Reviewed: “Such Fruits Out of Italy”

Here’s another must-have for your Oxfordian book collection.  From 1998-2011, Noemi Magri, Professor of English at the ITIS School in Mantua Italy, published a series of articles on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy in the British Oxfordian journal, the De Vere Society Newsletter.  Now the German publisher, Verlag Uwe Laugwitz, has collected these in an affordable paperback that adds a host of details to what we learned from Richard Roe in his Shakespeare in Italy, details that leave no doubt as to Shakespeare’s, and Oxford’s, first-hand knowledge of Italy.  While Roe adds to the information he provides the pleasures of accompanying him on his investigations, a sort of literary whodunit, Magri, as a professor of literature and a native Italian, provides citable material in a scholarly format that writers of articles and lectures for professional journals can turn to without reserve when addressing Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy.  Her abundant end notes add detailed flesh to the bones of fact

For centuries, academics, aware of the importance of Italy and Italian works to Shakespeare, have focused, not on his knowledge of Italy, but on what they believed was his ignorance, one more instance of the disassociative thinking forced on them by the Stratford biography.  Since the humble provincial could not possibly have known Italy without leaving some record of his travels, ergo to wit: Shakespeare must have been ignorant about Italy, just as he must have been ignorant of Greek, Latin, French, etc..

The gulf that separates university studies of history from studies of literature is also to blame, for as Magri clearly shows, this ignorance of Italy is all theirs, for in every instance we find that it was Shakespeare who knew what he was talking about, not his critics.  Our Strat-watchers will report on any apparent response to Magri’s evidence, but the likelihood is that they will do as they’ve always done with the evidence provided by authorship scholars, simply pretend it isn’t there.  After all, who cares about a truth so arcane as who created the language we speak, in which we think, with which we communicate and in which all the great works of English have been written since the Bard first put pen to parchment?

Magri covers just about everything in Shakespeare that requires personal knowledge of Italy, its language, its geography, its history, its customs and its laws.  Major articles deal with his awareness of Italian paintings by Titian and Giulio Romano and the part these play in Venus and Adonis, Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew.  She provides the history behind The Merchant of Venice, his knowledge of Portia’s Belmont, of the precise distances and modes of transportation involved in getting from one place to another, and his knowledge of Italian law as demonstrated in the trial scene.  That he knew more about the geography of Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast than his critics she shows in articles on Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale.

She clears up the eternal confusion over his seeming ignorance of the geographic locations of Verona and Milan in her article on Two Gents, providing a great deal of useful background on the two cities.  She makes the point that Oxford, after visiting the German scholar Johannes Sturm, would have entered Italy via the St. Gotthard Pass rather than, as previously conjectured, by the Brenner Pass, since the St. Gotthard Pass was “the route usually taken by travellers coming down the Rhine valley into Italy” (111-2).  Stopping briefly outside Milan (he would only have encountered problems with the Inquisition had he lingered inside the City), he would have learned all he needed for the adventures of his two gentlemen. [At the time of Oxford’s visit, Milan was experiencing an horrific outbreak of the plague.]  These are but hints of the important information to be found in every article in this book, and in the end notes.

Evidence from Orazio Cuoco

One of the most important additions to our store of precise knowledge about Oxford is the evidence Magri provides of the Venetian Inquisition’s examination of Orazio Cuoco recorded in 1577, a few days after his return from the 11 months he lived with Oxford in England.  Magri provides a verbatim transcript of the original manuscript, located in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (201), in which the questions and answers are in Italian, the rest in Latin.  Facing this on the opposite page is her word-for-word translation.

As she reveals, the sole issue concerning the Holy See was whether or not Cuoco had been suborned by Oxford into giving up or ignoring his religion.  Clearly they were satisfied that he had not.  When asked “What made you go with him” to England, the record states that Cuoco replied, “He heard me sing in the choir in Santa Maria Formosa and he asked me if I wanted to go to England with him.”  When asked if he had asked anyone for advice on whether to go or not, he replied, “I asked my father and my mother and both advised me to go.”  Since both his parents died of the plague while Orazio was gone, it seems that Oxford (unwittingly) may have saved the youth from a similar fate.  Beyond that the primary concern of Orazio’s inquisitor appears to have been whether or not he ate meat on fast days; he did not, or at least, so he said.

Of most interest to Oxfordians in Cuoco’s statement is the evidence it gives of Oxford’s religious tolerance and his interest in Greek.  According to Orazio, while Oxford himself ate either meat or fish, on fast days he provided his household only with fish, and he also had “an attendant and a manservant who were Catholics.”  To more particular questioning on religious matters, he answered that he never was required (or desired) to hear “sermons of heretics” (Protestants), and that he was allowed to attend Mass “in the house of the Ambassadors of France and Portugal” (207, 209).  When asked if Oxford ever tried to convert him, he answered “No Sir.  He let everyone live as they wanted.”  When asked “Who associated with the Earl in this town (Venice)” he replied, “No one here from this town.  He used to go to Mass at the Church of the Greeks, and he was a person who spoke the Latin and Italian languages well.”  Well-acquainted with the church in question, Magri describes it as “the most important Greek Orthodox church in Europe” and “a center of Greek and Renaissance learning.”  Inaugurated in 1573, Oxford would have seen it “in all its splendor.”  Nearby was “one of the first printing presses” in Venice, one that printed books in Greek (214).

Magri vs. Nelson

In comparing the truth about Cuoco’s deposition to the version in Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, Magri reveals Nelson’s egregiously sloppy scholarship.  For some reason the good professor had a hard time getting right the spelling of Cuoco’s name, spelling it either Coquo or Cocco (and Cogno in an earlier article on the internet), all meaningless; Cuoco means Cook in English.  Although Magri had sent him the right spelling, Nelson continued to misspell it.  Where Nelson reports that Cuoco claimed that Oxford was a “great lover of music,” it’s clear from Magri’s word-for-word translation that the youth never said any such thing.  Where Nelson claims that “he attended churches,” Cuoco actually spoke of only the one church.  Where Nelson reports that the Service at the Greek Church was in Latin, Magri corrects: “The Mass (not the service) was, and still is, said in Greek” (215).  Magri was particularly peeved by Nelson’s description of the Greek Church as “notorious for attracting religious dissidents, a statement she labels “false, arbitrary and defamatory.”  The church was “a cultural center,” its location in Venice “a meeting place for literary men” (215).

These are only a few of the six pages worth of mistranslations and arbitrary inventions that Nelson has foisted off on his readers as genuine scholarship, some of them obviously based on his need to represent Oxford in as dim a light as possible.  For those who desire to stick to the truth, anything Nelson has to say on Oxford’s time in Italy must be rejected in favor of Magri’s version.  His insinuation that Oxford’s motive in taking Orazio to England was sexual is replaced by something far more likely: that having heard him sing in the church choir, Oxford, in his capacity of prime provider of entertainment to the English Court, hoped to dazzle the Queen and the Court with Orazio’s singing .  Indeed, when asked, “Did you ever speak with the Queen?”Orazio responded, “I sang in her presence” (210).

Although Roe is unparalleled in his role as tour guide to Oxford’s travels in Italy, for those who dream of the day that rigorously-researched authorship articles and books will be accepted by mainstream academic publishers, it’s Magri’s standing as a PhD and a native whose deep roots in Italian culture and history will best provide the kind of support required for scholarly exegesis.  Unfortunately, both books lack an index.  For those who forsee the need to use her evidence as support for your own work, I suggest you keep a record of important points and pages numbers as you go.  You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t let too much time pass before getting this book.  Libraries don’t buy paperbacks (when they do they have to pay to have them properly bound so they can shelve them), and hard experience has taught me the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow nature of the publishing business.  As long as we remain a fringe discipline, we need to do what we can to keep the most important books available.  Orders can be made through Magri’s editor, Gary Goldstein, at his website The Elizbethan Review, or through amazon.com.  If the latter, don’t forget to add your own review or at least, click yes on the good ones.

Can we please stop calling him Lord Oxford?!

I have only one criticism of Magri’s excellent book, or any other in which he’s referred to as “Lord Oxford.”  Once or twice is understandable as it helps to identify him, but more than that is not only a bore, it’s actually detrimental to our cause.  Sure it’s a fact that “lordship” was his inheritance and that his contemporaries called him “Lord Oxford,” but his contemporaries were referring to him in his social role, not to his role as a playwright and a poet, which is what makes him important to us and, hopefully, to the entire world someday, once we can get past that dratted word Lord!  It would have been appropriate to call him Maestro, but that was impossible for the very reason that a lord back then couldn’t be a maestro, or anything but a lord.

For all the good it did him, for all the freedom, the time, and the credit with money-lenders that his rank provided, making it possible for him to write, produce and publish what would have been utterly impossible had he been born a commoner, it also did him and generations of readers a serious harm in the very area governed by his name, for it is largely due to his rank that his identity had to be hidden behind a pseudonym borrowed (for a hefty consideration) from the son of a provincial wool dealer.  It’s the very thing that for four centuries has made it so difficult to identify him as the author of the greatest works in English literature.

His given name, “de Vere,” is appropriate for his childhood, but as a constant term it lacks the power and strength of Oxford.  It’s also mispronounced: in a letter to Burghley the Countess of Southampton spelled it “de Vayer,” which, no matter how it was spelled, is surely how it was pronounced by himself and those who knew him personally.  (Consider how much Shakespeare liked the word “fair,” or that vert in French, meaning green, is pronounced vair unless the following word begins with a vowel, or, most telling, ver in Latin, which means truth and is pronounced veyr, as shown by the pronunciation of Latin words like veritas. )  As it’s invariably pronounced today, de Veer, it has no such associations.

