Calling all historians!

Long ago, in the timeless realm we call Literature, a certain fox, we’ll call him Reynard, dragged a stinky red herring across the trail of a certain Court poet, sending the yelping hounds who were after his identity up a false trail, where they’ve been barking up one wrong tree after another ever since.  That red herring was the name William Shakespeare.  Dragged across the poet’s paper trail––the published plays that in performance, twenty years earlier, had launched the London Stage, it did what it was meant to do, it gave the author and his company the freedom they needed to keep on producing the plays that gave the actors a living and their world a good cry, a much needed belly laugh, and those inclined to philosophy something to think about.

This red herring was successful in protecting the true author from the rage of the puritans who ran the nation, uptight ideologues, hungry for social power, who feared and hated the forces unleashed by the London Stage, forces that we know today as the English Literary Renaissance.  Unable to control it they sought to kill it.  This protective maneuver on the part of the Company, probably born of exigency, a dodge put into effect during a moment of desperation, perhaps not intended to last as long as it has, has in fact lasted for centuries.

Despite the evidence that’s been provided over the past 200 years, it seems we are still stuck in a scenario where the hounds continue to chase each other around in circles, only now there’s a herd of authorship scholars who follow after them, their shouts unheard in the clamor.  Isn’t it about time we put an end to this absurd waste of energy?

I say leave the hounds to their sport, stop confronting the ersatz gurus of the Birthplace Trust on their territory, something that does nothing but distract us from the real field of inquiry.  Leave the English Departments to their publications and pronunciamentos, and take the issue to where it should have been from the begining, to the political history of the period when Shakespeare was writing.  When you haven’t enough data on a topic of interest, you turn to what we call “proxy data,” material that surrounds the issue, that doesn’t touch on it directly, but that if put in place, shows the shape and nature of what’s missing.  If you can’t find enough material to work from the inside out, work from the outside in.  It’s time to turn away from the failures of the university English Department, and walk across the hall to the History Department.

We have the plays; what does it matter who wrote them?

It matters!! Only a culture that has allowed its literature to become divorced from its history could tolerate such a remarkably stupid credo.  Divorced from history, from the ground out of which it grew, literature loses its relevance.  Divorced from literature, the stories that bring a particular time and place to life, history loses the pulse of life.  Bereft of the human drama that gives it meaning, history is little more than a laundry list of dates and names.  Divorced from each other, both lose their purpose, their true meaning.

This divorce was actually taking place during the time that Shakespeare (we’ll have to call him that), was writing and his Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, was producing his plays.  Ancient studies were being divided: religion into superstition on the one hand, the early Church fathers on the other; alchemy into philosophy on the one, the science of chemistry on the other; astrology into folk psychology and medicine on the one, the science of astronomy on the other.  Similarly history was being divided into story on the one hand, historiography on the other.  This division of inherited materials into literature over here and history over there was eventually enshrined in the university curriculum, and from there into the secondary schools where it continues to discourage young people from developing an interest in either Literature or History.

The storehouse of Sin

In England the division was amplified by the passions of the Reformation which saw the division as a conflict between God and the Devil, with God on the side of History, and the Devil on the side of literature. History was truth, while Literature, which they called Poetry, they saw as a tissue of lies, deadly lies that entrapped men’s souls and led them down the primrose path to the fiery furnace. The respected Shakespeare scholar, Prof. Lily B. Campbell, is one of the rare English profs who could see the forest for the trees.  As she wrote in Chapter X of her Shakespeare’s Histories (1945): “History versus Poetry in Renaissance England”:

In order to understand the place of history in the English Renaissance we must turn to the attacks made upon poetry . . . first by the adherents of the Reformation and later by the Puritans . . . . These attacks on poetry are not today so well known as are the defenses of poetry and particularly the great defense offered by Sidney. Nevertheless, the defenses of poetry cannot be fully comprehended unless we remind ourselves that defense is always organized to resist attack. (85)

One of the earliest attacks came in 1569, shortly after the plays in question began to escape the Court for which they were written to entertain the public at the London theater inns.  As James Sanford wrote in his translation of Cornelius Aggripa’s 1530 Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences:

Poetry, as Quintilian writeth, is another part of grammar, not a little proud . . . that in times past the theaters and amphitheaters, the goodliest buildings of men, were erected not by philosophers, not by lawyers, . . but with exceeding great expense by the fables of poets, an art that was devised to no other end but to please the ears of foolish men with wanton rhythms, with measures, and weightiness of syllables, and with a vain jarring of words, . . . to deceive men’s minds with the delectation of fables . . . . Wherefore it [the Stage] doth deserve to be called the principal author of lies, and the maintainer of perverse opinions.

In November 1577, Bishop Thomas White preached against the Stage from the pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin,. . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays.

In 1579, former playwright Stephen Gosson wrote in The School of Abuse, a pamphlet that the Church saw to it got published in the thousands and distributed all over London:

Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts? sauces?] to vanquish the taste nor painters in shadows [paintings] to allure the eye, than Poets in Theaters to wound the conscience.   There set, they abroche strange consorts of melody to tickle the ear, costly apparell to flatter the sight, effeminate gesture to ravish the senses, and wanton speech to whet desire to inordinate lust. . . . Let us but shut up our ears to Poets, Pipers and Players, pull our feet back from resort to Theaters and turn away our eyes from beholding of vanity, the greatest storm of abuse will be overblown and a fair path trodden to amendment of life. Were not we so foolish to taste every drug and buy every trifle, Players would shut in [up] their shops and carry their trash to some other country.

Writers of fiction fought back.  First Thomas Lodge in 1578 against Gosson’s diatribe: “Who then doth not wonder at poetry? Who thinketh not that it procedeth from above?”  As Nashe snarled at Sanford in Piers Penniless (1593):

As there be those that rail at all men, so there be those that rail at all Arts, as Cornelius Agrippa [in his] De vanitate scientiarum, and a treatise that I have seen in dispraise of learning, where he [Sanford] saith, it is the corrupter of the simple, the schoolmaster of sin, the storehouse of treachery, the reviver of vices, and mother of cowardice, alledging many examples, how there was never man egregiously evil but he was a scholar; that when the use of letters was first invented, the Golden World ceased, Facinusque inuasit mortales: how study doth effeminate a man, dim his sight, weaken his brain, and engender a thousand diseases.

To no avail––the Crown had departed from the Reformation’s humanist creators, following the Church into the art-hating tenets of Calvinism.  Campbell quotes “the most direct attack upon poetry as lying” with which she was familiar, the translation by Sir Edward Hoby of a French diatribe titled Politic Discourses upon Truth and Lying (1586) which he dedicated to his uncle William Cecil, patron and overlord of the English press. Campbell comments:

the description of poetry as poison mixed with honey, the emphasis upon pleasure derived from poetry as suspect, the reiteration of Plato’s contention [in The Republic] that passion and vice are replenished by poetry, are all familiar, but it must be noted that all other charges are made subordinate to the main thesis of the chapter that poetry is lying. (92)

As Sidney, whose response to Gosson in 1580 was finally published in 1590, put it: “Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.  So. . . the historian, affirming many things, can . . . hardly escape from many lies.”

Campbell notes that Hoby’s Chapter 36 is dedicated to the consideration “of backbiters, mockers, and evil speakers, and why the comedians, stage players and jugglers have been rejected,” and that plays “infecteth more the spirits and wrappeth them in passions then drunkenness itself.” She quotes:

And for as much as comedies are compounded of fictions, fables, and lies, they have of divers been rejected. As touching plays, they are full of filthy words, which would not become . . . lacqueys and courtesans and have sundry inventions which infect the spirit and replenish it with unchaste, whorish, cosening, deceitful, wanton and michievous passions . . . . And for that besides all these inconveniences, comedians, and stage players do often times envy and gnaw at the honor of another, and to please the vulgar people, set before them sundry lies and teach much dissoluteness and deceit, by this means turning upside down all discipline and good manners [so that] many cities well governed would never at any time entertain them. (92-3)

Thus wrote Burghley’s nephew in 1586, when the London Stage was in its ninth year, teetering on the verge of disaster.  Written while the nation was suffering the increasing severity of Burghley’s war on Catholic recusants and puritan dissidents, six years after his brutal execution of St. Edmund Campion and nine before the equally brutal execution, by his son Robert Cecil, of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, we should consider that perhaps it was less the poets’ “filthy” language that inspired this outburst on the part of his nephew than how they did “often times envy and gnaw at the honor” of the Cecils.

Though Burghley may have tolerated the Stage back in the 1560s when Philip II blamed him for the satires that were defaming his Spanish Majesty, it’s clear that by 1586, he was in the mood to trim both the London Stage and the commercial Press; perhaps cut them to the ground; perhaps uproot them entirely.  It’s Polonius, accepted by all as a portrait of Burghley, who critiques the dedication of Hamlet’s poem to Ophelia: “To the beautified Ophelia”; “That’s an ill phrase,” says Polonius, “a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase.”  We can be sure that this exchange has far more meaning than today’s so-called critics would give it.

Seen from the perspective of English history, the Renaissance, when it finally arrived, had to find its way past the Reformation fears of Satan.  This is the major reason for the form that it took in England, and for most of the literary anomalies that academics have failed to explain, including, first and foremost, the mystery surrounding the identity of the playwright who is easily found, had the slightest attention been paid to the evidence of history, deep within the Court community.  Had there been any genuine attention paid to the history of the period, it would also be clear long since that Shakespeare was not alone in this, but that most of the literature produced during this first early Spring of England’s Literary Renaissance was produced by men and women who took almost exactly the same route he did, hiding their identities behind a flock of standins, supernumeraries, and initials.

Forget the English Departments

We need to approach the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare, of which his true identity is but one, others pertaining to the identities of the authors who wrote under the names Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Thomas North, Arthur Brooke, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and a dozen others.  History will show where these are located in time, and who besides the authors were involved, the powerful and wealthy patrons who made these efforts possible, the publishers and printers who took risks in publishing them, all easily located once the background of dates, current events, known personalities and conflicts are in place. With the stage set by history, we’ll have a picture that no one can argue with.

But to do that we need the help of historians.  Those readers who seek an end to the questioning, the beginning of certainty, join in the quest for history majors, free thinkers who can see beyond the limits proscribed by the Stratford biography, probably located in London, certainly in England, individuals with access to the archives where documents never explored by authorship scholars remain to be examined.  We need patrons with the wherewithall to provide funding for such a project, who can keep it moving until the university History departments––yielding to the thrill of establishing the great Shakespeare at the Court of Queen Elizabeth––open their doors to the authorship question.

Urge schools to combine literature with history.

By bringing a piece of the story of our lives to life with not just the events of the time, but the way the writers and artists who lived it then saw it, by accenting the story part of history, by connecting stories to the events that gave them birth, we’ll be putting the Humanities back on the road to importance.  We’ll be turning fear into understanding, existential despair into acceptance and love, something has been the goal of literature ever since Plato set out to tell the world the truth about Socrates.

It’s time we told the truth about Shakespeare to those who are ready to hear it, and quit trying to tell it to those who are committed to ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oxford’s life in a very small nutshell

Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history.  Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot.  At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.

He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months.  As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place.  As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died.  Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.

Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper.  That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously.  In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials.  For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.

Bound to the Cecils by marriage

The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family.  If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage.  His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage.  Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers.  He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates.  Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.

In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad.  Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities.  Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.

Birth of the London Stage

Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season.  Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater.  Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End.  These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.

Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London.  The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.

Banished!

In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor.  Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End.  This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage.  Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.

Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack.  It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.

The Cecils attack the Stage and Press

Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter.  Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of  Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.

Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the  Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work.  By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records.  Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.

Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue.  With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare.  Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.

Cecil ups the ante

Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season.  Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.

The actors strike back

Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard III in which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.

Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard.  Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes.  Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Final years

With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.

Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story.  The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.

When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language.  Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.

Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks.  Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories.  Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire.  Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.

The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages.  Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect.  Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature.  Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.

In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him.  Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.”  He continues:

They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes.  Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . .  His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . .  He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature.  He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)

Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.

In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness.  One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone.  He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain.  We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances.  Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art.  When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control.  (xiv-xv)

All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them.  “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today.  There also seem to be many similarities in syntax.  Fennell continues:

Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers.  On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)

Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing.  As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .”  We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.

As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare.  As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.

Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life.  Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.

Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events.  Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus.  Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music.  Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.

Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, had Pindar in Greek on his 1566 library list.

Oxford’s death

One of the moments in Oxford’s life that has remained a bone of contention is his death.  According to the public record, he died on June 24th, 1604, having just turned 54.  But like so many things in his life, this scenario is dubious at best. Although I had suspicions from the first, primarily due to the mythical significance of June 24th, it was the 2004 article by authorship scholar Christopher Paul: “A Monument without a Tomb: The Mystery of Oxford’s Death,” (published in The Oxfordian), that led to the following scenario. (Though he provides many of the facts that support it, Paul does not advocate for this scenario.)

In my view, what is far more likely is that Oxford did not die in 1604, that he continued to live in seclusion for another four or five years.  As an earl,  there is no way he could have escaped the pressures of his social position in any other way.  His forbears were able to end their worldly affairs and retire to a monastery when they felt that their lives were drawing to a close, as did the first Earl of Oxford.  Thus, for the centuries that Catholicism was the national religion, peers had the means by which they could be free to spend their final days in peaceful prayer and preparation for the afterlife, having passed on their possessions and titles to those they wished to have them, an option that ceased with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s.  (And obviously an issue that concerned Shakespeare, as witness King Lear.)

Measure for Measure

It’s a matter of record that Measure for Measure was performed at Court on December 26, 1604, six months (almost to the day) after Oxford’s supposed death.  The performance took place on the night before the marriage of his daughter Susan to the Earl of Montgomery.  The lead in that play is the mature Duke Vincentio, “the old fantastical duke of dark corners” as Lucio calls him, who disappears into a monastery early in the play, leaving his estate in the hands of lesser folk who wonder at one point if he might be dead.

If Oxford meant this to be understood by his Court audience as a reference to his situation at the time, was he merely fantasizing that he  actually had the kind of power he assigns to the Duke?  Could it be that at that time in history, with the Stage as his platform and the entire population of the city, plus visitors and every three years 500 parliamentarians, as his audience, that he did have that kind of power?   Could such a powerful constituency have been so utterly silent?  Consider the total silence of the powerful members of three other sizable communities at that time: the Catholics, the Freemasons, and the homosexual underground.

No funeral

Oxford was the highest ranking peer in his time.  At a time when the tradition was that an earl of his rank would be given a lavish and very public funeral, Oxford had no funeral at all.  Surely here’s another one of those Oxfordian dogs that didn’t bark in the night.  We can be certain about this as we have descriptions of the funerals of others like Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham.  His own wishes would have had nothing to do with the matter, nor or whether he was Shakespeare, nor even to the issue of cost, it was due purely to the position he held in society simply by virtue of his name and title.  Were he actually dead, someone would have seen to it that a respectable funeral took place, most notably his in-laws, the Trenthams, not to mention the King, who was on a royal spending spree, and whose favorite at the time, the young Philip Herbert (brother of the third Earl of Pembroke whose domain was all of southwestern England) would soon be marrying Oxford’s daughter Susan.

No certain burial place

There are different scenarios for Oxford’s burial site, depending on what authority you choose to follow, but the upshot is that there is no absolutely certain place where his body resides or ever resided, either temporarily or permanently.  The only possible reason for this lack of information is that his burial site, or more likely, sites, could not be made an issue because at the time that the records were being made regarding his demise, he was still alive, thus there was no body to bury.  When he did finally die some four or five years later, since he was supposed to have been already dead for some time, it was necessary that his passing and subsequent burial be kept as private as possible.

Although we do not know when or where he was buried, nor did most of his contemporaries, who would have known would surely have been those members of his family with whom he had maintained relations over the years.  One such would have been the Goldings, his mother’s family, while the most likely place for a peer of his stature to be buried would have been Westminster Abbey.

Percival Golding was Oxford’s cousin, the son of his uncle Arthur Golding, to whom was attributed the authorship of Shakespeare’s favorite source, the translation into English verse of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  In a formal statement written in 1619, Percival Golding states flatly that Oxford was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The death of the summer lord

Right from the beginning it struck me as a little too coincidental that Oxford was buried on St. John’s Day, the classic moment for the death of the summer lord, whose sacrificial death marks the end of the rising half of the festival year, a bit of folk history he would have known from the same ancient Greek sources that gave Sir James Frazer the material for his masterwork, The Golden Bough.

If Oxford was Shakespeare,  his death would surely have been immensely meaningful to those patrons and audiences who made the King’s Men one of the most lucrative businesses of the early 17th century.  To 17th-century Londoners, Shakespeare’s death should have meant what the deaths of  impresarios like Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Hammerstein, or George Gershwin meant to 20th-century New Yorkers.  That there was no fanfare over William’s death says more than anything can about his actual relationship to the works that bore his name.  Bringing this within range of many other pieces of the Shakespeare and Oxford puzzles, it seems worth suggesting that Oxford was using what means were at his disposal to get the time he needed to put a final polish on those plays he considered his legacy, his “alms for oblivion,” and in a place where the Cecils could not get at him.

The great reckoning with Robert Cecil

Oxford’s behavior during the 1590s suggests that this retreat to the Forest was the final maneuver in his life-long battle with the power-hungry Cecils, to whom Fate had bound him by ties of blood; a fight for the freedom to do what he believed was his right as one greater than they, in rank, in wisdom, in humanity, in inherited office (Lord Great Chamberlain), and not least, in sheer will.  He had to fulfill his sacred calling, which was to tell the truth as he saw it.  He says as much through Jaques when he asks Duke Senior (King James) to “invest me in my motley . . . and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world . . . ,” meaning, no doubt, the Court, which was corrupt and becoming more so every day.

With Walsingham’s death in 1590, the Cecils had taken (rather retaken) control of the office of Secretary of State: William the paperwork , Robert the legwork.  The attack on the London Stage began immediately; Lyly was fired, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men were dissolved, Marlowe was assassinated (or more likely, transported), Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange was murdered.

In 1594 Sussex’s two vice-chamberlains stepped forward to rescue the Stage from the chaos into which it had been thrown by these events.  Reorganizing the actors into two companies with themselves as patrons,  no doubt also with strict rules regarding what they were allowed to perform, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law Lord Admiral Charles Howard,  created the system that would be followed for the next three decades.

On January 26, 1595, William Stanley having inherited the title from his now dead older brother, Lord Strange (by then fifth earl of Derby),  marries Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere, thus acquiring for the Cecils a close family tie to the earldom of Derby and, through her son, the royal blood of the Derby earls, something they were frustrated of in their alliance with Oxford, who had produced no heir, and who, apart from his impressive lineage, had no claim on the throne (which, considering what happened to Lord Strange, was just as well for Milord).

Following his daughter’s marriage to Derby, it seems that Oxford did what he could to retire from Court, as is suggested by Roland White’s note later that year to Robert Sidney, governor of Flushing, which states: “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead.”  Two years earlier Oxford had returned to pressing the Queen regarding her promise to give him the stewardship of Waltham Forest, a perquisite that had always been within the purview of his ancestors and that he felt was his by right.  For whatever reason, she continued to fob him off with one excuse after another.  Perhaps she was afraid that he would disappear into the woods like Orlando, Timon, or all the principals in As You Like It.

The showdown

In June of 1596 Essex takes off for Cadiz, foolishly leaving the door open for Robert Cecil to get cozy enough with Elizabeth that she finally appoints him Secretary of State, thus giving him and his father powers equal to, or perhaps even greater than, her own.  This power was increased two weeks later with the death of the senior member of the Privy Council, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, patron of Shakespeare’s company.  It was hugely increased again a week after that when the Queen appointed Cecil’s father-in-law to fill Hunsdon’s place.  Thus by mid-August of 1596, Essex arrived home to find that the Cecils now held the top three governmental posts in the nation.

They used their now almost total power that November by seeing to it that the great new theater Burbage had built in the Blackfriars district was closed by edict of the Privy Council.  Perhaps they used it again when halfway through the winter theater season that year, James Burbage died, leaving his sons (and their playwright) with no theater with which to entertain the Parliament the following autumn.  They used it again that June to close all the theaters over the Isle of Dogs scandal, sending the actors on the road.  That the Company fought back by producing for the Parliament a version of Richard III in which Richard Burbage achieved fame by portraying the evil king­­––probably in the costume and attitudes of the recently appointed Secretary of State––is as close to historic fact as its possible to get.

It was during this showdown that the reading audience was introduced for the first time to the previously totally unknown William Shakespeare as the author of the most popular plays in London.  The following Christmas the Company tore down the old Shoreditch stage and rebuilt it on Bankside as The Globe, but by then Cecil was too busy with his showdown with Essex to bother with Oxford or the Stage.  With his reputation permanently damaged by the play and by its publication in two editions, one right after the other,  in which lines were added that could only point to him, Cecil could do little but maintain a holding pattern until Essex, at the end of his emotional tether, destroyed himself, taking with him a large portion of the younger courtiers who would otherwise have provided a counterweight to his subsequent grab for more and more power.

Oxford and his papers are saved

Following the Queen’s death in 1603, Oxford found King James a kinder sovereign than he probably had reason to expect.  Most likely persuaded by the Pembroke brothers, James gave him the stewardship of the Forest, perhaps in exchange for his agreement to continue to write for the Court.  In any case, while supposedly dead he had nine plays ready for the marriage of his daughter to the younger Pembroke the following Christmas.  Safely tucked away in a modest dwelling near the ancient Havering Palace, favorite residence of Edward the Confessor, he lived as he pleased, protected from Cecil, who had no jurisdiction in the Forest, an idyll he portrays in As You Like It, one of the plays he revised during this period, in which he left a number of clues to the events of his life.

When did he die?  Events suggest 1609.  In a website titled 1609, the late great authorship scholar Robert Brazil details a number of events and publications that, although none can be relied upon as hard evidence, suggest this was when the great impresario finally moved on to that better world that so many of his characters mention in passing.  Brazil, never one to move too far from hard evidence, would never state, so far as I know, the reason for choosing 1609 to highlight in this manner.  Perhaps he left it for the rest of us to consider.

In my view, this was when the movement to get Oxford’s works published as a collection first began, a project that would take another decade and a half, and (I believe) was also the beginning of the movement to get him buried in Westminster Abbey, where (I believe) he lies today beneath the huge screen, created in 1741 to honor Shakespeare, that divides Poet’s Corner in half.

