For the record

For those whose interest goes deeper than the surface, here’s a list of the proxies (standins, pen names) used by Oxford, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or the Earls of Pembroke, to get his works published over the years. If there’s an interest I can explain who these individuals were, those who were real, in Oxford’s life.

1562- Arthur Brooke: narrative poem – Romeus and Juliet

1563- L. Blundeston – Introduction to Barnabe Googe’s Eclogue’s 

1565-67-Arthur Golding: narrative poem – Ovid’s Metamorphoses

1564-66- Richard Edwardes: plays for university commencements- Cambridge: 1564: Damon and Pythias; Oxford: 1566: Palamon and Arcite

1566 – William Painter – comic and bawdy tales translated from French and Italian sources: Painter’s Pallace of Pleasure. Major source of Shakespeare’s plots (alongside Plutarch, Ovid & Holinshed).

1567 – George Gascoigne – plays for Gray’s Inn: The Supposes, Jocasta

1567-68 – anonymous – plays for Paul’s Boys; Children of Windsor; or Children of the Chapel: Wit and Will; Orestes; A Tragedy of the King of Scots

1568-1574 – anonymous – unnamed plays for Children’s companies, and companies led by the Dutton brothers. 

1576 – George PettieA Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure. A collection of tales in the style of Euphues. (published by R.B.)

1576 – Richard Edwardes (dead): first poetry anthology: A Paradise of Dainty Devices

1576-77 – anonymous – play for Paul’s Boys: The Historie of Error

1578 – John Lyly: novel – Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit

1578-79 – anonymous – plays for Lord Chamberlain’s Players – The Cruelty of a Stepmother (Cymbeline?); Murderous Michael (Arden of Faversham?)

1580 – Anthony Munday: novel – Zelauto: The Fountain of Fame

1580 – John Lyly: novel Euphues: His England

1580 – Robert Greene – pamphlet: romance tale: Mamillia (the first of dozens published over the 1580s)

1581 – George Pettie – translation of Stephano Guazzo’s Civile Conversation, Books I-III.

1584-85 – anonymous – play for “The Earl of Oxenford his boys” – Agamemnon and Ulysses (Troilus and Cressida?) many plays for various companies, none immediately identifiable by title.

1589 – Robert GreeneMenaphon – pamphlet introducing Thomas Nashe

1592 – Robert Greene -farewell pamphlet – Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit

1594-1600 – anonymous – published in quarto: Taming of A Shrew, Henry VI part two, Henry VI part three, Titus Andronicus, Edward III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV part one, Henry IV part two, Henry V

1598-1609: William Shakespeare: in quarto: Pericles, Prince of Tyre, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, Merry Wives, Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, Richard III

1623 – William Shakespeare – collected works in the First Folio.Apart for a few minor exceptions, all the other plays, roughly half, were first published in 1623.

Prove me right or prove me wrong

Among the great spear-shakers of history, Shakespeare inhabits a realm shared by few others, where the loss of his human identity has left him floating in a void, seemingly divorced from our pantheon of cultural heroes and even from the cultish level achieved by his plays, up there in the charmed circle, the champagne and chandelier-lit halls where people pay a fortune to be seen watching the Russian Ballet and Grand Opera. 

Of God it has been said “tis He who hath made us, and not we ourselves.” Flesh and bone perhaps, but for those who speak English, more even than his near contemporaries, the authors of the King James Bible, it’s Shakespeare who’s given us the words, and beyond the words, the ideas we’ve lived by ever since he rose to his present level in the nineteenth century. From his Stage to the first peeps of a free Press to the centuries of newspapers to radio, film, television, and the internet, it’s Shakespeare, more than any other single individual, whose public stage and the plays he created for it, gave the English their first experience with what today we call the Media. 

This act of defiance in the face of the growing tyranny of free market capitalism, a force unchecked by either policy or religion––the creation of the first stand alone commercially successful public theater in modern history––standing, right from the start, cheek by jowl with the central machinery of government, Whitehall and Parliament, was too much of a threat to those in power to allow the truth about its creation, or its creator, to get out. Today, freed by new forms of the Media provided by a new century, it’s time to let the genie out of the bottle, and tell the world who he was, what he did, and why he did it. 

The key, as always, is publication. Wikipedia, social media, access to the ODNB for a small fee, are accessible to freelance historians in ways that until now have been locked within the ivy-covered walls of Academe. Shakespeare lovers all over the world are ready to hear the story of his creation of the Media, the fourth estate of government, the vox populi. In a few books I cannot begin to provide all the evidence for any particular point, but the evidence is there, if only we’ll look for it, are wise enough to know it when we see it, and bold enough to take advantage of this brave new world of instant communication. 

Join the fray. Prove me right or prove me wrong, but let’s have the truth, wherever it may lead

Dating the plays by Oxford’s biography

Now that we know something of Oxford’s personal timeline we can begin to locate the moment when it’s most likely he was inspired (or driven) to write the first version of a particular play. This is complicated by the fact that all but one or two of his greatest plays are the result of his own revisions over the years (not to mention changes made by the editors of the First Folio) and by the fact that a number of his early plays have been assigned by academics to other writers. Thus the following assignment of most of these first versions, however based on data and common sense, is necessarily largely conjectural. For all but a few, an effort to prove his authorship would require a long article for each, while this essay is simply an effort to organize them into a hypothetical timeline as a starting point for more detailed research. The dates of these important turning points in his career are 1562, 1576, 1581, 1589, 1597, and 1604.

Because so many of the plays reflect incidents in Oxford’s life, characters and plots that reflect it are the most determining factors, but style is also important. The first period begins with his arrival in London and the publication of the sweet love poem Romeus and Juliet. When seen as his chosen means of attracting female companionship, it seems clear that it succeeded with at least one attractive and intelligent girl, Mary Browne, daughter of the wealthy and important courtier, Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montacute (Montague) who, sadly, was a confirmed Catholic. As his first love, she was also one of his longest (in later years, mother of the 3rd Earl of Southampton, the “Fair Youth” of the Sonnets). At the time of her marriage to the 2nd Earl of Southampton, February 19, 1566, Mary was thirteen and Oxford was fifteen, the same ages of the lovers that someday Shakespeare will place in the literary firmament of stars. 

1562: Arrival at Cecil House; The Court; Paul’s Boys

To Romeus can be added plays created for the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral and their master, Sebastian Westcott. Known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, Westcott’s little company almost immediately became the primary entertainers for the Queen’s winter holidays. To this period can be added the plays written for the university commencements at Cambridge in 1564, Damon and Pythias; and at Oxford in 1566, Palamon and Arcite (ignore the references to Richard Edwards, Oxford’s cover at this time.) During this period Oxford converted the choristers at the Queen’s Chapel at Greenwich Palace to a second boys company, known as The Children of the Chapel.

Following the death of his father in 1562, the new Earl of Oxford spent his teen years as a ward of the Queen, entertaining her Majesty while squirming under the thumb of her “favorite,” the Earl of Leicester. Though technically her Master of Horse (the chief military post) Leicester, (still only Robert Dudley) had assumed control over those Court functions not directly within the purview of her Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, with whom Oxford was housed at that time. During these years, while Dudley was profiting from the Queen’s gift of the “management” of Oxford’s inherited estates, his jealousy caused him to do whatever he could to prevent the brilliant youth from establishing himself as a force in European literature, an area Dudley claimed for himself, not as a writer, but as the Court’s leading literary patron at that time. Leicester and his adherents, based in the Inner Temple in Westminster, would fight Oxford for years over control of the Court Stage. 

1571, the year Oxford turned 21, fortune finally began to smile upon him. With his former tutor, Sir Thomas Smith now Secretary of State (Cecil having moved on to the more lucrative office of Lord Treasurer), plus the advent of the sophisticated Earl of Sussex as the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, suddenly Oxford had supporters at Court who were not afraid of Leicester.

Sussex had a forceful personality, and soon showed his determination to take control of those areas that traditionally belonged to his office, among them Court entertainment. Surely this was the moment when Oxford became the Queen’s Minister of Pastime (without portfolio). Now officially an adult, he began writing for the adult actors, who, unlike the boys, were old enough to earn a real living by entertaining the public at theater inns and Guild halls. In this they had the tacit support of Elizabeth, for unable to support them herself, due to the puritan attitudes of her most important ministers, she knew they had to find a way to survive.

Surely Sussex must also have played a part in persuading the Queen and Burghley to finally allow him the “Grand Tour” of the Continent that he had been demanding since turning 21, the traditional cap to the education of a peer, which they had been denying him, primarily for fear that he’d join one of the enclaves of wellborn English catholics overseas and they’d never see him again.

Plays that originated during this period (revised later for Court and public performance) include Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cymbeline, As You Like It, Macbeth, Richard II, Woodstock, Ironside, and the True Tragedies.  

1576: Oxford returns from Italy; the first commercial public stage

With Oxford’s return from Italy in March 1576 came the creation that summer of the great public stage on the major highway leading into London. Built to hold two to three thousand viewers at a sitting, the poorest members of the working class, for only a penny (the cost of a small loaf of bread) could see the show from the orchestra pit. Every day of the week but Sunday, upwards of two to three thousand members of the London public, poor or wellborn, male or female, young or old, gathered in the great stage every afternoon but Sunday, from four to six pm, for the next twenty years. 

Thus was created, not just a theater, but an immense public audience greater than anything that could be reached anywhere near as directly, either by the Church or by the State. To these years can be assigned early versions of many plays that would later be polished to the form we know from the First Folio, among them all the plays based in Italy: The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale

1581: Fisher’s Folly, plays about history and politics, the Queen’s Men

The first major turning point in Oxford’s career was the unhappy day in March 1581 that his son by maid-of-honor Ann Vavasor was born in the Queen’s chamber. He spent the next two months in the Tower, where he sat upon the ground and told himself sad stories of the deaths of kings. His friends would have brought him books, among them the Geneva Bible, a traditional companion for an incarcerated friend, causing him to ponder the relationship between Saul (Elizabeth) and David (himself).

Following two months in the Tower he was remanded to house arrest at Fisher’s Folly, the estate in Shoreditch he’d just finished renovating, a five minute walk to and from the big public theater he had helped to fund on land controlled by his friend from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland. Together with his secretaries, first Anthony Munday, then (following Munday’s shameful destruction of Edmund Campion) John Lyly, and actor and musician friends like the Bassanos, he hung out at the Pye Inn just around the corner, where he discovered the 16-year-old Edward Alleyn, younger brother of the inn’s owner John Alleyn.  

With nothing compelling him to provide the Royal Bitch with comedies, Oxford turned to what had been his favorite audience ever since his days at Gray’s Inn, the lords and lawyers of the legal colleges, the Inns of Court in Westminster, where he found ways to shake his spear at those who were calling him a traitor (any sort of Court offense could be considered treason), in plays that examined issues of betrayal, Timon of Athens, a blast at the courtiers who had turned on him as soon as the Queen withdrew her favor, and Julius Caesar, murdered by the noble Brutus, who, like himself, was torn between loyalty to a leader and the human freedoms threatened by that leader. 

