly, born as Talbot, who had been invited by Rudolf II to bring the philosopher’s stone to Prague. 

Sadly, he did not succeed. Edward Kelly goes off with John Dee and they go on a roving tour around central Europe trying to find wealthy patrons. Kelly does get a senior Rudolf nobility to patronize him. Rudolf patronizes alchemy in general–patronized Johannes Kepler, for example–and gets involved in these experiments. Kelly is twice imprisoned for failing to make gold. Explanation for his death is he fies of his injuries trying to escape.

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Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open…

Romeo

Romeo and Juliet (V.3)

 Gallery Images in order of appearance: 1) Portrait of Charles II of Spain, member of the Hapsburg family and his prominent Hapsburg jaw. This portrait dates from around 1680, when the king was nineteen, it appears to be based on the painting by Claudio Coello (1642-1693), now in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. Source 2) Painting of a young Philip IV of Spain, done around 1623 (the same year Shakespeare's First Folio was printed) done by Diego Velásquez, displaying his prominent “Hapsburg Lip” Source 3) Portrait of Charles V by Bernard van Orley, showing his protruding Hapsburg Jaw, dated between circa 1515 and circa 1516. Source

The Hapsburg Jaw

The notoriously thick under-lip of the Habsburgs was not explicitly mentioned in Shakespeare’s works (despite some potential connections with the disfigured Richard), but several of his contemporaries do, specifically in Jonson’s The Alchemist. In Act iv, Scene i, Doll Common, and when another character tries to flatter her he instead comments on her inescapable lip:

“There is a strange nobility i’your eye,
This lip, that chin! Methinks you do resemble
One o’ the Austriac princes. “

The Hapsburg Family were notorious for their thick under lip that protruded out from the face. This image of the Hapsburg Jaw was a source of ridicule generally used by Elizabethans, and specifically referenced in the example by Jonson.

Peter explains that the jaw was a result of intermarriage within the Hapsburg family, promote by Rudolf II himself.  The inbreeding results in a disfigurement physically. Eventually, the disfigurement leads to other ailments and ultimately causes the extinction of the Spanish branch of Hapsburgs by 1700, with the death of Charles II of Spain who not only died young at just 39 years old, but is thought to have also been infertile as a result of centuries of consanguineous marriages. (Source)

The jaw is prominent in photos of the family members, and it is reported that several people actually had trouble closing their mouths as a result of their large jaws. 

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Books & Resources Peter Wilson recommends:

 

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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