So what if anything actually happened on June 24, 1604?  Only one thing we know for sure, which is that Robert Cecil, by then Viscount Cranborne, had the Earl of Southampton arrested on the trumped-up charge that he was suspected of plotting against the King (the excuse for all Cecil’s attacks on his personal enemies), so he could have his papers examined.  Southampton was released with no explanation for the arrest either then or later (by historians).  Obviously Cecil didn’t find what he was looking for.  As for what might have occurred on the day in question, June 24, 1604, or more likely the night before, Midsummer’s Eve, we can only dream.

Bacon and the Wits

I’ve been asked to elaborate on my belief that Bacon was Spenser and Nashe and how that fits with the University Wits.  Since I don’t have any more “hard data” than anyone else, the best I can do is what I’ve been doing from the beginning, seeking the scenario, the narrative, the motivation, that makes sense of what we’ve got.  Making sense of it means reading all these texts, which has been the project of many years, and since so very few readers will have had the time or the inclination to do this reading for themselves, all I can do is present my conclusions and hope that they make human sense.

Although it must have been clear for some time, probably centuries, to the intellectual community that William of Stratford could not possibly have been the author of the Shakespeare canon, Delia Bacon is credited with having opened the authorship question to the public at large in the middle of the 19th century.  Although her 1587 book is next to impossible to read today, it raised a hailstorm of excitement at the time, out of which came the first name to replace the illiterate William, the highly educated and brilliant Francis Bacon.

The Group Theory

But Bacon was not Delia’s choice.  She believed that the works were written by a group that was led, not by Bacon, but by Sir Walter Raleigh.  Bacon was involved, as were the earls of Oxford and Derby and others.  It’s interesting that through the fog of time, Delia perceived, if dimly, almost exactly the same group that makes up the leading candidates today.  How they were supposed to have worked together isn’t clear to me without reading her book.  (I’ve groped my way through many a tiresome text in pursuit of this story, but this book is too much even for me.)  The Group Theory is generally disregarded now, but Delia was right in that the English Literary Renaissance was the result of the work of a group, just not in the way she proposed.

A revolution in style is often made by a group of artists who come along at about the same time.  We see this with the Impressionists in France,  six originally, with others joining later, or at a distance, who all, though they shared the characteristics of plein air and warm colors, had very different styles.  It was true of the artists in 13th and 14th century Florence, of the Kit Kat Club of Swift and Pope, of the Austin High School Gang of jazz players in the 1930s, the Bebop generation of the 1950s,  and the “British Invasion” of the 1960s.  There are six names who have been considered candidates for Shakespeare’s laurel crown for some time, and from what I can see, though only one is Shakespeare, all of them are part of his story, in one way or another.

Members of such groups may work together for a time, but their main role is to act as competitors, critics, and most important, an audience for each other.  It is very difficult to write for an unknown audience.  A genius needs an audience that is close enough to his level to make it worth his while to keep reaching.  Oxford came to such a community when he was twelve, the young translators at Cecil House.  Francis Bacon came to such a community in 1578 when, as an 18-year-old, he returned from France and found himself at the center of Oxford’s coterie.

This is how I see it

Just as one of Shakespeare’s protagonists might switch clothes with his or her servant to avoid trouble, Oxford began borrowing the names of friends and servants to get his work published.  Print publishing was in its infancy, and the teenaged Oxford, full of youthful energy, jumped on it as a means of reaching a wider audience than the handful of poets and translators at Cecil House and Elizabeth’s Court much as young artists today are using the internet to find their audiences in ways that were unavailable to their predecessors.

Getting works of the imagination published at that time in English history meant confronting, not just one, but two powerful forces that were set against it.  The age-old tradition of keeping what was written by the Court and for the Court within the Court was reinforced by the Protestant Reformation, which saw anything pleasing or sexy as the work of the Devil.  Where the young translators at Cecil House had neither the funds to publish (very expensive then), nor the reckless courage to defy convention, Oxford had both.  Peers had unlimited credit, even underage peers.  He also outranked everyone else at Cecil House, even Cecil himself, and rank was important then to a degree we can only imagine from our experience with film stars, which can’t come close to the power of an ancient name.  For these reasons, even as Oxford assumed leadership in the movement towards Renaissance freedom, he did so through intermediaries.

As he finished his studies and moved to take his place at Court, he continued to publish his own and other men’s work.  Determined to get for himself and his friends an English literary establishment like the Court-based Pleiade in Paris , we see in the dedicatory letter to Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte his effort to enroll writers and translators of works of the imagination––poetry, stories and plays––to publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Thus begins the frequently repeated pretence, that a friend had the work published while the innocent author was out of the country.

Particularly annoying was the silence of the gifted Sir Philip Sidney, who wouldn’t publish.  As the Queen’s official favorite, his uncle the Earl of Leicester did not like the Earl of Oxford.  A man with old-fashioned tastes and ideas, Leicester would have been seriously displeased had his heir violated Court protocol by publishing his own poetry, even under another name.  While Oxford had the courage of his rank and his peer’s credit, the Sidneys were relatively poor, their father was only a knight, their mother was Leicester’s sister, and the family was steeped in the religion of sin and damnation.  It took a mighty shock to unchain Philip Sidney’s muse.

Enter Francis

Then in 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon returned from two years at the French Court.  Bacon’s genius was just what Oxford had been looking for.  Although he had no more money or rank than Sidney, and had been raised in a similarly puritanical household, eleven years his junior, separated for the first time in his life from his beloved older brother, Francis became (I believe) utterly devoted to Oxford.  Having been inspired by the French, he was equally dedicated to seeing England reach the same literary levels achieved in Renaissance France and Italy. This was the bond that kept the two working together as long as they lived.

Within weeks Bacon had prepared his own contribution to Oxford’s publishing effort, signing it Immerito––“without merit,” a reference to the fact that he had not been given a post at Court worthy of a man of his natural gifts, the son of the Queen’s recently deceased Lord Keeper.  Recalling the simple shepherds of Greek romance, The Shepheard’s Calender is in many ways a call to Court poets like Sidney, Dyer, Buckhurst, and Raleigh to set aside their political differences and see each other as fellow poets.  Calling himself E.K., Oxford filled out what would otherwise have been a very small book with an extended gloss, a useful insight into his prose style of the late 1570s.

Denied the serious job he craved, Bacon joined Oxford in entertaining the Court.  But where Oxford and Sidney drew inspiration chiefly from the Greeks, Romans, French and Italians, Bacon, seeking a style that was his own and had no hint of imitation, turned to the early English writers, Chaucer and Skelton.  He probably began writing the first installments of The Faerie Queene shortly after publishing Shepherd’s Calender. He continued to write new installments of FQ for a decade, finally publishing the earlier ones in 1590 as by Edmund Spenser.  The stylistic quirks that show how FQ matches with Bacon’s style are fairly clear once one looks for them.

There can be no possibility that Spenser himself was the author of FQ, or of anything published under his name.  Although making connections at this point seems impossible, it’s clear that FQ is filled with allusions to Court figures and gossip.  Located in the wilds of southern Ireland as a functionary of its English occupier, Lord Grey, Spenser could not possibly have had the kind of personal connection to the English Court he would have needed to write FQ.  And even if he had he would not have dared to play fast and loose with the personal idiosyncrasies of courtiers of rank and power, a role for which Francis Bacon was uniquely suited, having grown up at Court.  What seems to be the case is that Raleigh, who owned land in southern Ireland and so maintained an ongoing physical presence there, set up the Spenser cover for Bacon, paying Spenser for its use and using it himself to get some of his own poetry published.

The 1570s saw the rise of a style that’s come to be known as Euphuism, after the protagonist in the novel published by Oxford in late 1578 that he attributed to his secretary, John Lyly.  An embellished account of his own adventures during his year in Italy, the novel was also a polemic delivered in response to the puritanical dicta on style and learning pronounced by Roger Ascham in his book The Scholemaster.  Published a decade earlier, dedicated to Cecil just as he was embarking on the final years of Oxford’s education, it was vicious in its denunciation of Italy as the sink of all sin.  Oxford’s point in Euphues, admittedly not all that serious, was that men learn how to live correctly, not from reading behavior guides but by experiencing life for themselves.

The 1580s were all about keeping the nation Protestant within, and defending it without against the might of the Catholic Church as wielded by Philip II of Spain.  In 1572, Cecil, by then Lord Burghley, had passed his office of Secretary of State on to Oxford’s old tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, while he took over the office of the recently deceased Lord Treasurer.  A year later Burghley got Sir Francis Walsingham appointed as Elizabeth’s Second Secretary.  When Smith died in 1577, Walsingham took his place, gradually increasing the power of the office as the need to prepare for war with Spain increased.  Although Walsingham had begun as Burghley’s protégé, as he increased in power, Burghley became uneasy.  Having had little experience of life outside England, Burghley continued to hope, and to encourage the Queen to hope, that peace could be maintained by shifts and promises, while Walsingham, having lived and studied overseas, saw that the crisis was building and knew that it was sure to come and that the nation had to be prepared.

Despite the weak reputation bequeathed him by the Cecils through their control of history, Walsingham was in fact a man of superb intellect, broad education, and refined tastes.  Where Burghley had always handled his own propaganda efforts in secrecy, Walsingham, burdened by the thousand things required of a Secretary of State, particularly one faced with a violent confrontation with the Spanish Empire, created an office of Public Relations to deal with everything that required expert writing and translation, an office he kept secret because so much of what it did had to be done in secret.  With Raleigh’s help, he got the banished Earl of Oxford reinstated at Court, created the first official Crown acting company, the Queen’s Men, and gave Oxford the mandate to write plays they could perform in and near the port towns where the Armada was most likely to strike.  Oxford’s response included The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, Edmond Ironside, and The Troublesome Raigne of King John, all of which portray England as a proud nation with a long history of defeating Continental invaders.

Fisher’s Folly

Having been banished from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Oxford quit writing the comedies for the boy companies that the Queen had come to depend on for her holiday “solace.”  Upon his return to Court in 1583, either he refused to pick up where he left off in ’81, or Walsingham needed him to focus on providing material for the Queen’s Men.  Based largely on the similarity of the style of the Lyly plays to the style of The Faerie Queene, I believe Walsingham enrolled Francis to work with Lyly to keep the Queen entertained.  Those who find the Lyly plays interesting might try comparing them to the style and content of FQ.  This was period when pastoralism was a favored theme for masques, when Sidney was writing his Arcadia, Bacon was writing Faerie Queene, and Oxford was publishing pastoral tales under a variety of noms de plume.

The University Wits

Meanwhile Walsingham helped Oxford fund a staff at Fisher’s Folly that could assist with keeping these projects in motion.  There’s plenty of evidence that John Lyly and Anthony Munday were already part of Oxford’s team.  And there’s a fair amount of proxy data that suggests that George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Watson were members of this playwriting team to which Stephen Gosson belonged at one time, and which he later vilified as “the sink of all sin.”  Although whatever evidence that these last were connected with Oxford has been scrubbed from the books, it’s a matter of record that these were all members of what the academics have nicknamed the University Wits.

I suggest that among those hired at this time was the young Christopher Marlowe.  A prodigy who had already proven himself at Cambridge, it was to learn how to write for the Queen’s Men that Marlowe missed his studies during the theater seasons of 1584 through 1586.  Having graduated in 1587, Marlowe and his NBF (New Best Friend) Edward Alleyn, decamped for the new Rose Theater on Bankside where manager Henslowe was more than willing to produce Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, a rabble-rouser that it’s most unlikely that the Oxford-Burbage-Walsingham team would have allowed to be staged as it was written.  That it was a super-hit gave solid promise that the London Stage had a viable future as a way for writers and actors to make a living.  It was also a step towards disaster, for the newborn London Stage as well as Marlowe himself.

