Oxford’s mentors on Shakespeare’s stage

That William Cecil was portrayed by Shakespeare as Polonius in Hamlet has been argued so often that we will only mention it here.  That numerous clues suggest he was the model for the protagonist’s father-in-law, or prospective father-in-law, in many other plays as well I only suggest: Egeus, father of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Escalus in Coriolanus; Brabantio in Othello; Claudius, father of Hero in Much Ado; Cymbeline, father of Imogen; and Antiochus, father of the Princess in Pericles, all similar in nature, all in much the same relation to the protagonist, all, we submit, William Cecil.  Although Oxford came to Cecil at 12, he would remain bound to him by ties of blood and money for 36 years, so it should come as no surprise that whenever  a father figure was required by a plot, the quirks and attitudes of his own guardian and father-in-law flowed from his pen without hesitation.

But what about his first guardian and surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith?  What about Lawrence Nowell?  Smith is easy enough to find, and so––at least in name and function––is Nowell.

“Plain Thomas”

In a collection of fifteen plays in manuscript known as Edgerton 1994 (now in the British Library) there is one of particular interest to us.  The provenance of this manuscript collection is uncertain.  It is thought they were once part of the collection of the library of Dulwich College, founded by the Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn.  Thirteen of the plays obviously date from the mid-to late 17th century, but there are two that show signs of much earlier origin and that have a number of other characteristics in common.

Although E.B. Everitt cannot prove that these are both early plays by Shakespeare, it is clear that that is what he believes them to be.  Eric Sams has presented the case for Shakespeare’s authorship of one of the plays, Edmund Ironside, in his book published in 1986.  The other, “Thomas of Woodstock, called Richard II in the Malone Society diplomatic transcript and without title in the source, is,” according to E.B. Everitt, “extant in a rather untidy manuscript”:

As Edmund Ironside is the story of a country with too many kings, Thomas of Woodstock narrates the misfortunes of a land . . . ruled by an immature, vainglorious young man easily misled by sycophants and self-seeking politicians. . . .  The central tug of war in this play is between a king and noblemen in his family; Tresilian is the same kind of villain as Edricus in Ironside.  The servants Nimble and Stitch are not merely similar, they are identical.  Other characters in the two plays align themselves so closely, as do many of the dramatic devices, as to suggest that this is not only counterpart thesis, but one written for the same company as well.  (251-2)

Everitt is not alone in suggesting that this play originally preceded Richard II in a series devoted to royal history that led from Edward II up through the Tudors to finish with Henry VIII, and that it may have been preceded by an even earlier Richard play that included the peasant’s revolt and the desertion of the Duchess of Ireland by her husband.  (The present editor of The Oxfordian, Michael Egan, has proven the case with his recent 4-volume book on the subject.)  The peasants revolt was lifted (he feels) for inclusion in Henry VI Part 2, and without this scene, “the rest of the play was considered not worth saving.”  It should be of interest that the scene that got left on the cutting room floor was one in which the Duchess of Ireland complains of being deserted by her unkind husband, whose name, though she doesn’t mention it in the play, was Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford.

According to historian Desmond Seward, author of The Hundred Years War, the real Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of Richard II, was, “as ambitious as he was violent-tempered and would later intrigue murderously against his nephew’s government” (127-8)––rather a different sort than the honest and peaceable  old curmudgeon of the anonymous play who first appears in Act I Scene 1 as the uncles rush onstage, afraid that Richard may have poisoned them.  The Duke of York asks Cheney about Gloucester, not yet onstage:

……………………………………Tell me, Kind Cheney,
How does thy master, our good brother Woodstock,
Plain Thomas, for by’th’Rood, so all men call him
For his plain dealing and his simple clothing.
Let others jet in silk and gold, says he,
A coat of English frieze best pleaseth me.
How thinks his unsophisticated plainness
Of these bitter compounds?  Fears he no drug
Put in his broth?  Shall his health be secure?

Cheney replies:

Faith, mylord, his mind suits with his habit,
Homely and plain, both free from pride and envy,
And therein will admit distrust to none.

Gloucester enters and they discuss the need to warn the King about his flattering friends.  Gloucester adds his opinion:

Destroy those flatterers, and tell King Richard
He does abase himself to countenance them.
Soft! Soft!
Fruit that grows high is not securely plucked.
We must use ladders and by steps ascend
Till by degrees we reach the altitude.

In the next act, the lords assemble in their most impressive finery to welcome Richard’s bride, Anne of Bohemia.  Lancaster greets her with typically Shakespearean ceremony, to which Gloucester, typically irritable and impatient of such “feminine toys,” responds:

Let me prevent the rest, for mercy’s sake.
If all their welcomes be as long as thine
This health will not go round this week, by’th’Mass.

Complimenting his uncle Gloucester on his outfit, donned against his will for the wedding, when King Richard comments on how slowly his horse rides, Woodstock replies:

And can ye blame the beast?  Afore my God,
He was not wont to bear such loads.  Indeed
A hundred oaks upon these shoulders hang
To make me brave upon your wedding day . . .

