Facts not romance
It will be said that I have attempted to force the facts into some kind of preconceived romantic notion of my own. The truth is that I had no idea of what the ultimate picture would be until I began putting the pieces together. All I knew was that the story as told for the past 400 years makes no sense, and that Shakespeare’s story had to be part of something much broader, more complicated, and more interesting than anything we were being told by the so-called experts.
After reading about Oxford in books by J.T. Looney, B.M. Ward, Charleton Ogburn and Ruth Loyd Miller, questions arose that were not covered in their otherwise fascinating accounts: First: where was Oxford and what was he doing before his arrival at Cecil House at age twelve? Second: what was the nature of his education, and who was the Sir Thomas Smith they mentioned in passing simply as his tutor? Third: was Oxford the only writer in his time to hide his identity by using a stand-in? And fourth: what did he write before he became Shakespeare?
I began researching these questions at Boston University’s Mugar Library in 1989. Some were answered after only a little reading, some have taken much longer. Most opened the door to new questions, some requiring a great deal more research than the original questions. 20 years later I can’t claim to have answered everything, in fact, with many I can only suggest a possible answer. Nevertheless, it’s time to put forward what I have discovered as well as what I believe to be the more important lines of continued inquiry.
Not all of the answers I’ve arrived at over the years have come from plodding through texts, painstakingly putting 2 and 2 together until they added up to 4. There have been a few eureka! moments when an insight suddenly blazed out from a page of text.
One such took place in the Spring of 1992. I was sitting on the couch in the sun reading Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte. As with most such adventures into the byways of literary history, we usually read a particular text only after reading a good deal about it (or at least we did before the internet). So, by the time I got to reading Groatsworth itself, I had already read quite a bit about GGW, not a single commentator taking it anything but seriously as written by the notorious hack writer Robert Greene during his death agonies.
Aware from earlier reading that they knew nothing about Robert Greene except what he himself and other pamphleteers had written about him, I may have had a certain suspicion from the start. The first glimmer that there was something other than fact came when one writer commented that he’d noticed in the pamphlets that were enlarging upon Greene’s death “a certain aura of glee.” How could these writers be publicly gleeful about the death of a colleague who’d never done anything worse than (like them) publish his own work?
Then came the line from Harvey’s Second Letter, which stated that Greene died of a “surfeit of rhenish wine and pickle herring.” On a hunch, I looked up “pickle herring,” and found that it was the name of a German clown figure, similar to Punch or Petrushka.
There was glee over Greene’s death because, as the entire publishing and pamphlet reading community must have been well aware, the whole thing was simply a joke! There was no real death because there was no Robert Greene, or at least, no author with Greene’s now so obviously fictional biography. The “surfeit of pickle herring” that “killed” him was an overdose of foolery. If anyone actually died it must have been because they laughed themselves to death. Since all this was so contradictory to the common view, I spent months carefully rereading the Second Letter and Groatsworth, all the “gleeful” posthumous pamphlets that followed his supposed death, plus all the commentary I could find, conviction growing stronger with every word.
Groatsworth was a turning point. If the scholars got this so wrong, what else had they misinterpreted? In what I’d read so far I began to see a pattern, a series of connections that told a very different story from what I’d been reading, or rather, that hinted at a genuine story rather than a cartload of disparate facts.
First, having acquired over the years some smattering of English history, I could see a connection between the pamphleteering unleashed by Greene’s popularity and the age-old traditions of holiday “merry-making,” recently and vigorously suppressed by the Reformation. It seemed clear that, like most forcibly repressed human behaviors, holiday satires and disguising were simply taking new and different forms, reemerging to a public hungry for entertainment in the works of Greene and Nashe and the comedies of Lyly, Greene, and Shakespeare.
The light dawns
I was aware of course that among the few genuine facts that we knew about “Shakespeare” was that he had published for the first time in 1593 and that he was made a sharer of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when it formed in 1594. I was aware of the Shakespeare anomaly that the canon lacked anything like what one might take as juvenilia, the evidence of a writer’s early struggles to find his or her unique “voice.” I was also aware that although there was a fair amount of evidence of the lives of most of the leading actors of the day, there was no evidence that William of Stratford had belonged to any acting company before 1594, so that his sudden emergence as a sharer in the top acting team in the nation was something of an anomaly.
Thanks to Ogburn, I was also aware that there was an issue over what the Earl of Oxford might have written, Meres and others having complimented him as “first for comedy,” yet with no plays surviving that bear his name. I was also aware that all who studied Greene and his work in any depth note how much he sounds like early Shakespeare. All this came together as the backstory to the diatribe to the players in Groatsworth, published in September 1592, eight months before the publication of Venus and Adonis.