Let’s call him Oxford.  It’s short, it’s easy, and by now everyone knows who is meant by it.  Apart from the town and the university, there’s no other Oxford with which he can be confused.  The earls of the second creation are more easily identified by their birth name of Harley.  Lord Byron, who certainly identified himself with his role as poet far more than with his rank, called himself Byron, as did all his friends, associates, readers, enemies and admirers.  There may be some who pursue this study because they have a thing for English lords, just like there are some who pursue it for the purpose of writing soap opera romances and screenplays, but let’s hope that there are at least some among us whose primary interest remains in seeing him established in history as the author of the Shakespeare canon.

By calling him Lord Oxford (and, the ultimate of damning him at the outset––introducing him as “the seventeenth blah blah blah”)––we are buying into the very mindset that has been keeping us from getting him accepted as Shakespeare, as immediately it places him, not with the writers of his era, but with the aristocrats!  As an introduction, all that need be done is to call him Edward de Vere (pronounced de Vayer), Earl of Oxford (dropping the totally unnecessary four-syllable phrase, “the seventeenth”), and from then on call him plain Oxford.

In his role as playwright, author of Venus and Adonis, Hamlet, and the other works that are the only reason we want to know anything about him, Oxford’s socio-political rank has about as much importance as the fact that his hair was auburn, that he was married twice, and that in later life he probably walked with a limp.  These are facts that belong to his biography, and however interesting, and however much they may bear on the attitude and subject matter of his works, they have nothing whatsoever to do with where he fits with Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley in the pantheon of English literary greats. Their social status has nothing to do with their greatness.  Neither should his.

Oxford’s life reflected in Shakespeare’s plays

That events in Oxford’s life so closely match the plots of Shakespeare’s plays is a chain of evidence that those who deny his authorship can only ignore, as the connections are so obvious that denial is impossible.  It seems that everything he wrote, everything that’s lasted at least, grew out of a current social or political situation with which his audience was concerned, plus some event in history, literature or folk tale, plus some circumstance in his own life.  By investing the protagonist with his own emotions, brought about by something in his personal life, whether earlier or ongoing, he invested the play with life.

Some of the evidence for this comes from additions he made to his source material, like Arthur in King John, the little prince who fears that Hubert, his tutor, will betray him, and who then dies in an attempt to escape, perhaps a reflection of his situation when Smith left him with Fowle at Cambridge for five months when he was eight years old, probably with no indication of where he’d be sent if Smith got what he was after, a place on Elizabeth’s Council.

Next he’s Romeo, the 15-year- old who yearns for 13-year-old Juliet, but is denied access to her by social barriers, as so many young people were then by the differences in their parents’ religions, and as Oxford at 15 was from Mary Browne, daughter of one of the most conservative members of Elizabeth’s Court, shortly before she was forced to marry the somewhat mad 2nd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s County Paris. Then comes Palamon whose friendship with Arcite is stressed by their common desire for Emilia, as is Euphues with Philautus and Oxford with Rutland over their relationship with Ann Cecil .

Into his late teens and early twenties he’s Hal, the prince who spends too much time hanging out in bad company and playing pranks as he waits for something important to do.  Having finally gotten his Grand Tour in Italy in 1575, he’s those cads, Bertram and Proteus, cruel to the good girl who loves him while chasing trollops around Europe.  Arriving home to a pile of debts and angry creditors, he’s Timon, who, naive at first, goes ballistic when he realizes he’s been taken for a ride by sycophants he had thought were his friends, and who now refuse to help him in his time of need.  Then, following his 1580 confession of having plotted treasonably with Howard and Arundel, he’s both Coriolanus, furious with his community and himself, and Brutus, who committed regicide for what he believed was the good of his people.

In his hotheaded thirties he’s valiant Hotspur and witty Mercutio, both dangerously quick to take offense.  He’s both Benedick (Mercutio overtaken by love) and Claudio, another Bertram-like cad.  As Oberon, he’s “King of Shadows,” the shaman in charge of the ancient holiday rituals that not all that long ago used to take place on May Day and Midsummer’s Eve in the sacred groves of the great Royal forest.  In his mid-thirties he’s Hamlet, Prince of Thoughts.  His world turned upside down by the cold realities of medieval power politics, he makes the Court Stage his personal Star Chamber.  Heart-broken over the death of his mentor and patron, the Earl of Sussex, he accuses Elizabeth of being Gertrude, Leicester of being Claudius, and Burghley of being Polonius, whom he kills in effigy for spying on him.  Deeply in debt, he writes The Merchant of Venice, in which he dramatizes the argument that the Chancery Court of Equity be given precedence over the Court of Common Pleas, where he was being screwed.

With the ’90s comes the attack on the Stage by Robert Cecil and the assassinations of Marlowe and Lord Strange.  Forced to call a (temporary) halt to his play-making and publishing, his credit cut off by Lord Burghley, he spends his days writing sonnets to his new patron, the young son of Mary Browne.  When Southampton turns from him to join up with the Earl of Essex, the sonnets become mournful, but in the process, a new and more powerful style develops. As Mark Antony, once again he loses the world for the love of a beautiful woman, one with curly black hair and dark eyes who represents all that he loves and misses about Italy and the Mediterranean culture.  The intense feelings that he suffers over these relationships get poured into sonnets, where they develop a new, more powerful, and more modern style.

When troubles with the Cecils continue to increase with the appointment of Robert Cecil as Secretary of State, followed by the deaths of his patron Hunsdon and the manager of his company, James Burbage, along with the loss of both of Burbage’s theaters, he fight back by revising his Henry IV plays to include a nasty caricature of Robert Cecil’s inlaws, a character eventually named Falstaff, a play on the name Shakespeare.  Now in his forties, weary of the struggle, for the marriage of his oldest daughter he revises The Tempest. With her as Miranda and himself as Prospero, king of the magical isle, banished from his true place at Court by wicked schemers, with the help of his Ariel he befuddles them with “rough magic,” which, he assures his royal audience, he intends to give up now that his daughter is safely married (though sadly not to the one he wanted).

Finally in his fifties, driven mad by the mistreatment of his two oldest daughters, he’s Lear, who, like Timon so long before, runs naked and raving into the wilderness.  But then, cheered by the advent of King James, whose young favorites, the Pembrokes, have taken him under their wings, like the vanquished hero in the old mummer plays, he leaps back to life as Duke Vincenzio, escaping the burden of his inherited responsibilities by retiring to a safe haven in the forest where he’s the courtier Touchstone who having fled the wicked Court to live freely in the forest with other Court escapees, grieves that he must spend his days courting that “unpoetic slut,” the public audience.

All these are metaphors for Oxford’s life.  As for being the real Shakespeare, those who knew, knew they had to keep the secret; those who didn’t know, didn’t need to know.  Who would have wanted to exchange so many wonderful fictions for the sad reality, a lonely man, crazed with longing and remorse?

The authorship question is not whether Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, etc. wrote the Shakespeare canon, it’s what each of them actually wrote!  Oxford wrote all the works we know as Shakespeare, plus Lyly’s novels, Greene’s tales, and a lot of earlier works published under the names of his secretaries and friends. Bacon wrote most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon, while Raleigh wrote that part of the Spenser canon that’s not by Bacon.  Sidney’s canon is valuable because it was never published as anyone’s but his (although it’s likely his sister made some changes and additions so it could be made public). Marlowe’s plays are all his own, but not the translations published after his death, the true authors Oxford, Bacon or Raleigh (or Buckhurst), who made use of Marlowe’s vacant name and persona to get them published.  Mary Sidney used her coachman’s name, John Webster; everything published as by Webster is by Mary Sidney. These are the great artists who, against all odds, created the English Literary Renaissance.

Shakespeare ignored by the Academy

It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him.  As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”

The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!

When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?

If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.

They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.

In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.

In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.

But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.

Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?

It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.

We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.

It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”

Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?

Did Shakespeare die on the 24th of June?

Highly unlikely!  We’ve just passed one of the two major turning points of the ancient festal year, June 24th, Midsummer’s Day.  The modern world pays little attention to this annual event, but that was not the case in Shakespeare’s day, as we see from the title of one of his most festal plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As with several of the ancient festal holidays, the solemn, or sacred, aspect of this annually-recurring moment (the summer solstice) was traditionally preceded by a day, or in this case a night, of merry-making.  How likely is it that the death of the greatest literary artist ever produced by the West occurred on this of all days?

Just as the ancients assigned its opposite, the 24th of December, to the eve of the birth of Christ, they assigned June 24th to the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist.  Whatever may have been the true role played by John in the advent of the Christian Messiah (something that has caused a good deal of controversy and will probably never be settled), there’s no doubt that he was a hugely important figure in his time and for centuries afterwards.  Da Vinci for instance is thought to have been a member of an underground society dedicated to his worship, which has been connected by modern mythologists with the Greek god Dionysos, whose power was dramatized by Euripides in 405 BC in The Bachae.  The Templars, whose beliefs, acquired from Arab mystics during the Crusades, survived annihilation in the 13th century to resurface four centuries later as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, held John as their patron saint.  The first English Masonic Grand Lodge was formed on June 24, 1717.  Rosicrucians trace their English roots to Francis Bacon, whose candidacy as Shakespeare owed a good deal to the hints they found in Shakespeare’s works of similar beliefs. In particular Sonnet 125 reflects the language and images of a Masonic ceremony.

One of the problems with both the Stratford myth and the attempts by Oxfordians to displace it is that everyone seems to forget that with Shakespeare we’re dealing with a genius!  The Stratfordians have tied him down, like Gulliver, to a level equal to their own: a hack who sold his craft for money, a plagiarizer of lesser writers who began by revising the works of earlier unknowns. Oxfordians, not much better, remain tied to their argument with the Stratfordians, unable to let go of what bits and pieces were bequeathed us by the Cecils and the historians who clung to the paper trail they so artfully manipulated, so that, using our native common sense together with a broader historical background, one that surpasses what the Cecils could control, allows us to see him for who he really was.  The fact that that he, and only he, could possibly have done what the orthodox have assigned to dozens of other writers, innovators, patrons, publishers, theater builders and managers, many of them nothing more than figments of their own seriously limited imaginations.