The expression was a common one expressing the expense of Courtly dress as its cost in terms of estate property.  Later Woodstock rages at Richard’s sycophants:

Shall cankers eat the fruit
That planting and good husbandry hath nourished?

After the uncles have resigned and Gloucester has returned to his country estate on the Thames, he is visited by a courtier similar to Osric in Hamlet.  Woodstock is alone in the courtyard, and, due to his plain clothing, the courtier mistakes him for a groom and instructs him on how to care for his horse.  Woodstock plays along and, when the courtier finally realizes who he is, insists on getting his tip.  At the end, the wicked young King and his gang dress up like travelling players come to entertain the old Duke.  Once he has relaxed and has sent away his servants, they kidnap him, transporting him to Calais where they take a very long time about murdering him in grand Shakespearean style.

Where did the playwright get this altogether different character to replace the Machiavellian prince described by Seward?  Hear what Dewar has to say of another Thomas:

Smith was insecure about his social skills.  He asked that someone else be sent to France to assist him with his ambassadorial tasks, someone not so “rude and homely.”  This picture of himself as the plain blunt man, unused to Court compliments, smooth words and refined manners is one that Smith was always drawing. (90)

He was perhaps less haughty than simply boorish and ill-mannered.  He never managed to acquire any social graces and was if anything rather proud of his lack of a courtier’s social equipment.  He frequently referred to his utter lack of appreciation of music, his dislike of Court pastimes and manners, his impatience with “frivolities,” especially feminine ones.  He admitted later in life that he had always been “rude” and “rough” in manner, adding complacently  that “my fault is plainness and that I cannot dissemble enmity or pleasure.” (57)

While acting as secretary to Somerset, the Duchess of Somerset took Smith to task for his “haughty” attitude, his wife’s plain and “uncourtlike” clothes and her failure to maintain the standards of hospitality which were expected of someone in his position.  A letter to the Duchess survives in which Smith defends his wife, although admitting that she “did not go so gorgeously as some would have her.” (35)

Struggling to bring the story of the young King Richard II to life, the playwright did as he would do so often in all his plays, combine persons and events from his own life with the history he knew from the chronicles by Halle and Grafton in his tutor’s library.  He was now frequently at Court where, like Richard, he indulged in the kind of fashionable and expensive clothing that he knew his former tutor despised.  Since Thomas of Woodstock, aka Duke of Gloucester, was too distant in time and too sketchily portrayed by Halle to distinguish him from the other “wolfish” earls, the young author called upon the Thomas he knew.

The real Duke would have been astonished, no doubt, at his Elizabethan stage portrait.  It is unlikely he would have recognized his namesake’s impatience with ceremony and his fondness for gardening metaphors; traits imported from an altogether different spirit, one that disliked conspicuous consumption because he’d been born to a penurious farmer; one who was plain in his dress and abrupt in his manners, not for any reasons of philosophy, but because he felt awkward in fancy clothes, not having been trained to the elaborate rituals of Court society.

History was altered to fit de Vere’s own story.  Far from seeking to destroy his nephew, Richard II, as did the Thomas of history, this one defends him!  Disregarding the fact that Gloucester raised an army to defeat his nephew, here we see him portrayed as more than willing to retire from a complicated and wicked Court to the peaceful homely duties of his country estate––even as Smith retreated to his home estate from the Court, not once, but several times. Woodstock fulminates against the wastefulness and frivolity of Richard’s Court, even as Smith complained in letters home from France about the unconscionable amount of time and money spent by the French Court on what he saw as frivolous and wasteful merry-making (Dewar 110).

Finally, Gloucester is attacked in his home by the young King and his gang of toughs much as Smith’s home was attacked in 1559 by the servants of Lord Windsor.  From Dewar’s account it isn’t clear whether de Vere was among the “terrified household” evicted by the Windsors, but even if not, he would certainly have heard about it.  That five years later his legitimacy as Earl was attacked in court by members of the same family would only serve to intensify the sense of violation.

The Windsors claimed that Ankerwycke was theirs.  In November [1559] . . . they led a company of twenty men into Ankerwycke in the early morning and with swords and daggers drawn evicted Smith’s terrified household, took the keys, and after maliciously damaging some of the furniture left three men in possession. Smith, having been warned, approached the house in the evening with a band of his servants, stiffened by the presence of the constable of Wyrardsbury.  They were attacked in the dark by more of the Windsor men with swords and bows and arrows.  Outraged, Smith appealed to the Star Chamber to restrain the Windsors. (Dewar 83)

The exchanges between Richard and Woodstock in the first act of Thomas of Woodstock sparkle with energetic realism.  It is pleasant to think that they may reflect a genuine relationship between the author and his old tutor.  Did Sir Thomas Smith recall de Vere’s childhood with pleasure?  Although there’s no evidence of it, surely he must have felt affection for the young man that had once been a small boy in his care.  So too must have been the feelings of the boy for the man.