While still banished in 1581, ’82 and early ’83, Oxford, freed from having to entertain the Court, had turned to entertaining, informing and proselitizing the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the legal community of the West End, with plays probably performed by Burbage’s adult team, most likely at the little stage at the chorister’s school he had helped to create upon his return from Italy.  Angry at the Queen and the Court, this is when The Spanish Tragedy and early versions of Timon, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Romeo and Juliet first reached a (limited) London audience.  If these were ever performed at Court, it could only have been in versions revised to suit the Queen.

Astrophil and Stella

During Oxford’s banishment, Philip Sidney was suffering an exile of his own.  Due to Leicester’s affair with Lettice Knowles, Countess of Essex, and their subsequent marriage and her pregnancy, Sidney found himself, not only out of favor with the Queen for his attitude towards her possible marriage to the Duc d’Alençon, but snubbed by those whose interest in him had been based solely on his relationship to Leicester while Leicester seemed likely to marry the Queen.  Unused to such treatment, Philip fled both the Court and his herd of supporters to hide away with his sister Mary at Wilton.  During an idyllic summer with her and her new baby, little William, something happened to Philip that gave rise to over 100 love sonnets about his relationship with a mysterious Stella that not only raised his standing at Court as a poet, but helped to diminish his reputation as sexually cold.  Eventually he married Walsingham’s daughter, and having followed Leicester to the lowlands war, was mortally wounded in 1586 at the Battle of Zutphen.

Enter Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe

At some point in the early ’80s, Oxford began publishing tales in the Greek romance style that he had written earlier to entertain the Queen and her ladies.  Some of these he published as by George Pettie, a fellow student at Oxford, some as by Thomas Lodge, one of the crew hired by Walsingham to assist him at Fisher’s Folly, some as by Barnabe Riche, another friend, but most were attributed to the ephemeral “Robert Greene.”  All but Greene are known to history, two of them writers in their own right, but Greene has never been located––although there was a man by that name who held a copyhold agreement to work a piece of Oxford’s land in Essex whose name suggests that he was a member of a local family that was once very close to Oxford’s father.

The Robert Greene of the title pages was the first and most prolific of the handful of pamphleteers who launched the first successful English commercial periodical press.  For a full decade, every year or two Oxford would publish a tale with a plot aimed at a female readership, laced with excellent poems.  Some bore the name of one of his associates, most bore the name Robert Greene.  In this way he became the originator of what one day would be the extremely influential and lucrative (though not for him) British periodical press.

Late in 1588, a new voice entered the pamphlet arena.  Using the pseudonym Martin Mar-prelate, the satirist used the new medium to harrass the bishops who were in the process of turning the Protestant Reformation into the present-day Church of England.  After a few pathetic attempts by the bishops to respond to the devastating Martin, Archbishop Whitgift, Bacon’s former master at Trinity College Cambridge, turned to Walsingham’s team for help.  Oxford’s response was a little on the tepid side, but Bacon, dazzled by Mar-prelate’s bold effrontery, found the voice he’d been seeking.  Using the name of a Cambridge sizar that provided a rather good pun for this new self, he gnashed his literary teeth, first at Mar-prelate, then, in pamphlet after pamphlet, at anyone and everything that gave him cause.

Railing was an art form then, something along the lines of today’s standup comedy; a wit who was good at it could count on being invited as a guest to expensive dinners.  Bacon, as Nashe, was good at it, at least in print; no one has ever been better.  If the world could realize who actually wrote Piers Penniless or Jack Wilton, these would soon become required reading for students of English literature.

Furious with Marlowe and Alleyn for deserting the Folly coterie, Oxford and Bacon did what they could by blasting them in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, but Marlowe, lashed to Phaeton’s cart, was not to be deterred.  His Latin motto, found on his portrait in 1955, translates as “that which nourishes me destroys me.” Following Walsingham’s death in 1590, with Cecil at his heels, he ignored the warning in Robert Greene’s farewell pamphlet, that unless he gave up his “atheism,” “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” Having eluded the Crown during an attempted sting in Flushing in 1591, Marlowe was finally nailed in May of 1593 during a deadly “visit” from three of Walsingham’s former operatives.

Meanwhile Mary Sidney, having mourned her brother for two years, arrived in London in the autumn of 1588, shortly after Leicester’s death, eager to do what she could for her family now that both Philip and their uncle were gone.  Mary has never been properly recognized for her immense ability as a poet.  Her translations of the Psalms are among the best poetry from this period.  They are also a clue to the dark nature of the puritanical protestantism in which she and her brothers were raised, and from which both of them, each in his and her own way, used their writing to fight free.

I also believe that it was Mary who, as Countess of Pembroke, was responsible for organizing the acting company known as Pembroke’s Men that stepped into the breach briefly during the theatrical disasters of the early ’90s.  I am also totally certain that everything written as by John Webster was Mary’s work, written and published throughout the latter half of the 1590s and through the first two decades of the 17th century.  While Webster the coachmaker’s son has next to nothing to offer in the way of a biography, the plays that bear his name reflect Mary’s own story in ways that once revealed, cannot be denied.  The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are the great masterpieces of Jacobean literature.  I only hope that someday they will be properly attributed to the genius who wrote them.

Mary is also the individual most responsible for making the first move to remove the barrier to publishing the poetry and tales written by courtiers.   By publishing her brother’s sonnets in 1591, she opened the door, first to Sir John Harington, who published his translation of Orlando Furioso that same year, to Bacon who followed suit in 1596 by putting his own name on the first edition of his famous Essays.  Some continued to hide behind pseudonyms and initials for another century or so, but the fortress of tradition was cracked.  Only time, and the crumbling of aristocratic isolation, would bring it down for good.

With the 1591 publication of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Oxford, in dire straits, having lost his ability to raise the funds needed to keep his theater enterprise going, now found himself in danger of losing what may have been even more precious to him, his place in the sun as England’s top courtier poet, for Sidney, whose stock was already sky high due to his heroic death in battle, was being touted as the new Chaucer.  His sonnets were selling like hotcakes.  Determined to protect his status, Oxford worked with Richard Field, who ran the print shop next door to the little Blackfriars Theater, to publish Venus and Adonis in a beautifully-designed edition.  Forced to seek a new cover name, having put paid to Robert Greene some months earlier, he used the name of a friend of his printer.  Unable to pay for it himself, we hear his gratitude to a new patron, the young Earl of Southampton, in the dedicatory note signed William Shakespeare.  This was located on the reverse side of the title page, an indication to those aware of such traditions, that since it wasn’t on the title page, it did not represent the author.

Bacon shifts gears

In the early 90s, after Oxford got rid of Greene, he and Bacon went a few rounds in a phony paper duel in which Bacon railed as Nashe and Oxford pretended to be Gabriel Harvey.  When Oxford found it necessary to rid the world of the fictional Robert Greene, he realized that Greene’s absurd deathbed mea culpa, Greene’s Groatsworth, was not going to be sufficiently convincing, so he faked a third party commentary on Greene which he attributed to Gabriel Harvey.  The infamous Second Letter, in which Harvey supposedly reveals the disgusting facts about Greene’s terrible lifestyle and pathetic death is sheer foolery, as we’re informed by the statement that Greene died of “a surfeit of pickled herring,” a clue that the whole thing was a joke.  Bacon, looking for an excuse to continue to rail in print, pretends to defend Greene by attacking the Harveys.  When scholars, seeking the horrendous insult in works by Greene, finally discovered it, there was nothing about it that could possibly cause such a reaction.

Harvey had been friendly with both Bacon and Oxford when the Shepheard’s Calender was published back in 1578.  Referred to as Colin Clout’s “especial good friend Hobbinol”; he was also the addressee of E. K.’s dedicatory letter, which urged him to promote the new poet’s work “with your mighty Rhetoric and other your rare gifts of learning.” But something happened between then and a year later when Bacon published some of Harvey’s personal letters to him in Three Witty and Familiar Letters, which caused Harvey a great deal of trouble.  His effort to respond in a light vein to this damning maneuver is particularly touching.  In my view, it was the last thing published under his name that he actually wrote himself.

I do not believe that a single pamphlet from the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet duel was actually written by Gabriel Harvey; they were all by Oxford, who, bereft of his credit, was dying of boredom.  For one thing, in the early 1590s Gabriel Harvey was in no position to take on these two powerful Court figures.  He had lost his position at the university, and his stipend, and so was in dire financial straits, with the added burden of having to fight with the widow of his recently deceased brother John for control of his brother’s estate.  It’s possible Harvey got some work in London, but at some point he retired to his home town where he continued to correspond with serious scholars, never commenting, in writing at least, on the rude way his name had been bandied about.

Bacon goes legit

In 1596, the Queen finally gave Bacon a job as her personal counsel. 1596 was a terrible year for Elizabeth, during which she lost the last remaining member of her family, Lord Hunsdon, and was more or less forced to yield to the Cecils’ demands to make them the supreme power on the Privy Council.  Perhaps in seeking a balance to the weight of the Cecils, Essex turning out to be unreliable, she had no one left to turn to but Bacon.  There was no salary, but for Francis, who it appears genuinely adored the Queen, it may be that finally having her ear was all he needed.

The effect this had on him was amazing.  Finally given the position he craved for so long, with Walsingham and Hunsdon gone and Oxford and his projects in trouble, it seems he was ready to quit his role as Court entertainer and satirist and to devote his talents to supporting the Queen and the Earl of Essex.  According to his biographer, his handwriting totally changed at this time.  Within a few months he published everything he’d ever written as Spenser, and after one final blast as Nashe in 1599 (probably for the sake of his printer, since it was the printer who made money, not the author), he seems never to have written another word as either Spenser or Nashe.

If, as history has it, Spenser actually arrived in person in London in December of 1598, fleeing the rage of the Irish, it must have caused something of an embarrassing situation.  If, as history has it, he then died a few weeks later, it was probably lucky for all concerned.  Following an elaborate funeral provided by Essex, he (or something like him) was buried in Poet’s Corner, and that was that.  By then Bacon was up to his ears in Court politics, where he continued to assist Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men whenever and wherever he could.  The surfacing of the Northumberland Manuscript in 1867 strongly suggests that he was heavily involved in getting Richard II and Richard III published during Oxford’s showdown with Cecil in 1597.

The Earl of Derby

One of the candidates whose name has been linked to Shakespeare since early on is William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby.  His older brother, Ferdinando Stanley, had been deeply involved in the London Stage as patron of various companies––most recently of the Lord Strange’s Men, the crew that produced Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in 1587––until his murder in 1594 passed the earldom to his brother William.  William’s marriage to Oxford’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, in January 1595, was (in my view) the occasion for a version of The Tempest in which Prospero bequeaths the magical isle to his daughter Miranda and the shipwrecked Ferdinand, just as it appears Oxford, weary of his role as Court jester, was attempting (or pretending) to bequeath the Court Stage to his daughter and her husband, so he could retire to the Forest of Waltham.

Efforts to cast William Stanley as Shakespeare appear to grow from records that show his involvement in the Court Stage in the late 1590s, in particular his patronage of the new Children’s Company that, through his efforts, got the use of the Burbage’s Blackfriars Theater in 1600.

