Very few plays remain from the 1580s, none of them attributed by the orthodox to either Oxford or Shakespeare––or to anyone, for that matter, at least, not with any certainty. Still we can make a few cautious attributions, keeping in mind that the stories from this period that kept his interest would not be the versions we know from the 1590s. To this end I suggest the following early versions of later Shakespeare plays:
Timon of Athens: written early in his banishment before Walsingham stepped in to help with funding and with important projects for the Queen’s Men. Possibly written for the Court. Faced with bankruptcy, furious at his community for deserting him in his hour of need, disappointed by the loss of his investment in Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s voyage to Newfoundland, he lashed out with the story from ________. The version we know comes from the early 1590s.
The Spanish Tragedy: written early in his banishment while he was still boiling with fury at the Queen (portrayed as the stupefyingly unfaithful Bel-Phoebe), it’s a Senecan tour de force largely aimed at the public that, during the years when he was entertaining the Court, he did not dare to write for directly. At a dark time in his career, the instantaneous popularity must have given him some encouragment. Because it migrated early on to the Admiral’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose, and probably because he no longer cared about it, when the plays were divided up by Hunsdon and the Admiral in 1594, they allowed it to remain with Henslowe where perhaps it had already become a vehicle for Edward Alleyn.
Using themes from Jerome (Girolamo) Cardan’s life and works, Spanish Tragedy gets its oomph from Oxford’s wrath at Elizabeth for so callously throwing him to the Vavasor wolves. While the character that represents himself is the ghost of the murdered Andrea, he can also be found in spirit in the protagonist, Hieronymo, the Chamberlain whose job it is to entertain the Court, and who, like Hamlet, prepares his revenge by means of a play within a play. This is one of the earliest appearances of Henry Howard as the villain of the piece, here portrayed as the Portuguese (read Spanish) ambassador.
The True Tragedies, Contention, and Famous Victories: these were written between 1581 and 1583 at Walsingham’s behest to give the newly formed Queen’s Men plays that would teach the provincial English audiences something about their history. In the 1590s they would be rewritten as the series of eight plays that tell the story of the kings from Richard II to Richard III. Included in this were the never published plays Edmund Ironside and Thomas of Woodstock, cannibalized in the 90s for scenes in Richard II. The versions we know are the result of numerous rewrites, possibly for every new performance until 1604.
Julius Caesar: written during his banishment in the tradition of interpreting the present through the past, to explain to the Inns of Court audience his role in the treasons he was being accused of by Howard and friends by comparing it to the choices made by Brutus when confronted by the conspiracy to prevent Caesar from becoming emperor. He hopes to show that it was to avoid a fate like Brutus that he tattled on his friends. Cassius is another early portrait of Henry Howard, who had sucked him into the plot against the Queen, and who indeed had “a lean and hungry look.” This would have been a very different version of the play we know today.
Coriolanus: written for the Court community towards the end of his banishment in an effort to reinstate himself with his in-laws. By comparing his situation to that of the ancient Roman general, he expresses his frustration at being denied a role in the lowlands war and at those who disdain him due to the accusation that he was about to “turn Turk” and fight for the Spanish. By comparing his situation to Coriolanus when he turned against his home City, Rome, to fight with Aufidius and the Volscians, he hopes to explain the quandary he was in.
The portrait of his in-laws, Burghley as Escalus, Mildred as Volumnia, and Anne as ____, gives a fascinating insight into this family that we could get no other way. It also confesses to a rather questionable physical attraction to Don John of Austria, who, though dead since 1578, was still a potent memory in the minds of Court politicians due to his role as spearhead of Philip II’s plan to conquer England. With the onstage death that ends the play, Oxford’s promises his community that henceforth this ugly side of his nature is dead and gone. Similar to Hal’s reform in Henry V, Oxford is telling his Court community that if taken back into their good graces, he promises to be a better boy.
Hamlet: written for the West End audience at some point after June 1583 out of disappointment at the reinstatement of Leicester (Claudius) whom Oxford feared was responsible for the death of mentor and father figure, Sussex (Old Hamlet), who had opened the door to him to writing for the Court stage. That Hamlet could not have been written for the Court seems obvious from what would have been the obvious suggestion that the Queen (Gertrude) was complicit in the royal fratricide. This would be the Ur-Hamlet suggested by the 1589 comment by Nashe/Bacon in Menaphon.
Troilus and Cressida: written shortly after his banishment while he still believed that Ann Vavasor (Cressida) was unfaithful to him. If there was anything like the scenes in the Greek camp in the original, they would have been very different from the version of the mid -1590s, in which portrays the relationships between the members of the Essex faction to the Greeks dallying before Troy. The role of Pandar, originally reflecting Henry Howard or some other of his Howard cousins, was probably altered in the 90s version.
Romeo and Juliet: written at some point early in his banishment after he found out that Ann still loved him and that her refusal to see him was based on her need to behave for the sake of their son. Suffused with the same passion as he’d felt once for Mary Browne, which had inspired the poem that became the source for Romeo and Juliet, it’s one of the plays he tweaked to perfection during his final years, adding notes of wisdom and poetry that have made it one of the world’s great literary masterpieces. Definitely not written for the Court (it dismisses the Queen as a jealous bitch), it was probably written for Burbage’s public theater and performed by his (Hunsdon’s) company, with 14-year-old Edward Alleyn as Romeo, and 11-year-old Richard Burbage as Juliet.
One play that stands out as probably the last one he produced for a Court audience before his fall from favor was inspired by the woman who caused his disgrace.