This was also the most likely moment when the first version of Hamlet was written, though it could not have been anything like what it would become by the time Oxford’s patrons finally got it published in the 17th century. Most probably first written following the death of Sussex, who had begun to fail about the time Oxford was banished, his death blamed by some on Leicester.

Sussex had been something of a father figure for Oxford. Now, with him gone and no one to take his place, the Queen still bitter about his affair with Vavasor, Leicester was again in a position to keep him cornered. It’s also the perfect moment for The Spanish Tragedy (wrongly attributed years later to Thomas Kyd, his scrivener), which provides a taste of his style as it was in the mid-eighties.

Reinstated at Court two years later by Sir Francis Walsingham, now Secretary of State, who (silently) stepped into Sussex’s shoes as patron of the Court Stage, (ignore the standard depiction of Walsingham as having no interest in the theater), and who needed Oxford to supply the touring company he’d just created with rousing plays meant to stimulate patriotism, which Walsingham, in creating the Queen’s Men as a touring company, sent to play for the folk along the shores where he was certain the Spanish Armada would attack.

As the Queen’s Men, the first acting company given royal sanction, it was led by the leading actors of Oxford’s Company, the Dutton brothers. With the comedy team of Richard Tarleton and Will Kempe to provide the laughs, the company was a great success with the public, and also at Court where the Queen’s Men would dominate the winter Court Calendar for the next ten years. Plays written during this period include Ironside and James IV, and early versions of King John and Henry V.

1589: bankruptcy, Walsingham’s death; Southampton and the Sonnets

The leap in Oxford’s writing style from Spanish Tragedy to Romeo and Juliet came with the death of Anne Cecil in June of 1588, shortly before the showdown with the Spanish Armada. With Anne gone, also gone was her father’s hope for a son whose status as heir to the Oxford earldom would open his door to the upper peerage. With his dynastic need to support Oxford gone, and his outrage over plays like Hamlet and Pericles intensified by the deaths of both his daughter and his wife, Burghley used his status as Lord Treasurer to nullify Oxford’s primary source for funding the London Stage, his credit as a peer of the realm. 

Essentially bankrupt, Oxford was forced to sell Fisher’s Folly and say goodbye to all but one or two of the team of secretaries, poets and musicians. Now in his forties, he ended up at Mme. Penne’s, a hostelry for men of class and uncertain means located between Blackfriars and the Mermaid Tavern near Long Wharf. With his companies dispersed and his actors out of work, he whiled away the hours writing sonnets for and about his one remaining patron, the teenaged Earl of Southampton, and the mistress they came to share, the dark-eyed musician and poet Emilia Bassano. From this period came the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. From these efforts also was born the voice known to historians as Shakespeare’s.

The sudden death of Walsingham in 1590 initiated a series of deaths in the 1590s that would open the door to the Cecils’ takeover of the government and bring the endangered London Stage to the verge of collapse. One in particular, the 1593 murder of playwright Christopher Marlowe by government agents, a sting obviously masterminded by William Cecil’s son Robert, cries out for an in-depth examination by an authorship scholar that will correct the notions purveyed by Charles Nicholls’s The Reckoning, the best source so far for the plot to take down Marlowe, despite his absurd attempt to put the blame on Essex.

1594: A second marriage; The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Henry IV

Meanwhile Oxford’s long time patron, Henry Carey Lord Hunsdon, having been made Lord Chamberlain in 1587, together with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, were working behind the scenes to find a way to save the London Stage. Hunsdon, the Queen’s cousin (possibly her half-brother if Henry VIII was his father as was rumored) and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, both long time patrons of the Stage, enrolled by Sussex as his vice-Chamberlains back in the 70s, came up with what academic Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly.”

Their idea was to split the authority over the London Stage between them. Hunsdon’s team, to be known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would have Oxford as playwright, what was left of the Queen’s Men, the public Theatre in Norton Folgate for their stage, popular comedian Will Kempe as their star, and the brilliant businessman John Hemmings as their manager. Howard’s team, the Lord Admiral’s Men, would consist of Philip Henslowe’s team at his Rose Theater in Southwark, Marlowe’s playbook, and the popular Edward Alleyn as both their star and stage manager. Much about this crucial moment in theater history would be clarified if someone could examine Henslowe’s Diary, which covers the most important period in this story, the fight to save Oxford’s public audience. 

Many of the plays from this time are revisions of his earlier plays. Plays created for Hunsdon’s team include Henry IV parts one and two, Othello, a revision of Henry V, and the creation of Falstaff, who became so popular as performed by Will Kempe, that in 1597, when no comedy scenes had been provided for him that season in Richard II and Richard III, Kempe took off on his own, leaving Oxford to manufacture an offstage death scene in Henry V, in which the death of Falstaff is described as a repeat of the death of Socrates, perhaps a gracious tip of the hat to the great comedian.

Oxford left Penne’s in 1592, the Queen, perhaps at Hunsdon’s suggestion, having arranged a marriage for him with one of her wealthy ladies-in-waiting. They moved to King’s Place in Hackney, where he provided his new wife with and her family with an heir to the Oxford earldom, and where he had what he needed to provide The Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays. The remaining  reigns from the Lancastrian cycle that began with Richard II and ended with Richard III were both difficult since neither king offered a story worth telling: Henry VI was a disaster as a king, and Henry IV was hugely unpopular, particularly with those who had loved Richard, including his own son, Prince Hal, whose youthful rebellious attitude towards his father was due to his love and admiration for Richard, as medievalist Terry Jones explains in Who Murdered Chaucer?

Possibly spurred by Hunsdon, who needed plays for his new company, in 1592 Elizabeth arranged a second marriage to another of her Ladies-in-waiting, whose wealthy family would be able to keep him in sufficient comfort that he could continue to provide plays for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Meanwhile, Hunsdon and Burbage began making plans to turn the old Parliament Chamber in Blackfriars into a splendid new indoor theater walking distance from Westminster and the parliaments that took place there every three or four years. 

Given the mandate to provide Hunsdon with plays, Oxford began the process of revising plays Richard II and Henry V, filling the gap between the two with with Henry IV parts one and two. For these he combined memories of his recent time at Mme Penne’s with memories of his years at Fisher’s Folly, turning Marlowe, Kyd and Peele into Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, for whom he created his hilarious sendup of Marlowe’s style.

1597: The showdown with the Cecils: Richard III and the advent of “Shake-speare”

The Cecils were not slow to react. Burghley’s incessant petition to the Queen to make his son Robert the next Secretary of State finally paid off the summer of 1596 while their rivals, the Earl of Essex and his followers were off on the Continent burning the Spanish city of Cadiz. Two weeks later Hunsdon died (unexpectedly from all evidence) and two weeks after that the Queen in her wisdom appointed Robert’s father-in-law, William Brooke Ld. Cobham, to take Hunsdon’s place as the new Lord Chamberlain and consequently patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Elizabeth’s failure to block the Cecils’ coup is a tragic final act to an otherwise exemplary reign. 

A few weeks later the actors got news that the beautiful new theater their father and Hunsdon had created in the old Parliament Chamber would remain closed, thanks to a petition to the Privy Council created by Lady Russell, Robert’s aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law. Evidently Robert Cecil, now with the power to deal a death blow to the London Stage, was clearing the decks for his trial performance as the Queen’s newly appointed representative in the Parliament set to convene the following October.

Thus it was that by the Christmas season of 1597-98, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, led by the Burbage brothers (their father had died the previous February), after twenty years of commercial success, found themselves on the verge of annihilation: both their father and their Privy Council patron dead, their public stage in Norton Folgate closed and not likely to reopen anytime soon, their great new indoor theater in Blackfriars permanently shuttered. As they faced the prospect of a Parliament without any means of providing it with the entertainment that was a large part of the MPs’ pleasure in coming to London, the Company, desperate to save itself, pulled the one arrow left in their quiver, their playwright. 

It is my contention that Oxford revised his earlier True Tragedy of Richard the Third into what we know today as his darkest and most vicious play, Richard III. Friends supplied his Company with a nearby hall where, over the Christmas break, they performed the revised play for an audience of MPs, during which Richard Burbage, in a costume based on Robert Cecil’s standard garb, mimicking his voice and wobbling gait, they conveyed the message that England’s new Secretary of State was a reincarnation of its most evil king. 

The shock waves created by this theatrical coup (however unrecorded or later erased from history) rolled, with the return of the MPs to their home territories, to the furthest corners of the nation. Although every reference to this showdown would be wiped from the record during his fifteen Robert’s years of total power as Secretary of State under James I, something happened the winter of 1597-98 that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to add the phrase “by William Shake-speare” to second editions of both Richard II and Richard III. Thus was Shakespeare introduced to the world as the author of these two current plays, at the same time that an obscure writer published in a pamphlet titled “Wits Treasury” how William Shakespeare was the true author of ten other popular plays plus his “sugar’d sonnets shared among his friends.”  

1604: The death of Adonis, the Forest of Waltham, King Lear and Hamlet

Something, probably the enmity of Robert Cecil, prompted Oxford in the early nineties to return to petitioning the Queen for the return of his family’s ancient stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, an inherited office stolen from the 15th Earl by Henry VIII. Had Oxford been willing, or able, to provide her with the comedies she craved, she may have been more willing to grant his request, but it may also be that she feared that once he had rights to the Forest he would simply disappear into it and she would never see him again, which is, effectively, what he actually did following her death and the new monarch’s willingness to grant him the desired stewardship. Immediately following the King’s grant, sometime early in 1604, came the rumor that Oxford was dead

Since the date given for his death, June 24th, is not only the Summer Solstice, the prehistoric turning point of the year, it is also the traditional date for the death of Adonis and the Feast of St. John the Baptist, traditional messiah of the Society of Freemasons, the Society that would raise the statue to Shakespeare that dominates Poet’s Corner in the Abbey. So the suspicion arises that, given the stewardship of the Forest where he had spent the latter half of his childhood with Smith, Oxford was performing his final disappearing act. Desperate for the privacy to complete his life’s work, desiring protection from his creditors, who from then on would have to deal with his “widow” and her family, he put the business of protecting his works into the capable hands of the Pembroke brothers and Susan, his youngest daughter, his Cordelia. 

It is my contention––based on a good deal of evidence, however circumstantial––that Oxford lived on until 1608 or 09, giving a final philosophical and contemporary spin to those plays that Susan, Ben Jonson, John Hemmings, the Pembroke brothers and their mother Mary Sidney may already have been planning to publish as a collection. In 1591 and 1596, Mary, by publishing her brother’s work, broke for the first time the ancient tradition that literature produced by courtiers should not be made public.

New plays written by Oxford during this final period include King Lear which touches on how he felt about his current treatment at the hands of his older daughters, and Measure for Measure, which perfectly describes how he was pretending to be dead. Plays most obviously revised include As You Like It, to which he added the scenes in which Touchstone and Jaques hang about with Duke Senior, a flattering portrait of King James during one of his hunting expeditions. Oxford would continue until his final days to add bits to The Tempest from reports that came his way from explorers like his mother’s cousin Bartholomew Gosnold whose “discovery” of Cape Cod in 1602 was reported that same year by John Brereton in a pamphlet published by George Bishop. A final version of Hamlet also seems likely, the faithful friend acquiring the name Horatio at a time when Oxford’s cousin Horatio Vere was achieving status as a general in the ongoing continental wars.