That William Stanley did nothing to prevent rumors that he was the real Shakespeare, seems likely from the otherwise meaningless scene in As You Like It where Touchstone, in the repartee over his marriage to Audrey, the personification of the public audience that Oxford was now forced to entertain, having greeted William, Audrey’s other suitor (and only one of two in the entire named William) with “Cover thy head, cover thy head; nay, prithee, be covered,” after some even more obscure wordplay, continues: “You do love this maid [the public audience]?”

WIL:   I do, sir.
TOU:  . . .  Art thou learned?
WIL:   No, sir.
TOU:  Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that  drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.
WIL:   Which he, sir?
TOU:  He, sir, that must marry this woman [entertain the public].  Therefore, you     clown, abandon––which is in the vulgar leave––the society––which in the   boorish is company––of this female––which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female [the London Stage], or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit I  kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado, or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction; I will o’errun thee with policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart!

The audience for which this was written was the same audience for which Oxford had prepared the 1595 version of The Tempest, one aware of all the family connections and political issues addressed, so they would have had no problem understanding the meaning of this exchange, nor would William Stanley himself, who doubtless was present when As You Like It was performed for the Court while King James dallied at Wilton in August of 1603.  What then was the general opinion of the Court with regard to Stanley?  George Carey, who in 1603 was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, called him a “niddicock” [a nincompoop] in a letter written to his wife following Ferdinando’s murder.

A recent addition to the list of candidates is Emilia Bassano Lanier (or Lanyer), the first woman to publish a book of her original poetry under her own name. (Mary Sidney’s translations of the psalms remained unpublished in print in her lifetime.)  Although she was certainly not the author of the Shakespeare canon, Emilia played a most important role in the Shakespeare story as the most likely candidate for the Dark Lady of his Sonnets, and the figure of Cleopatra in his last great romantic tragedy.

The final figure in this coterie of writers who has been bruited as Shakespeare is Sir Walter Raleigh.  Raleigh’s excellent style as seen in his Ocean to Cynthia poems, his letters and his History of the World, plus the fact that, despite his need, and the Queen’s genuine fondness for him, like all the other Court poets, he was never given a truly important Court position, would be sufficient to accept him as a member of this group, but too little has been done to identify enough of his poetry to go any further.  It seems likely that the Amoretti sonnets and the Epithamalion attributed to Spenser in 1596 were Raleigh’s, written during his wooing of Bess Throckmorten in the early 1590s.  They certainly sound nothing like the other works attributed to Spenser.

These then are the members of the group who gave the world the English Literary Renaissance:  Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, the Sidneys, and probably Sir Walter Raleigh.  Born with Oxford, it matured and developed with help from the others, and died with the deaths of Mary Sidney in 1621 and Bacon in 1626.  Both Mary and Francis (born within months of each other), in my opinion, spent their final years assisting her sons, the Earls of Pembroke, and their good friend Ben Jonson  in his task of preparing Oxford’s collected works for print in 1623.

Of this group, only Philip Sidney never used a pseudonym.  (Marlowe’s name was put on several works after his death that do not sound like his plays.)  All the others published their works under a variety of names, Oxford using a good dozen at least before settling on Shakespeare; Bacon using at least three, Mary using at least one, and Raleigh, who can tell?  Of this group of current candidates, only Derby had nothing to do with creating a canon, though he did have something to do with the Court and London Stage.

Although I can’t put all the evidence for each of the standins used by Oxford and Bacon in a blog, I will do my best to do this at some point in the future.   This kind of proof is text-heavy and painstaking, and it is not always something that is going to capture everyone’s interest.  Right now it seems more important to present a scenario that makes sense.  Without the cream and yeast of a believable narrative, facts are like a bowl of flour as compared to a digestible loaf of bread.

A personal note

Many thanks to those who made a Christmas donation when I passed the hat a few weeks ago.  With the help of Rick, Francis, Kelly, Heike, Lynn and Kathleen, I now have $360 to help get the books and other materials I need through Amazon.com. Many thanks, dear readers. It’s your interest that keeps me going, but a little coin of the realm never hurts.

Shakespeare and “the wobble”

For want of a better term, I’m calling it “the wobble.”  This is the period we’re in right now, the one we call the winter stolstice, that goes from, roughly, the 21st of December to the 6th of January, during which the earth changes its orientation to the sun.  Life on earth experiences this as the return of light, sun and warmth.  Days, which until now have been getting shorter, will begin to get longer, a process that will continue until the 21st of June, the summer solstice, when they will begin to shorten once again.

The interesting thing about this period, or one of the interesting things, is how the change occurs.  Like so many changes, it does not happen all at once.  If you check the times of sunrise and sunset you’ll see that as the day begins to expand on December 21st, it’s only the sunset that stops happening earlier and begins to happen later, while sunrise actually continues to take place a little later each day, as it has been doing since June, only changing to earlier on January 6th or 7th, when sunrise and sunset together begin the six month process of expanding the day at both ends, sunrise getting earlier each day while sunset gets later.  It’s as though the morning continues on its downward path for another two weeks while the afternoon and evening are already turning towards spring.

Humans and animals experience this as a time of instability.  With the planet undergoing the stress of a change of direction, everything on earth experiences a slight sensation of going too fast around a corner.  This sensation is too slight to feel or see, but it is constant from the 21st of December until the 6th of January, known to the folk as Twelfth Night and to the Church as the Epiphany.

That the forces that pull and thrust the earth in its path around the sun (forces that are still very poorly understood by science) are in something of a conflict during this two-week period is reflected in the symbol of Janus, the Roman god of transitions for whom January is named, which shows a head with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction.  This is said to represent this period as both looking to the past and to the future.  It can also be seen as looking to the Spring, the springing up of life, while continuing to mourn the Fall, into dearth, that is, seeming death.

The European peoples tradition has set the turn of the year, New Year’s Eve/Day, at a midpoint during this process.  While the traditional solstice point is the 24th of December, opposite to the 24th of June, in ancient tradition the summer solstice, or Midsummer’s Day (note that for centuries it was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and that it is also the date in 1604 when the Earl of Oxford is supposed to have died).  Because the actual moment of transition can occur anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours out of step with the dates assigned by the calendar, the 24th was the earliest that the ancients could be certain the transition had begun.

Ten lords a-leaping

Some readers may already have connected this period with the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which demarked, as the old carol describes, the period of holiday gift-giving, beginning on the day after Christmas and completing on the sixth of January, the twelfth night after Christmas.  It cannot be coincidence that this period conforms exactly to “the wobble,” the two week period when the forces that drive the planet are in conflict with each other, with the earth pulled one way from midnight to noon and another from noon to midnight, until the dayward pull completes its takeover on January 6th or 7th.  That Shakespeare, and the ancient astronomers and astrologers, were  acutely aware of this process cannot be denied.

That the two faces of Janus, the source of the name January, are turned away from each other, suggests that these two forces––if conscious of each other, are in some conflict with each other––fits with the fact that wherever we have history of other times and in other parts of the world, this period has always been an upside-down time of reversal, a two week period during which social and religious conventions are turned around, when the everyday face of law and social propriety is forced to acknowledge humanity’s need to cut loose, as in the Roman Saturnalia.

During prehistoric times, before records were kept, there must have been rituals associated with this period that, in Christian times got turned into those holiday rituals of which we do have reports, such as the Boy Bishop in the parishes, or the Lord of Misrule at the colleges, and the Feast of Fools in France.  In the rural areas it was the time when mummings and disguisings allowed the folk to drink and carry on like sailors “on liberty,” misbehaving in ways that normally would not be tolerated.

There were several other moments of the year when such license was allowed: Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, also known as Shrovetide and Carneval; May Day, May first;  Midsummer’s Eve, June 23rd; and  October 31st, All Hallows Eve (our Halloween); but most of these were but a single day or night, nor did they carry the upside-down quality of reversal.  These rituals were, at least in retrospect, an effective way of allowing groups to blow off steam before situations got so desperate that they led to riot or murder.

Apart from the merry-making, the quality of reversal that marked the twelve days of Christmas gave the meek a chance to pretend they had already inherited the earth while authorities were reminded that their superiority was merely a temporary, or temporal, condition.  It was preeminently a time when satires were rife, whether impromptu performances by mummers, or, in the cities, effigies of authorities to be mocked by the crowd.  Unfortunately, the Reformation, that saw these “may games” first, as something conjured up by the Devil to drag mankind into the fiery furnace, and second, dangerous to authority, was so successful in eradicating them that very little information has come down to us about their nature, leaving folklorists just bits and pieces here and there with which to put together a scenario.  As Shakespeare put it,  twice: “For O, the Hobby Horse is forgot!”

Enter Shakespeare, laughing

Once the academic bonds to Stratford are broken so scholars are free to seek the poet and his works as they actually appear in history, it will  become clear that the literary revolution he inspired by way of the London Stage was Nature’s way of providing the unhappy English, bereft of their beloved holiday traditions, with a viable substitute.  As is clear from the record when we allow ourselves to read it directly, the London Stage was born as an outflow of the Court Stage, which is obviously where he began his career in the late 1560s to early 1570s.  The plays that most agree are his earliest are the comedies with which the Master of the Revels began replacing masques as the primary winter holiday entertainment for the Court in the late 1560s and early 1570s.

Masques, the Court’s version of the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages, were inclined to get rowdy.  With plays the audience remained quietly in their seats, transported to Prospero’s Magical Isle, to Illeria or Athens, through the magic of genius storytelling (these plays would not be labelled as by William Shakespeare until the late 1590s when the actors, forced to publish, needed a name for the title pages).  Thus Elizabeth was able to provide her Court and its foreign visitors with a more intellectual version of the pleasures of an old-fashioned winter holiday while maintaining the dignity required by an unmarried female monarch and the first Reformation Court in Europe.

When these comedies began migrating from the Court to the London theater inns, the public, starved for entertainment, responded with such enthusiasm that entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe saw the creation of yearround public stages as a viable business opportunity.  By replacing the uncertainties of passing the hat or the promises of patrons with a box office at the door, Burbage, a member of the Carpenter’s Guild and a part time actor with the Court-based company known officially as Leicester’s Men, hoped to guarantee a professional living for himself and his fellow amateurs.  Thus did the first versions of  Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado and Twelfth Night, migrate from the Court to the London Stage, opening the door for the great histories and tragedies that would follow in times to come.

“No more cakes and ale”

All of these comedies show traces of their origins as Court entertainment for one or another of these periods of festal license, some containing stage directions that show breaks for music and dancing, even, as in The Tempest, for a possible feast.  Most notable is Twelfth Night, where the subplot follows the traditions of this anomalous holiday period in the antics of Sir Toby, Maria, Feste and Fabian, while their battle with Malvolio reflects the war the actors were fighting with the London mayors and those Court officials who wanted them shut down.  The “reversal” involved shows their success in getting the Countess to have her steward, Malvolio, incarcerated as a lunatic, and in Feste’s undoubtedly hilarious imitation of a Reformation prelate.

But the solemnity of Feste’s question, directed at Malvolio, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?’ is posed, if not so directly, by all these holiday plays.   Malvolio’s curse, with which the play ends: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” seems astonishly prophetic, considering how a few decades later the puritans would succeed in shutting down all the theaters in England, and that even after they reopened two decades later, Shakespeare would not be seen again in the form in which his plays were originally written for another 200 years!  Perhaps by the time another benchmark arrives in another century we’ll have begun to accept the fact that the plays were written by a courtier, and not the illiterate William who gave nothing to the enterprise but his wonderfully punnable name and twenty years of sturdy silence.

