By his thirties, Oxford had had an assortment of encounters with the little blind sharpshooter, but so far the wounds had all been dealt to the lady. Despite his heavy armour of Mercutian cynicism, with his classical training Oxford was well aware of the poetic tradition that only genuine passion could unlock the door to genuine eloquence, that no amount of linguistic expertise could replace the ring of true feeling. As the years went by, he must have felt some concern over the fact that, once the thrill of the chase was over, his interest faded so quickly. He shuddered to think of himself as shallow. Worse, how could he write convincingly of true love when he had never really felt it himself?
With Ann Vavasor it seemed he finally knew what it was to love beyond mere juvenile dreaming or cynical dalliance. She was the model for every witty heroine from this period: Rosaline from (a more recent version of) Love’s Labours Lost, Rosalynde from Euphues Golden Legacy, and Rosalind from As You Like It. In these he invested her with an aura of romantic glamour that, for Ann, must have made up to some degree for the official loss of her virtue. But their relationship is best portrayed in Much Ado About Nothing, which was probably written during 1580 for the Christmas holidays, 1580-’81.
That Oxford managed to separate himself into two persons: Claudio, who is faithful to his wife (to be), and Benedick, who is free to marry, is one of those emotional sleights of hand possible only for writers of fiction. Sadly for Anne Cecil, while the Hero story may have been intended to sooth her and her family for his derelictions, Oxford was probably headed in Benedick’s direction when he wrote the play. One of the things he was accused of by Henry Howard was that, before the untimely arrival of Edward Jr., Oxford had been planning to run off to Spain, taking Vavasor with him. This may have been just another attempt to defame him, although it’s true that when the news got out that she had given birth, he had to be chased down by Elizabeth’s agents on the road to Dover.
The essential point is not so much whether Oxford actually planned to commit treason with the Howards and run away with Ann, just talked about it, or was falsely accused of it, it’s that he was simply out of control. The Court was not a comfortable setting for anyone, much less a high-strung artist with a need for large doses of nature, solitude, and privacy. His popularity and emotional insecurity was driving him into wilder and greater extravagance in every direction. As his friend Gilbert Talbot reported to his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Oxford was “lately grown into great credit . . . if it were not for his fickle head he would pass all of them shortly” (Read 2.130).
Stimulated to outdo himself in the late 1570s by the demands of Lord Chamberlain Sussex, now, with this sudden spell of free time, he has his first quantum leap to a new level of artistry. The intense romanticism of Much Ado reflects his feelings for Ann at a time when he was deeply in love with her. The clever repartée, if not an exact copy of their conversations, surely comes close, captured by Oxford as a way of preserving his delight in this first flush of excitement over having, at last, found the Real Thing.
This dating of Much Ado is strengthened by the fact that the villain is named Don John. Of course, as in all versions of the story of his breakup with Anne Cecil, the villain was Oxford’s cousin, Henry Howard, the most likely source of the rumors that caused the breakup of his marriage and the cruel defamation of his wife (or if not, certainly the one Oxford would come to blame). Naming him Don John places the play well within the early ’80s time frame, for the great military hero of Lepanto, Don John of Austria, had only just died three years earlier, and with him his villainous conspiracy to overtop his brother, Philip II of Spain, by conquering England and marrying Elizabeth. As the illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Don John was indeed a bastard, as Howard was not, but both were known to be bitterly envious of their more successful family members.
Cursed by some form of mood disorder that had him forever swinging from one extreme to another, it may be that following the disaster when Ann gave birth to his son in the Queen’s chamber, Oxford spent some time under the impression that she blamed him for having wrecked her life or that she was a typical “haggard hawk” whose professed love was simply a thing of the moment. Forced to remain apart from him, both by the Queen, who must have made it clear to the young mother that she was under no circumstances to have anything to do with her vile seducer, and by her outraged family as well, he may in all ignorance have blamed her for keeping her distance.
But at some point the poem in which she so beautifully explains her predicament, and assures him that she will always love him best, would have come into his hands. This would explain the anger with which he portrays Cressida in T&C, and the subsequent outpouring of love in his return to Romeo and Juliet. Thus we have Oxford’s autobiographic account of his relationship with Ann Vavasor: from the dizzy excitement of their wooing in Much Ado; to the opposite extreme in Troilus and Cressida, the suspicion that he’d been set up by some Court Pandarus with a trollop; to the heart’s relief of Romeo and Juliet, which draws so heavily on his self-exile and the street fights he was having at the time with Vavasor’s male relatives.
To write a one version of a personal situation, then follow it later, after further thought, with a different, even opposing, view in another play, is one of the ways in which we can track the timing of some of his works. For instance, Pericles suggests that, in a dark moment, he actually believed that, while he was overseas, Burghley had impregnated his own daughter as a means of getting a Cecil heir––a wicked rumor, but one that it may have eased his conscience to believe. We can see how his view of this situation changed over time, from Pericles to the version in Cymbeline, to the version in Alls Well, to the version in Much Ado, until it took its final tragic form in Hamlet and Othello.