" William Shakespeare, "Romeo & Juliet", "Twelfth Night", Bride, Desmond Rebellions, Earl of Ormonde, Fitzgerald, Hatfield-McCoy, Isis, Munster, Swan Upping, swans, Thomas Butler, Worshipful Company of Vintners
What a way to open a new year.
I’ve heard it said that the ‘big’ stories find you, especially if you are open, alert, and take good notes. Very likely these big stories will surprise you. Sometimes these stories fall in your lap all of a piece; sometimes the stories come in pieces dropping in one by one. I, myself, take them as I find them. I do note that getting these stories down almost always requires patience and serenity because the arrival of their pieces is unpredictable.
I was not seeking a ‘big’ story the other day, just some wisdom to pierce the haze created in the wake of recent events. That word ‘wisdom’ has become inextricably linked with ‘Juliet’ in my mind so my thoughts turned, naturally, to “Romeo and Juliet.” To sort out my thoughts, find direction, I took myself off on a walk to the library. As I passed along one of the 800 aisles toward the biographies I spied “The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” by Emilia Lanier, introduced by A. L. Rowse.
Hmmm … Thinking of ‘Juliet,’ Will Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady,’ and what to my wondering eye does appear? Recognizing a nudge from the ‘shelf elf’ I checked out the book and carried it home. I knew, however, that I would not be able to sit and peruse it right away so I made do with an internet search. I found this stunning coat of arms which, if I am reading the site correctly, dates to 1481 – a century at least before Will Shakespeare began writing.
Then, as internet searches are wont to do, I stumbled across an amusing article about a butler, a fitness expert, and a reporter which set me to folding laundry, vacuuming, and ironing with abandon, thinking, ‘What a good Butler I am!’ (I must confess, however, that my cache of wine is depleted.) In the midst of this cleaning frenzy a gentleman from the heating and air conditioning service company had been performing the annual maintenance check of our furnace. As I signed the invoice, he asked if I was related to the McCoys of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
I was quite puzzled. I was still thinking about being a Butler and I could not immediately imagine why he would think I was related to the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Fortunately my presence of mind returned and I answered quickly that I did not exactly know, but that I doubted it because my husband’s great-great-grandfather emigrated to New York from County Cork, Ireland in 1874 and his descendants were still in the area decades later.
I scratched my head and went back to work, thinking that little reference naught but a humorous blip in the day. Au contraire, as you shall see.
So, the laundry folded, the carpets vacuumed, my husband’s shirts ironed, I nestled in my favorite chair with my copy of “Romeo and Juliet” to search for possible clues to the ‘Dark Lady’s’ coat of arms. Heraldry can be considered a shorthand version of a family’s history and Will Shakespeare likely would include references to that history in his work.
The first major clue is unequivocal: “Her vestal livery is but sick and green” (II.ii.8, Romeo). A woman whose livery is green is sick with envy regarding ‘Juliet,’ the ‘Dark Lady.’ Look again at the Bassano coat of arms, that emerald green. That green and Romeo’s description of it indicate to me that Emilia Bassano Lanier was not the ‘Dark Lady.’
The question then became whether or not Will Shakespeare embedded clues to ‘Juliet’s’ coat of arms in the play’s text. I believe he did and, for starters, I offer up a variant of the name ‘Juliet,’ ‘Jules’ – or, in heraldry, ‘gules,’ the color red. It symbolizes military fortitude and magnanimity, warriors and martyrs. The next clue to ‘Juliet’s’ heraldry comes in Act III.ii.14-15 when she refers to herself as a falcon, one in hot pursuit of an object much desired.
By far the most telling clue is the image used throughout the play to refer to women of her line as swans. Swans in heraldry symbolize poetry, music, harmony. It is the timeline of the plot, however, that links ‘Juliet’ and her family to the swan, a symbol of the Great Mother Goddess. Let me explain.
In Act I.ii.20 Lord Capulet tells the County Paris, “This night I hold an old accustomed feast,” a feast referred to later in lines 87, 88, and 89: “come and crush a cup of wine,” “at this same ancient feast of Capulet’s.” We know from the Nurse’s comments to Lady Capulet concerning ‘Juliet’s’ age that the action is set roughly in mid-July. Might there be an ancient feast concerned with wine celebrated in mid-July? At about this time in ancient Egypt the people celebrated a wine festival honoring the goddess Isis, the goddess associated with swans and the one they considered to have invented wine.
The hall for the Worshipful Company of Vintners is reputed to be very near the site of an ancient Roman temple devoted to Isis. This company has also been associated, as are the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the monarchy, with a ceremony to find and mark the cygnets of mute swans on the River Thames. This ceremony is called Swan Upping and is held in the third week of July.
Thus, the timeline of the play associates ‘Juliet’ and her family with swans, vintners, and the ancient Goddess Isis.
Furthermore, the Irish Celtic iteration of the Great Mother Goddess, Bride, has a strong association with swans. One of the legends attached to her is that she ferries the souls of the departed to a certain constellation – Cygnus. This association with Bride draws attention back to Munster in Ireland, a region with strong connections to her. Remember, too, I proposed that Will Shakespeare named Othello’s ‘Desdemona’ as a variant of Desmond (‘of Munster’) to point to Munster.
Drawing upon that name ‘Desmond,’ I searched for clues in that coat of arms. I found quite a surprise. I found a Renaissance era ‘family feud’ between the Fitzgeralds (Desmond) and the Butlers (Thomas) in the province of Munster in Ireland. It appears that there were at least two periods of significant conflict, 1569-73 and 1579-83, both occurring before Will Shakespeare, and perhaps his ‘Dark Lady,’ turned 20. The conflicts ravaged the countryside, plunging the area into a state of famine.
These conflicts represent another interpretation of the opening lines of the play, “Two households, both alike in dignity,”and may be referred to in Richard III’s opening soliloquy in the words, “Our bruised arms.”
Speaking of those coats of arms, the Earl of Ormonde, Thomas Butler’s, device is a dramatic sight. Falcons, swan, gules – all there. (Scroll down to the link to Background Information from BUTLER FAMILY RECORDS for a detailed description of the device.)
So, at the end of this torturous puzzle, I must offer the conclusion that while music may have fed Will Shakespeare’s loving heart, the music was not that of Emilia Bassano Lanier, but a woman of the family known as Butler.
I may have inherited knowledge of a family feud nearly 500 years ago, but I also inherited knowledge of an ancestress who inspired one of the greatest literary minds in the western world. I’ll take it, gladly. And I’ll hope she inspires many more minds.
[[Text and Photos: Barbara Butler McCoy, 2013]]