By fitting together into a single group the clusters of puzzle pieces surrounding Robert Greene, Oxford, and Shakespeare, a grand simplification (a swipe of Ockham’s razor) was revealed. Robert Greene is the missing early voice of Shakespeare, who then picks up, lock, stock, and barrel (format, story, and language) right where Greene leaves off. Both are actually Oxford, who, feeling the need to get rid of Robert Greene in 1592, reemerges in May of 1593 as William Shakespeare.
Whatever the reason, or reasons, why Oxford felt it necessary to kill off Robert Greene, he was certainly not done with his “merry-making,” since almost immediately he becomes involved in Lord Hunsdon’s efforts to create another Crown company. Afraid of being outed as (I believe) almost happened with Greene, he knows he will need protection if he is to write for the LCMen. Assisted by his printer, Richard Field, Field’s Stratford neighbor William Shakspere is persuaded to lend Oxford his O-so-punnable name––for a choice compensation of course––and one thing simply leads to another, culminating thirty years later in the First Folio, where, lacking any other possible solution, the identification with William is finally set in stone by the LCMen’s company writer, Ben Jonson.
Webster and Pembroke
Another eureka! moment came in the late 1990s while reading John Webster’s play, The White Devil. It was clear to me from what I’d read about Webster that, of all the dubious authors of important Renaissance works, he was just as anomalous as William of Stratford: education unknown, no presence at any university, his father a coachmaker, his only records the births and deaths of family members, and his only documented connection to the theater community that his family made pantomime wagons.
Like Greene, Webster’s published writing is all that is known about him as a writer, but, again like Greene, that is considerable. His name is found on plays, anthologies, collections, and in references to his authorial persona in many works published during his time. Although it’s often found in collaboration with other names, it’s by the two plays that bear his name alone that his reputation has been secured. Perhaps the most definitive expression of the tormented soul of the Jacobean era, harsh, brilliant, shocking, they sum up the hatreds and fears, the sexual license and despair of dysfunctional aristocratic families.
Iit was also quite obvious to me as a woman that these plays were written by a woman. Struck by this while reading The White Devil, I turned to Webster’s other masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi. From then on there could be no doubt. The protagonists in both plays are based on real Italian noblewomen from earlier in the century whose life stories were well known at the Courts of Europe. The White Devil was the temptress Vittoria Corombona, the other the tragic Duchess of Amalfi. And while all the contemporary (male) historians who wrote about these two portrayed them as wicked or at least deserving of their tragic fates, only for Webster are these ladies the sympathetic victims of cruel manipulative men.
Although Shakespeare created several sympathetic female characters, on occasion even having them share the lead with a male, he never made a woman the sole protagonist. Webster not only made women the lead in both of his masterworks (and in his lesser plays as well), he openly contradicted public opinion by making them sympathetic. Scores of minor details as well, the sort that only another woman would think meaningful, convinced me that a woman wrote these stunning plays.
But what woman?
There were several women writing imaginative literature at that time, chief among them Mary Sidney Pembroke, sister of Philip Sidney. She would have to be eliminated before going on to any others. In reading her story it became obvious right away that there would be no need to go any further. Ipso facto––John Webster the playwright was Mary Sidney Pembroke. The plots of both his masterpieces reflect her life and her family interests even more obviously than Shakespeare’s works reflect Oxford’s life and his interests.
Identifying Webster as Pembroke turned out to be another stroke of Ockham’s razor. Eliminating any number of candidates for these two dim figures, it also helps to establish Mary as Harvey’s “Gentlewoman rare” from the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet dustup of the early 1590s, and also as the patron of Pembroke’s Men, the shadowy company that came into prominence in the early 1590s, both occurring while Mary was in London promoting her family’s interests and getting her brother’s work published (along with her own). Her aging husband, the Earl of Pembroke, who most assume was the patron of Pembroke’s Men, was far too busy as the President of Wales to get involved with the London Stage.
Who was interested however would have been his son William Herbert, in his early teens during the period when his mother was in London getting her own work and her brother’s published. As 3rd Earl of Pembroke, William would devote his early adulthood to obtaining the particular Court office that gave him control over Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, an office he would keep for a decade before passing it on to his younger brother, Philip, Earl of Montgomery, whose first wife was Oxford’s youngest daughter. These two are the “peerless brethren” to whom the First Folio was dedicated in 1623, the final act in the long saga that led to the creation of a lasting memorial to Oxford, that is, to his work, though, sadly, not to his memory as its author.
It’s Eureka! moments like these that have kept me interested in this study for so many years.