Monday, August 04, 2008

Twenty-one score and ten years ago...

On this day in 1578, a Portuguese king did something really really stupid. And the aftershocks of said king's blunder reverberate throughout the play Twelfth Night.

Don Sebastian of Portugal was a 24-year-old warmonger who had taken it as his destiny to invade an Islamic nation -- a militaristic and foolhardy little crusade. (Thank god nothing like that ever happens anymore.) In the summer of 1578, Sebastian set sail for Morocco, confident that he would return with a new jewel in the Portuguese crown. On August 4, Sebastian led his outnumbered troops into, essentially, a Christian slaughterhouse, the Battle of Alcacer Quibir.

Sebastian disregarded the pleas of his commanders, who implored him to flee, once the Portuguese army's defeat was assured. But the bullheaded king soldiered on. He was last seen fighting furiously deep behind enemy lines.

King Sebastian was almost certainly killed 430 years ago today. But many in his country refused to give up hope. They insisted that their lost leader would one day wash ashore and spearhead the great Portuguese empire that never came to be. "Sebastianism" is, in fact, an undercurrent of Portuguese (and by extension, Brazilian) culture to this day. The polymorphous 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa -- a writer who assumed an astonishing number of pseudonyms -- chronicled Sebastianism in his poem "The Message." (An epic that was later translated into English and recorded by pioneering hip-hop group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.)

(OK, that last parenthetical remark isn't quite true.)

The reason the Bard cared about any of this was that with Sebastian's death -- or alleged death -- came a succession struggle that was ultimately settled, in 1580, by King Philip II of Spain incorporating Portugual, along with its massive navy, into his dominions. This meant Spain was now a naval power to rival any in Europe and could thus confidently embark on her own (Catholic) crusade to destroy the heretic Queen of England. Cue the Spanish Armada.

Circa 1580, however, there was a dwindling but still distant hope that a different successor to the Portuguese throne could be found. Inserting this alternative king onto the Portuguese throne would have cut off Spain's anti-Protestant invasion plans at the knees.

One of the leading pretenders to the Portuguese crown, one supported by both Queen Elizabeth and a number of her prominent courtiers at the time, was a distant relative of Sebastian named Don Antonio.

The story of Shake-speare's Twelfth Night is in part the story of two friends, ANTONIO and SEBASTIAN, who are reunited when the latter washes ashore and into the action of the drama. SEBASTIAN is widely believed to have perished at sea, and he and his chum ANTONIO spend much of the play attempting to disentangle themselves from a series of misapprehensions that are the stock-in-trade of Shake-spearean comedy.

Twelfth Night, in other words, paints a satirical portrait of European geopolitics from 1580 -- two decades before the play is thought to have been written.

As I discussed at the Concord Shakespeare Conference in May, this is just one of a series of topical references in Twelfth Night that would seem to date it to circa 1580, not circa 1600.

As blogged below, there is a chronology problem in the Shake-speare canon. But the problem is that a vast majority of the evidence points to initial composition dates for these plays years -- decades, in some cases -- earlier than is now accepted. And it all comes to a halt in 1604, the year Edward de Vere died.

That is a harangue for another time. (How about, say, October 10 in White Plains, N.Y.?)

For now, though, it's enough, I think, just to marvel at that vast Rube Goldberg device also known as history.

If a crazy Portuguese king hadn't launched an even crazier invasion of Morocco on this date 430 years ago, the king of Spain wouldn't have had the military might to launch the Spanish Armada, which would have left Protestantism in England unchallenged, which may have set other rivalries in motion (e.g. Holy Roman Empire and/or Italy v. England? Spain v. Portugal? France and Holland sit this dance out?), which would have left the history of New World exploration in a complete tizzy. Who knows what country or countries would have divvied up the American spoils? (And who's to suppose Amerigo Vespucci's name would have still been memorialized as the new continent's namesake?)

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