As one of the greatest dramatists of all time, as well as greatest of historians and philosophers, Death stalked almost everything Shakespeare wrote, just as it stalked everyone in his audiences, from courtiers to printers’ devils.  All of his tragedies and many of his dramas deal in one way or another with death, with its role in life, and––most subtlely due to the religious constraints of his time––with what comes after.  As for his own death, the deaths of geniuses are almost as significant as their lives.  Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah by coming to Jerusalem when he did?   Lord Byron, whose life so closely parallels that of Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer), certainly orchestrated his own death as a call to arms to the intelligensia of Europe to free Greece, ancient parent of the English culture, from centuries of Turkish tyranny.

The evidence

None of this would matter had there been sufficient evidence that de Vere actually died on the date that history assigns him.  That he happened to die on a day central to the worship of John the Baptist, aka Dionysos, god of merry-making, whose festal date was the occasion for most of the ancient Greek dramas that we see as fundamental to our theater today; this would simply be a coincidence, however astonishing.  But evidence is lacking!  What there is is only what could easily have been patched together by family members and patrons in high places, out to give him a few years of peace and privacy, safe from those who were out to kill either him or his great work, so that he could finish what we know as the Shakespeare canon, foundation of the language we speak and all the great works of literature that have followed his.

These two pieces of the Shakespeare puzzle: the anomaly of his death and the nature of the date he supposedly died, taken together, were a trumpet call to examine the possibility that, like Byron, knowing his mortality was nigh, he chose to die in his own way and in his own time.  Added along the way have been other puzzle pieces, the strange behavior of Robert Cecil as soon as the word went out that Oxford was dead, arresting Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) on June 25th so he could examine his papers; the plot of Measure for Measure, performed the night of Oxford’s daughter’s marriage to the Earl of Montgomery (one of the patrons who had secured his safety), in which Duke Vincentio, the “duke of dark corners,” retires from his official duties in exactly the same way we’re suggesting that Shakespeare retired from his, in the only way he could; and finally the fact that one of his ancestors, an Earl of Oxford, had “died to the world” in a way that was no longer available to de Vere, by joining a monastery.  And there are a number of other, if lesser, puzzle pieces that fit work with this scenario that otherwise have no place and must be left aside.

Why do I call him Shakespeare and not de Vere?  Because Shakespeare is not just a pseudonym, purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men so that his plays could be published.  Shakespeare the playwright is a being with his own history, an entity as real as Dionysos was to the Greeks or John the Baptist to da Vinci, or Jesus to Christians today.  Half human (de Vere), half fiction (Shakespeare), he had, and still has, a life of his own.  He is an immortal that, if anything, was for his creator more like one of the personalities that manifests in people with multiple personality disorder.  When de Vere took up his pen, the “spear” that he “shook” in defense of merry-making, happiness and platonic love, he was, while engaged in the pursuit of the dramatic truth that he shared with his admired forbears, Euripides, Plautus, and Terence, another, and better, being.

This is the epiphany, the satori, the ecstasy that draws all artists.  Scorning the banal cruelties and mediocrities of ordinary life, this is the “zone” (or “vein” as the Elizabethans termed it) that, when they achieve it, however briefly, makes worthwhile all the suffering they cause, not only to themselves, but to those who love and protect them.  Anyone who has ever been patron or handmaiden to a gifted artist will understand what I’m talking about.  As the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson wrote in Eros Turannos:

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
   That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
   Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
   Where down the blind are driven.

Reviewed: Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

Diana Price has come out with a new edition of her 2001 Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography.  Having missed the first edition, here was my opportunity to get what must be one of the most important books on the Authorship Question ever published.  For those who haven’t yet read it, particularly those who enjoy fencing with Stratfordians (which I don’t), I urge you to get it, read it, and keep it handy, for it is certainly the definitive text on why William of Stratford cannot possibly be the author of the Shakespeare canon.

Because she does not attempt to answer the second half of The Question––If not William then Who?––she avoids the rancour that inevitably attends any effort to promote a particular candidate.  In this she joins august anti-Stratfordians like George Greenwood and Mark Twain, who made no attempt to pick a winner, perhaps also setting a pattern for important studies that have come along since, most notably Richard Roe’s book on Shakespeare’s Italy, and more recently Stritmatter and Kositsky’s on The Tempest.  By refusing to allow the authorship itself to intrude, the reader’s native common sense is free to function on a particular part of the argument, thus eliminating the dismissive sound byte, as does Roe with the frequently heard dismissal that Shakespeare had his facts wrong about Italy; or Stritmatter with that other constant, that “some plays are too late for Oxford.”

By eliminating the emotionally touchy issues that surround the various candidates, Price allows nothing to take precedence over the stone cold irrefutable fact that William could not possibly have written the Shakespeare canon, or anything else. “Why not William?” must always be answered before readers will be ready to hear who actually wrote the works that bear his name.  Nobody has nailed this primary issue like Price.  Detailed on every point, her scholarship––cool, orderly, thorough, exhaustively supported with solid citations––sets a high mark for the rest of us.  From the lack of any evidence of an education, to his disappearance from London just as the plays that bore his name were hitting their peak of popularity, to the death that went totally unremarked by what had become the vast audience for his plays, she leaves no tern unstoned.

Ah, would that were the end of it!  So long as she wields this end of the stick she can’t be faulted, but unfortunately she must needs turn an utterly convincing localized effort into a self-contradictory theory of everything, ending up in the same weeds where her Stratfordian opponents continue their endless circling.  It would seem that in every respect except the authorship itself, Price is no less a Stratfordian than the academics she scorns, accepting every single darn thing they’ve come up with in centuries of making bricks without straw.  For Price, both Shake-scene and Poet-Ape represent William, a Frankenstein’s monster patched together from every ambiguous figure lurking within the epigrams of his own time and the conjurations dreamed up by centuries of confused theorists.

Dates don’t lie

There’s no real harm in this (to anyone but Price herself), since most of what can’t be disproven can’t be proven either.  However, her notion that William was a hard-nosed financial wizard who bought his way into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then used and abused the connection to make hay for himself by brokering old plays and costumes, is a genuine threat to the truth.  This theory, to which she devotes many pages, is demonstrably without any basis whatsoever in fact.  It’s true that William was as tough-minded as any other businessman when it came to his dealings in Stratford, but there’s nothing to suggest that, until he was adopted by the Company at some point in or shortly before 1595, he had so much as a shilling to invest in anything.

One of the few facts about the life of William of Stratford, repeated in every account from Nicholas Rowe on down to Sam Schoenbaum, is that Shakspere Sr., who throughout William’s early childhood shows up in the record as a successful local entrepreneur, had fallen on serious hard times by the time his son was twelve.  By the 1580s, selling land and dodging creditors had become a way of life for the Shakspere family (Schoenbaum A Documentary Life, 36-40).  Reasons for this loss of standing have caused considerable conjecture over the centuries, suggesting to some that they were Catholic recusants, to others radical dissidents.

Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the Shaksperes were in financial trouble until suddenly, at some point in or shortly after 1596, there was enough money that William was able to buy the second biggest house in town and invest in its renovation.  By then he was in his thirties, so had he been the financial wizard of Price’s imagination, his name would have begun to appear in records of local business transactions well before 1596. That this upsurge in solvency is directly connected to the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in June of 1594 is proven by numerous records, both then and later.  Dates don’t lie.

Price’s notion flies in the face, not only of this well-documented fact of his family’s indebtedness, but also what is known of the structure of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  As noted by everyone who has studied what evidence there is of Shakespeare’s company––most recently Andrew Gurr in The Shakespeare Company (2004)––funding came from the sharers, that is, the six to eight highly-skilled actors who played the leading roles created by Shakespeare (the playwright).  This may be questionable: one of the missing elements in the story as its been told until now is the part played in the Company’s evolution by its wealthy Privy Council patrons.  But this lack of patronage can hardly be resolved by casting the impoverished William as the missing patron.  True, his name does appear in the record on several occasions as a member of this core group of sharers, but even if, let us say, he did supply his share (£100) to rebuild the Globe when it burned down in 1613, the other half of the equation is missing, for time has produced nothing that supports the Company’s claim that he was an actor.

While others have pointed to the fact that, unlike every other member of this core group, all of whom have proven track records as actors with other leading companies before they were recruited by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the name William Shakespeare is not to be found in any theatrical record until 1595, nor has it ever been connected with any other acting company, nor by any contemporary with any particular Shakespearean roles, as is true of most of the genuine actor-sharers.  The one or two references to him as an actor at the time, made in passing, can all be seen as reflecting the role the Company chose to explain his presence, for proving that he was not an actor was just as impossible as proving that he was not a playwright.

In fact Price herself explains in detail why William could not possibly have been the actor the Company would have us believe (32-5).  Noting how during periods when they would have needed all their actors in London, she shows how Schoenbaum locates him in Stratford.  During the winter season of 1597-98, while the Company was performing for the Court from late December through February, records in Stratford have him stockpiling grain and purchasing stone for New Place (Schoenbaum 178).  Since it was a two to three-day trip each way from Stratford to London and back, perhaps longer on icy winter roads, that he could have dashed back and forth is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Shortly after the immensely important occasion of King James’s initial procession through London in March 1604 (for which all the sharers, now the King’s Men, were provided with red and gold livery), it appears that William was in Stratford selling malt (a component of ale) to a local apothecary (34), something that required his attention through June, a period when the Company was busy reopening the Globe after the plague closure of the previous year, and during which several Shakespeare plays were performed at Court for the Company’s all-important new patron, King James.  So unavailable was William for this last, as its playwright anyway, that the clerk that noted the plays that would eventually bear his name, spelled it Shaxberd.

