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Did Milton Know Shakespeare?

Okay, I am a slacker, I admit it.  I missed Milton’s birthday on Tuesday!  To make it up to you (and him of course) here is an excerpt about music and theater in Milton’s childhood from John Milton: Life Work, and Thought by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns. The book reveals a more human Milton, flawed, self-contradictory, self-serving, arrogant, passionate, ruthless, ambitious, and cunning, as well as the literary genius who achieved so much. Campbell is a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester. Corns is a Professor of English at Bangor University. Both authors have been elected as Honored Scholars of the Milton Society of America.

How did the music of the elder Milton affect his son?  In the case of singing, it is clear that the younger Milton created his own singing household when his nephews moved in with him; as John Aubrey notes, ‘he made his Nephews Songsters, and sing from the time they were with him’.  Certainly tastes were passed on: the poet’s preferences for part-singing, the organ, and the viol (as opposed to solo singing, the harpsichord, and the violin) place him in the same conservative musical tradition as his father.  The fact that the music was designed for performance in private houses, without an audience, hints at the centrality of music in the Milton household; there Milton learned to sing in consorts and to play the organ and bass viol, and to rejoice in the pleasure of participating in music made purely for the benefit of the players.  The music of the elder Milton is evidence of the religious sensibility of the household, and indicates a respect for liturgical and indeed ceremonial modes of worship.  The clearest example is the setting of a Latin hymn for compline, which is the last of the canonical day-hours (said or sung before retiring for the night).

The Milton household was thus clearly musical: but it seems also to have been theatrical.  Two recently discovered documents show that in 1620 the elder Milton became a trustee of the Blackfriars playhouse.  This may have been a purely financial arrangement, but it may hint at a previously unsuspected family link with the playhouses; indeed, it is possible that the trusteeship was still active in May 1647, when the elder Milton died, in which case it would have belonged to the younger Milton until it was sold by William Burbage in 1651, although it is not unlikely that the trust was wound up once its principal beneficiary came of age in 1637.  The trust was established in 1620 to meet difficulties posed by the death in 1619 of Richard Burbage, the great entrepreneurial genius behind the inexorable rise of the King’s Men during the early Jacobean period.  Richard had died, leaving a widow, a son, and a posthumously born daughter.  Within the extended Burbage family and perhaps, too, among other shareholders of the King’s Men, there was an evident concern that, should Winifred remarry, the property, which included the company’s primary performing space (though they retained the reconstructed Globe too), could fall into the possession of her new husband, perhaps against the interest of the theatrical enterprise.  A trust was established, under the supervision of two brewers, presumably solid citizens, Edward Raymond, a lawyer, and one ‘John Milton’.  The last has confidently been identified as the father of the poet, since he and Raymond had other, quite complex business dealings.

The location of an adult theatre company at Blackfriars in the heart of the city had long occasioned controversy among the civic elite.  Indeed, not until 1609 had the King’s Men taken over occupation from a company of boy actors, despite the Burbage family acquiring the property much earlier. Puritan opposition to theatres in general was well established, though in the case of the Blackfriars, its enemies sought to represent their concerns as essentially anxiety about civil order and public nuisance.  The controversy entered a particularly heated phase in the period from December 1618 to March 1619, when a campaign, led by William Gouge, a prominent clergy-man and influential puritan preacher, petitioned the Lord Myor and Corporation of London to close the theatre down. The King’s Men had royal patronage and protection, and plainly were able to resist the onslaught. The association of John Milton senior with the Burbage family and the playhouse in 1620 was significant act of defiance of civic pressure, and a clear marker of where he lined up in the debate, within the City hierarchy, about the conflicting cultures of the theatre and the pulpit.

Similarly, it has recently been established that Thomas Morley, who published music by the elder Milton, may have been a link between the Miltons and Shakespeare. There are also strong hints of theatrical interests in the writings of the younger Milton.  In Elegy I, a Latin verse letter written from London to his friend Charles Diodati, Milton refers to visits to a theatre that was covered by a roof(sub tecto, line 47); it is tempting to link the description to the Blackfriars.  ‘L’Allegro’ celebrates the greatest dramatists of Milton’s youth:

Then to the well-trod stage anon,

If Jonson’s learned sock be on,

Or sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child,

Warble his native wood-notes wild.

The possibility of a family link with Shakespeare is intriguing.  The elder Milton may have contributed a poem to the First Folio (incipit ‘We wondered, Shakespeare’), and the younger Milton’s ‘On Shakespeare’ in the Second Folio was his first publication.

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