Another list tracking what happened to the plays and his audience following his death, would be useful, but since all we are seeking here is a hypothetical timeline connecting the subject and characters of some of his most popular plays with the ups and downs of his life, “the rest is silence.”

Oxford’s lady loves

As John Vyvyan has demonstrated in his three books about Shakespeare, the Bard was all about love, all kinds of love, romantic, friendship, tender, kind, obsessive, explosive. Shakespeare speaks of a feeling so intense that he compares it to the fevers and chills of malaria, how it made him freeze then fry (a hint that he himself had the disease, as did many in his time). One of his female loves had him so tightly bound for awhile that he was driven to write 26 sonnets about her (at the same time he was writing another 126 to a young male). Vyvyan traces his literary sources on the subject of love to Chaucer, the Medieval Roman de la Rose, to Plato, Socrates (and Diotima), but what about his own experience? Whom did he love? Who loved him?

Knowing Oxford and something of his life, realizing that there was hardly a character in any of his plays who wasn’t based  on someone he knew personally, leaving aside for the moment the guys (Benvolio, Bassanio, Horatio, the Fair Youth) who was the Rosalynde to his Orlando, the Juliet to his Romeo, the Titania to his Oberon, the Beatrice to his Benedick; who was his Dark Lady? Also leaving aside the Queen, whose role as a romantic figure is considerably influenced by her power, there were three, I believe, who won his heart more or less permanently.

Romeo’s Juliet 

Thus we can understand that Oxford came to London at age twelve hungry for love, as he so clearly depicts in Romeus and Juliet. If he found tenderness and affection at Cecil House it could only have been from his guardian’s little seven-year-old daughter (and the lower level household servants), but soon enough, at holiday Court gatherings, he must have met the girls whose parents were the Queen’s courtiers. 

But it was not at one of these Court gatherings that he met the girl who would inspire his earliest works. Her name was Mary Browne. She was the daughter of Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague, a wealthy Catholic who had played leading roles under Henry and Mary. While Sir Anthony stayed clear of the conspiracies of other members of his Catholic community when Elizabeth was crowned, it was a large community that had its own gatherings, separate from those at Court. Many of these took place in his mansion near Southwark Cathedral. Trusting to the play and his habit of using real people, places and situations, it would have been at one of these that the teenaged Oxford, probably with his companion at Cecil House, the Earl of Rutland, crashed one of Sir Anthony’s parties, where he met and exchanged words and glances with his daughter Mary. 

Mary’s life, what we know of it, suggests a woman of charm and independence, and doubtless wit as well, because our hero could only love women with whom he could banter, as he shows in his rapid fire exchanges between pairs like Beatrice and Benedick or the couples in Love’s Labour’s Lost. We have a portrait of Mary, painted at some point around her thirteenth birthday, when she was married to a Catholic youth, Henry Wriothesley (pronounced Rosely), son of the notorious first Earl of Southampton, when Oxford had just turned fifteen. 

If he yearned for Mary’s company, he would have known from the start that, born and bred in the Protestant aristocracy, neither could he marry a Catholic, nor could she marry him (the barrier he will attribute in the play to a family feud typical of Italian princes). The teenaged Oxford had long been affianced to one of the daughters of the Protestant Earl of Huntingdon, about whom we know little beyond the fact that she never married.

Southampton turned out to be a raving religious fanatic whose sexual inclinations drove him to give over control of his household to his steward, whose ill treatment of Mary causd her to live separately, together with their little son. When the boy was six, after a visit to his father, Southampton refused to return him to his mother. Raised for the next two years in a household where he was dressed like a girl, when his father died in 1581, the little eight-year-old was sent to live at Lord Burghley’s country estate Theobalds (Tibbles), where he and one or two other boys of rank were educated and where it’s likely he crossed paths with another of Burghley’s royal wards, the young Earl of Essex. Sent at twelve to live and study at Cambridge University, the young Earl of Southampton graduated in 1589, at which point Burghley enrolled him in Gray’s Inn, a short walk from his family mansion, where it’s most likely he first connected with Oxford.

Following the death of her dreadful husband, Mary (most unusually at that time) remained single for fourteen years. Finally, on May 2, 1594, she married an old friend, the aging Chancellor of the Queen’s exchequer, Sir Thomas Heneage. Their marriage was celebrated by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dreame, in which he portrayed her as the Amazon princess Hippolyta and Heneage as Theseus, her son Henry as one of the lovers, Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth as Hermia, Burghley as Egeus, and Oxford’s own actors as the rude mechanicals. This marriage can be seen at least in part as a move by Mary to do what she could for Oxford and the London Stage, which just then was suffering Robert Cecil’s efforts to take it over.  Heneage (just happened) to be the official in charge of paying for the Queen’s Court entertainments; it was following their marriage, and under his authority, that the name William Shakespeare first appeared on a warrant for payment. 

Mary is mentioned in one of the seventeen poems Oxford wrote as a gift for her son, the Fair Youth of his Sonnets, an effort to persuade the 17-year-old to marry his daughter. But partly because Elizabeth was also Burghley’s granddaughter, whom Henry by then had come to hate (as did all his wards), the youth, doubtless with great anxieties where sex was concerned, knowing how he was raised, preferred to remain single. Mary herself is mentioned in Sonnet #3,

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Following her husband’s death, the Countess married a man her son’s age. He disapproved, but by then he had joined the group surrounding the Earl of Essex. No longer the newcomer to Court life who just a year or two earlier had paid for the publication of Venus and Adonis, he had become an adult member of Elizabeth’s Court.

Mary lived until 1607. The fourteen years when she was free of any other commitment coincided with his years at Fisher’s Folly, when he was turning out plays for both the Court and the public theaters. That Mary, who had great wealth of her own, was one of his patrons during that period seems too likely not to suggest, though of course there’s no proof. She is the most likely model for Rosalynde and the other female characters of his early pastorals like Cymbeline and As You Like It, plays first written before his year in Italy.

Ann Vavasor

Oxford probably met Ann Vavasor shortly after his return from Italy in 1576. If she was not already at Court by then she came soon after. Having broken off with his in-laws and his wife, living a bachelor’s life at Fisher’s Folly, Ann was a member of the Catholic Howard circle at Court, which included the two who would turn out to be his worst enemies, his cousins Henry Howard and Charles Arundel. While we can be certain that she was attractive (there’s a poem that we’re told was written to her by Sir Walter Raleigh, advising her to beware of the men at Court), it was probably her intelligence and wit that captured his heart. 

Their affair was frought with danger, for such relationships were forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court, and Oxford was among those the Queen liked to pretend were languishing with desire for her virginal self. Having lived a life of sexual freedom in Italy, heavy sighs and meaningful glances were no longer sufficient for our hero. Long story short, Ann got pregnant, and while they must have had plans for her to leave Court on some excuse in time to have the baby in private, the rascal came too soon, Ann went into labor in the Queen’s quarters, which threw her Majesty into a jealous rage. Oxford was nabbed during a most unheroic attempt to escape to the Continent, and after two months in the Tower, was put under house arrest and banished from Court. 

The Queen disposed of Ann by commiting her to the care of her old “Champion,” Sir Henry Lee, who ran the tilts where the knights at Court clashed in medieval finery, and who, perhaps like many at Court, was smitten with Ann. It’s unclear what she was up to during her years with Lee. Like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, she was a woman with a will of her own, but it appears that her “champion” adored her, and she did bear him a son that everyone accepted as legitimate, so it may be that they married, but if so in the sort of private ceremony that doesn’t reach the record. 

That she had nothing more to do with Oxford is simply not to be believed. Clearly he helped give their son a decent life, an education, and a place in the world. That they never saw each other again is an absurdity of Protestant historians who are forced to go by whatever little they can find in the record. She had given Oxford a son, the only one he would ever have, and one he could be proud of. Of course they saw each other again, most likely regularly for as long as they lived.

We know that Ann herself was a poet of no mean ability as we can see from the poem she wrote after their banishment and separation to let him know that she still loved him. Some have attributed it to Oxford, but it’s not at all in his style, and it rings with the truth of how life was for the women at Elizabeth’s Court, something it’s clear he did not fully understand at that time, still seeing them as free to fly where they list. But Ann knew different:

Thou seest we live amongst the lynx’s eyes,

That pries and spies each privy thought of mind;

Thou knowest right well what sorrows may arise

If once they chance my settled looks to find. . . .     

And let me seem, although I be not coy,

To cloak my sad conceits with smiling cheer;

Let not my gestures show wherein I joy,

Nor by my looks let not my love appear.

We silly [helpless] dames, that false suspect do fear,

And live within the mouth of envy’s lake,

Must in our hearts a secret meaning bear,

Far from the show that outwardly we make. . . .

So where I like, I list not vaunt my love;

Where I desire, there must I feign debate.

One hath my hand, another hath my glove,

But he my heart whom most I seem to hate.

Thus farewell, friend: I will continue strange;

Thou shalt not hear by word or writing aught,

Let it suffice, my vow shall never change;

As for the rest, I leave it to thy thought.


Found in a notebook kept by the daughter of the family who occupied Fisher’s Folly after Oxford was forced to give it up, it would have been well known by those who had access to the poetry shared then by members of the Court community. In fact it may have been the stimulus he needed to return to Romeo and Juliet and write what would become the most popular of all his plays. 

Always paranoid about those “haggard hawks that fly from man to man,” Oxford may at first have seen her passive reaction to their separation as a betrayal. Angry and bitter towards the Court that, following the Queen, turned on him as her seducer, it was during his banishment that he began writing for the Inns of Court and Parliament, plays about betrayal like Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar.

Burning with wounded pride over the apparent ease with which she accepted her prescribed punishment, this must have been when he wrote Troilus and Cressida, boldly producing it at Burbage’s public theater, just up the road from Fisher’s Folly. When her response came to him through the poetry underground, the relief was overpowering. She still loved him! Driven to banish the impression created by Cressida, he poured into Romeo and Juliet his love and longing, and his fury at the Queen. 

Still locked away at Fisher’s Folly, out of touch with the resources in the City where he was in danger of being assaulted by her relatives, he talked the 16-year- old youth who served him and his pals at the local tavern, one Edward Alleyn, into playing Romeo, and as Juliet, the 14-year-old son of the manager of his big public theater, Richard Burbage, boldly putting it on at Burbage’s public stage just up the road from Fisher’s Folly, not forgetting to include the street fights he was suffering, convincingly performed by actors trained at the fencing academy located beneath the little Blackfriars school stage. 

While Secretary of State Walsingham would see to it that the Queen was reconciled to Oxford (he needed him to write for his new touring company, the Queen’s Men) while she must have felt the lack during two winters without his plays. Despite his return, their relationship would never be the same. What the Queen craved were comedies like Love’s Labours Lost or The Comedy of Errors, but his years of banishment had destroyed the urge to amuse the Court. Once back at Court he turned his energies to writing plays based on events in English history, plays meant to rouse the patriotic instincts of the towns along the coast where Walsingham knew the Spanish were planning to strike.

