Oxford reached a peak of creativity three times in his career, after each one experiencing a great fall, during which (for a variety of reasons) he would begin experimenting with a changed style that he would use for the next upswing. Genius has been defined as the ability to reinvent oneself––in the favored metaphor of his time, to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of one’s former self. If that’s the case, then Oxford did it three times, the final one being the voice we call Shakespeare.
The first rise: 1571-1580
The first peak took place at Court in the late 1570s following the experiments of his early twenties (The Metamorphoses, The Supposes, Jocaste, Titus Andronicus). Promoted by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, he funded these himself by means of his credit as a peer. This period lasted for roughly a decade; for the first half the venues were the various royal palaces and the households of fellow peers; for the second was added the first successful commercial public theaters in England (possibly in all of Europe). Although the record does not reveal more than a few clues that his popularity at this time was based on the entertainments he provided for Court holidays and weddings, those clues (Elizabeth demanding that he dance for the French envoys; Leicester’s big bash at Kennilworth during the one summer that he was out of the country), should suffice, considering his reputation as a poet/playwright per Webbe, Puttenham, and Meres. All but one (Titus Andronicus) of the plays written during this period exist today only in later versions. These include Love’s Labor’s Lost, All’s Well That Ends Well, Cymbeline, and Two Gents.
The first fall: 1581
His first great fall occurred in 1581 when he was banished from Court for impregnating one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor. Unable and probably unwilling to do any more writing for the vindictive Queen, he turned to the masculine audience at the Inns of Court, for whom he experimented with a less elaborate, more compact style based on the works of admired Latin writers like Cicero, for early versions of the so-called Roman plays, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, both dealing with questions of treason rising from the accusations he just exchanged with his cousin Henry Howard. From 1581 until at least 1584, these took place at the little theater in the school for choristers at the old Blackfriars monastery nearby. After that we can’t be certain, although the record suggests that he may have been allowed to continue at Blackfriars until 1590.
The second rise: 1582-1588
It wasn’t long before Oxford was rescued by the powerful and secretive Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, under whose protective shadow he began writing for the Queen’s Men the first versions of his Lancastrian history plays, The First Part of the Contention, The True Tragedy, The Famous Victories, and for the West End audience, the first versions of his most personal works, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Merchant of Venice, all plays he would rewrite for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the ’90s. The only real surviving evidence for this is the plays themselves, in which his life and his concerns during that time are evident to those who care to look. The style of these early versions would have been similar to plays like The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon, and James IV, plays he never bothered to revise. (Pay no attention to the orthodox attributions; these and many others are plays from Oxford’s middle period.) It was also during this period that he and his cousin, Francis Bacon, kick-started the periodical publishing industry with the phony Nashe-Harvey pamphlet duel.
The second fall: 1590
The death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590 signaled Oxford’s second and most devastating fall, as his in-laws, the Cecils, moved to take over Walsingham’s operation and rid the nation of the writing establishment he’d fostered. His father-in-law, Lord Treasurer Burghley, tied his hands financially by calling in his debts to the Crown, while his brother-in-law Robert Cecil, using Walsingham’s former agents, destroyed his leading rival, Ferdinando Stanley, formerly Ld Strange, by then Earl of Derby. By means of an elaborate and successful sting operation, Cecil had his company’s secretary, Thomas Kyd, imprisoned and tortured, his playwright, Christopher Marlowe assassinated, and Stanley himself poisoned with arsenic the following year. Cecil was perfectly aware, of course, that his brother-in-law Oxford and his cousin Bacon were the chief creators of the literary establishment he sought to destroy, but because they were family they got off with the warning implicit in the destruction of half the writing establishment.
The third rise: 1594-?1609
Having fallen as low in reputation and credit as a peer of his stature could, in stepped Sussex’s former Vice-Chamberlain, Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, now Lord Chamberlain, to save Oxford once again (as had been done in the ’70s by Sussex, and in the ’80s by Walsingham), creating a Crown company for him to write for. Under Hunsdon he began rewriting his old plays in the style that grew out of the sonnets he had been writing for the young Earl of Southampton, who, clues suggest, stepped in briefly in the late ’80s and early ’90s to act as his company’s patron right about the time Burghley was cutting him off at the knees.
Wary of Robert Cecil, whose power continued to increase as his father succumbed to the infirmities of old age, Oxford retreated ever more deeply into anonymity, venting his bitterness satirizing Cecil’s father-in-law, William Brooke Ld Cobham, as the fat knight Sir John Oldcastle when, following Hunsdon’s death, Brooke had the misfortune to be named Lord Chamberlain; rewriting Troilus and Cressida to show the Earl of Essex and Southampton, (no longer the beloved Fair Youth) as the homosexual lovers, Achilles and Patroclus; and finally by rewriting his old True Tragedy of Richard III as a brutal portrait of Robert Cecil. Those who see Oxford as out of power at this time fail to see that his ability to bring these ferocious portraits to life on the London Stage exhibits a level of power that stopped Cecil in his tracks.
The final act: 1604-1609
Luckily for posterity, there would be no third fall, only a gradual disappearance, a vanishing similar to that of the University Wits, so long ago . . . .
With the death of the Queen, both Cecil and Henry Howard, Oxford’s other bitter enemy, were raised to the highest possible levels of power by a King who did not want to be bothered with the tiresome details of governing. While James looked the other way, the dastardly duo, enriched and empowered by offices, titles and monopolies, went on a rampage of destruction, imprisoning and, when they could, executing the men they had cause to hate or fear.
But not Oxford. Although the King was willing to let Oxford’s enemies destroy men like Sir Walter Raleigh and Cecil’s other brother-in-law, Henry Brooke, he knew all too well what sort of men they were, and he wasn’t about to let them kill or otherwise harm “Great Oxford.” Pressured by the Pembrokes, he gave the aging poet the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham that he’d been so long denied by Elizabeth, which meant that if he chose, he could live there in safety, for the Forest was a Liberty over which the King alone had executive power.
There, protected from his enemies, Oxford pitched into his half of the bargain––to finish rewriting his best plays for a younger, happier Court––almost immediately preparing several of them for the wedding of his youngest daughter to the Earl of Montgomery, younger brother of the Earl of Pembroke, both of them the sons of the greatest playwright of the Jacobean era, Mary Sidney Pembroke (aka John Webster).
Good night sweet prince
Having moved into the Forest, Oxford, his family, the King, and others close to him, put it out that he had died (significantly) on Midsummer’s Day, a ploy that showed the Court community the main reason for his disappearance (June 24 was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, beheaded by a king for political reasons). Tricked into believing that he was really dead, Cecil had Southampton arrested so he could search his lodgings for Oxford’s papers (most desperately, no doubt, for Richard III). Safe in the Forest, protected by several loyal “tall men,” Oxford put the finishing touches of Shakespearean gold on his favorite plays, adding biographical material to Hamlet and As You Like It, so that someday scholars like J.T. Looney, Charleton Ogburn and myself would be able to bring together what clues remain from the Cecils’ paper pogrom into one coherent, believable story.