Sunday, January 12, 2014

Shakespeare, Decaffeinated

The Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi once said, "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." The same might be said about writers and books -- or plays. 

London's first coffeehouse opened in 1652 and was an instant hit. With not much exaggeration, it's been said coffee fueled the Enlightenment. As one recent account of London coffeehouses on the website Public Domain Review notes,

"Remember -- until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very -- drunk all of the time. Drink London’s fetid river water at your own peril; most people wisely favoured watered-down ale or beer (“small beer”). The arrival of coffee, then, triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time. The stock exchange, insurance industry, and auctioneering: all burst into life in 17th-century coffeehouses — in Jonathan’s, Lloyd’s, and Garraway’s — spawning the credit, security, and markets that facilitated the dramatic expansion of Britain’s network of global trade in Asia, Africa and America."

In the spring of 1575, Oxford wrote back to Lord Burghley from Paris that in his travels from Venice and beyond he intended to "bestow two or three months to see Constantinope and some part of Greece." That plus the fact that King Henri III of France had given Oxford letters of introduction to the Sultan's court in Constantinople suggest it's at least possible that the man Elizabeth called her "Turk" did in fact visit Turkey.

For me, when I was researching and assembling "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Turkey became a bridge too far in piecing together the most likely itinerary for Oxford's Italian, Adriatic, Mediterranean (and Aegean and Black Sea??) travels. I just couldn't make it all fit, and Turkey just seemed too far out of the likely orbit.

But there it is. Oxford said he wanted to go. And he had letters of passage from the King of France to give him entry.

There the coffee certainly flowed like water. Er... well at least syrupy water. A Turkish proverb from the time said coffee is best served "black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love."

Given how much Italy Oxford brought back to England with him in 1576, I'm inclined to suspect -- given the absence of Turkey (and coffee!) in his life and works and in the "Shakespeare" canon as well -- he never quite made it to Sultan Murad III's court.

The age of "Shakespeare" was still some 50 years before the dawn of the age of coffee in England. Hamlet written with the benefit of caffeine: It's a curious thought experiment at least, though I suspect it will forever be only just that.