Twelfth Night on Broadway throughout January

Although it’s most likely that it’s through serendipity alone and no occult design that this play in which the ancient reversal tradition is perhaps the strongest of all Shakespeare’s plays, is playing on Broadway during this year’s “wobble.”  With that genius of the Shakespeare stage, Mark Rylance, in a starring role, this is one of those theater events that, for those of us who like our Shakespeare authentic, is not to be missed.  Done to perfection in a sort of faux-sixteenth century style, nothing could be more “reversed” than the fact that Rylance has chosen to play Olivia rather than Sir Toby or any other of the male roles (with the marvelous Stephen Fry as Malvolio).  This, plus the fact that all the female roles are played by males, however attributed to authenticity (all female roles were played by male actors in Shakespeare’s England), does not explain their Kabuki-like makeup or perambulation .  For what’s most “authentic” about Mark’s approach is that, like Shakespeare,  he takes what the past has to offer and by mixing it with something unexpected, achieves effects that no one else would dare to attempt.

Thus Rylance, whose brilliant treatments of Shakespeare were the major contribution to the success of the New Globe Theater while he was presiding as its Artistic Director for its first ten years, during which he used his, and its, popularity to awaken the public to the authorship question, shows himself again to be the grand master of reversals during this winter holiday wobble.  On nights when he’s not playing Olivia he’s playing Richard III as a sort of royal Mr. Punch.

Here I am backstage at the great and beautiful Belasco Theater with this dear, generous, and incredibly gifted friend (photo taken by my daughter). God bless great actors, especially those who can make us laugh!Me and Mark Rylance

Passing the hat

As this time of year has always been devoted to requests for donations by worthy causes, I hope mine qualifies with some of you as worthy of support.  I’m asking those readers who believe what I’m doing is contributing to the world’s knowledge (politicworm gets hits every day from all over the world), not only about Shakespeare and his works, but about the history of the period when he lived, I would be most appreciative of a little help in getting  books that I need to have available for reference that I can’t get online, and that the library won’t let me keep longer than a month.

Should you feel inspired to help in this way, you can do so by purchasing a gift card through Amazon.com for politicworm at gmail.com.  Any amount is greatly appreciated.  You can take the option of putting your name on it, which means I can thank you personally, and if you wish, include you in the acknowledgements in the book that hopefully will be done this coming year.  If you wish to remain anonymous, whether to me or to my readers, you just leave the name space blank (but of course I’d much prefer to know who you are).

Meanwhile I’m grateful to everyone who subscribes to this wobbelog.  And to all who comment on my posts, who give me encouragement, inspiration, and food for thought, a fun and exciting winter wobble and a healthy and prosperous rising year.

Oxford’s issues and Shakespeare’s plots

The biggest problem caused the so-called Shakespeare critics by the Stratford biography has been the way it skews the dates of the plays.  With no perceivable connection between the life of William of Stratford and the themes of the plays, there’s been no means of connecting the plots and themes of the plays to particular points in time.  Even an event common to all Englishmen, the victory over the Spanish Armada, August 1588, is too early for Henry V, which would otherwise be seen as the kind of patriotic call to arms most likely written in advance of the great showdown.  But no, Shakespeare cared nothing for the events of the day, or so we’re told.  How about King John, that ends with this otherwise pointless threat:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them!  Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

This they locate in 1596, when Essex, Raleigh, the Lord Admiral and hundreds of impressed sailors were in the process of attacking Spanish Cadiz!  As usual it’s not Shakespeare but the so-called critics who care nothing for the events of the day.

Anyone who studies the history of literature knows how anomalous it is that one of the world’s greatest writers shows no interest in the themes and events that dominate his own life.  Think of D.H. Laurence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Hemingway, Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Proust, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Arthur Miller.  Where in all the history of fiction is there another who shows so little interest in the events and issues of his or her own life, particularly the playwrights, who must capture the interest of an audience who must share to some degree the same stream of historic events?

While genre writers gather facts and themes from other sources, seeking primarily to entertain and sell books, great writers of literature seem to turn to writing more to pursue the questions that torment them than for any other purpose; the oyster creates the pearl from its anguish.  The thinker, desperate for direction in a particular area, will turn to philosophy while the artist will conjure up a plot that parallels his situation, peopling it with characters based on friends, enemies and mates, as much to see where the story ends as to tell it to others.

Surely this is one of the ways we can be most certain about Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, for by using what we know of his life as a frame of reference for the plays and poems it turns out that we have the best means yet for dating the plays, for apart from the Roman history plays, all of them, even the English history plays, fit perfectly as descants on his own situation at the time, as well as appropriate responses to the national events surrounding him.  When we know the dates of these events, both national and personal, we have a much more solid means of locating the plays in time.

From his life we know that he began in his teens and twenties by writing comedies for Court holidays and weddings.  With his banishment from Court in his early thirties he turned to writing more serious works for the educated lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End.  When this came to an end in the early 90s with the death of Walsingham and the ascent to power of Robert Cecil, he entered the final phase of his career, revising his early plays for public consumption via the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men.  This was the period when he produced the works then published as by William Shakespeare.

Here is a list of some of the major themes and issues of Oxford’s personal life as they relate to the origins of the Shakespeare canon:

1572: Loss of honor of his cousin Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, having been persuaded by his wicked brother, Henry Howard to plot with Mary Queen of Scots to overthrow Elizabeth, resulting in Howard’s destruction: Macbeth.

1576: Breakup of his marriage: he dealt with this in at least seven plays.  Of the evil rumour and his own suspicions: in Pericles and Hamlet; about the one who started the rumor: Iachimo in Cymbeline, Iago in Othello; about his own insane jealousy: Othello, Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado; his attempts to explain or resolve the problem appear in Much Ado, All’s Well, and Winter’s Tale.

1581: Accusations of treason by his cousin Henry Howard and Charles Arundel that he countered with two plays for the Inns of Court audience dealing with similar issues in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.

1581-1596: Love and friendship:  With the Earl of Rutland: Damon and Pythias, Palamon and Arcite (Two Noble Kinsmen), Two Gentlemen of Verona; Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton: Romeus and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Ann Vavasor: Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet; the Earl of Southampton: Merchant of Venice, Sonnets 1-126; Emilia Bassano: Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Sonnets 40-44, 127-152.

1595-1604: Troubles with his adult daughters: In a revision of The Tempest created in 1595 for the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth to the Earl of Derby, he substitutes a fantasy relationship between himself and his daughter for the reality of having abandoned her and her mother shortly before her birth; In King Lear he shows his anger at his two older daughters and their husbands, for how they’ve been treating him and his servants, along with his emotional dependency on his youngest daughter and perhaps his fears that she could meet with harm.

Financial troubles: His loss of inherited estates and rightful offices to the machinations of his in-laws and evil stewards is seen in:  As You Like It, The Tempest, and Hamlet; the loss of investments in Merchant of Venice; the loss of credit in Timon of Athens.

Murders of patrons and friends: fears that these were murdered: his own father, the sixteenth earl, in Hamlet; his patron the Earl of Sussex, also in Hamlet; his patron Francis Walsingham, his patron Lord Hunsdon, the manager of his acting company, James Burbage, perhaps even his companion in his teen years, the Earl of Rutland, in Richard III.  The death of playwright Marlowe is mentioned by Touchstone in As You Like It.

Models for his characters:

Issues with females: for his first love, Mary Browne, in the narrative poem Romeus and Juliet; for the poet Ann Vavasor, who gave him a son: Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado (before he was banished from Court for their affair), Cressida (when he believed she had wantonly given him up for another), Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet (having learned that she was still true to him), Desdemona (as a vital independent female); his wife Anne Cecil: Mistress Ann Page in Merry Wives; Ophelia in Hamlet, Hero in Much Ado, Hermione in Winter’s Tale, Virgilia in Coriolanus, Desdemona (as the victim of his jealousy); the poet and playwright Mary Sidney: Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in a late version of As You Like It; the poet and musician Emilia Bassano: the Dark lady of Sonnets 40-44 and 127-152, the Cleopatra of Antony and Cleopatra; Queen Elizabeth as Venus in Venus and Adonis, and as Gertrude in Hamlet; as the witches in Macbeth: Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret Douglass Countess of Lennox, and Bess of Hardwick.

Issues with male friends: Rutland as Damon in Damon and Pythias, as Arcite in Palamon and Arcite, as Valentine in Two Gents; Southampton as the Fair Youth of Sonnets 1-126, Bassanio in Merchant of Venice, Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida; Sir John Perrot as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One and as described in Henry V.

Satires of rivals:  The Earl of Leicester as Shallow in an early version of Merry Wives; Sir Philip Sidney as Silence in Merry Wives, as Aguecheek in Twelfth Night; Lord Strange as Petrucio in Taming of the Shrew; Ben Jonson as Caliban in The Tempest; Sir Walter Raleigh as Jaques in As You Like It; Francis Bacon as Puck and Ariel; the sixth Earl of Derby (his son-in-law) as William in As You Like It; the Earl of Essex as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida; George Peele imitating Marlowe as Ancient Pistol.  It should be noted that revisions of the comedies over the years means that some earlier satires were replaced by a later figure, which is certainly the case with Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as the original play would have been much too early for the spearing of Antonio Perez, a Court figure from the 1590s.

Spearing of enemies:  Christopher Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, perhaps as Osric in Hamlet; Henry Howard as Iachimo, Iago, Lady Macbeth, and Cassius; Roland Yorke as Parolles in All’s Well; the Earl of Leicester as Claudius in Hamlet; Robert Cecil as Richard III and as Laertes in the final version of Hamlet; either Mildred Cecil or her sister Lady Russell as Volumnia in Coriolanus.

Acknowledgement of patrons and contributors of their talents: of Benedict Spinola in Baptista Minola of Two Gents, and perhaps Benedick of Much Ado; of Queen Elizabeth as Portia in Merchant, as the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, the King in All’s Well, and the Abbess in Comedy of Errors; of the Bassano brothers in The Spanish Tragedy; and finally of King James as the Duke in the final version of As You Like It.

Portrayals of guardians:  Sir Thomas Smith as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, as Gonzago (and Prospero) in The Tempest, as the Duke of Gloucester in Thomas of Woodstock and probably also Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost.; William Cecil as Polonius in Hamlet, Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Feu in All’s Well, and Menenius in Coriolanus.

Is it any wonder that the actors, their patrons and Oxford himself all felt it necessary to hide his identity?

A hollow “Hollow Crown”

Did anyone see the BBC series “The Hollow Crown” on PBS?  If so, what did you think of it?  Unfortunately I missed the first two, Richard II and Henry IV Part One, but did manage to see a fair amount of 2HIV and Henry V.  “Fair amount” since sleep, which generally overcomes me shortly after 9 PM, took me captive, despite the charms of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  What did I miss?  From what I saw I thought both productions were good in some ways, but truly terrible in others.

