Oxford and the Media

It’s always enlightening to examine the conditions that made possible great and lasting enterprises like democracy, the Olympic games, or the internet.  Today the so-called Fourth Estate of government, aka the Media, a vast enterprise encompassing many areas in both print and broadcast, takes as its standard the vox populi, “the voice of the people,” and as its sacred duty informing the millions about the world they live in and what goes on in the higher echelons of power.  Without the Media there would be no democracy, for it takes an informed people to properly govern themselves.

But back when it all began, neither of these, print nor broadcast, had any such purpose in mind.  Both began as little more than spinoffs from the first burst of Renaissance enthusiasm that was taking place at the Court of Queen Elizabeth (1560s to 80s) that was manifesting as entertainment: privately as translations of classical poetry and tales from Latin, French, and Italian, along with some original works masquerading as translations, passed from hand to hand in fair-copied manuscripts, and for the entire Court community, plays for holidays and events like important weddings and visits from foreign dignitaries.

In the late 1570s, several things occured that instigated a leap from the intimacy of the Court to the greatly expanded public arena, first among them the year spent in Italy by the Renaissance-minded Earl of Oxford.  By observing the bold and exciting public theater known as comedia dell’arte and in Venice, the Aldine Press that was driving the high end of the Italian Renaissance through elegant translations of the ancient classics, Oxford learned things that he brought back with him to England.

By 1575 he may have grown bored with the limitations imposed on anyone who entertained the Court.  Having grown up within the confines of what his Reformation tutor thought appropriate, then within what a Court run by an irritable and oversentitive female thought appropriate, the rowdy no-holds-barred enthusiasm of the Italian public audience, the freedom of their exchanges with the actors, offered new vistas for his developing talents.  Besides their tools, pen and paper for writers, brushes and canvas for painters, etc., all artists need an audience to write for, or create for, and all professional artists need one that goes beyond their friends and family members.  By twenty-five, our earl had reached the limits of what he could do to entertain his Court audience.  Bored, he was ready for new fields to conquer.

Within months of his return there were two commercial theaters going in London, and within two years was published the book that would revolutionize print, the novelistic Euphues, the story of a young nobleman’s romantic adventures in Italy published as by his secretary, John Lyly, and written in what the Italians called an alto stilo, a high style.  These were not the first of their kind, but they were the first to remain commercially viable, the theaters suffering if anything from being too popular while the novel would go into 20 editions before the turn of the century. Obviously there was more to the business of creating a successful theater and publishing a successful book than just the building or the printing––methods that Oxford was privy to during his year in Italy.

As the records show, as the 80s approached the ’90s more theaters got built and more books written and published, to a level that meant that two self-sustaining industries were born, what we call the Stage and the Press, both up to then having been little more than the playthings of amateurs. For this to happen a number of other situations had to be factored in, a public hungry for entertainment, politically powerful patrons who saw the advantage of a public forum, and a crew of writers who could create the kind of entertainment that drew them in.  The first was ready and waiting for Oxford’s plan; the second miraculously appeared when needed; while the third describes the crew he assembled at Fisher’s Folly, the one historians refer to as the University Wits.

Nor was it long before this newborn Fourth Estate moved from simple entertainment to the function for which it was destined, public discourse of important issues, with the not surprising result that the authorities quickly launched what would be a never ending battle to control it.  This is a matter of history.  What has escaped history is the extent to which the plays and books that masqueraded as nothing but entertainment during the 1580s and ’90s and beyond were meant to influence public discourse.  Every play, every tale, was chosen with an eye to how it related to some current event or personality.  The writers knew that’s what the audience wanted and what they expected, so they gave it to them, partly because they wanted to, and partly because it’s what sold.

The writers, actors, patrons, and printers during these years walked a fine line between simple story-telling and too openly revealing the editorials they wished to convey to audiences eager to hear and discuss them.  (It they didn’t, if they were too obvious, they suffered the fate of Christopher Marlowe, Ld Strange, and the producers of The Isle of Dogs.)  Book censors, distracted by the Italian names, beast fables, and unknown or unimportant authors, were also distracted by title pages and front material purposely framed to keep them from looking too closely at the text itself.  Plays were easier since speeches and scenes that were inappropriate at Court or other venues could simply be changed or dropped.  When the author and actors ran into trouble in 1580 from the newly appointed censor, Edmund Tilney, with regard to The Play of Sir Thomas More, they may have lost a good play, but they learned how to avoid such trouble from then on.

This is the story that has yet to be told, how the first steps towards functional democracy were taken by one of the most brilliant artists who ever lived, how those steps led to the birth of the modern Media, and how they were then erased by his enemies, along with his reputation.  As Hamlet prophesied, the rest has been “silence.”

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