William did not pay––he got paid.

William’s fortune did not come to him from any enterprise he’d undertaken before signing on with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  To make money it’s necessary to have money, something it’s clear that neither he nor anyone in his family had until he was taken on by the actors.  Yes, he was a hard-nosed businessman, and never more so than when he was squeezing them in exchange for remaining silent about the authorship!  From his first notice in the Revels warrant in 1595 until his death in 1616 (and probably until the death of his wife shortly before the First Folio was published seven years later), from first to last, all records of his investments can easily be seen as the Company’s investment in his silence.  Had he been the investor she imagines, had he been the sharer he was made out to be, he would have left shares in his will, as did the real sharers, the actors.

Since no books have survived to reveal how Hemmings, the Company’s manager, handled the flow of funds from at first, just the box office, then after the creation of the Globe, the added portion taken by the house, we have no way of knowing how he managed William’s portion, but that it was not handled in the same way that the money was distributed to the real actors is clear from the absence of any shares in William’s will and no record of any sale of his shares, as there is with the others.  Dealing with William, as with all supernumeraries whose work assisted the production of their plays, fell to Hemmings.  The Mountjoy family, with whom William resided during a brief period in the early 17th century, lived right around the corner from Hemmings. As costumers, the Mountjoys were the sort with whom Hemmings dealt on a daily basis, along with stagehands, scriveners, carpenters, and so forth.

Having divested him of his role as playwright and actor, Price would like to be able to provide him with role with the Company that readers can trust, but because, like the Stratfordians she disdains, she doesn’t know enough about the period to perceive behind the fudging and side-stepping that characterizes all the connections between the Company and the Crown, the deeply political nature of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and their driving need to find a cover that allowed them to get their plays published.  Nor, like most Oxfordians as well as Stratford defenders, does she understand the uses of a name that can be read as a serious name by the public and a pun name by the cognescenti.  William was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (probably in fact by Hemmings, whose hometown was Droitwich, a few miles northwest of Stratford) for the use of his name––and for nothing more!  Everything else, the suggestion that he was a sharer and an actor, was window dressing.  As he provided the necessary cover for their playwright, the terms “sharer” and “actor” were covers for his real purpose.

Lost in a sea of weeds

It’s not possible to cover all the odd postitions taken by Price in her effort to provide a theory of everything, but one more will at least give a sense of where she tends to go awry.  For instance she accepts Warren Austin’s assertion that Greene’s Groatsworth was written, not by Robert Greene, but by Henry Chettle.  Only those who have poked around in the primordial ooze where issues pertaining to the creation of the English periodical press remain seemingly forever bedded, will grasp the strangeness of this choice.

While the three names that dominate this branch of the larger authorship question––Greene, Nashe and Harvey––display anomalies similar to those that have led to questioning William of Stratford, works published as by Robert Greene are not only coherent in subject matter and style up to and including Groatsworth, as the dominant name in English literature throughout the decade preceding the advent of Shakespeare, his name on some 36 works of combined prose and poetry (the five plays were attributed to him posthumously), why on earth pass off this final bit of his canon (meant to be seen as final anyway) as the work of someone as inconsequential as Henry Chettle?

The author of Chettle’s ODNB bio refers to his “shadowy career both as printer and as author: again and again he is associated with a work but is not credited with any part of it when it comes to print.”  She lists 13 of Henslowe’s stringers that, according to Henslowe, worked with Chettle on plays, six of which were published, not one of them bearing his name.  “A further thirteen plays in Henslowe’s diary are attributed to Chettle alone.  Only one . . . was ever printed . . . ; again, Chettle is not identified as the play’s author.”

If we accept the DNB’s assessment of his career, since there is no proof that Chettle actually wrote anything, then Austin’s claim that his language in all his works matches that of Groatsworth and other works by Greene is hardly worth the proverbial tinker’s damn.  Prices’s efforts to explain why a lowly typographer’s apprentice would leap into the pamphlet fray by pretending to be the dying Greene goes nowhere, of course, where could it go?  The word studies that convinced Austin that Greene’s language in Groatsworth matches Chettle’s in Kind Heart’s Dreame, the pamphlet in which he refuted (unpublished) rumors that he wrote Groatsworth, raise questions about all the other pamphlets that sound like Greene but were signed with other names, such as B.R., R.B., Gabriel Harvey and “the renowned Cavaliero Pasquil.”

Maybe Austin was right; maybe whoever wrote Kind Heart’s Dreame also wrote Groatsworth, and almost everything else that was published in pamphlet form at that time, but in the morass of confusion that the true authors of these early pamphlets have left us, the truth about Chettle is not something that Price, or anyone who has written on the subject, has come close to resolving.  Nor will they until they begin to ask the same questions about these writers that have led us to the truth about Shakespeare.

To be or not to be the author

Price takes her argument against William up to the door of the Court, which is where she leaves it.  She makes a case for why the true author had to be a courtier, but will not suggest which one.  Ignorant of the politics of the period, she can give no solid reason why this unnamed courtier should be so reluctant to be named as a poet or a playwright, nor why the cover-up should have continued so long past his death.  Time has shown that nobody today really buys the notion that this long enduring cover-up was due solely to the “stigma of print,” nor should they.  There were plenty of other reasons, personal as well as political why the true author, his family, his actors, his patrons, his in-laws, his monarchs Elizabeth and James, could not and would not ever allow his name to be connected with his works––deadly serious reasons, that no one writing about this today, ignorant of the history of that period, knows or apparently cares to pursue.

The problem for Price, as it is for all who have found it expedient to set the question of the true author aside, is that minus the genius who created the London Stage with his magical works, there is no story.  Efforts to create one without him inevitably fall apart like dough made with all flour and no fat.  As Yeats might have put it, “the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Price has supplied the “rough beast, his hour come round at last,” but who needs him?  Who wants him?  Where is the heartbeat, the thrill, the glory of great achievement in the face of devastating opposition?  Even if there were any truth to her scenario, of what use is it?  Without the author, his story, his relationship to the Stage, the Court, the Inns of Court, the Crown, the commercial periodical press, you end up with a three-legged table.  With the most important leg missing, the table may fit in with your decorating scheme, but if asked to support anything greater than itself, over it goes.

History requires a leading figure, a protagonist.  What would the history of the American Civil War be without the personalities of Lincoln and Lee, John Brown and Stonewall Jackson––a mere string of dates and names of battle locations.  We care about the Civil War because of the stories that came out of it, stories of life and death, of great courage in the face of great danger. What is the life and death issue here?  Where is the hero?  Where is the story?  William is in the way. Price has removed him.  That’s all that matters.

 

 

 

Update: THE BOOK ROOM, etcetera

Those who have purchased, or who plan to purchase, Richard Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and its Audience so we can read it together, please begin reading if you haven’t already, and taking notes, if you wish.  I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this and everything else in my life, due to a stream of events that has kept me on my feet for days, but I have been reading the book, and will be happy to respond to comments on the BOOK ROOM page.  I hope this works out.  If not we’ll try something else.

Having accepted the fact that Oxford had access to a number of the Latin works discussed by Beacham, we may find solid reasons for believing that these played a part in forming the London Stage in the mid to  late 1570s.  Could Oxford have been thinking about how to create such a theater as early as his childhood?  What do you think?  What other questions does the book raise for us?

Francis Bacon and the University Wits

It’s clear from the stats I get from WordPress that the pages here on  the Wits have the most interest for readers.  Years ago, when Ogburn’s Mysterious William first got me interested in the authorship question, I came away with two unanswered questions:  first: what was Oxford’s education and does it fit the extraordinary knowledge revealed by Shakespeare in his works?  Second: who were the other writers publishing when he began, and do any of them show the same anomalies in their biographies that we see in Shakespeare?  Having done my best with the question about his education and childhood, I hope to do the same with regard to the other writers, who for the most part can be grouped under the scholar’s rubric of “University Wits.”

Dry runs for this will no doubt appear here as the work takes shape, but there is little room in a blog for outlining a particular chain of evidence, particularly one that has been so damaged by both time and the purposeful elimination of anything that might connect the Cecil family to the works of Shakespeare or the birth of the London Stage.  Nevertheless, as (ironically) Polonius puts it, the truth is the truth “though it were hid indeed at the centre.”  A perpetrator may wear gloves, but his fingerprints will always be found somewhere, that is, if one is looking for the right things and in the right places.

The major factor in our effort to revise history according to basic common sense is getting the authorities to accept the fact that during the period that Shakespeare and other writers were creating the English Literary Renaissance, they found it necessary to hide their identities.  Because they will not accept this, we are stuck at the very gate, for every phase of this argument is determined by this fact, which is fairly easy to prove, and certainly far from unusual in human history, that is, of course, if attention is paid to enough historical facts, which sadly in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question has not been the case.

D Day 1588

The revisiting seen on television over the past few days of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe by the British and American forces in 1944, the true beginning of the end of the Second World War, brings to mind the situation England found itself in the mid-to-late 1580s as it faced the certainty of an invasion by Spain’s great Armada in its crusade to keep all of Europe contained by the Roman Catholic power structure .  When we hear academics scoff at the idea that writers were able to keep their identities a secret, what about the fact that D Day, the greatest naval invasion in the history of the world, was kept a secret, not only from the enemy, but also from everyone else, including the international media.

In times of war and revolution, keeping certain matters a secret becomes a deadly serious necessity.  By disdaining to reference history, the academics have ignored the fact that when the writers who later took names like Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Nashe first began writing, they were locked in deadly combat with the Calvinist Reformation, that held that such works were the tools of the Devil.  It has also escaped them that Shakespeare was dealing, sometimes with passion, with the realpolitik of his time.  This misapprehension, largely due to the misplacement in time forced on the academics by the Stratford biography,  is the heart of our problem, and until we get it unravelled, and get the word out by publishing, online if not in print, we will continue to “perne in a gyre”  for another 100 years of getting nowhere with the authorship question.