Emilia Bassano

Anne Cecil died shortly before the Spanish struck in 1588, and with her death also died her father’s plans that Oxford provide him and his decendants with a title in the upper peerage. Disgusted and angry at his former ward and son-in-law for his creation of that public forum, the London Stage, and the points of view it promoted, as Lord Treasurer he had the power to destroy Oxford’s credit. Without credit, Oxford was unable to continue to fund the London Stage. The Queen too was angry with him for no longer providing her with the romantic comedies she craved, and her own plight just then was probably all she could deal with. 

Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly in 1589, England’s premiere Earl ended up in a hostelry long used by important men down on their luck. Located near Blackfriars (and the Mermaid Tavern) in one of the less reputable neighborhoods of London, he entertained himself by writing sonnets to and about various members of his Court and literary coteries, among them the young Earl of Southampton, who  was proving to be a patron, and beautiful Emilia, the mistress of his patron Henry Hunsdon (the bit in Hunsdon’s Wikipedia bio about the Queen offering him an earldom on his deathbed happened to Sir Henry Sidney, not Hunsdon.) When Elizabeth finally saved him by arranging a marriage to one of her wealthier Ladies in waiting, Oxford went from Mme. Penne’s to the comforts of King’s Place in Hackney where the daily writing of sonnets fell by the wayside as he began working on plays for Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, who just then was contriving a plan, in partnership with his son-in-law Charles Howard, to restructure the threatened London Stage.   

As Hunsdon’s plans for his new company continued to develop, with Oxford committed to writing new plays and revising old ones, he and Emilia were frequently in each other’s company during the period when he was living at Mme. Penne’s, where she met Oxford’s patron and friend the young Earl of Southampton. Thus was formed the triangle documented in several of the Sonnets.

I believe this was the moment when Oxford finally began to see things from a woman’s point of view, something that would enrich his work from then on. Not only did he write the Sonnets during this time at Mme. Penne’s––the Boar’s Head Tavern of the Henry IV plays––he turned his memories of Marlowe, Kyd and Peele, all three dead by then, into Bardolf, Nym and Pistol. Mme. Penne became Mistress Quickly, and while Falstaff began as his enemy, Brooke Cobham, little by little, probably because it was the comedian Will Kempe who was playing Falstaff, and he found himself giving him the best lines, Falstaff gradually became a parody of himself.

Attracted to his patron’s beautiful, educated, talented mistress, then in her early twenties, they ended up in bed, where after making love they fought bitterly about their respective roles in each others lives. The hopelessness of their situation, her needing a rich husband, and him a rich wife, meant there was no future for them together. In addition there was the shame attached to betraying the patron on whom both were depending just then. Hunsdon, by then in his sixties, was of course married with dozens of grown children, so it’s hard to tell how he felt about it. Concerned that the Stage be secured in time for the next meeting of Parliament, perhaps he saw it as simply a part of having to deal with theater folk.

Towards the end of this period, both Oxford and Emilia had sons, both named Henry. This forced Hunsdon to get Emilia married, sadly for her, just to another musician, ending her hopes of a richer and more respectable alliance, while Oxford’s only option was to write a few anguished sonnets about her seduction of Southampton, which, however painful, did have the result of showing the youth how to make love to a woman, something that may have been a problem for him, considering how he had been raised, first by his crazy father, then by Burghley, for whom sexual attractions were to be avoided unless they could be put to some political use. 

Emilia was not only a musician, like most of Oxford’s lovers she too was a poet. Her book of polished poems, Salve Deus Rex Judeorum, reflecting standard Christian attitudes, was published within two years of Shake-speare’s Sonnets. According to A.L. Rowse,  the first to identify her as the Dark Lady, she wrote the book largely to confront her image as a sex symbol as portrayed by Shakespeare. Tagged the “Dark Lady” by historians, his descriptions of her coloring conform to her Italian paternity. That he calls her “unjust” is how he must have seen her feminism, which she reveals most cogently in the introduction to her book, in which she demands respect for women as capable of far more than simply pleasing men. While 19th-century Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley) is honored by historians as the first English woman to publish a tract on women’s rights, that honor must go instead to Emilia Bassano, or rather to Amelia Lanier, the name preferred by the literary. 

The name Emilia appears several times in Shakespeare, most notably as Desdemona’s defender in Othello. Having come into Oxford’s life shortly after the death of Anne Cecil (by suicide, if Hamlet is any indication), she must have seen his poor wife’s impossible situation from her own point of view, one that Oxford might well have felt was “unjust”––nor was she, as her book’s introduction reveals, one to keep her opinions to herself.

There you have it: Orlando’s Rosalynde was Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton; Benedick’s Beatrice was Ann Vavasor, mother of his only son; and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was Emilia Bassano. As for Elizabeth, he showed his love for her by touching her heart and making her laugh with his stories, a love that has given the world as much pleasure as it ever gave Her Majesty.

 For those who find this subject worth pursuing, the most fertile field for investigation would be the play Two Noble Kinsmen, where the character Emilia is closely allied to the characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dreame (most interestingly to Hippolyta, i.e. Mary Browne) and to Palamon and Arcite, the (lost) play produced for the commencement at Oxford University in 1566 during which Oxford and Rutland and others were awarded Master’s degrees. Attributed at the time to the “Master Edwards” who was Oxford’s cover during his early years at Court, it plays an important part in the story of the dramatic evolution of Shakespeare, and how closely it corresponds to Oxford’s life story. For more about that, as Ann Vavasor put it, we’ll “leave it to thy thought.”  

Blog on, blog on, O state of play

Although politicworm is not what it once was, having been thrown into disarray a year ago (or was it two?) by the shifting of priorities within wordpress.com, which for years has allowed me to reach my faithful readers without it costing me or them anything, it seems the blog continues to survive, however changed in appearance and accessibility.  Although nothing on the Internet stays the same, it also appears that nothing ever goes away. It’s all still out there, somewhere.

So although the blog, or site as we’re now calling them (blog is an awful word) doesn’t look like it used to, with three columns, everything organized so posts and pages could be easily located, it seems it’s all still there, hundreds of posts, comments, and pages of information going back to its beginnings in 2009, ten years of information, commentary and opinion. So now that the Search Field is visible,  if you’re curious about a particular subject, you can type in a keyword––such as Francis Bacon, Robert Greene, or Dark Lady, and you’ll see a list of pages or posts that touch on that subject.

Perhaps just now when so many are being forced into home-bound isolation, my blog might provide another means of escape for those curious about the Authorship Question or involved in researching it. If some question strikes you that you can’t find addressed through the search field, please feel free to ask me at stephanie@politicworm.com . Since I’m as isolated right now as everyone else, I’ll be more than happy to respond.

“The readiness is all.”

Shakespeare’s epidemics

In this time of a worldwide threat to human health, we may wonder whether such threats may have occurred in Oxford’s time. The truth is, yes, they occurred all the time. In the ages before modern sanitation, the microscope and medical science, humans were beleaguered by any number of diseases: some that came in waves, striking with a vicious ferocity that left hundreds dead in their wake; some that sapped the strength for years before death came as a relief; one that, if it didn’t kill, left the beautiful and good permanently disfigured. Finally there was one so terrible that ever since a cure was finally found in the 20th century, humanity has done its best to forget it. As Lawrence Stone puts it in Chapter two of this essential background to the Elizabethan period: The Family Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800: 

The most striking feature which distinguished the Early Modern family from that of today does not concern either marriage or birth, it was the constant presence of death. Death was at the enter of life, as the cemetery was at the center of the village (66).

A sociologist, Stone provides stunning statistics. Long story short, Oxford was lucky that he survived so many of the “ills that flesh is heir to.” But he didn’t survive them all, and even those he managed to escape affected him and his audiences and supporters in ways that it behooves the historian to explore.

Oxford and the Black Death

The big threat, the one history will never forget, was the bubonic plague. Although some who contracted it managed to recover, whenever and wherever it struck it would claim hundreds of lives, sometimes thousands, mostly of “the lesser sort,” the poor who lived on or near the river where ships from overseas with their cargos of flea-carrying rats, touched land, killing the occupants of the bars and whorehouses that clustered around the docks in east London. The most devastating pandemic in history, it had peaked in Europe in the mid-14th century, killing between 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. It first hit England in 1348, killing  half of London. 

By the time Oxford arrived in 1562, Londoners knew the drill. They knew that as summer began, if the daily death count rose above a certain level, the City would not be safe until the arrival of cold weather, until heat and the the following June, when the death toll would begin to increase again. Following a second death-dealing summer it would disappear for good with the advent of cold weather. That is, until, years later, it would strike again. Thus the English were accustomed to quarantines; in a plague year, those Londoners who had places to go in the country stayed away from the city until the body count returned to normal. Not that it ever went totally away. To keep it low it became someone’s job to kill all the stray dogs who were seen as carriers, and dump their carcasses in a wooded area near the river known as the Isle of Dogs.

Oxford experienced the plague most directly his second year in London. He and a handful of other boys and a tutor (probably Lawrence Nowell) spent the entire year across the river from Windsor Castle where the Court was locked in semi-permanent quarantine. (It was during the winter holidays at Windsor that year that he first met Richard Farrant, Master of the Chapel Choir at Windsor Castle, later Master of the Queen’s Chapel choirboys in the little school he created in the Liberty of Blackfriars shortly after he returned from Italy.)

During the 1570s and ’80s when he was supplying the London-based acting companies with comedies, there would be summers when the theaters were closed by the Privy Council due to the uptick in the death count. During his visit to Italy in 1575, it seems he avoided Milan where the plague was then raging out of control, as is referred to in Two Gents where the mention of “St. Gregory’s Well” puzzled scholars until Oxfordian Richard Roe identified it as the yawning pit wherein the Milanese were dumping the bodies of their plague victims, where the caddish Proteus attempts to send Thurio, his rival for Sylvia’s affections, in Act IV Scene 2.

History would have it that it was the plague that caused Oxford’s death on June 24, 1604, which even on the face of it seems most unlikely. It had struck again the summer of 1603 shortly after Queen Elizabeth’s death in March, forcing James VI of Scotland, on his way way south to take the English throne, to bypass London, and wait out the dangerous summer with his staff and members of the English Court at the country home of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, in Wiltshire. There, or soon after, it seems the King agreed to give the by then 53-year-old Earl of Oxford the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, an ancient family prerogative, the return of which he had been petitioning the Queen since the early ’90s. On the face of it it does seem odd that Oxford, who was apparently sufficiently healthy to be given this important perquisite, (doubtless at the urging of Pembroke––Shakespeare’s final and most dedicated patron) would suddenly expire the following June. According to an entry in the register of the church at Hackney, Oxford was buried there on July 6. While no other evidence of this burial exists, in 1619 his nephew, Percival Golding, claimed that he was buried in Westminster Abbey, right about the time that Poet’s Corner got its name. 