Like any teenager he would have questioned the nature of his tutor in the years after leaving him.  He had a period of oats sowing that went against his tutor’s nature, which was, like the Thomas of Woodstock, very careful of money, but like any son with his father, he couldn’t help but love him, a love, that as often happens with other sons and fathers, he didn’t fully realize until the old man was gone.  Out of that love grew several roles, Woodstock, the earliest; Gonzalo in The Tempest, shortly after his death; and finally the one that’s become a classic audition piece.

Hence will I to my ghostly father’s cell . . .

Oxford immortalized the relationship between himself and his tutor, or rather, both Smith and Lawrence Nowell, his tutor at Cecil House, for in it he has blended the two into one, the nature and persona of Smith plus Nowell’s first name.  Here is the scene in Romeo and Juliet in which we meet Friar Lawrence for the first time as he enters with a basket to gather herbs at dawn from his garden:

The gray-ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And fleckéd darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels.

Now, ‘ere the sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juicéd flowers.
The earth, that’s nature’s mother, is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find;
Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some, and yet all different.

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones and their true qualities:
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from the true birth, stumbling on abuse;
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.

Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power;
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
To such opposéd kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs––grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

Friar Lawrence was a blend of de Vere’s tutors, to whom he has given the name of one and the personality and spirit of the other.  (Though the Friar’s name came from an early version of the story in Italian by Luigi de Porto.)  First written (I believe) in 1582, only five years after Smith’s death, the author uses his magical powers to bring his tutor back to life to speak to a world that was in danger of forgetting him, to speak for himself of his knowledge of stars and plants, of wisdom and philosophy derived from years of study, wisdom Shakespeare distilled into thirty potent lines, even as Smith distilled the virtues of his plants into medicines.  The final lines of this great sililoquy refer to death in gardening terms, as a “canker,” the disease that killed Smith.  Others may send flowers or write stilted eulogies for departed loved ones.  The ability to bring them back to life to give their own eulogy was Oxford’s alone.  In his time, it was a mighty power.

Romeo’s Friar, though a cleric and a man who loves his garden, is no recluse, hidden away from the trials of life.  Like Smith, he is a man of the world, a man of action.  When there is trouble he comes up with a plan that involves sensitive knowledge of the use of plants, the kind of knowledge that Smith was constantly seeking to improve upon.  Though cast as a Catholic friar, as he would have been had he lived in Verona in the time of the Monteschi and Capelleti, Smith was the closest thing to it in his own time, half-lawyer, half-theologian, all scholar.

Friar Lawrence has solutions at his finger-tips, friends he can turn to in far away places.  To the frightened young people he is a rock of support, a man willing to shoulder great human responsibilities.  Like Smith, he is a man who believes that marriage can heal the breach between two families “at jar.”  Above all, he is a father to the desperate youth, a “ghostly father,” as Romeo calls him––“ghostly” here meaning “spiritual.”   Hear him as he does his best to argue Romeo out of killing himself:

Hold thy desperate hand!
Art thou a man?  Thy form cries out thou art.
Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast.
Unseemly woman in a seeming man!
Thou has amaz’d me: by my holy order,
I thought thy disposition better temper’d.
Hast thou slain Tybalt?  Wilt thou slay thyself?
And slay thy lady, too, that lives in thee,
By doing damned hate upon thyself?

Why rail’st thou on thy birth, the heaven and earth?
Since birth, and heaven and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once; which thou at once would’st lose.

Fie, fie! Thou sham’st thy shape, thy love, thy wit;
Which, like a usurer, abound’st in all,
And usest none in that true use indeed,
Which should bedeck thy shape, thy love, thy wit.

Thy noble shape is but a form of wax,
Digressing from the valour of a man;
Thy dear love sworn, but hollow perjury,
Killing that love which thou hast vow’d to cherish;
Thy wit, that ornament to shape and love,
Misshapen in the conduct of them both,
Like powder in a skilless soldier’s flask,
Is set a-fire by thine own ignorance,
And thou dismember’d with thine own defence.

What, rouse thee, man! Thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew’st Tybalt; there art thou happy too:
The law that threaten’d death, becomes thy friend,
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessing lights upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But like a misbehav’d and sullen wench,
Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love:
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.

Go, get thee to thy love, as was decreed,
Ascend her chamber, hence and comfort her;
But look thou stay not till the watch be set,
For then thou canst not pass to Mantua;
Where thou shalt live till we can find a time
To blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends,
Beg pardon of the prince and call thee back . . .

Go before, nurse: commend me to thy lady;
And bid her hasten all the house to bed,
Which heavy sorrow makes them apt unto:
Romeo is coming.

To which the nurse responds: “O Lord, I could have stay’d here all the night, to hear good counsel.  O, what learning is!”

O, what indeed!

One response to “Oxford’s mentors on Shakespeare’s stage

  1. Pingback: Hughes on Sir Thomas Smith « Shakespeare Oxford Society

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