Tolkien and Beowulf

The article by Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker on Tolkien and his immersion in Old English, written to acknowledge the publication, finally, of his translation of Beowulf (Houghton Mifflin), is one of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to this one magazine (the other major reason for an artist and page designer is the stylish and generally reader-friendly layout and their continued dedication to publishing the work of wonderful artists).

Thoughtfully Acocella recounts briefly the plots through which Beowulf defeats three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon.  Like the Reformation ideologues of Oxford’s time, Grendel, monster #1, hates the music with which the ancient Geats would make merry into the night, though his technique for stopping them––tearing them into pieces which he then eats––is rather more ghoulish.  Certain artists during Shakespeare’s time did have their heads removed by rope or axe, but nobody ate them.

By defining the prosody of the poem, what makes it distinctive as a style, for us this article raises the question of what Oxford may have taken from the opportunity he was given to study the Old English manuscript of Beowulf that Alexander Nowell had in his keeping during the period he was tutoring Oxford at Cecil House.  There’s no indication that Nowell himself translated Beowulf into either Latin or English, but how likely is it that Oxford and his translator friends at Cecil House would have passed up the opportunity to do exactly this, or at least some sections of the manuscript?

I have pondered at some length the comment by Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’em) in his Scholemaster that he preferred the Greeks to the Gothians, wondering just what he meant by the latter:

But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surely, to follow rather the Goths in Rhyming, than the Greeks in true versifying, were even to eat acorns with swine, when we may freely eat wheat bread among men.  Indeed, Chaucer, Th. Norton, my L. of Surrey, M. Wyatt, Th. Phaer, and other gentlemen, in translating Ovid, Palingenius, and Seneca, have gone as far, to their great praise, as the copy they followed could carry them, but, if such good wits and forward diligence had been directed to follow the best examples, and not have been carried by time and custom to content themselves with that barbarous and rude rhyming, among their other worthy praises, which they have justly deserved, this had not been the least, to be counted among men of learning and skill, more like unto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians, in handling of their verse.

If by this, written in 1563, he was describing a current fascination with the forms discovered in Beowulf and other texts by Nowell, first modern scholar to recover the sounds and meanings of Old English, a fascination  that has escaped the world of letters, this might resolve what it was that Ascham was condemning at the time that Nowell and his students were delving into the mysteries of Old English prosody.  One would think the appropriate term would be alliteration, since these Anglo-Saxon poems did not depend upon rhyme, at least as we use the word, but on a particular kind of alliteration, as described by Acocella.

Hope to hear from some of you shortly in THE  BOOK ROOM.

 

Here’s an idea

Taking a break from my normal writing schedule, I just got a book from the library on a subject that I need to know more about, the Roman Stage.  It’s called The Roman Theatre and its Audience, by Richard C. Beacham.  Published in 1992 by Harvard U Press, it’s available from Amazon in paperback for $21, but doubtless is also freely available through local libraries (Interlibrary loan) in the original hardback edition.  Written in a comfortable and accessible style by an expert in the field of theater design, Beacham can help answer questions about Oxford’s knowledge of the Roman Stage and its playwrights.

If three or more of you are interested, perhaps we could have a sort of online reading group.  We could set a deadline for finishing the book, and then begin a series of discussions here––much like the comments that follow one of my blogs, only this time without a blog––about the Roman Stage and its relevance to the public stages that came into being with Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and what plays may have been written for them rather than for the Court.  This way we would all have the same frame of reference.

If some of you have teaching or other commitments that will ease in June, we could agree to begin at a particular time as well.

How does this sound?

 

Occupy Shakespeare!

Many who read this blog are themselves involved in researching the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon and writing about it.  For you, I have a suggestion, forget the academics.  Stop trying to convince them.  Stop using what you believe to be their talking points to communicate what you’re discovering or thinking.  Why?  First, because it’s a waste of time.  In fact, the better and more cogent your argument, the less likely it is that they will pay any attention to it.  Why should they?  Clearly they don’t really care who wrote the Shakespeare canon or we would no longer have a problem.

Second and more important, it’s going to keep you from arriving at anything substantial yourself.  Acknowledging the academic viewpoint, wasting time and energy on testing or confuting it, has only one result, it keeps us going in circles. Like desperate peasants we lob facts over the castle walls, where they fall to earth without having any effect.  Do we bother to argue with people who believe that the earth is flat or that it was created in six days?  Such people invariably come up with arguments that mean something to them but that make no sense to those who have a broader view.  Just because the flat-earthers and the Darwin-deniers no longer run the world doesn’t mean that the Stratford syndicate operates from any greater logic.  We can argue until the cows come home that their story makes no sense, nothing will change until we replace what doesn’t make sense with what does.  And we won’t have that until we turn away from their story and build one of our own out of documents and facts (ironically, many of them courtesy of these same  academics).

This is difficult, of course, because a stronger hand has been at the record than ours is or will ever be, but no hand could eliminate everything.  The truth is there to find.  The story of how these great works of literature got written is a wonderful story, just as good as any its author ever wrote.  In an anthropological sense it’s his greatest story, the story of his life.  Gleaned from the most obscure of records, this will be an exercise performed as a great intellectual adventure by a lucky handful who are properly placed and financially supported so they can examine the records in the archives of England, take notes, and write up the results of their effort.  This will involve not only a great deal of time on the computer, but also on foot via London’s underground and on English trains to the various archives in the shires.  Since this is very expensive, backing by a patron is required.  A corps of undergraduates from one of the English universities (not necessarily Oxbridge) would be the perfect outfit.

This is literary forensics, and it will yield results.  The efforts of other scholars have shown the way.  Help us go in that direction, either with your own efforts or willingness to support a London team and you’ve contributed a great deal to our study of this hidden genius, who sacrificed his identity that the English language might develop as freely as possible in the direction in which it has continued ever since.

Until we can show beyond the shadow of a doubt what does make sense, why Oxford must be accepted as the author, why his actors were forced to hide his identity, and why this great fib has continued to be perpetrated on a willing public for so long after his death, we will simply continue to spin helplessly within the academic orbit.  They are not the last word, they never have been, and until we learn to ignore them and address a totally different community, one of independent thinkers, lovers of Shakespeare and his works, one that has been in existence ever since the 1570s (while the university-based English Departments date only to the turn of the 20th century) we will be forced into fringe areas.  Let us simply change fringes, moving from the one where we are deemed absurd, to the continually growing fringe that exchanges information by way of the internet, and thus create a new Shakespeare Studies, one where history rules and the author is present both within and along with his text.

The need for an end run

One ploy has been to get important information about the works published by leaving the author out of it.  Hoping that by focusing on some aspect of the question that can be argued without reference to a particular candidate readers can begin to see the authorship issue from a more rational viewpoint, this was the route taken by Diana Price in her Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography and more recently in Richard Roe’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy. When Roe decided to make the book more accessible to the general reader by leaving Oxford out of it, do you think that brought his book any closer to genuine acceptance?  Or even more recently, Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky’s book on the dating of The Tempest, where they too, doubtless for the same reason, chose to leave out any discussion of authorship, focussing only on the issue of the date.

Do you think that means that any of these important works is shelved in bookstores or libraries with mainstream works on Shakespeare?  Not so. While phony biographies or books on the authorship question by apologists like Shapiro get shelved with the classics, Roe and Stritmatter are stuck in some corner where they’re surrounded by books on UFOs and crop circles. On Amazon they’re grouped, not with books on Shakespeare’s Italian plays or The Tempest, but with other authorship books, some unworthy of notice.  So many of the articles published in authorship newsletters fight over again old battles with the academics, articles that may interest newcomers to the issue, but that never touch the minds of academics because it’s still so easy just to ignore them.

This is all very sad, not only for authorship scholars who can’t reach our audience, not through print publishing at least, but even more so for the English departments who purvey the academic line on Shakespeare. True, they get their ideas published, and in hardback, but who reads what they write?  At close to $100 a pop, only the biggest university libraries can afford to buy their books, and no one but fellow academics who need to know what else has been said about Robert Greene or Thomas Kyd, have the energy required to plow through the turgid reams of fieldspeak in which these books and articles are cast.

University English Departments are in serious trouble today, and it’s no mere whimsy on the part of a frustrated outsider to state with some authority that much of the problem can be laid to their attitude towards the authorship question.  As William Chace, President and Professor of English Emeritus at Emory University, informs us in his article from 2009, now online (and any question about University English or the curriculum will bring it up among the first first links on Google, which shows how deep the concern he voices):

During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education.  The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history.  As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land.

Chace gives a number of reasons for this, chiefly the shift to business degrees by students facing hugely expanded tuition fees, but also “the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”  How are students to see the “human good” in the garbled story they tell about the birth and spread of modern English?  He complains that they’ve “dismembered the curriculum.”

What he doesn’t address is the effort, in America at least, to use English Lit, first in the universities, then in high school English classes, as a means of indoctrinating diverse populations into what was once the dominant White Male Protestant world view. How else are we to see the continued focus on books like Moby Dick, while books like Charlie Russell’s marvelous stories of the American West, Trails Plowed Under, remains ignored, or the focus on  the depressing Lord of the Flies while Nordhoff and Hall’s masterful history Pitcairn’s Island, is threatened with loss.  Why Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter rather than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the most popular book in America for decades during the 19th century, still meaningful for teenage girls, and what is more, entertaining as well as instructive?