As I’ve argued elsewhere, that he was supposed to have died on the second-most important turning point of the year, the summer solstice, the feast day of both the Greek god Adonis and St. John the Baptist––patron saint of the Templars, Rosicrucians and Freemasons––suggests that, with the assistances of his many powerful supporters, Oxford, who had used every ploy he could come up with over his entire lifetime to get and do what he wanted, used this means to “die to the world,” giving himself the time, the primary need of all creative writers, and the freedom from creditors and Court functions that such a move would provide, to relax secure from his enemies.

As Shakespeare has Jaques request of Duke Senior in Act II Scene 7 of As You Like It, to “invest me in my motley; give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world . . . ,” the conversation that follows between Jaques and Duke Senior is totally convincing that something like this had taken place at Wilton the summer of 1603. Just as convincing is the plot of Measure for Measure, which perfectly describes a similar scenario in which a powerful lord “dies to the world,” leaving it to his incompetent and venal inferior (Oxford’s cousin, Robert Cecil? then in the process of taking over the government under King James.) Come on folks! Let’s get on the same page with this! It’s so obvious!

The Ague

The Ague was the English term for malaria. While the plague has almost completely disappeared, malaria has been endemic from the beginning of time and promises to continue in those parts of the world where the weather and geography fosters it. During Oxford’s time malaria was rampant in the summer in England in areas of salt marsh where rivers emptied into the sea, but there were also areas of sweet or brackish wetland that grew fetid in such weather, rife with mosquitoes, and with the flocks of birds that fed on them. Ankerwycke, where Oxford lived as a child with Sir Thomas Smith, and which Smith later described as “low and waterish,” is located in just such an area, a bend in the Thames across from a huge marshland where every summer, Smith and members of his household were exposed to the anopheles mosquito.

One of Shakespeare’s favorite metaphors equates falling in love to an attack of malaria, causing its victims to “freeze” and then to “fry”; equating the alternating hopes and fears that accompany this emotional upheaval with the burning fevers and bone-shaking chills of malaria. It seems clear from this repeated metaphor that the playwright himself was a victim of a disease that, bad as it could be in England, was actually much worse in the warmer nations around the Mediterranean Sea. The four months in 1575 from the end of June through the end of September during which our playwright was cruising the waters of the Mediterranean, largely to see for himself the lands of the Greek myths and the Bible as described in the books in Smith’s library, but also to escape the disease that every summer would devastate southern Italy.

There were other diseases that during that time would strike the English suddenly and without warning and kill dozens before disappearing from the record. With names like “Stoop Knave and know thy master,” these, most likely varieties of influenza, could kill an entire village while leaving untouched another a few miles away. But none of these came close to leaving the trail of destruction, then and over the years to come, as the one they called the “Great Pox.”

The Elizabethans and syphilis

Apart from the occasional mention of it as “the Great Pox” (as opposed to the somewhat less terrible smallpox), the destruction caused by syphilis has almost entirely escaped the history of the Tudor period. First noted in the record as having appeared in Naples in 1495, it quickly reached pandemic proportions throughout Europe, and probably the world, it seemed to concentrate at the notoriously licentious Courts of southern Europe.  By the time Henry VIII began showing the effects of his unrestrained teenage libido, it was already devastating some of the great houses of Europe, notably the those ruled by the Borgias, as detailed by the novelist Sarah Dunant in an article in The Guardian (May 17, 2013), and, as she observes, many others as well. Unremarked by history, largely due to the victims’ desire for secrecy, the shame attached to its cause and the terrible effects that, by Elizabeth’s time, were familiar to all who had cause to fear it, for there was no cure known at the time, nor would there be until the twentieth century when the hunt for its cure finally led to the discovery of penicillin. If you have any curiosity about the effects of the Great Pox on the world that Oxford was born into, please read the article in The Guardian.

Those of us who have focused on locating the truth about Shakespeare by examining the history of the Elizabethan era might have continued in the dark about the Queen and her family as left us by the Tudor historians were it not for Prof. Stanislav Andreski’s Puritanism and Witch Hunts, published in 1989. Professor of Sociology at the the University of Reading (an extension of Oxford U), Andreski connects the arrival of syphilis in Italy in 1495 with a number of seemingly unrelated social phenomena, among them the sex-negative nature of the Protestant Reformation as it manifested in Geneva, Germany, and England, where sex was invariably described as filth and even those who did nothing more than allow themselves to feel sexual desire were warned that they were headed for an eternity of burning in Hell. 

The disease itself is insidious, with symptoms like those of other diseases, among them consumption (tuberculosis). Consisting of three (or four) distinct stages, it can first appear with what can seem to be an ordinary rash round the genitals and/or mouth, which may simply vanish after a few weeks. This is followed, sometimes by months, sometimes by years, by the increasingly painful second and dangerous third stages, and finally by the tertiary stage, the complete breakdown of the nervous system, physical decay and dementia. Those who have read any of the many biographies of Henry VIII can easily see these stages manifesting, first in his cruelty towards his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, whose series of miscarriages and stillbirths drove him to find another queen, which brought about the break with Rome, which laid the foundation for the creation of the Church of England, which opened the way for the reformers to institute the Protestant Reformation, with all the emotional and psychological ills that have accompanied that questionable revolution. 

Henry’s greed in appropriating the income and estates belonging to the Church for his own profit, his expensive and fruitless wars in France and Scotland, the paranoia that drove him to execute his most intelligent and loyal servants, men like Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell, have been blandly reported by his historians as simply the normal behaviors of a somewhat extraordinary king. Even the historian Geoffrey Elton, who in the 1940s was the first to reveal the kind of monster he truly was, never touched on the true cause of Henry’s terrible actions. Perhaps he simply didn’t know, so well kept had been the secret that only the King’s courtiers would have known, and who would also have known why they had to keep silent about it.

We can be certain, however, that Henry’s doctors knew, for by that time everyone in Europe, except possibly illiterate peasants who lived so far from civilization that such things never came their way, was aware of the disease and its deadly effects. One of the worst of these was (is) the fact that the victim can pass it along to his sex partners, including his wife, who can then pass it on to their children. These may die in utero, or shortly after birth, or be sickly and die in their teens, as we see was the case with all of Henry’s wives and mistresses, and many (though not all) of their children. His daughter Mary remained alive but in poor health, finding it impossible to conceive, while his younger daughter, Elizabeth, continued to manifest symptoms of what can only be explained as inherited syphilis, among them the fistula on her leg that editors allowed to remain in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, perhaps because it was simply too important to the plot.

Knowing the history of her mother’s efforts to conceive a living male child, there can be no doubt that the primary reason why Elizabeth never married was that marriage would necessarily have entailed sexual intercourse with what it might threaten to her life, her health, and the viability of the heir to the throne, should she be successful in conceiving him. This was not the only reason why she never married, but it was certainly the one that most determined her fate, for it would have meant sexual intercourse, which she would have realized, fairly young, and surely by the advice of her caregivers, would be dicing with death. For those with ears to hear, she reveals it in almost everything she’s reported to have said on the subject. Her healthy lifestyle, eating and drinking sparingly, vigorously walking and riding horses, is testimony to her determination to conquer this, the worst of all her enemies.

Elizabeth bore with fortitude her physical ills as she did all the other ills that beset her over her forty-year reign, for which she needed the laughter that no one could provide like her difficult and rebellious Minister of Pastime. Of course he loved her and pitied her, did his best to please her, and was furious with her when she used her power to hurt him, and of course she loved him, for his intelligence, his good looks, and his wonderful sense of humor. But this love, which under normal circumstances might have been consummated physically, was sublimated into the creation of several hundred works of great literary art and, not least, the creation of the London Stage, the first manifestation of what today we call the Media, the fourth estate of government.

Burghley too, despite his claims to her foreign suitors that the Queen was capable of producing an heir, must have been aware of the truth, for his father-in-law, Sir Anthony Cooke, had been a Groom of the Privy Chamber, one of the handful of servants whose job it had been to attend to the terminally ill Henry’s physical needs when at close to 400 pounds, violent and raving, he had to be carried from the bed to the privy and back. But Burghley and Elizabeth together made great use of her virginal status as an effective means of keeping the Catholic Courts of Europe, in particular the Spanish under Philip II and his Hapsburg father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, from attacking Protestant England so long as they believed that they might more easily have it by getting its Queen married to a Catholic prince, a ploy that gave the Elizabeth-Cecil combo a good quarter of a century with which to prepare for the attack which finally in 1588, as Elizabeth was obviously no longer capable of providing an heir, brought on the attack of the Spanish Armada. 

People had sex at Elizabeth’s Court, of course they did. But they did so very carefully, and nowhere near as often or as recklessly as did courtiers at other royal Courts at other times, and not only because that’s how they stayed in good with the Queen, but also because it’s how they stayed free from contracting syphilis. Her determination to avoid the situation that was destroying the Borgias was the major reason why she would go berserk when one of her “favorites” crossed the line, and impregnated one of the women of her Court. If she went along with the poets who portrayed her as a goddess come back to save the English, a Diana for whom her lovers would gladly give up their desires of the flesh, perhaps we can forgive her, for it’s obvious from the paintings from that time how greatly she enjoyed the company of tall handsome men with long beautiful legs. 

To put it bluntly, syphilis is the reason why the English Reformation adopted the grim strictures of Calvin, for whom sex was filth and desire the first step to an eternity of burning in hell. Syphilis is what turned the merry English into the reserved and undemonstrative British of today and English-speaking Protestants everywhere hesitant to hug each other, hold hands in public, even to nurture their own children, due to a habit formed out of their ancestors’ terror of this disease.

For Oxfordians it’s our best reason for rejecting the Howard-Arundel libels that form the entire basis of Alan Nelson’s biography. It explains why, for instance, he was so wrong about Oxford’s reason for bringing the teenaged Italian singer Orazio Cuoco back to England with him as a gift for the Queen. Oxford  knew that this would please her far more than another pair of perfumed gloves. It had nothing to do with sex, his, the boy’s, or the Queen’s. That’s Nelson’s problem, not ours.

The fact that it’s taken until how to understand this may show us just how far fear of infection can drive a people when faced with a pandemic of unknown etiology and terrifyingly threatening dimensions. Now that we have been advised not to hug each other, not to touch each other, not to get closer to each other than six feet, perhaps we can begin to understand why the Elizabethans of Oxford’s time turned to writing sonnets and reading stories derived from Greek romances where, through incident after incident, the lovers never manage to get together.

 

A new look at Olivier’s Hamlet

Day before yesterday, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) showed Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet from 1948. I still think it’s the best film version of it ever done, maybe the best film version of any Shakespeare play. It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw, in fact, it was my introduction (I was eleven years old), and I was gobsmacked! I’d already seen a lot of movies by then, parents tended to take their kids to the movies when I was a kid, so some of the movies from the early 40s were familiar to me, but with this one I realized what a movie could be, so far beyond anything I’d seen up to then.