The good was largely Hiddleston as the prince.  A product of Eton and Cambridge where he majored in Classics, he has a princely accent and attitude, a wide range of expression, and is the right age for the character.  Moving easily from moody pensiveness to rage to hilarity, he finds in Hal the depth of character and range of emotion that are the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s greatest characters.  This carries him through the complexity of the speeches––though some could have used cutting: I cringed to think that, as King, Hal would have kept the Mayor of Harfleur on his knees through that long pompous threat of what would happen to babes and daughters if the Mayor refused to yield the town.  But we must remember that this is very early Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons is a good Henry IV; the action is interesting and well-conceived, the camera-work expressive and unobtrusive, and the costumes remarkable for achieving a blend of period authenticity and what a modern viewer can relate to, at least for the courtiers.  Unhappily however, this last does not extend to the inhabitants and setting of the Boars Head Tavern, for what’s truly awful about this production––and  recent film versions as well––is the way Falstaff and his friends are portrayed as the scum of the earth, dirty, disheveled, dressed in rags, hanging about in a filthy tavern overseen by a slovenly madam who keeps a company whore even more ragged and slatternly than she.

Most awful is what this bucket-load of grunge has done to the image of Falstaff that has accrued over the centuries.  Here is the blurb with which Sparknotes online promotes the series: “A fat, cheerful, witty, aging criminal, [Falstaff] has long been Prince Hal’s mentor and close friend.  He pretended to have killed Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal–the actual killer–agreed to go along with the lie.  For this reason, everyone gives Falstaff much more respect than he deserves.”  Obviously this is what the author of this blurb has gotten from watching the series––Falstaff is a criminal and Hal is a killer!

Why on earth would the Prince of Wales, soon to be crowned as the great Henry the Fifth, choose to spend so much of his time with this unpleasant old rascal, dressed and directed as though he were a drunken Salvation Army Santa Claus.  His seedy surroundings, immense bulk, fusty beard, and rapid delivery distract from Shakespeare’s text, which tells a very different tale.  Unfortunately the audience, unless it already knows the play, will not find it easy to catch the import of the text, since the current practise of running lines at an unnatural speed in film productions, where action must replace the precision and clarity of a traditional stage performance, turns Falstaff’s wicked tongue and wit to the mutterings of a crazy old fool.  The idea that the Prince of Wales would prefer to spend his time in such a setting and with such an “old criminal” is so absurd that the viewing audience is more or less lost from the start.  What were the producers thinking?

If it was to create a contrast with the Court, that fails, due to two other bad things, namely the dull color palette and the choice of a vast empty hall as the King’s presence chamber.  Just about everything in the film, whether in the Court or the Tavern or on the battlefield is either brown, black, or gray; there isn’t a spark of bright color anywhere.  Where is the splendor with which the late medieval royalty surrounded itself, the purple, carnation, scarlet, gold and white, the “peach-color” of Poins’s stockings, the sun shining through stained glass windows?  Shot in the winter, with the trees bare and the sky gray, the outdoor scenes are just as bleak as those indoors.  As for the crew gathered in the Boars Head Tavern, it would seem that modern directors seriously mistake the intense teasing and rude familiarity of  people who have no fear of seriously offending each other as the brawling of thieves and streetwalkers.

Ignorant of the times, the ambiance they seek to recreate has caused Shakespeare’s meaning to escape them.  Why does it never strike them to wonder why Falstaff is so revered?  If he’s the shambling old nonentity he’s portrayed, why does the royal prince, with his princely education, desire his company?  Why does the hostess of the tavern pressure him to marry her?  Why does Doll Tearsheet demonstrate such love for him?  How can Falstaff dare to consider himself the Prince’s “true father”?  Bereft of the stature and bearing that the text suggests, missing the meaning of the rapid fire delivery, how are we to take Falstaff’s claim that he is not only witty in himself, but is the cause of wit in others?

If we pay attention to the text we find that this old stumblebum speaks to those around him with the arrogance and self-importance of a courtier (more notably in Part Two) , an attitude rendered ridiculous here by the seedy setting, his short stature, unkempt hair and undistinguished garb.  No more than a knight, where does he get the aristocratic attitude that he deserves to have whatever he wants?  Attempting to purchase satin for a suit, he curses the system when told he hasn’t the necessary security (credit).  Ignoring the Lord Chief Justice, he invites this high official’s companion, the poet Gower, to dine, despite his obvious inability to pay the bill.  Nor is this attributable to a lunatic’s Napoleonic complex, for were he the lowlife he’s portrayed, the Lord Chief Justice would hardly take the time to seek him in person, but would send a constable to fetch him for questioning (about the Gad’s hill robbery).  Confronting him, he would hardly waste words in one of Falstaff’s wit battles––he would simply have him arrested.

If Falstaff is in fact what his name tells us he is, someone who has carried the staff of high office and who has failed that office, then everything falls into place.  It makes sense of Hal’s interest in him.  It makes sense of the scene in Part One where, before the battle, Falstaff joins readily in easy conversation with the King.  It makes sense of  Mistress Quickly’s eagerness to marry him, for, however poor in cash, someone in high office would have estates to support him.  If Falstaff doesn’t see to his estates the way he should, that’s another aspect of his failure.  It makes sense of Hal and Poins’s devotion, the sort that rebellious youths are often inclined to give a fallen idol.  As for Poins, depicted here as only the best of the bad lot that congregate around the depraved Falstaff, as Shakespeare suggests, he’s Hal’s close and intimate friend––if not a peer himself, then close to it.  Ned Poins, named for a leading family of the day (usually spelled Poyntz) would not be hanging about in the Tavern, waiting for the Prince to appear, he would accompany him, going and coming.

As for Bardoph and Nym, Shakespeare does not intend them to be taken as Falstaff’s equals; it’s clear they are his servants.  A captain himself, Ancient Pistol is his sergeant, Peto his lieutenant.  All rely on his patronage, however uncertain.   Falstaff claims that he “bought” Bardolf at Paul’s Cathedral, where masterless men were known to gather in search of employment.  The little page treats Bardolph rudely, like one on his same level.  That Falstaff is meant to be elegantly dressed is clear from the comments by Hal and Poins on how Falstaff has turned the page into his “ape,” that is, he has dressed the boy like himself, and has encouraged him to join in the verbal fencing that they call wit.

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

The settings

Along with the anomalously huge and empty presence chamber, there’s the anomaly of the Boar’s Head Tavern.  Where did the directors of this production get the model for this dilapidated, low-ceilinged dump, tucked behind a battered old door like one of the blind pigs of Prohibition, lacking any touch of decoration or charm.  Don’t they bother to read any history at all?  The Boars Head Tavern was famous in its time as the finest inn in London.  Where is there any evidence of the “plate” and the “tapestry of her dining rooms” that Mistress Quickly fears having to pawn unless Falstaff pays his bill?  When she says, protesting the presence of his “swaggering” servant, “I must live among my neighbours: I’ll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best,” what could be “the very best” in such a place, and why should her wretched neighbors care, or she care what they think?

Of course, there were “stews” in London, neighborhoods where gangsters and their molls held sway (as Robert Greene depicted in his “renunciation” pamphlets), but this would not have been the sort of hostel where one might rub elbows with the Prince of Wales and his friends.  When, joking, Falstaff says he’ll get a wife from “the stews,” meaning the slums, would that make sense if his tavern was located in a slum?  Would Shakespeare waste the opportunity to adorn Doll Tearsheet with the finest up-to-date attire, or an exaggerated version of it, rather than what the BBC has given us, a beautiful actress made to look worse even than the lowliest streetwalker, who at least would be doing her best to dress in a way that she hoped would attract men.  This Doll, her hair uncombed, her colorless dress torn and unmended, qualifies for nothing better than an inmate of Bedlam.  What happened to the “fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta,” with which Hal teases Falstaff?

Far from the grungy dive it’s depicted here, the historic Boars Head Inn, located in central London in a neighborhood dominated by the halls of the powerful and wealthy trade guilds, was a classy establishment, probably from the very first.  History informs us that it was in the reign of Richard II, shortly before the period of the Henry IV plays, that one William Warder gave a tenement called the “Boar’s Head” in Eastcheap to a college of priests, founded by Sir William Walworth, for the adjoining church of St. Michael’s in Crooked Lane.  According to John Stowe, during Shakespeare’s time Eastcheap was “butcher’s row,” where the public houses had the most delectible roast meats to offer, and where, as Mistress Quickly suggests, it was  possible to order meat during Lent.  Lasting well into the 18th century, the Boar’s Head, that is, the one that replaced Shakespeare’s after it was destroyed in the great London fire, was noted as, “the chief tavern in London,” frequented by the likes of Alexander Pope and his brilliant coterie.

Who was Falstaff?

As for the historic Falstaff, unable to locate a model in history or literature that fits the Stratford biography, academics usually attribute this greatest of all his comic characters solely to Shakespeare’s imagination, but we heretics have a wider fund to draw on.  For instance, since we can accept that Shakespeare was fluent in French, the idea that the relationship between Hal and Falstaff was inspired by the violent and scatalogical wordplay of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel––while rejected by the academics because Rabelais wasn’t translated into English until the mid-17th century––works well for us.

The first character to play the role of Hal’s quarrelsome foil was Dericke, the clown from the very early play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.  Since documentation shows that members of the Queen’s Men, Richard Tarleton and William Knell, played Dericke and Hal respectively, we know that Famous Victories dates back at least to the 1580s (historian Ramon Jiménez puts it as far back as the 1560s).  But while Dericke is a standard vice figure left over from medieval times, Falstaff is clearly one of Shakespeare’s departures from tradition.  Among these departures was his method of creating important characters by conflating the traits of persons familiar to his Court audience with figures from literature and history.

That the Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV and V plays was originally Sir John Oldcastle is clear from, among a number of other clues, the appearance of “Old” as a character in the sloppily printed 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part Two, the phrase “Old Lad of the Castle” that remains in Henry IV Part One, and the Oldcastle (also known as Jockey) who joins the Gads Hill gang in Famous Victories.  Since there is also clear evidence that the Falstaff of Merry Wives was originally the same Sir John Oldcastle, we can assume that both plays were written (rather rewritten) at the same time, and that both saw the character’s name changed from Oldcastle to Falstaff in the mid 1590s (more precisely, late 1596 or early 1597) and for the same reason, because the Queen insisted that it be changed.

We have no reason to doubt that Her Majesty (and the entire Court audience), saw Shakespeare’s Oldcastle as a satirical character intended by the actors and their playwright to embarrass their newly-appointed patron, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, William Brooke Lord Cobham.  As Alice Lyle-Scoufos demonstrates in convincing detail in her Shakespeare’s Topological Satire (1979), Shakespeare combined damaging traits and events from Cobham’s life (including the true incident of the robbing of the Spanish courier by his sons during Oxford’s time at Cecil House) and the life of his renowned ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle (burnt at the stake as a traitor by Henry V) on purpose to demean Lord Chamberlain Cobham and show his son-in-law, Secretary of State Robert Cecil, that he (Oxford) wasn’t about to be bullied into silence.

As a character in the Henry IV and V plays, Sir John Oldcastle is historically accurate.  The historic Oldcastle had in fact been a friend to the historic Prince Hal, one who, for reasons of religion, turned on his former friend once he became King.  It was Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a braggart, liar and thief that was taken by all, including the Queen, as a blow aimed at Cobham, whose appointment to the office of Lord Chamberlain was understood by the actors and their playwright as a means of restraining them from engaging with the parliamentarians due to gather in the West End in the fall of 1597.   The truth about the historic John Oldcastle is still a problem for historians since early Crown historians saw him as a heretic traitor while early Reformation historians saw him as a saint, a precursor of the martyrs who inspired the Reformation.  Shakespeare obviously preferred the former interpretation.