Most deadly of all where English Lit is concerned is the invasion of fieldspeak from “scientific” language studies like linguistics and semiotics, that threaten to overtake the language of Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats and Eliot with gibble gabble. Nothing wrong with this, boys must have their intellectual toys, but for God’s sake keep this intellectual poison out of the undergraduate classroom, where arcane theories that should remain at the postdoc level have been allowed to invade, turning several generations of undergraduates and even high school AP English students, off for life, from anything labelled “literature.”

Not so serious, though equally awful, are the works labelled by publishers as “literary fiction” in which no ending is acceptible unless it panders to the current addiction to existentialism in which the ending seeks to prove, for the zillionth time, the notion that life is pointless.  Not only boring, but really bad medicine for what ails most teenagers, who need to be told that life is meaningful, which of course it is, everywhere but in the high school and university classroom.  Stop telling them what it means, let them find that out for themselves, just give it to them.  Fight for a meaningful, flexible, and life-affirmative curriculum, where laughter plays its ancient and necessary role.

What is English? What is Literature?

The failure to share an understanding of what is meant by these terms has led, not only in English Lit, but all the humanities that, in English-speaking cultures, are taught in English (as opposed to math), is the primary factor in this unhappy loss of interest.  Certainly students who have been turned off by AP English classes in high school are going to think twice about focussing on English Lit in college.  Pehaps most deadly of all is the separation of Literature from History, a problem from the beginning that has only gotten worse over time, for without History, Literature lacks context, while without Literature, History, the record of events caused by the thrust and clash of human passions, lacks what should be its most compelling and informative voice.  It is not the series of dates or tags like “Manifest Destiny” that makes history compelling, it’s the stories it tells, and how better than in the literature written at the time?

How did it happen that they ever got separated?  Blame it on politics, the politics inherent in History, the politics inherent in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Defoe, Byron, Blake and Shelley, unacknowledged and suppressed in their own times, and by the politics of the Academy, where theory seeks to soar as far as possible beyond tiresome human realities.  How else to explain the sorry state of that most important and necessary side of English studies, Composition, in which are combined the nuts and bolts of the language, formerly studied as the Trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric.  According to Chace:

While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity.  Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship.  Their work, while crucial, is demeaned. . . .  Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset.

As higher ed attitudes trickle down to the high schools where graduates of university English departments do most of the teaching, students end up in college not knowing a verb from a noun, so that required English courses become a makeup for what should have been taught in the sixth through ninth grades.  Today, with students focused on paring down language to what can most quickly be texted on their iphones, or the 140 characters allowed by tweeting, the ability to write a meaningful sentence, a coherent paragraph, heads towards one extreme while “literary” English, bogged in the incoherencies of novelists like James Elroy, the densities of Faulkner and Joyce, the seemingly pointless puzzles of modern poetry, head towards the other.

To say that these are the results of Jonson’s lie would be ridiculous, but that something has come full circle since then may not be.  When Oxford first began to write he had the “drab era” to contend with.  It wasn’t existential, it didn’t suggest that life was without meaning, but it was adamant that it was utterly without hope.  Quickly he moved away from the dismal dread of his elders towards the light and laughter he found in Plautus and Terence.  Condemned by Church and City officials, he hid his name, but not his light, his gift for making people laugh. Now that the 20th-century version of officialdom, the professors of philology and linguistics who have taken over the English Departments, have divested him of everything but what they consider to be the best bits of his masterpieces, and so have ruined his Studies, isn’t it time for us to do what he did so long ago, find a way to reach past the academics to the readers, hungry for the good word, that we know who wrote the works of Shakespeare, one with a real story to tell, as he so poignantly has the dying Hamlet require of Horatio.

But these are the ultimate results of two things, the big lie told by Ben Jonson back in 1623, when he claimed that Shakespeare knew only “small Latin and less Greek,” and the choice by the early English departments, formed only a little more than 100 years ago, to regard English as a branch of Philology, an origin from which it has never managed to free itself.  The first denied Shakespeare his education, the second denied him his artistry.  The result has left both professors and students with a Shakespeare who, thanks to Jonson, knew nothing, his accomplishment solely due to his genius, and finally, thanks to the bibliographers and philologists of the English Departments, a chimeric genius part deer-poacher, part horse-holder, part play-patcher, part plagiarizer, one without any real artistry .

How are we to respect a study based on such a fragile and transparent foundation?  How can anyone expect it to sustain, not only the works written in the language Shakespeare bequeathed us, one he created out of local dialects, Latin, Greek, French and Old English, but the histories and philosophies and even maths taught in that language?  Founded on a set of lies and suppositions created to make those lies coherent, English itself is without a clear identity.  What is it? No one seems to know.

“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

. . . cries Alice, awakening to the greater reality that lies beyond the “dream” of Oxbridge. What else could her creator, Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, math professor at Oxford University, have had in mind with the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White King, the Mad Hatter, the Tortoise who “taught us,” the gardens that Alice was either too big or too small to enter, but university professors and their fraternities and cliques.  Who else were Tweedledum and Tweedledee but profs whose lesson plans were indistinguishable while they fought each other with rattling terms that no one but they could understand? Who but the Department Head was the Black Crow that frightened those two worthies into silence?  Why pay attention to an accretion of nonsense too monolithic to move and too absurd to take seriously, particularly one that seems to be teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and cry, along with Alice, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

Friends, let us go our own way.  Despite the threats to literacy of this new age of electronics, it has given us an opening to the public that’s been out of reach for questioners since the grand possessors finally realized that in order to get the great works published they would have to use the name of someone who could not be damaged himself, and who could not damage the true author.

Every single day on this blog I get upwards of 100 to 200 readers, mostly from the US and UK, but also from every other country in the world. That’s too many to account for just a few who read everything on it.  It means there are hundreds more who read some of it.  If some of my readers are academics, forgive my rhetoric, but please wake up and step outside the box your training has stuck you in.  Read the history of the period, not just those bits that the philologists and bibliographers have picked to substantiate their equations, but all the history, most of all the history of the English Reformation and its repression of the arts, in particular the art of writing imaginative literature.

English is the first or second language of the entire world. Readers in every nation are interested in its history and the history of the genius who more than any other individual created it in its first incarnation.  Let us stop trying to reach the academics huddled behind their hermaneutics and word studies. Permanently blind to the forest, they can see only the trees right in their way.

Please, let’s stop these useless attempts to bring the argument around to include Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, and the questions of authorship raised by all their lives and works.  It’s going on a century-and-a-half since the question of Shakespeare’s identity first became public, and close to a century since Oxford was identified.  If we haven’t brought the authorship issue any closer than we have with our present tactics, we never will.

Their power is lodged within their control of the scholarly publishing industry, a force that can promote disinformation as easily as it does genuine information, and one that reality demands must always choose in favor of the bottom line.  But we are living at a time when the door is open to us outside of the feudal castle of print, and can publish for a community of like-minded readers, just as you are reading this message today within hours or perhaps days of downloading, and with the opportunity to ask questions, offer opinions, and get feedback from myself and others.  It’s necessary to get things published in print, but only what supports facts gleaned from history.  Study the history of the period, find those writers who created the language we use today (Shakespeare was not the only one), by all means publish in print if you can, but meanwhile, work to establish a community of internet scholars.  That’s where the future lies.

 

 

 

 

1597: The Showdown

Orthodox Shakespeareans are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end, with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s, for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain Gray’s Inn in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy, or the two narrative poems on sex he published with the help of the Earl of Southampton, Venus and Adonis, comic (it was not consumated), Lucrece, tragic. However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

However it happened, Oxford was to some extent both a product and a victim of the Cecil family. Whether by luck or design, eight of the leading noble youths of his time, himself and seven others, were, by the early deaths of their fathers, brought under the advising arm of Sir William Cecil through his office as Master of the Court of Wards. Whether by luck or design, the raising of these important social leaders by Cecil was a major move in the fight to turn the nation from Catholic to Protestant, from allegience to Rome to allegience to the English Crown. As the first of Burghley’s wards, Oxford became to some extent the leader of a faction that saw the Cecils as upstarts and political manipulators (“a politician did it,” said John Webster), out to take away their power and destroy their class. By his marriage to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford was also the most thoroughly embedded into their faction, a 16th century version of “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

Any society as small, closed, tightly-woven and barricaded against change as the power center of Elizabeth’s Court develops excruciating tensions that only increase over time, often continuing on past the deaths of the principals, who pass their rivalries and hatreds on to their heirs. This was the case with Lord Burghleyand the Earl of Leicester, whose rivalry got passed on to their heirs, Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, just as Burghley’s efforts to control the life and behavior of his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, and his nephew, Francis Bacon, got passed on to his son, Robert Cecil.

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.  At a Court that worshipped tall, handsome men, himself shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who (literally) looked down on him, men like Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves. Most of all he hated his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford. Partly because Oxford was a leading member of that hated class, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and partly because his father loved and admired him. Luckily for Oxford, out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.

Robert hated his brother-in-law for many reasons: because he had everything that he lacked, because he was admired by the Court for his social prestige, his good looks and his talent, but mostly because of the rude disdain with which he treated his father’s and his sister’s love. Although Court protocols and family solidarity required that they maintain a pretense of cordiality, as soon as the death of Walsingham in 1590 placed the reins of power in his hands, Robert began planning how to destroy the man who had broken his sister’s heart and, in his view, sent her to an early grave.

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction. If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed it to occur. If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could. Whether he acted with complete complicity with his father or to some extent acted on his own is a question that we probably can’t answer.

Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588, Burghley, as Master of the Court of Wards, had moved to have Oxford’s debts to the Court called in. This was less of an immediate threat to Oxford himself, who was already broke, than to the patrons who had backed his loans, and whose own estates were now threatened. What it did destroy of Oxford’s was his credit, that is, his ability to use the perquisites of his title to raise cash. Without credit he could no longer pay actors and musicians, stagehands and costumers. The Queen saw to it that as a peer of the realm he was saved from the humiliation of complete bankruptcy by arranging his marriage to an heiress in 1592, but apart from a few donations, most notably from the young Earl of Southampton, Milord was pretty much silenced.