I rushed home and read the play in the little collection of Shakespeare’s plays among my parents’ books, and was thrilled to see that there was a lot more to it than could be shown in the movie. Thus began the lifelong love of Shakespeare that would take me to to where I am now after thirty years of researching the history of the Tudor period, partly to convince myself that Ogburn and Looney were right about his identity, then to find out if I could why the Academy so adamantly continues to reject the truth. I realized that the answer is right there, in Hamlet. Not the specifics, but certainly the background.

If the villainy has been assigned to the wrong character, well, isn’t that what he does again and again? He gives the truth, but in a form that demands that we put it together for ourselves. Hamlet holds a dark, ugly truth, and he was not about to suffer for it any more than he had to. A restless spirit, Oxford was a great problem for his community (and himself) until he returned from Italy and put all his energies into creating the London Stage, which is, of course, when he disappears from the record, leaving only the youthful reputation for bad behavior that is all that history has allowed him ever since.

With any film that’s so good you never tire of seeing it again, each time reveals new things about it that you didn’t notice before. This time it was the amazing camerawork and the perfect soundtrack. The camera acts as a ghostly observer, Old Hamlet perhaps, invisible to the actors, but there, watching, glancing from face to face, taking in the reactions and expressions that say as much as the words they speak, while the soundtrack, compounded of music and effects, reflects this ghostly observer’s responses, the anxious heartbeat, the sense of impending doom.

Always impressed with the actress who plays Gertrude, as she goes from angry unwillingness to face the truth that her son has determined she will understand to a state of numb endurance as the inevitable tragedy continues to unfold. She begins by refusing to believe that her new husband was responsible for the death of her first husband, she is angry with her son for his obvious attitude towards the man who now calls him his son. Like the characters in the play within the play, Claudius had been her comforting supporter following the murder of his brother, and her gratitude for his support has overwhelmed her common sense. She is a marvelous depiction of the situation of a Queen in Shakespeare’s time. Once Hamlet has awakened her to the truth, she moves dully, like a sleepwalker, through scene after scene, until, suspecting that her husband is about to oversee her son’s murder, her eye lights on the poisoned cup, and she can think of nothing but that until the moment when she can demonstrate to her murderous mate that she knows what he has done. It’s masterful, her acting, the film’s direction, the sound, the camerawork.

The scenes between Hamlet and his mother are, to me, who loathes and detests what our sexually sick culture has done to our perceptions of love, ever seeking the sexual aspect to the sweetest and purest of all loves, here demonstrated as the bond between a mother and her child, as she holds and kisses her unhappy son in memory of the baby she once held to her breast, the little boy she once held on her lap. There is not the slightest hint of sexuality in their embrace! What courage it must have taken to film this in the face of the endemic British nervousness over any form of physical contact! Truly the spirit of the great soul that wrote this play has invested the actors with what John Vyvyan has rightly explained is Shakepeare’s central belief in what Socrates describes to Plato as his ruling belief in two of his greatest dialogues, The Phaedrus and The Symposium, the fact that it is the highest form of love that has created and maintains the universe, and that once a man is awakened to this reality he can no longer hurt or take advantage of others, but is forever wedded, even to his personal damage, to defending the common good.

Wisely Ophelia’s part was trimmed. As we have her mad scene in the play one must suspect that it had to be revised for publication. There was a theory then that madness or drunkeness allowed a character to speak an unpleasant truth––in vino veritas––so that originally Ophelia may have said things that could not be repeated in print. Certainly as it’s written it makes no sense at all. Oxfordians see in this situation Oxford’s relationship with Burghley’s daughter Anne, the wife that he, like Bertram in All’s Well, was forced to marry against his will.

It seems taken for granted that Oxford didn’t want to marry Anne because he didn’t love her. This is an absurdly naive view of the nature of the dynastic marriages that once (and not so long ago) haunted the aristocracy. The more likely truth is that Oxford loved Anne as the little sister she had been to him since, when as a lonely twelve-year-old, she was the only  genuinely loving and caring person in the community at Cecil House, and that having sex with his (beloved) little sister was utterly abhorrent to the noblest side of his nature. There seems to have been some contest between himself and Rutland for her hand. He would probably have greatly preferred that she marry his beloved friend. He only yielded to the sexual aspect of their enforced marriage when he was ordered to do so by the Queen during his banishment or continue to forfeit his place at Court.

Anne’s humiliation by the role she was forced to play in this war between her beloved husband and her cruel father (Egeus, Polonius, Leontes, Antiochus), may have been acknowledged by Oxford when he named her Hero in Much Ado. Cecil was cruel to his sons; that he should be any less cruel to his daughter is unlikely. She was the key to his family’s rising to the peerage. Ophelia’s madness and death may be a reflection of the truth about Anne Cecil, Ophelia’s mad scene similar to what happened to Oxford’s wife. If so, her madness was not brought about by the death of her father, as the play has it, it was about the death of her little son in 1581, shortly before the first version of the play.  That the only male born to her while having Oxford’s children, the all-important male heir that would raise her father and their family to the peerage died shortly after birth caused her to go  off the rails is shown by the wild nature of the poems she wrote about the baby’s death. That Oxford had them published is testimony to his anguish, less over the baby’s death perhaps (the Cecils were tormented by the scoliosis they inherited from the Cookes that caused the loss of so many of their unborn babies) than he was over Anne’s breakdown.

That the film is in black and white is fortunate, for it suits not only the tragic nature of the story, but the gray walls of the castle as we sweep up and up the never-ending stairs to the sky above and down into the cold rooms below, only slightly softened by the arras, the hangings behind which Polonius and the King spy on the poor lovers. The costumes are magnificent, designed so that the loss of color is more than made up for by the contrasts between areas of black, white and gray in their elaborate designs. The decision to give Hamlet the blonde hair that would suit a Danish prince not only makes literal sense but it gives him an air of separateness from the others, of spirituality, almost like a halo, that would not be nearly so powerful were the film in color.

When was it written?

In examining the history of the Elizabethan Court and Oxford’s life for the most likely moment when the first version was performed, my choice would be 1584, shortly after he returned to Court from his two years of banishment; the stage the little rehearsal room at the First Blackfriars Theater, the one close to Westminster that  he created for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel shortly after arriving back from Italy; the audience a few chosen members of Court  and Westminster society; the reason, his disgust at the Court for treating him so badly, the Queen for her politics, Burghley for using his daughter for political ends .

The original style would have been nothing like the play as we know it now, but more like The Spanish Tragedy (absurdly assigned by 20th century idiots to the scrivener Thomas Kyd) in many ways a forerunner of Hamlet in theme if not in plot. The actual writing would have taken place a few months earlier, following the death of Oxford’s first supporter at Elizabeth’s Court, the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, plus the return to power just then of Oxford’s arch-enemy, the Earl of Leicester, plus the death of Anne’s newborn son in May 1583. Threatened with the loss of all that had come his way with Sussex, furious with the Queen for her return to business as usual following Sussex’s death (who in fact she found it very difficult to replace as Lord Chamberlain), the play became a Court secret, in later years revised a number of times as events demanded until it reached its final form not long before Oxford’s own death.

Hamlet in any of its evolving forms was never shown to the public until both Anne and Burghley were dead. Still alive however by 1589, when Nashe mentions it in his prologue to Robert Greene’s Menaphon, were her brother, Robert Cecil, and her daughters. The youngest, Susan, only a baby when her mother died, would eventually, under King James, marry the Earl of Montgomery, who, together with his more powerful brother, the Earl of Pembroke, Oxford’s last and greatest patron, oversaw the publication of the First Folio and the saving of Oxford’s writing for posterity.

The publication of two of the various versions of Hamlet  in quarto in 1603 and 1604 added fuel to the fire of Robert Cecil’s hatred of his father’s most favored ward and his sister’s cruel husband.  As the primary agent in the elimination of all connection between Oxford and his creation of the London Stage during his fifteen years as James’s all-powerful Secretary of State, and as the underlying reason for Oxford’s loss of reputation ever since, Robert and his Salisbury successors have had certainly had their revenge. Hopefully the time has arrived for the truth to emerge, not only to save Oxford’s reputation, but to establish with his creation of the London Stage  the true origins of what today we call the Media.

 

 

Long story short

At the very peak of the Protestant Reformation campaign to trash the great classics of antiquity as works of heretical paganism deadly to the fragile Christian soul, comes this 12-year-old aristocrat, his mind stuffed by his tutor with the works of the ancient Greek and Roman poets and playwrights. Finding himself sidelined as a living relic of what had once been his nation’s ruling class, the human bearer of a priceless title with no more role to play than to behave himself; he sees how, in a sort of “may game,” the magic of Print could free a poet, “tongue-tied by authority,” to hide behind rows of unidentifiable little black marks on paper. Taking advantage of the money-lending opportunities available to one of his rank, opportunities denied to less privileged poets, sensing that the printing press may offer a different kind of power than the sort that was driving the nation’s monarch and her ministers, he ventures, under cover of the anonymity provided by Print, to try a handful of his own literary experiments in the public market.

By creating plays for the young choristers at Paul’s Cathedral––once central to the Catholic religion, now something of a local community center and employment bureau––he enjoys himself by helping the boys, most of them his own age or younger, to support themselves by providing them and their grateful Choir Master with revisions of old plays left over from the days when young King Henry VIII was in a playful mood. When these become popular with the Queen and her ladies, he moves on to entertaining her Court over the winter holidays with concerts and full length plays.

When what he writes for the Court escapes to a public starved for pleasure by the grim tenets of the sin-obsessed State religion, he experiences a thrill far greater than the cautious response he gets from his nervous Court audiences, the age-old “smell of the grease paint and roar of the crowd” that grips all theater folk. Irresistable to a lonely soul, denied from birth by his rank the give and take of ordinary folk, he finds community and fellowship with the actors and musicians to whom and for whom he will devote himself from then on.

In his thirties, with the rise of a military threat to his nation from its enemies on the Continent, he’s enrolled by the current Secretary of State to arouse the patriotism of the coastal populations that will be England’s first line of defense against the coming attack, by dramatizing how it dealt with such attacks in the past. For the new touring company created chiefly for that purpose he writes plays that dramatize the heroism of Henry the Fifth and the various valiant––and not so valiant––commoners that once followed the noble young king to France. This, plus other tales of defiant heroism, were enacted with humor and the kind of rabble-rousing speeches that he and the Secretary hoped would reach the hearts of the young men in these distant public audiences. Thus was launched what would eventually become the great series of lessons that dramatized for a still illiterate public the history of their nation.

Misunderstood and repressed by the power-hungry ruling family into which he had been rather forcibly married, he reacts by satirizing them onstage. Over time this leads to a showdown from which, protected by the laughter-loving Queen, he emerges relatively safe from further harassment, but condemned to remain forever lost to history as the creator of the London Stage. Thus was born in the silence created by these powerful enemies, maintained for centuries by their descendants, the Fourth Estate of government, the very instrument that  has become what today we call The Media, the unofficial but only truly effective control on the autocratic impulses of Authority and the right of a free people to assemble in public.

