If we are correct that the Earl of Oxford used William of Stratford’s name in order to get his work published, there has to have been something or someone to connect them. Since this was a business matter, the nature of our thesis does not require that the connection be personal (It may be, it just doesn’t have to be). As an earl and one who obviously relished his privacy, Oxford would have made use of an intermediary in this as in most of his business dealings. All we need to do is bring William and Oxford close enough in time and space, and provide a possible reason for the contact. That’s actually very simple. The connection is easily seen through their connections to the printer Richard Field.
William of Stratford and Richard Field
As a leather-worker and wool merchant, William’s father, John Shakspere, would necessarily have had a working relationship with Richard Field’s father, Henry Field, whose Stratford tannery was located two blocks from the Shakspere’s Woolshop on Henley Street. That they were business associates is shown by a lawsuit brought by John Shakspere against Henry Field over a small business debt (Schoenbaum 27).
That they were business associates only, not friends, seems clear from their religious affiliations. While it’s fairly certain that John Shakspere was a Catholic, it’s totally certain that Henry Field was a staunch Protestant with sympathy for the French Huguenot position, for had be been otherwise he would not have apprenticed his 18-year-old son to the French Huguenot, Thomas Vautrollier, England’s leading publisher of works of Protestant theology and anti-Catholic polemic.
Since Catholics and Huguenots both preferred to do business with their fellow believers, it’s no surprise that Vautrollier, or his agent, would travel all the way to Stratford to get the leather to bind his books, or conversely that Henry Field might send his son to London to sell calf and sheep’s hides to London’s leading publisher of Protestant books. Richard Field apprenticed with Vautrollier in 1579, and following his master’s death in 1587, married his widow, thereby acquiring Vautrollier’s lucrative patents and his print shop. Six years later Field printed the first work to be published along with the name William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, and a year later, The Rape of Lucrece.
David Kathman has contributed a list of the treasure trove of books printed or published by Vautrollier and/or Field that were later sources for Shakespeare. These include Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy, published in 1586, “widely accepted as an important background source for Hamlet, . . . [involving] not only the general discussion of melancholy but specific images and ideas. . . .” Others include Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch’s Lives, chief source for the Roman plays, and some part of Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles, again, a primary source for the English history plays. Most important for the specific connection with Shakespeare’s first published works, Vautrollier, then Field, held the exclusive patent for Latin editions of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, the primary source for Venus and Adonis, and also for Ovid’s Fasti, his primary source for Lucrece.
Oxford and Richard Field
Although possible connections between Oxford and Field aren’t quite as obvious as the Field-William or Field-Shakespeare connections, we would hardly expect that they would be. Nor do they have to be; keeping in mind the very small size of the community we study, we need only place them close enough to each other in space, time, and mutual interest. Since it is our primary thesis that Oxford was Shakespeare, their mutual interest is too obvious to require anything more than pointing out the connections (per Kathman) between the numerous Shakespeare sources published by Vautrollier and Field.
Location is not a problem either. During the years that Field was apprenticed to Vautrollier, Oxford was patron to the Children’s company living at the first Blackfriars Theater, located in the same Liberty where Vautrollier/Field had their printshop. Thus the timing is easy as well, since for some years from 1579 to at least 1584, Field’s workshop and Oxford’s theater were only a few yards apart. Documentation provided by Chambers, Gurr, etc. connects Oxford with the Court Stage during the period that Field was apprenticed with Vautrollier, 1579-’84.
Since the first half of the decade in question, roughly 1583-1593, corresponds to the years that somebody was writing the history plays for the Queen’s Men, the various True Tragedies and True Contention that Shakespeare would later metamorphose into Richard II, Richard III, Henry V, and the three parts of Henry VI, can it be coincidence that it was this printshop that published some of the sources used by this unknown playwright in writing plays that would later be rewritten by Shakespeare?
Shakespeare scholar David Kathman’s scenario for these connections has William hanging about Field’s printshop, glancing through the books on his shelves, and––Oh wow! learning French and––Gee whiz! getting swell ideas for plays. If we’re conjuring up scenarios, how much more likely is it, wielding Ockham’s razor, that Oxford––having been immersed as a child in Ovid (in the original Latin) and Plutarch (in the original Greek) while with Smith and Cecil––and now (1582-89) with the Queen’s Men depending on him for scripts, uses his own copies of these works to create the early versions of these history plays, while at the same time working with Vautrollier and Field on the texts involved, texts that they then publish in new editions?
Sir Thomas Smith and the printers of London
Oxford’s close connections with the printers of London need not be simply taken for granted. He was raised by Sir Thomas Smith whose years as Principal Secretary to King Edward VI (1547-49) put him in close contact with the handful of printers who first established the Stationers Register back in 1556. Smith’s first wife was the daughter of one of these printers. His close connection with William Harrison and the later absorption, through Harrison, of some of his text, into Holinshed’s Chronicles, is outlined by his biographer, Mary Dewar, in her 1982 book on Smith’s De Republica Anglorum.
Following his years with Smith, Oxford spent the rest of his formative years with Sir William Cecil during Cecil’s early period as the Queen’s Principal Secretary, with all the contact with and power over the print industry that that role required. During this time Oxford himself was involved with the community of young writers and translators gathered at Cecil House to examine Cecil’s growing collection of manuscripts and documents, many of them eagerly getting their own works published. Although it’s a story that has not yet been fully told, we can be certain that Oxford’s relationship with the printers of London was one of close involvement and long duration.
Thus, given the obvious connections between Field and Shakespeare (the writer) as shown by the many Shakespeare sources published by Field and his master Vautrollier, the proximity of their printshop to the Blackfriars theater during the period that Oxford was overseeing the various children’s companies there, plus the established connection between Field and the Shakspere family in their hometown of Stratford-on-Avon, if we accept that Oxford was in need of a pen name at just the moment in time that he wished to publish Venus & Adonis, there is no need to seek further afield for the means by which William of Stratford acquired his lucrative role as Oxford’s final and most important front man.
We should not scorn William. But for his financial need, and his ability to keep his mouth shut for two long decades, we might never have had the works of Shakespeare.
More details on how Oxford connected with Field.