Theater of Blood

In attempting to explain what happened to Marlowe during the plague of 1593, biographer Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning) resorts to a metaphor by which he compares the way governmental sting operations to plays. According to Nicholl, poets find spying an easy step because they live in the fantasy world of The Theater. This is absurd; would Kurt Weil have spied for the Nazis? Would Vaclav Havel have spied for the Soviets?  An artist of surpassing power and reckless honesty, Christopher Marlowe did not, could not, have agreed, or been forced, to spy for the Crown he detested.  But the metaphor works if placed where it belongs, with the other side, with Robert Cecil, for the plot with which he brought down the dangerous playwright in May of 1593 was just as creative as anything Marlowe himself ever produced for the stage.

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 3 instead.)

For Cecil, the removal of Marlowe, whether by murder or transportation, and without any blame attached to himself, was a magnificent coup, and for those who knew the truth, which must have been pretty much the entire Privy Council and London theater community, brought him another great benefit, the respect he needed to move with confidence in the brutal world of Elizabethan politics.  It also had the salubrious effect, salubrious to the Cecils, that is, of throwing the London Stage into a chaos from which they had every hope that it couldn’t recover, at least, not in its current form.

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen and the Council to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil had been on the Council since 1591.) We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that Catholic gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, his granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the 6th Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage.  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, as a client of Leicester’s, he too had inherited the hatreds of their rivalry.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in the early 70s, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Ferdinando’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been a motive to do something to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

The crisis that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put an author’s name on their plays  is best summarized with a timeline:

  • June 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594: The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signals the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s and Queens.
  • Apr 4 1594: The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning. Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company returned to the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594: The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally-licensed companies, what Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly” that from then on had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • Feb 4, 1596: The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential MPs the following winter.
  • July 5, 1596: The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council and the most powerful man in England. Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596: The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons. Four months later . . .
  • Nov 1596: The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, accedes. Two months later . . .
  • Feb 26, 1597: The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Four months later . . .
  • Jul 28, 1597: The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.”
  • June-Aug 1597: The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson. The LCMen take to the road. Two months later . . .
  • Oct 1597: The opening of Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation. Immediately before or shortly after . . .
  • Oct -Nov 1597:  the production of a new version of The True Tragedy of Richard the Third somewhere in the West End (since the Company now has no theater of its own) where the MPs can see it, in which Richard Burbage, by his dress and body language, makes it clear that the play is intended as a stab at Robert Cecil, who, as Secretary of State, is playing a new and important role in the Parliament then in session, and the publication of the anonymous first edition of the revised play, now named Richard III, which allows the MPs to share the play with others who haven’t seen it.
  • Jan-June 1598: The publication of a second edition of the play, now with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it has appeared on any play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did so seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time. Fired with fury by the deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.  We can also imagine the “tall men” stationed at each entrance, with an eye out for troublemakers.

Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue.  Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside early in 1599.

This chain of events suggests a bloody behind-stairs struggle for control of the London Stage.  Whether or not Robert Cecil was responsible, via the “projectors” he’d inherited from Walsingham, for the deaths of leading members of the Stage community––from Marlowe to his patron Lord Strange, to the “sporting” Thomas Kyd, to the grand-daddy of the Lonson Stage, James Burbage, to his patron Lord Hunsdon––is less important to our story than the actors’ suspicions.  It should be our suspicion as well, based on how the Master Secretary would go on to entrap and destroy other leading members of Court society, the Earl of Essex, his own brother-in-law George Cobham, and his former friend Sir Walter Raleigh.   The level of hatred and fear engendered by Cecil in his years of power under King James is clear from the stream of slanders and verse libels that deluged London following his death in 1612.

It should also be the clincher to the argument about why Oxford hid his identity. Had anyone during the first decade of James’s reign––anyone beyond the inner circles of the Court and Stage community, that is––known for certain who it was who wrote the 1597 version of Richard III, Oxford would have been as dead as Marlowe, Kyd, Stanley, Burbage and Hunsdon.  As it was, since the playwright was, as he kept reminding Cecil in his letters, a member of Cecil’s family, father of his nieces, etc., Oxford escaped, both with his life and with his papers––not an easy task, but one facilitated by the accession to power in 1603 of King James and his fondness for Philip Herbert, and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, who would make it their job to see to it that Oxford’s works, and the Stage he created, be secured from harm and eventually published.

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, with the management of Oxford’s son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, this was allowed for a newly-formed company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapels, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  After 1608, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, its rise to a level of success had never before been seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

These are only the most salient points in the story of this final showdown.  The thread presented here, the string of deaths, theater closings, constant publication of revised versions of Richard III (eight in all, over the years, every time Cecil got another office or title), the fact that it was the first play to be published under the name Shakespeare, must be correlated to several other threads, if all taken together, make a subject worthy of a full length book.  What part did Essex play? Bacon?  The Queen?  The printers?  The publishers?  George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir and the Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign? Where does the revision and publication of Richard II that accompanied the publication of Richard III fit in?  Hopefully time will tell.

Who was Hamlet?

Hamlet has always been seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, his most fully realized character.  In calling him “the secular Christ,” Yale professor Harold Bloom makes the most extravagant comparison that a Christian culture can offer.  In fact, it may be that more has actually been written (in English) about this fictional being than has been written about the Savior.

Those who’ve looked into it have found it impossible to locate anything in the life of William of Stratford that corresponds in any way to Hamlet’s life and situation.  He would have had to get all of it from books, but all the literary sources tracked by Bullough and others were in Latin or French in his time, most in volumes that, even had he the Latin promised by T.W. Baldwin would have required connections to private libraries that academics can only assume, since there’s no hint in William’s real biography (as opposed to the fictional versions conjured up by academics) of any such connections.  The one possible reference to William’s personal life, the son named Hamnet that died at age 11, was obviously named after his friend, Hamnet Saddler, while the character in the play is just as obviously based on the life of a Danish prince named Amleth, whose story, far from popular, lay buried in a Latin history of Denmark written in the 12th century.

This and other primary souces for Hamlet Prince of Denmark are found in Oxford’s tutor’s library: the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, not translated into English until 1608; the Roman history of Titus Livius, Latin, not translated into English until 1600; Valerius Maximus (used in schools), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (both Latin rhetoricians).  Others connect with Oxford’s years at Cecil House: Beowulf, probably translated from Old English into Latin and/or English by Laurence Nowell for the benefit of his students at Cecil House c.1563; Seneca’s plays, the Agamemnon and Troas, translated by members of the Cecil House coterie in the mid-1560s and published by Thomas Newton in 1581. The plot of the play within the play, “the mousetrap,” based on the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was still a matter for Court gossip in 1575 when Oxford was traveling from one Italian Court to another.  Della Rovere having been Castiglione’s patron for many years, in his youth he formed one of the group whose conversation makes up the major portion of Castiglione’s book, The Courtier, also in Smith’s library in the original Italian (translated into miserable “drab era” English by William Cecil’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby while Oxford was at Cecil House.

While most of Shakespeare’s protagonists can be matched more or less easily to some phase of Oxford’s biography, the version of Hamlet as we have it from the First Folio (1623) seems to be a sort of overview of his entire life, a figure made up of his most personal view of himself, with a plot compounded of the central experiences of his life, the loss of his Earldom through the early death of his father; the loss of the Court Stage through the death of his patron; his troubled marriage; the enemies who were out to shut him up.  It is a tragedy much like the one that overtakes Oedipus, the unfolding of a dire situation into which he was born and from which he cannot excape.  But unlike Oedipus, whose tragedy turns on his ignorance of the past, Hamlet’s much-vaunted indecision seems more a stoic determination to see how things will play out.  Having confirmed what he has guessed by Claudius’s response to the enactment of the murder of Gonzaga, he senses that any further intervention on his part will only make things worse: “Let Hercules himself do what he may; the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”

Like Hamlet, Oxford was born into a troubled dynasty. It’s clear that his father, the sixteenth earl, though termed “the good earl,” was not up to the task of sustaining a feudal domain that was so obviously doomed by the political and economic forces assailing it.  Like Hamlet, Oxford was more interested in literature and science (returning to Wittenberg) than life at Court.  Like Hamlet, he was romantically and sexually involved with the daughter of the monarch’s primary court official, Polonius/Burghley.  Like Hamlet, he was jealous of her relationship with her father.  Like Hamlet, he used the Stage to explain himself to the Court while claiming to entertain it.  A thousand years of history had put the Earl of Oxford in the position he was in, one from which his only escape was to create two brand new arenas where he had free rein, the Stage and the Press.

In Hamlet Oxford dramatized his attitude towards William Cecil Lord Burghley, his father-in-law: “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”; his attitude towards his wife, Burghley’s daughter (Ophelia): “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny”; his bitterness over the Queen’s business-as-usual attitude while the Earl of Sussex was dying: “a beast, that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer”); his disdain for the Earl of Leicester (Claudius): “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; his astonishment at his brother-in-law’s (Robert Cecil’s) hatred: “What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever”; his disgust at how his unscrupulous friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), are conspiring to destroy him: “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”  Only the end differs, but when he first wrote it of course he had no idea how it would end.  Nor do we, 400 years later.

One would think that identifying Polonius as Burghley would lead, automatically, to the identity of his daughter, and from her to the identity of her lover/husband, i.e., Hamlet, but one would be wrong, for to the so-called literary critic, history is just another form of literary fiction, something to be trimmed or amplified as needed to fit their theories, leaving the truth to the historians of wars and political coups who, equally culpable, pay no attention to literature.  For who but the Earl of Oxford, England’s Lord Great Chamberlain by seventeen generations of inheritance, would have dared to describe the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”––and lived to write again?