His story––still almost as unknown as it has been for the past three hundred years––when taken together with that of his younger cousin (by marriage), the second-greatest genius of their time, how they, with the help of three other brilliant writer-thinkers, created the words written and spoken by half the world today, either as their first or second language. Theirs is a story that lies at the heart of today’s worlds of politics and literature, and it’s a pip! Hopefully, God willing and the creek don’t rise (any further than it has already) we’ll have it for you, the first half anyway, by the end of this year.

Stay tuned.

PS: After posting the above it struck me that, had the enemies of the London Stage––having stopped Christopher Marlowe from producing more plays like Tamburlaine or Massacre at Paris––been successful in their long ongoing efforts to prevent the author of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Richard III and Richard II from performing and publishing these plays, would the American filmmakers and producers of the 1970s been moved to give America movies like Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, All the President’s Men, or Three Days of the Condor?  

Courage inspires courage. Fear inspires fear.

“Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, modern imaginative literature (poetry, novels and plays) errupted out of feudal darkness at the courts of European kings and princes, for nowhere else was there the leisure to create it or the literacy to enjoy it.  This is not to say that the uneducated and illiterate did not have a rich heritage of spoken and sung story and verse, one shared by educated and uneducated alike, it’s that it was not until the Renaissance that it was combined with the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East into elegant national literatures.

In England, however, because the Renaissance had been preempted by the Reformation, unlike the other nations of Europe, the Renaissance urge to write got so thoroughly and completelyforced undergroundby Calvinistic fears of Hell and the Devil that it took on a most peculiar appearance. This didn’t mean that nothing got published (though necesarily much was surpressed, particularly the works of Catholic poets). What it meant was that the process of getting it published forced it to assume an obscure and defensive posture, pretending to be something it wasn’t, and seemingly written by persons who apparently had nothing to lose, or who were utterly unknown at Court or anywhere in London.

There was a lot more hiding going on in 16th-century English literature than just the hiding of Shakespeare’s identity. In fact, it might be stated without fear of exaggeration that the entire canon of early modern English literature was one long exercise in hiding––authors, central figures, publishers, patrons, some printers, dates of publication, and most of all, messages, for the Reformation didn’t like the kind of messages that were emerging from the push for intellectual freedom that was the English response to the Italian Renaissance. If the message was too obviously Catholic, too ornate, too passionate, too sexy, too ironic, too satirical, they wanted it toned down or better, squashed. As we puzzle out the truth about these early works, we need to keep this in mind.

For instance, take the tag “No less pleasant than profitable”found in one form or another on almost every work of imagination published between 1540 and 1640. What on earth does that mean? If it’s got you puzzled, you aren’t alone. What it seems to be saying is that what you are about to read is just as pleasant as it is profitable, so why not say that? Instead it says the opposite, as though the publisher is providing some tiresome instruction, promising to make it as enjoyable as possible: not exactly an enthusiastic message. In other words, it looks like a promotion, it sounds like a promotion, but it doesn’t really promote.

Titles can be just as confusing. According to one academic, “Whether the title had an immediate or remote reference to the subject-matter does not appear to have been considered material, or, in fact, whether it had reference to anything at all in particular.” He’s right about the title, but this isn’t true of this or similar tags, which did have a meaning, however obscure to present day literary historians. The message it conveyed to the silent seekers of a particular kind of writing was that this was a work of imaginative literature,a poem, story, or later, a play, as opposed to a scientific tract or religious sermon, works that apparently were safe from the Devil.

It’s said that during this time, the Jesuits were training their missionaries in a sort of double-speak known as equivocation, so that if grilled by the Protestants in northern Europe or the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, they could find ways of answering without either lying under oath or condemning themselves. Many in those days believed the fate of their souls was bound up with what answers they gave under oath: if they lied to the Inquisition they’d get burnt at the stake; if to God, they’d still get burnt, only later, perhaps for all eternity. Equivocation was simply a more serious form of the kind of wordsmithery that was the intellectual bread and wine for these early Reformation/Renaissance writers.

Where did it come from?

Usually it was not the author but the bookseller or publisher who composed a book’s title page and front matter. His primary objective, of course, was first to get it past the censor, and second to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible. Over time, much experimenting would lead to a formula that worked. A tag like “No less pleasant than profitable” met the Reformation requirement that everything, even joke books, had better advertise itself as having a serious purpose or it was in danger of getting a closer look and possibly rejected. So for the publishers of the 1590s, t’were best to take the easy way––give the work a confusing name, then use the front matter to distract the censor from taking too great an interest in the content.

While some could withstand such an examination, many, in particular those that “darkly figured forth” real persons and politics, could not. And that there was a growing audience that fed on such works is evident from the complaints by writers of attempts to read into their innocent tales personal and political comments that were simply not there. Among those who complained the loudest was Thomas Nashe, the worst offender of all, whose complaints have to be taken with the same grain of salt required for almost everything he wrote.

Human nature being much the same in every age, by the 1590s, when publishing had become a commercial industry generating a considerable volume of submitted manuscripts needing to be read by the censors, what could be more likely than when the stack got too high, the junior official in charge of weeding out problematic submissions was likely to give each a quick once-over, initial and return it to the publishers, only holding out for a closer look the one or two that were likely to cause real trouble. Thus by the 1590s, publishers would have been well aware that so long as the title page, introduction and first few pages looked kosher, a book had every chance of getting past the censor. Those who enjoyed these works were unlikely to blow any whistles, unless the material got so raw they they feared for their souls, or more likely were offended by satires about themselves or their friends. Some such scenario is undoubtedly behind Stephen Gosson’sattacks on the playwrights of Bishopsgate following the first rash of plays for the Children of the Chapell, the Queens Men, and Paul’s Boys in the early 1580s.

Profit or pleasure?

That nothing during this era was ever published purely for entertainment, but all must be utilitarian (even the most lascivious and violent, for these claimed to teach readers what to avoid) can be found in everything from the title page to the preface by the printer, to the introduction and poems by the author and his friends, to the dedication to some important figure and the various complimentary letters to the author, all meant to be taken as guarantees of the book’s legitimacy. Take it as a given, the more questionable the work, the more equivocal the introductory material, and more likely that the names and dates on the title page are less than 100 percent trustworthy. Efforts to obscure the real nature of a work are most elaborate in the early years, as we see in this excerpt from the “Letter to the Reader” that introduces Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet:

The glorious triumph of the continent man upon the lusts of wanton flesh, encourageth men to honest restraint of wild affections; the shameful and wretched ends of such as have yielded their liberty thrall to foul desires teach men to withhold themselves from the headlong fall of loose dishonesty.  So, to like effect, by sundry means the good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. . . .  And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death. This precedent, good Reader, shall be to thee, as the slaves of Lacedemon, oppressed with excess of drink, deformed and altered from likeness of men both in mind and use of body, were to the free-born children, so showed to them by their parents, to th’intent to raise in them in hateful loathing of so filthy beastliness. Hereunto, if you apply it, ye shall deliver my doing from offence and profit yourselves.

Whoever wrote this preface either had no idea what Brooke’s long narrative poem was really about, or was deliberately describing it in totally opposite terms. Rather than “thralling themselves to unhonest desire,” the love Romeus feels for Juliet is portrayed as a natural force over which neither the boy himself nor the Friar’s advice have any power. As for the Friar, not only is he not “superstitious” or a “naturally fit instrument of unchastity,” he is loving and wise, a genuine spiritual counselor, whom the poet describes as “beloved well, and honoured much of all.” Nor is there any “loathing of filthy beastliness” in his description of the young lovers’ wedding night, nor moral drawn against their desire for each other.  Instead the poet admits:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in;
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin,
But that I might as well with pen their joys depaint . . . . .

If Cupid, god of love, be god of pleasant sport,
I think, O Romeus, Mars himself envies thy happy sort.
Ne Venus justly might, as I suppose, repent,
If in thy stead, O Juliet, this pleasant time she spent.

The only possible reason for such a dishonest preface is that the publisher wrote it, or had it written, to distract the censor. Published in the early 1560s, when such works were still only a trickle, the same scenario continues to play out on title pages and in introductory material in almost every work of the imagination published throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. As the trickle becomes a flood, these red herrings get briefer and more mechanical, but at the same time more cleverly worded.

Finally the constant reference to poetry or any sort of fiction as a frivolity appropriate only for young men before the serious matters of adult life banished such timewasters from their minds, was a judgement heard not only from conservative Reformers and older members of society but also from the poets and storytellers themselves, who were ever wont to apologize for what they invariably describe as “childish toys” written merely to pass the time, things not to be taken seriously by readers or authorities.

The Big Five

That the dominant force driving this revolution was led by five of the nation’s premiere aristocrats should not surprise us since lesser beings would not have had the protection of their status to keep them from being silenced at the outset, or murdered like the commoner Christopher Marlowe. That, in addition, Fate had arranged it so that the leader of this group was the ward of the Court official who was the primary enforcer of the English Reformation, or that his son was the man who later led the movement to destroy this leader’s fledgling literary establishment was said leader’s own brother-in-law, is one of those things that turns history into drama, or will once the story reaches readers who genuinely care about both History and Literature.

As peers these authors could not be punished without damage to the nation’s internal harmony, already strained to the breaking point over the changes in religion. That some of them needed, or at least badly wanted, posts at Court that not only gave them prestige abroad, but a voice in their government at home, made their preoccupation with literature a genuine sacrifice. Some, like Francis Bacon and Philip Sidney, badly needed the income. All this was denied them. In her standoff with her Protestant bishops, knights and rooks, the Queen, it seems, was powerless to defend or promote the pawns, the playwrights and composers who created her much needed “solace.” At least she always did what she could to see to it that they didn’t starve.

The weakness of their position may be one of the reasons Raleigh did not take literature as seriously as did Oxford, Sidney or Bacon, at least not until he ended up in the Tower and had nothing else to do. Bacon, raised in luxury at York House, only feltpoor, but like anyone who had ever served in the military, Raleigh had known real poverty. During the mid-80s while he was still revelling in the Queen’s favor, Sir Walter must have been aghast to see what Marlowe was doing to himself. (I can’t help but love Raleigh, perhaps because the historians hate him almost as much as they hate Oxford.)

By revealing the real Shakespeare, who he was, how he got his name, why his identity was hidden, we are revealing, not just the gifted, flawed, real human being who put pen to paper, but the nature of an entire era, and in many ways, the exciting truth about its history. To get a bit mystical for a moment: Hamlet is Shakespeare the Poet (his poem to Ophelia), the Court’s artistic director (his speech to the players), whose place in Celtic times had been that of Bard, poet priest and shaman King. His forbears murdered, he himself must turn to drama––“the play’s the thing”; equivocation: “now Hamlet, where’s Polonius?” “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten”; and underhanded tactics: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “hoist by their own petard”––merely to survive. After 400 years of burnt toast, where’s the harm in taking this operatic scenario for the banquet it provides?

The schools have done us no favors by separating the English Department from the History Department. A nation’s literature is the soul of its history, its heart. With its literature cut off and separated from its history, that history withers into a lifeless list of names and dates. In Moliere’s Tartuffeis told the real story of the 16th- to 18th-century French bourgeois merchant class bamboozled by sanctimonious Jansenist (Puritan) posturing. In Cervantes’s Don Quixoteis the excruciatingly tragic and funny story of 16th-century Spain’s self-defeating romance with feudal chivalry.