Not only was Cobham the unwanted intruder who, following the death of their original patron, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, had replaced him, he was the previous owner of the rooms in the Blackfriars that had been the first Blackfriars theater and that had for a time included the great Parliament Chamber.  It was this chamber that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had just rebuilt as a large indoor theater with which they planned to entertain the parliamentarians who would be gathering the following October, the theater that Cobham, his son-in-law Robert Cecil, and Cecil’s father, Lord Burghley, now the dominating force on the Privy Council, had ordered closed.  Furious, the Company responded with rewrites of the plays in which Oldcastle, now a leading character, combined traits of Cobham, his troublesome heir and their treacherous ancestor.

By renaming the character Falstaff, the Company may have created a disconnect with the likeness to Cobham, his ancestor, and his heir, Henry Brooke, but they did nothing to reform his character.  As detailed by Scoufos, that Falstaff’s more despicable characteristics, his cowardice, his taking bribes so only the poorest and least battle-worthy recruits were taken up for the army, derive from the Oldcastle character, seems undeniable.

However, there is a side to Falstaff that doesn’t seem to fit with these aspects of his character.  His cowardice and lies, for instance, don’t fit with the respect inherent in Hal and Poins attentions; they tease and mock him, but something keeps them coming back.  Despite his inability to live up to his promises, the women continue to support and care for him.  Despite his penury and choleric temper, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol show no desire to find another patron.  His craven cowardice on the battlefield doesn’t fit with his reckless courage when confronted by authority, or his contemptible lies with his monumental self-opinion.  There seems to be a disconnect between his meaness on the one hand and his largeness of heart on the other (more noticable in Part Two than in Part One or Merry Wives).  Such contradictions may add to our fascination when properly acted and directed, yet they raise questions about his models.  Perhaps Falstaff is the result of Shakespeare’s conflation of the Oldcastle personality with yet another individual from the period.

Oxford and Falstaff

For answers we turn to historical dates and the biography of the Earl of Oxford.  We know that Milord was in trouble in the early 1590s, as were his actors and all the acting companies, due to the death of Sir Francis Walsingham and the rise of Oxford’s dangerous brother-in-law, Robert Cecil.  We can assume that during 1592 and ’93, Oxford was busy revising his earlier works for the benefit of a new company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, launched in June of 1594 under the auspices of Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon.  We know that the Henry IV and V plays are among the earliest of these, reformed and expanded from disassembled scenes from the extremely early Famous Victories (or perhaps later versions now lost).  In seeking who might have been the first personality to transform Dericke into a modern character, the one who immediately comes to mind is the intemperate and profane Sir John Perrot.  So perfectly does Perrot conform to those qualities in Falstaff that don’t fit the Oldcastle image that the identification seems without question.

A younger Sir John Perrot

Perrot was a major figure at Court from his first arrival during Henry’s reign to his final quietus in the early 1590s.  Tall, handsome, with the strength of a bull and the will of a lion, his likeness to the king helped strengthen the common belief that he was Henry’s byblow as reported by Sir Robert Naunton (though denied by his ODNB biographer).  Since Naunton was married to Perrot’s granddaughter, he would seem to have more authority than the ODNB biographer (the author of the old DNB bio accepts Perrot’s royal patrimony.)  From Perrot himself, when incarcerated and facing charges of treason, comes the quote: “God’s death!  Will the queen suffer her brother to be offered up as a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversary?” Described by a recent academic as “a bluff, heavyset man with a reputation as a hell-raiser,” the old DNB notes that he “held various offices under Elizabeth” and “united great physical strength to a violent and artibrary disposition.”  This sounds like the Falstaff beloved of Hal and Poins, of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet.

Although Perrot’s holdings in Wales and his various military and naval commands frequently took him away from London, he was enough of a figure at Court during Oxford and Rutland’s time at Cecil House and later at Court for them to have played the same role with Perrot that do Hal and Poins with Falstaff.  Oxford would have been attracted to Perrot for several reasons.  For one, he would have been the very sort of bad example that was attracting him in his teens and worrying Burghley.  For another, while in his teens, Perrot had lived for a time under the same roof with Oxford’s father, the 16th earl, so he had the kind of personal knowledge of his father that would be precious to a youth in search of an identity.  When first at Court and residing with the King’s Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, Earl John, then in his early 30s, had been remanded into Paulet’s keeping, doubtless as punishment for his reckless treatment of his (first) wife and his finances (DNB).

Then, in the early 1590s, while Oxford was suffering the slings and arrows of Robert Cecil’s rise to power, Perrot too fell victim to the Cecil roundup and destruction of their rivals.  Taking seriously the complaints of Perrot’s enemies, in 1590 they saw to it that he was incarcerated in the Tower and convicted of treason, where he died in 1592 from what many believed was poison (ODNB).  Thus it makes sense that in reaching for a replacement for the out-dated Dericke and other clownish characters from Famous Victories, Oxford did for Perrot what he did for his old tutor Sir Thomas (in Romeo and Juliet, Woodstock, and The Tempest), he brought his bombastic wit and defiance of authority to life for an audience that knew him very well.

So which came first, Oldcastle or Perrot?  Certainly it would have been Perrot, conceived in 1592 or ’93, shortly after his assassination.  The character thus created was altered for the worse in 1596 when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to use the Merry Wives and the Henry IV plays as a means of attacking the hated Cobham, causing the Queen to demand that the name be changed.  It would have been at this time that the weight ascribed to Falstaff was added, most likely a characteristic of Lord Cobham (in the only portrait I could find he is hidden behind a phalanx of women and children).  As for the Falstaff of The Merry Wives, it’s unlikely that he ever had anything of Perrot in him.  Merry Wives was most likely revised in 1596, when the Company used it to satirize Cobham’s cheating and conniving and his heir’s scandalous mistreatment of the women of the Court.

In questioning the source for Falstaff, a third influence can also be detected, the intrusion of the author’s own feelings and attitudes.  By the 1590s, although Oxford was only in his forties, it’s clear from the Sonnets that he was beginning to feel his age.  While in his twenties and thirties he would not have felt much compassion for the aging roysterer.  But with the loss of Fisher’s Folly and his crew of writers and secretaries in 1589, the loss of the credit that enabled him to produce plays and publish poems, even, if the evidence offered by Alan Nelson and Mark Anderson is accurate, that for at least a year or two from 1589 to 1591, before the Queen arranged for his marriage to one of her ladies in waiting, he was living in much the same circumstances as Falstaff, in an upscale boarding house in London with Julia Penn as his Mistress Quickly––he must have felt a kinship with his fallen protagonist.

There’s not enough room here to detail all the factors that put these identifications beyond doubt.  That will have to wait for another venue.  But at the least we can assure the readers that someday, if all goes well, and a new generation of Shakespeare scholars are finally on track towards the truth, they will find the clues to these identifications thick on the trail.

To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

Experiencing Shakespeare

So many people have complained about the unpleasant way they were introduced to Shakespeare back when they were in school, perhaps a few words about what works might be in order as we leave the summer for another year of school or other communal activities.

The best way to create understanding for Shakespeare is for the class or group to read one of the plays out loud, each taking a part in rotation, scene by scene.  Sitting in a circle, in chairs or at student desks or around a cafeteria or library table, or even on the floor, everyone must have their own copy.  They don’t all have to be from the same edition, each can bring his or her own from home.

It begins with the teacher or leader giving a quick sketch of the plot and the characters; if some already know the play, they can contribute their knowledge and ideas.  The person to the right of the teacher/leader begins with the first scene of the first act, taking the part of the first character to speak.  The person to their right takes the part of the next to speak, and so on.  If the scene has only three people in it, which many do, then only three people will read that scene.  When the scene changes, the first person who has not yet spoken to the right of the last of those who have taken that scene, will takes the first part in Scene 2, and so forth, around the circle.

The mechanism that propels this foray into drama is the fact that everyone gets to read, and the most important factor is that, at every scene break, the parts pass to the right, so that if Joe plays Hamlet in the first scene in Act III, when the scene changes, he will have to wait until the parts work their way around to him to read again, this time most likely a different character, which he will read for that whole scene.   More than how much each gets  to speak, this brings the sensation of being part of the action of that scene, for you feel that as others speak, you are involved.  This pays no attention to type casting; a boy or man may take the part of Cleopatra while a girl or woman can read Brutus or Mark Antony.

This process is not perfectly equal to all members, but it’s a lot more evenly distributed than assigning parts so that one person reads that part all the way through while others get little or nothing.  If the play takes two or three sessions to read all the way through, then everyone in the group should have as full an experience as any other.  A group can be any size from three to thirty, although the more people there are the less each will get to read.  Perhaps the ideal group is somewhere between ten and fifteen.  If your class or group exceeds that by much, it might be better to split into two or more groups.  In this case each group can work on a different play.

In this way, everyone in the group gets the opportunity to read the lead character; if the play is Hamlet, usually at some point, everyone will have gotten to read his part, as he has more lines than anyone else.  In this way the characters, even the least of them, become real to the readers.  In this way, the story comes across through dialogue and the unselfconscious dramatizing that occurs naturally once the group gets caught up with the story, and without having to know exactly what each word means.  For although the language is very beautiful, and spiced with famous quotations, because of the great differences between Shakespeare’s language and ours today, it’s not all that easy to understand through reading alone.  Through this experience of group reading the language almost becomes secondary, as the action of the story conveys more to the reader than a dictionary ever could.

As I’ve expressed elsewhere, I believe that Shakespeare’s greatest gift wasn’t his language or his poetry––marvelous though they be––it’s the stories themselves that have made them classics in all languages, that have inspired symphonies, operas and ballets.   Story is the greatest medium of learning.  Like a game or a sport, or an  experiment in chemistry, drama takes silent, quiescent objects in the form of characters, setting them in motion with and against each other, revealing through their interactions their values and motivations, which, without the action of story, would remain hidden, all leading to a climax that, in the case of a great masterpiece, can bring each viewer or reader the kind of awareness normally gained only from personal experience.

Like a song, a dance, or a game, a play is not a thing, it’s a process.  The pleasure it brings comes through action in time, like watching a flower unfold, a toddler take her first steps, or a tired veteran hit a line drive in the nineth inning.  There’s drama in everything, most of it hidden, buried in “getting and spending,” but in a great play revealed, line by line, scene by scene, until the curtain comes down.

In Shakespeare’s day the theater was cheap, and everyone, in London at least, could see a play once a week, during the season, if they cared to.  Now of course it’s risen, or sunk, to a level where only the wealthy can afford to see more than one or two professional plays a season, and there’s no guarantee if the experience will be worth the price.  In the twentieth century, movies took the place of the stage as the entertainment of the masses.  Midway through the century, television caused the movies too to lose their place in our lives, so that it’s not only live drama that, for most of us, has lost its place as a communal event, what’s been most grieviously lost is the feeling we got from sitting for two hours in a darkened theater as part of an audience of substantial size, all sharing the same emotional experience.

It’s something of an irony, that the Theater, having replaced the Church as the center of  communal life in the sixteenth century, now seems to be filling the theatrical void with the rise across America of the huge modern evangelical churches with their “Christian” entertainment in which, once again,  swaying and clapping, huge audiences hear sin condemned and the wicked consigned to a twelfth-century fiery furnace.

For those who find no solace in swaying and clapping and grieving over sin , getting together in reading groups to experience Shakespeare in much the same way that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men must have done when first provided with something like Romeo and Juliet, may actually be more rewarding in some ways than just sitting passively in a theater, letting the actors do all the work.  And certainly less expensive.