Screwing with history

Hamlet is a prime example of how the Lestradian stupidity of the officials in charge of interpreting Shakespeare has skewed the history of an entire era.  While Nashe’s 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon gives clear evidence of a version of Hamlet from before that date, this must needs be seen as an “Ur-Hamlet,” written of course by one of their anonymous pre-Shakespearean ghost-writers who provided the lazy Bard with so much of his material.  And because no proper niche can be found for Hamlet in current events of the 1590s––where the Stratford biography has forced all dates of composition––nothing can provide anything either personal or popular that might have inspired the playwright to write the play, so the commonplace is that Shakespeare, despite his obvious connection to the Crown’s own company for forty years, never bothered his artistic head with what was going on around him.  Thus is historic accuracy set aside, a thing of small importance.

Moving even further from the particular to the general, this has led to a general agreement among the Lestrades of the 20th century English Departments that there is no such thing as a compulsion among, not just Shakespeare, but all the world’s greatest writers of fiction to base their creations on aspects of their own lives.  That this won’t work with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henri Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, etc., makes no difference.  One must never allow dull reality to get in the way of theory.

Recall George Orwell’s interpretation of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in his 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four?  Recall Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who scoffs at Alice’s inability to believe in the impossible, while she herself has managed to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Recall as well that her creator, Lewis Carroll, that is Charles Dodgson (his real name), was a math professor at Oxford, whence cameth most, perhaps all, of the characters Alice encountered in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Recall Alice’s ultimate response, which we should all take to heart, when she cries out at the end of Looking Glass, “Who cares for you, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

The play’s the thing

History records that throughout his twenties Oxford was riding high at Court. “The glass of fashion,” he was promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, rapidly assuming the role of Queen’s favorite: (Gilbert Talbot wrote his father May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other.”)  He was the essence of Renaissance nonchalance, of sprezzatura.  He refused the Queen’s order to dance for the French envoys.  He called Sir Philip Sidney a puppy.  He turned the tables on his Catholic friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, for attempting to suck him into dangerous treason plots as they had the Duke of Norfolk.  But this ascent came to an abrupt halt when his lover, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, gave birth to his illegitimate son in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, sending the jealous monarch into a prolonged tantrum.  Playing the humiliated goddess for all it was worth, the infuriating revelation that her charms were not sufficient to keep her favorites in line meant the Queen must needs turn her erring Actaeon into a villain and sic the hounds upon him.

After two months in the Tower, commiserating with the ghosts of the kings who had preceded him, some perhaps in the very same room in which he found himself; after months of house arrest and an edict banishing him from Court for an indeterminate period, the notion that once back at Fisher’s Folly Oxford would simply sit on his hands for two years while the Queen got over her hissy fit is so unlikely, well, who but the White Queens of the university English Departments could possibly swallow such a notion?

Feeling abused and unappreciated, bored with writing comedies for children to perform for the unappreciative witch on the throne, he threw himself into creating plays for Burbage’s adult team, the kind of plays he would never have dared to produce at Court.  Some versions were created primarily for this team to perform for the public at Burbage’s big open air stage in Shoreditch (Romeo and Juliet); some were aimed at provincial audiences (King John, The Spanish Tragedy); most were aimed at the West End audience, the gentlemen of the inns of Court, performed by Burbage’s men on the little stage he and Lord Hunsdon had created in the Blackfriars complex shortly after his return from Italy in 1576.

Hamlet: the backstory

Having been appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1572, the Earl of Sussex had named as his vice-chamberlains Henry Hunsdon, later (1594) the patron of Shakespeare’s Company, and his son-in-law Lord Charles Howard, later (also 1594) the patron of Marlowe’s Company. Sussex was determined to replace Leicester, whom he detested, as leading member of the Privy Council, which meant, among other things, taking the Court Stage under his own jurisdiction, where by long tradition it belonged. The Revels account for the early 1570s suggests that this was when Oxford, backed by Sussex, began providing plays for the various children’s companies to perform during the winter holidays.

A decade later, during the period that Oxford was banished from Court (1581-83) the Earl of Sussex began to weaken from what has since been diagnosed as consumption. As Sussex faded, Walsingham, by then Secretary of State, moved to take control of the Stage before Leicester or one of his clients could take it back. In all of England there was only one playwright who Walsingham could be certain could charm the provincial audiences into backing the Crown against the Spanish Church. For this he had to have Oxford back at Court. History relates that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who persuaded the Queen to allow Oxford to return, though what is more likely is that Raleigh was acting more in Walsingham’s interest than in Oxford’s. If I’m right about the kind of plays he was producing at the Blackfriar’s Theater during his banishment, members of the Privy Council, including Oxford’s father-in-law, may have preferred, as the saying goes, to have the rascal inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.

Since 1572, when the Pope first issued the bull that guaranteed God’s forgiveness to whoever would rid Christendom of that Whore of Babylon, the heretical Queen of England, Walsingham was preparing for the inevitable attack by the Spanish Armada. Having spent years on the Continent, he was deeply aware (to an extent that Her Majesty and Burghley were not, neither having spent any time abroad), of the inevitability of a military attack. Having had a sophisticated humanist education at Padua, where the Roman theater had never completely died, Walsingham was also aware, as had been Sussex, of the power of the stage to win hearts and minds to a cause, in this case, patriotism over religion––for the coastal towns where the Spanish were certain to strike first, were still largely wedded to the Old Faith.

“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue”

Oxford had every reason to detest the Earl of Leicester. Not only was he a rival for the Queen’s favor, it was Leicester to whom she had given the use of his estates while he was underage; Leicester who had rudely cheated his mother of her portion of his father’s will while he was still too young and powerless to defend her. While his banishment from Court extended from months to years and his enemies were elevated in importance and allowed to attack him in the streets without reproof, Leicester, who had not only impregnated one of the Queen’s ladies but had married her in secret, was returned to favor while he had still to go about incognito in fear for his life.

From July to the end of October 1582, while he was still under banishment from Court, his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), 27-year-old Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), aka Lord Willoughby, was in Denmark to bring the Order of the Garter to the Protestant King, returning to England by November. Then again, in 1585, with the renewal of hostilities in the lowlands, Bertie was sent as special ambassador back to Denmark in October to urge the Danish king to contribute aid to the Dutch in their fight against Spain. This took some time. As the DNB puts it: “He filled his spare time with visits to Tycho Brahe’s observatory to examine the new comet the astronomer had just discovered, evidence of an enduring scientific interest.”

Having finally succeeded in getting a promise of troops, Bertie arrived at Amsterdam in March 1586, where Sidney got him a command, ultimately taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces when Leicester departed in December 1587. Oxford and Bertie were friendly enough that Oxford spent time with him and his sister in June 1582 (Nelson 281), and though no letters have turned up, it makes sense that, with Oxford’s interest in the stars, his brother-in-law would have discussed with him what he saw in Denmark after his first four-month visit in 1582, and would have written to him of more recent developments during the five months in 1585 that he waited around at the Danish Court for the King to respond to his request.

This then is the backstory to the first version of Hamlet. Out of the death of Sussex; the unseemly return to favor of the Earl of Leicester whom he and many others suspected (probably unfairly) of having Sussex poisoned; Saxo’s report on the mad prince Amleth of Danish history; the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had certainly been poisoned; his own dilemma with his wife and her family; the interest raised by Thomas Digges’s publication in the mid-1570s of evidence that the universe, rather than bounded by the ancient Ptolemaic nutshell, was actually an infinity of space filled with stars; plus reports from the Danish Court on Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Oxford created the first version of Hamlet, the one mentioned in passing by Nashe in such a way that suggests its popularity as early as 1589.

Returned finally to Court in June 1583, a week before Sussex’s death, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, contemplete life at Court without his major patron, Milord’s temper on his return was pretty much identical to Hamlet’s as the scene opens at the Danish Court, and that he too continued to dress, and act, as though in mourning. The “inky cloak” that shows Hamlet’s grief over the death of his father, mirrors Oxford’s refusal to show an interest in the holiday festivities that until his banishment had been his primary function at Court.

Just as Hamlet, while preferring to continue his studies at Wittenberg (the reading and translating in which Oxford had been immersed since his return from France and Italy), having yielded to his mother’s wish that he remain at Court, remains disaffected until, inspired by the actors, he creates a play that puts him at risk of assassination. Returned to Court by the efforts of Raleigh and Walsingham, having tasted the freedom of writing what he pleased, Oxford had no intention of churning out the kind of comedies that pleased the Queen. Enrolled by Walsingham in creating history plays that would help to turn the mood of the coastal towns away from religion and towards patriotism, he writes The Troublesome Raigne of King John, launching a series in which, encouraged by Walsingham, Smith’s close friend during their days together in the Secretary’s office, he finally gets to engage with genuine policy issues.

The version of Hamlet that we know from the First Folio is not, of course, the version that Nashe referred to in 1589 in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon with the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches,” or even the one Thomas Lodge referred to in 1596, referring to the ghost that cried at the theatre, “like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Nor even the one published in 1603, which suggests its publisher, Nicholas Ling, had waited until the Queen was gone.

The one we know is the one published the following year 1604, when the original models for all the principals but Laertes were no longer capable of being wounded. The Hamlet we know was revised from the perspective of later life, in full knowledge of the curve of events, and how “the end crowns all.” If the original “antique Roman” was Rutland, the name Horatio suggests that Hamlet’s plea to tell the truth about his “wounded name, things standing thus unknown,” was directed to his cousin Sir Horatio Vere, who in 1604 was achieving distinction on the battlefields of Europe. But not Sir Horatio, nor any other member of Oxford’s family or audience, had the audacity to broach the subject openly in print, then or for generations after. As Shakespeare put it, “the rest is silence.”