Works like these need to be taught along with the history of their times, for separated, both lose nine-tenths of their life and their meaning.

 

 

Source of the name Shakespeare

Here’s a chapter from the forthcoming first part of Shakespeare and the London Stage:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Among the many facts that the Academy fails to note about Shakespeare are two that should be perfectly obvious: first, that the name Shakespeare is not now and never was a typical English name, and second, that the man Shakespeare was, first and foremost, a poet, so that if spear can be seen as a poetic meme for pen, it describes his role as a playwright, that is, by shaking his pen he fills the stage with spears, i.e., actors in costume. If this seems far-fetched, it would not have seemed so to the rhymers for whom the Bard provided the wordplay that Dr. Johnson referred to as quibbles, for the love of which, as he churlishly argued, the Bard was willing to sell his soul. That the name Shakespeareis just such a “quibble” is a fact of considerable importance, if seen through the perspective of the double lens of English History and English Literature.

The multitude of spellings

Perhaps the most obvious issue for anyone researhing the name Shakespeare is the trouble the scriveners of the sixteenth century had with spelling it. Admittedly, spellings were all over the place then, but with a name like Brown, where an might be added at the end, or Smith, where the i might be replaced with a y, nothing comes close to the 83 different versions of the name as it was spelled by English clerks from 1562 through 1635, as detailed by E.K. Chambers in Volume II of his William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (1929).

Beginning in 1248 with a William Sakspere, hanged in Gloucestershire for robbery, the name, though never numerous, pops up here and there all over England, but predominantly in Warwickshire, where Stratford is located. Among these, the version of the name the Lord Chamberlain’s Men put on his published plays appears  along with the more common Shaksperes or Shackspeers, and other variations such as Schakespere, Schackspere, Schackespeire, Shaxespere, Shakyspear, Shakysspere, Saxper, Chacsper, Shakisspere, etcetera. Long story short, the version used by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was not unique, but it did not predominate until they popularized it by putting it on a handful of his plays, beginning in 1598 with Richard III and Richard II. Yet even as late as 1605, a scribe reporting on plays performed for King James over that year’s winter holidays spelled it Shaxberd.

Totally focussed on how many times it had occured and how many different ways it had been spelled, Chambers never thinks to ask why this variety? Common sense would suggest that the name was not easy to pronounce, that such wildly divergent spellings reflect problems with pronunciation, which suggests that it began as something  unfamiliar to the English ear.

1066 and all that

English names from the Elizabethan period were primarily derived from one of two languages brought to England over the centuries by continental invaders. The original British Celts having been driven by various invaders to Devon, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland, by the sixteenth century the language spoken by the rest of England was predominately Anglo-Saxon, the most determined of the early invader-settlers. Also known as Old English, it gave the language the germanic root words it bears to this day. The other source was Norman French, imposed on the Saxon population by the invasion of William the Bastard, an aristocratic knight from Normandy, out to carve a domain for himself and his followers on the other side of the English Channel.

Saxon names often refer to a geographic feature, a hill, field, lake or wooded area; to a trade like Smith, Miller, or Carter; or to a father, like Thomson, Johnson, or Wilson. Since Shakespeare is certainly not a place, a trade, or a patronym, Norman French is the most likely source. The name of Shakespeare’s great literary predecessor, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, is the English version of the French word for shoemaker, chausseur.

By the sixteenth century, many of the original French names had been “Englished” to a point where their origin can’t be deciphered, but Shakespeare is easy. Since Sh in English sounds almost exactly like how the French pronounce as in “je suis jolie” (I am pretty) or Jean (John), if pronounced Shackspeare, the name sounds like the way the French pronounce Jacques-Pierre, the kind of double name that French Catholics still give their offspring, two saints’s names linked by a hyphen, as with the actor Jean-Pierre Aumont or the filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard.Thus it would seem that Shakespeare began, not as a surname, but as a first, or given, name, only becoming a surname later as with names like William Peters or Peter Williams.

By the Tudor era, most members of the upper levels of the English aristocracy were descended from French nobles who had come over with the Conqueror, a fact reflected in anglicized names like Seymour, the family name of the Duke of Somerset, originally St. Maur, or Devereux, the family name of the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, from the Conqueror’s friend “Robair” d’Evreux. That Shakespeare derived from a first or given name suggests someone of a less elevated status, a serf or bond slave, a member of the “Jacquerie” that did without surnames.

Shack vs. Shake

By the 1590s the name Jacques-Pierre had long since  been anglicized into something easier to say in English––exactly what we can’t know for certain, but the spellings left us by the clerks and scribes of Stratford offer some suggestions . And as Dr. Ewan Johnson, research associate at Lancaster University in Lancashire, whose area of study includes the “Norman diaspora,” has affirmed (via email), Stratford was located well within the area settled by the Norman French in and after 1066. He also affirms that: “large numbers of servants and tradespeople accompanied the Normans,” and that, not surprisingly, their “assimilation is a matter of yet unresolved debate.” Thus William’s ancestor would have been one of the 8000 French immigrants that, according to Wikipedia, accompanied the conquering Norman nobility during and after 1066.

Chambers notes that of the 83 different spellings of Shakespeare, those that begin with “Shack, Schak, Shax, are nearly as common as those [that begin with] Shake . . .” (372). Although the pronunciation of vowels has changed considerably since the sixteenth century, as the OED shows clearly in its treatment of two simpler words, back and bake, both derived from Old English, that their pronunciation is indicated by the fact that they were always spelled then, as today, with ack for back and ake for bake. So if, as we surmise, the name Shakespeare originated with the French Jacques-Pierre, it would make sense that in Stratford, and the rest of England, for those who knew the name from hearing it spoken (not from reading it), the first syllable would have been universally pronounced Shack. What then of the spellings that appear to begin with Shake?

As usual, the Devil is in the details, in this case, the number of syllables. If we consider the possibility that spellings like Shakespeare may reflect its pronunciation, not as the two-syllable Shake-speer of today, but as a three-syllable word, Sha-kes-peer, suggested by spellings like Shakespeyr, Schakespeire, Shakesspere, Shakisspere and others listed by Chambers on page 371. Were there only one or two of these they could be considered anomalies; numerous as they are they must be taken as genuine efforts to capture how the name was pronounced.

Some spellings may suggest where a scribe copied the French name from an earlier document. Unaccustomed to the French habit of glossing or ignoring final consonants (unless followed by a word beginning with a vowel), he could well have attempted to transcribe what appeared to be the final syllable of Jac-ques, into kes or kiss. As for the final syllable, the fact that several of the variations reported by Chambers end, not with pear, peer, or pier, but pyeer or pyere, suggests Pierre.

Shake-speare the pun

But here’s where the issue of Shake vs. Shack gets hot. If William’s name was chosen by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as a much needed cover for the real author because it could be understood (and accepted) by the literati as a conundrum––in modern terms, a pun that equates a shaking spear to a pen––then the name would have to be pronounced Shake-spearenot Shack-speare. But if, as we’ve argued, the name was an anglicization of Jacques-Pierrethen wherever it had taken hold around the nation, it would often, perhaps always, be heard as Shacks-pair, Shacks-pyair, or even Shack-ess-pyair.

To ensure that the all-important name begin with Shake, someone clever, if not the Poet himself then another wordsmith––someone with experience publishing cheap paper pamphlets (which is how the plays first emerged into print) who saw that by placing a hyphen between the and the and thus turning what may have been a three-syllable word into the two-syllable Shake-speare, the actors and their patrons could be fairly certain that the public would come to pronounce the playwright’s name with the pun Shake-spear.

That the first two plays to display the name used hyphenation in this way ensured that it would be Shake-speare that would be spread to the unlettered public audience. Thus the image of a shaking spear would be immediately grasped by the groundlings who themselves were clever at confusing outsiders and authorities with hiding the subject of their conversation by rhyming it with the last word in a short phrase, what today we term “Cockney rhyming slang”––as in “trouble and strife,” or just trouble, for wife––as in “bread and honey,” or just bread for money. Wordplay of this sort was endemic to the English, who spread it abroad along with the language itself.

Here’s where the hyphen comes in. When the name William Shake-speare first appeared in print on the title pages of Richard III and Richard II in 1598, the insertion of a hyphen divided it into two syllables, the first spelled with the ake as in bake (not ack as in back) as the verb, and the final syllable as the object of the verb. As such, the name becomes a sentence with a verb and an object, and as such it conjures up the image of someone shaking a spear. When the name William is added it identifies the man shaking the spear as someone named Will (Will I am). Will is not only a man’s nickname, it’s a powerful term for the determination to act: as in “will vs. won’t”; as in “will I nill I,” (willy-nilly); as in a man’s  “last will and testament.” As Willy it’s also a slang term for the vital male organ that at times can seem to have a will of its own.

Such a word would have held tremendous value for the poet/playwright and the actors who depended on him for their livelihoods, which depended on communicating to that portion of their audience who lived by such undefined rules, the need to leave well enough alone in a political climate that clamored for the destruction of what by then had become so precious to them, their public theaters. That the ploy worked is evident from the fact that the London Stage continued to survive through the reigns of both Elizabeth and James, despite the best efforts of its political enemies and the Protestant evangelicals to “pluck it down.”

“Let the cobbler stick to his last.”

Efforts by orthodox theorist David Kathman to prove William’s authorship by referencing Chambers, is yet another example of the kind of circular reasoning to which we’ve becomed accustomed. One can only wonder how Kathman dares to claim that “Shakespeare was by far the most common spelling of the name in both literary and non-literary contexts” in the face of Chambers’s evidence for the of wild variety of nonliterary spellings. When he states that “there is no evidence that the variant spellings reflected a consistent pronunciation difference, but there is considerable evidence that they were seen as more or less interchangeable,” which pronunciation does he mean, Shake or Shack? When he states that “there is no evidence whatsoever that hyphenation in Elizabethan times was ever thought to indicate a pseudonym,” what about Martin Mar-prelate (as found in the tract from 1589, “The Just Censure and Reproof of Martin Junior” (online at anglicanlibrary.org) or Cuthbert Curry-knave, “author” of the anti-Martin pamphlet “An Almond for a Parrat” (1590). As for the fact that “proper names of real people were also sometimes hyphenated,” how does that eliminate other possible uses?

Kathman’s a financial systems analyst; he’s not a poet. While the two are not totally incompatible, Kathman is no T.S. Eliot (who made his living by working in a bank). How helpful it would be if someone with his talents would tackle questions like whether it was Lord Treasurer Burghley who first turned England’s green and pleasant land into an early bastion of capitalism––or not.

NB: Sigmund Freud, creator of the science of Psychology, who loved Shakespeare above all other writers and based some of his theories on the behavior of Hamlet, came to the same conclusion about the source of the name as an anglicization of the French Jacques-Pierre, an opinion he shared with several of his correspondents (Norman Holland “Freud on Shakespeare” (1960), p 164; who quotes Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud.