As They Don’t Like It

I have to laugh at the “critics” who feel it incumbent upon their academic greatness to have an opinion on one or another of the Shakespeare plays as to its “value.” One of the plays that has the critics confused in this way is As You Like It, about which Wikipedia pontificates: “Historically, critical response has varied, with some critics finding the play a work of great merit and some finding it to be of lesser quality than other Shakespearean works.” Because 400 years of Shakespeare scholarship has not sufficed to awaken these self-appointed experts to the fact that, however difficult to us today, it was Shakespeare who created the language that we speak, at home, in the marketplace, in the journals, the newspapers, here and all over the world, if not as first then as second language, such opinions are like claiming that Annapurna in Nepal, at a mere 27,000 feet, is not one of Nature’s “best mountains.”

Shakespeare was a phenomenon of nature just as much as Mt. Everest or Annapurna, and his plays should be regarded in the same light. There is no “better,” no “best,” only those that still speak to us today, and those that do not. And we will not understand the latter until we know WHO wrote them, WHY he wrote them, and where it fits into the story of his life and his nation during one of the most significant periods in its, and our, history, political as well as cultural.

In an effort to establish whether it was, as is thought, the play that entertained King James over the summer of 1603 as he and his entourage waited at Wilton, the Pembroke country estate, for the plague to die down in London, I delved into what is known about it, which isn’t much. It’s major “source” (the term the Stratified universities like for the early versions of his plays), was the very early Rosalynde, or Euphues Golden Legacy, published in 1590, but, based on its style, obviously written at about the same time as the more famous example of that elaborately self-conscious style, Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, published in 1578, a style that would vanish three years later when Oxford––banished from Court––began using a less fancy style for his Inns of Court audience. 

For a work that advertises itself as something that’s been universally liked, this just isn’t enough. If we go by the title, he could not possibly have gone from the agonizing tropes of the Golden Legacy pamphlet to the witty play of 1623 without at least one and probably several versions of the play in between. Unfortunately the Revels Record, our only source for tracing these early plays, yields nothing. Too many seasons passed without any titles recorded, and what titles there are are usually no help at all. What are we to make of “as plain as can be” from 1568, or A History of Loyalty and Beauty from 1578-79. (One suspects that most of these titles were made up on the spot to satisfy a clerk.) While Oxford’s name is frequently listed as a patron of various companies, the only title from the 1580s that comes close to something we know as Shakespeare is “The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses by the Earl of Oxenford his boys on St. John’s day,” 1584, which, as Eva Clark points out, must be an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

Using our god-given gifts of perception and interpretation to fill in the great blanks that are all the history of the London Stage has left us, it seems clear that the original story as told in both Golden Legacy and As You Like It belongs in time with another play that has the experts buffaloed, namely Cymbeline. The themes are the same, a girl from a classy background escapes from cruelties at Court to wander in the woods, where, dressed like a boy, she runs into other escapees from the Court. That both plots are so similar urges that they were written at about the same time. (The the Stratified universities have attempted to account for these pastorals as Shakespeare having a late reversion to childhood is yet another of the many jokes they attempt to pass off as something worth believing.)

What makes the most sense is that both plays were inspired by Oxford’s lifelong friendship with Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton, for whom (I suggest) he had written Romeus and Juliet after meeting her at a party at her father’s City mansion shortly after arriving at Cecil House), and––many years later––A Midsummer Night’s Dreame for her 1594 marriage to Sir Thomas Heneage. The plots of both these plays fit neatly with what we know of Mary’s life at that time, when she was desperately seeking ways to escape from the nightmare of her marriage to the insane 2nd Earl of Southampton (Akrigg: Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton). The cruelties were different, but the results were the same. Thus the Forest of Arden, supposedly in France, were the wooded hills surrounding Mary’s family home at Cowdray, a palatial estate some 50 miles south of London, where she would inevitably have gone to escape her crazy husband.

In Act I Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio castigates Romeo for yearning for Rosaline before he meets and falls in love with Juliet, but by 1583 or so, when Oxford wrote the version of R&J as we know it, his Juliet would have been Ann Vavasor. Meanwhile his friendship with Mary Browne would continue until both died within a few months of each other, many years later. What it does suggest is that Mary, by 1603 the mother of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s Fair Youth), was most likely, one of the company of Court regulars who gathered on the lawn at Wilton to see the play she had inspired so long ago, in a new version written especially to welcome King James, as he waited for the plague to die down so he could finally get to London to be crowned. 

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Thereby hangs a tale

For centuries English play-goers and readers had been contented with the claim that someone named William Shakespeare was responsible for the plays performed and published under that name. Despite the fact that the name was, and still is, a pun that rather obviously describes what he did––give actors pretending to be soldiers reasons for shaking their prop spears––few scholars had openly questioned what the Bard’s own fellows must have understood immediately was simply a pen name. 

 By the mid-nineteenth century, when enough English were being educated to a level where they could sense the immensity of Shakespeare’s education, having also learned enough about their nation’s past to understand that a 16th-century individual with William of Stratford’s background could not possibly have acquired such an education without leaving some trace of it in the record––the time had come for those who care about such things to locate who back then could have acquired such  learning. 

As we show in What Shakespeare Knew, it takes a great deal more than the “small Latin and less Greek” referred to by Ben Jonson in his introduction to the 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, to know all that he knew about the Law, medicine, pharmacology, horticulture (gardening), English and Roman history, Italian cities, the literatures of ancient Rome and Greece, the sciences of chemistry, astronomy, and astrology, and the complex schemes and figures of Greek and Latin grammar. 

These he could only have learned from certain books that at that time were available only in Latin, or in foreign languages derived from Latin, all but a few that would not be translated into English until well after his time. As for the undeniable fact that he knew enough Greek to be familiar with several of the sources that can’t be traced to anything else, who at that time could have instructed him in that ancient language with its unfamiliar alphabet, only just recently retrieved from the dusty corners of old Italian monasteries, an arcane study beyond the needs or interests of all but scholars.

With the revelation in 1929 of Shakespeare’s identity as Queen Elizabeth’s notorious favorite, the 17th Earl of Oxford, it’s been assumed that Oxford learned everything he needed to know while living with Sir William Cecil, her first minister of State. But while Cecil’s library appears to have supplied many of the books in question, what he didn’t provide was a tutor of the sort needed to teach them. Books by themselves are not enough; a teacher is required, one of the sort described by Sir Thomas Elyot in his Book of the Gouvernor. The focus at Cecil House was on skills required for a successful Court career, dancing, fencing, the lute, French and Italian pronunciation, and the kind of horsemanship required for the tilts. The only evidence of a tutor of the sort needed to teach such arcane subjects was Lawrence Nowell, the translator of Beowulf from Old English to Latin, and he seems to have felt that after a year or two he was no longer needed. 

The evidence is strong that by the time little Edward Oxenford came to Cecil House at age twelve he was already educated to a level surpassing most, perhaps all of those at Court. The discovery in the mid-1990s that, from age four to twelve, he had been raised and tutored by the primary mover and shaker of the Protestant Reformation, Sir Thomas Smith, revealed where and how Oxford got his Shakespearean education. The problem that remained was why both Oxford and his tutor have been so rudely and inexplicably eliminated from history by the leading Tudor historians of the twentieth century.

As Shakespeare would have put it, thereby hangs a tale.

Cast of characters

In fitting the characters in the Shakespeare plays to the life of the Earl of Earl of Oxford, one thing must be kept in mind, namely how very small were the communities involved. England is part of an island, roughly two-thirds the size of California. Much of it then was still wooded or otherwise inhabitable. Rivers were the major means of transport, roads being poorly maintained and dangerous. Messages could only be passed in writing, or memorized by couriers, who travelled by horse or boat, a matter of days or weeks. There was only one real city. The Court, located in Westminster, just west of London proper, was also very small, some 200 individuals, male and female, when all were gathered from around the island for some important ceremony, hardly the size of most American high schools.

High school is a good metaphor for the community we deal with, one most were born into and from which they only graduated with death. That only a few names were used, that fathers and sons often had the same name and title, all adds to our difficulties in assigning roles to those whose names come up in the histories of the period. I have about 500 DNB bios, but the DNB rarely notes where an official was also a patron of an acting company, another indication of how the Stage was regarded then as not much better than a brothel. The death rate was enormous; women would have ten or twelve children in hopes that two or three would survive birth and childhood. Envisioning such a world isn’t easy for 21st century readers, but it must be done if the truth is to be located, and understood. Again, the image of a small high school that meets, not in a reunion every ten or twenty years, but every day, or several times a year, for the rest of their lives.

Thirty years of study and collecting biographies has left me with the following cast of characters. For those who read this, who have found this a compelling study (I hope there are a few), here’s what I’ve come up with. questions about names I may have forgotten to add are welcome:

Important Poets (everybody wrote poetry then, these the ones that merit the term; some are both poets and patrons; pen names not included)
Earl of Oxford
Sir Philip Sidney
Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney
Sir Francis Bacon
Christopher Marlowe
Sir Walter Raleigh
Ben Jonson
John Donne
George Gascoigne

Important Patrons
Queen Elizabeth
Earls of Oxford
Earl of Leicester
Earl of Sussex
Earl of Worcester
Lord Henry Hunsdon
Lord Admiral Charles Howard
Sir Francis Walsingham
Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney
King James and Queen Anne
3rd Earl of Pembroke (Mary’s son)

Actual Patrons of Acting Companies
16th Earl of Oxford
Earl of Leicester – Leicester’s (Burbage’s) Men
Sebastian Westcott – Paul’s Boys
Earl of Oxford – the Dutton brothers
Sir Francis Walsingham -The Queen’s Men
Earls of Sussex’s Men
Earl of Worcester’s Men
Lord Henry Hunsdon – The Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Prominent Performers
Will Somers (under HVIII and Mary) 
Richard Tarleton-comedy
Will Kempe-comedy
Edward Alleyn-drama
Richard Burbage-drama
The Dutton brothers-various

The King’s “Great matter”

The King’s “Great Matter” was the euphemism used by those surrounding Henry VIII for his interminable effort to get a legal divorce from his original Queen so he could marry someone who could provide him with a legal heir. For us today the term might be better used for the real reason why he was so desperate to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. This, which had nothing to do with his having “fallen in love,” with Anne, as the romantic modern biographers would have it, but as everyone at the Court must have been aware, had everything to do with the political necessity of having at least one, preferably two legitimate male heirs so that the Tudors would remain in power after he died. Why Henry failed in this, and why so many had to die for his efforts, is a very “Great Matter” indeed for English history, or at least it should be. That for reasons of shame and national pride it’s been hidden for so long makes the hiding of the truth about Shakespeare’s identity seem much less surprising. 

Having ascended to the throne at eighteen, the first ten years of Henry’s reign promised great things for England. At over six feet tall, he was every inch the image of a great Renaissance prince. His blond good looks, athletic build, love of music and literature plus his efforts to raise the level of studies at the universities, spread his fame throughout the Courts of Europe. 

Faced with the political impasse into which his older brother Arthur’s death had cast his dynastic marriage to Katherine of Aragon––primarily to retain the support of her powerful father, Ferdinand II, King of Spain, and his son, Charles V, future Holy Roman Emperor––Henry married Katherine himself, who soon became pregnant with what everyone was certain would be the all-important heir to the English throne. 

However, since the dynastic nature of his legal marriage placed no moral constraints on the royal libido, as soon as Henry began feeling the urge in his mid to late teens, he had sex with every fair maiden who caught his eye. While his Victorian biographers are insufferably coy about this, the facts speak for themselves. One after another he took the more attractive members of his wife’s corps of ladies and their daughters to bed, and when they got pregnant, married them off to one or another of his younger male cohorts. Nor did he deny himself the one-nighters with pretty dairy maids and lissome laundresses that kings with a “healthy” sex drive back then regarded as their royal right.   

Unfortunately the child Katherine was carrying was born dead. When she had miscarried for the fifth and final time in November 1518, having produced but a single living child, a daughter (of small value where the throne is the objective), six months later, his current mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, another of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, gave birth to a living son, on whom the King bestowed an elaborate title appropriate to his exalted patrimony. When Henry moved on to the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, Bessie was married off to another courtier. 

Anne Boleyn, the queen for whom he broke off relations with Rome (the Pope having refused to give him a divorce from Katherine), was already pregnant when they married in May of 1533. Sadly for her, the pregnancy provided yet another female (Elizabeth). Her subsequent failures to sustain another pregnancy must have begun early as there’s evidence in a letter from a year later that Henry was already losing interest in the wife for whom he had severed English relations with Rome and every other European state. John Dewhurst, the Victorian physician who wrote on the subject of these royal pregnancies, quoted a letter from that time: “Since the King began to doubt whether his lady was enceinte or not, he has renewed and increased the love he formerly had for [another] beautiful damsel of the court.”

Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage, a male child of about three months, may have been the last straw for the touchy monarch. Condemned to death on the absurd charge of having sex with five men of the Court (including her own brother)  Henry married Jane Seymour within hours of beheading the woman for whom he had overturned England’s religion and its alliances with all the Courts of Europe.

Still without a legitimate heir, the King prepared his son by Bessie Blount for legitimization by giving him a royal education and naming him Duke of Richmond and Earl of Nottingham. Unfortunately the young Duke died at age seventeen of consumption, their term for tuberculosis––the same diagnosis historians would give the heir born to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. This boy, who became Edward VI at age nine when his father died of the disease that had turned him in a monster. Following Henry’s death, his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, died in agony giving birth to her second husband’s child, who also died.

When the boy king himself died at fifteen of what, once again, the historians continue to call consumption––despite the horrific details as reported by Frederick Chamberlin––this left only the two unworthy females who, as heirs “of the kings’ body,” were legally entitled to inherit the throne. The eldest, Katherine’s daughter Mary, who vainly strove to get pregnant by her husband, Philip of Spain, died in pain four years later, of exactly what can’t be determined from the evidence. Her symptoms adhere to those listed as signs of inherited syphilis.

Thus was the door opened to the last and until Mary’s death, the least significant of Henry’s heirs, his daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor, who true to her original determination, never married, never gave birth and, despite rampant rumors, never got pregnant. Records of Elizabeth’s various illnesses, closely studied by Frederick Chamberlain (1921), shows symptoms of the same “Great Matter” that brought about all these other deaths, and although he sought to dispel the rumors, he did not stint in reporting their cause. 

This brief account of the deadly shadow that appears to have frustrated the King’s attempts to get an heir, that destroyed his wives and their children, that turned England into a religious pariah among the nations of Europe, leaves little doubt that as early as 1513 he had been infected by the epidemic that attacked Europe and its ruling houses at the turn of the sixteenth century, what the English called “the Great Pox,” what today we call syphilis (Andreski). Why is there no record of any treatment for it, nor any other record that would support this view? The answer is simple: shame; shame then, shame now, maybe shame forever.  

As for those who continue to refute “the suggestion” that Henry had syphilis because “his doctors never mentioned it,” of course they would never have discussed it with anyone outside the small inner circle that tended to his body on a daily basis, including the King himself. They didn’t need to, for everyone at that time would have known enough about this most dreaded of all the many diseases prevalent then, and for the centuries that would pass before doctors intent on finding its cure succeeded in discovering penicillin. 

Proofs that this is the truth about Henry, the deaths of his wives and children, his break with Rome, his ruthless destruction of so many good and loyal servants like Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell, his greed in taking for himself the wealth of the English Church and every other ancient institution that in his diseased madness he saw as his for the taking. By matching each period of increasingly ruthless destruction, greed or revenge with one of the three stages of syphilis, easily referenced today by articles and photographs online, there can be no denial that this was the real cause of the King’s insanity, and the diseases and deaths of his wives and children, attributed by historians to “consumption.” 

Our search for the truth about the Shakespeare canon has led to more than one long held, strongly defended national secret, but at the heart of all of the lesser secrets is the “Great Matter” of the disease that led to Henry’s divorce and its effect on English history. One of those effects was the reaction when the men who must have known the truth fled to Strasbourg and Geneva when Henry’s Catholic daughter took the throne, where, disgusted and horrified by what sex had done to their once great King, they adopted Calvin’s extreme form of Sin-obsessed, sex-averse protestantism. These were the men who, following Mary’s death, put Henry’s other daughter on the throne, who, over the 40 years of her reign, turned the once merry English into the chilly hands-off culture that it became under Elizabeth, whose hunger for love and laughter was transferred by Shakespeare to the Court Stage, then to the public stage, where it has since spread to the rest of the world.


Who was Falstaff?

As we go through Oxford’s life, matching the stages from youth to old age with Shakespeare’s protagonists, from Romeo to Hal to Hamlet to Feste to Lear, Falstaff stands out, not only as his most popular comic character, possibly even rivalling Hamlet for overall popularity, but also as the least like Oxford himself. Falstaff fails to resemble Oxford for the very good reason that unlike protagonists Romeo, Mark Antony, Hamlet or Lear, there was nothing of Oxford in Falstaff, who was based on someone totally unlike himself, someone who had died not long before he reincarnated him on the stage as a comical figure. That someone was the notable “Peck’s bad boy” of Elizabeth’s Court, Sir John Perrot.

Few know his name today (erased by the same invisible hands that have disconnected Oxford from the history of the Stage), but that would not have been the case in the late sixteenth century, when Perott’s popularity with the Queen, his valor and his misdeeds were the stuff of gossip and rumor in Court circles and throughout the nation at large. (His Wikipedia bio is a product of the same Academy that adheres to the Stratford version of Shakespeare’s identity, so it portrays him in the same dark light as it does the Earl of Oxford.)

According to Roger Turvey, who has written about Perrot at length, his influential Welsh stepfather had “secured him a place in the house of William Paulet, Lord St John, later first Marquess of Winchester . . . . Here, in the company of Henry Neville, sixth Lord Bergavenny, and John de Vere, sixteenth earl of Oxford, Perrot completed his formal education.” So says his biographer, although a later anecdote associates this with a moment in 1546 when these three were with Winchester because all three had been placed there under house arrest, the 16th Earl doubtless due to his first wife’s complaints of mistreatment. In this version of the story, Perrot and Neville brawled so violently that “they reportedly broke glasses about one another ears so that blood besprinkled . . . the chamber,” which doesn’t sound much like they were there to get an education, and in fact, by then, Perrot, having been educated in his childhood and teens by Welsh scholars, was already “fluent, on his own admission and by the reports of contemporaries, in French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin.”

 Later adventures put him in France, in an escapade during which, while out hunting, he saved the life of Henri II in an encounter with a wounded boar, a story that sounds a lot like one attributed elsewhere to the 16th Earl, who may have been present at the time (perhaps there were two dangerous boars). Repeatedly rescued from incarceration for debt by his relatives and the King during the reign of Edward VI, he managed to survive at Mary’s Court, doubtless on his charm, since his recorded response to orders to hunt down protestants in Wales was to harbor them in his own home. Seemingly undetered by the spells of house arrest or jail that followed such escapades, Perrot soon learned how to outsmart would-be oppressors through legal tactics. As Turvey puts it: “Never shy of resorting to law to browbeat his enemies into submission, Perrot is said by [a] contemporary . . . to have ruined a number of gentlemen in the process of prosecuting, and being prosecuted, by them.”

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth Sir John’s opportunities for acquiring fame and fortune increased exponentially. Obviously delighted with this intelligent, highly educated hunk of unabashed Welsh derring-do, (he was reputed to be her half-brother since it seems he resembled Henry VIII, a scandal Turvey denies) Elizabeth “showered him with grants of land and advowsons in southwest Wales and elsewhere in England.” Seeking a use for his belligerent nature, she sent him to Ireland, where Turvey claims he continued the “reign of terror” initiated  by his predecessor, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the space of two years, having “dispatched to the gallows over 800 rebels.” Based on how Perrot allowed protestants to escape during Mary’s reign, his acknowledged laxity in obeying orders from afar, and his later popularity with the Irish, these numbers may have been inflated. “800” would have had a comforting sound to an anxious Queen on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Weary of Ireland and its problems, aggravated by lack of support from the Privy Council, when they refused him permission to return to England, he came back anyway, which caused his enemies to expect that the Queen would “issue a severe and public reprimand”––but none came; instead she allowed him to return to Wales, where he continued to build his power base and send his supporters to parliament. Recurring troubles in Ireland caused her to send him back in 1584, and although in the following four years he was unable to create the reforms he’d promised, when he handed the governorship over to a Burghley appointee, in 1588, “the latter was compelled to admit that he left the country in a state of peace.”

In February 1589 the Queen confirmed his appointment to the Privy Council. According to Turvey, “This proved to be the high point of his career for, unbeknown to him, the foundations of his position and influence at court were soon to be undermined.” Perhaps putting Perrot on the Privy Council can be seen as a last ditch attempt by the Queen to maintain the balance of power that had always been her guiding principle; in any case it proves to have been Perrot’s death knell. It seems the obvious regard in which Perrot was still held by the Irish upset Lord Burghley, who, having returned to total power with the death of Walsingham in 1590, was hardly one to appreciate someone so unlike himself. As Turvey relates, with Walsingham’s death, “Perrot was placed under house arrest at Burghley’s Strand residence,” so that charges of treason lodged against him by the new Burghley appointed Governor of Ireland could be “investigated.” Formally charged with treason in December––the only crime that someone of his status could be charged––Perrot was sent to the Tower the following March, where he remained for a year before he was finally brought to trial.

Among the charges against Sir John were rude comments he had made about Elizabeth, among them: “Stick not so much upon Her Majesty’s letter, she may command what she will, but we will do what we list,” and “God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.” According to Turvey, he “did not deny that he might have spoken the words attributed to him. but he resented the interpretation placed upon them.”  As Turvey puts it, 

Even towards the end Perrot never believed that he would be found guilty, much less executed. He took comfort from the fact that the queen had stayed judgement against him on six occasions. However, unbeknown to him the architect of his downfall was no less a man than Burghley who, before and throughout the trial, presented himself in public as a friend and ally but in secret wrought his destruction. . . ; to his utter astonishment, Perrot was found guilty and condemned to death on 26 June 1592. 

Perrot died in prison that November and was buried shortly after within the Tower. He died before sentence could be carried out or, as seems likely in view of Elizabeth’s favourable treatment of his family later, and her lifelong concern for his welfare, before she could issue the pardon he was so certain would save him. The cause of his death was not reported. Turvey holds that Perrot was poisoned by “his enemies,” who, foreseeing that the Queen would eventually pardon him, feared what would happen to them should he be returned to the Privy Council. 

How is it that such a character could have been totally erased from a history in which he so obviously played a major role? Perhaps for the same reason that Oxford’s history as a theatrical impresario has been erased. 

Perrot as Sir Toby Belch

Much as Oxford first put Sir Thomas Smith on the stage in Thomas of Woodstock, then as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, and finally as old Gonzago in The Tempest, surely he did the same for John Perrot. First in Twelfth Night, while he was still very much alive, he appears as Sir Toby Belch, who shows so many of Perrot’s characteristics, one of which is how much he detests Malvolio, Oxford’s version of Christopher Hatton. One of the few thing we know about Perrot is how he detested Hatton, of whom it is said he famously jested that he had danced his way into the Queen’s favor in a Galliard. 

In need of a role that would tempt Will Kempe to join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, then in the planning stages, Oxford created Falstaff for a Court still feeling Perrot’s absence. That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men called him John Oldcastle at first, was because at that time they were in need of some means whereby to humiliate William Brooke Lord Cobham, the Cecil flunky that the Queen had named their Lord Chamberlain following the death of Lord Hunsdon. As for Falstaff’s corpulence, while we have nothing to tell us whether Sir John, once so active, put on weight during these long final periods of incarceration, that he suffered from kidney stones suggests that, denied the life of action he was used to, an appetite for food got the better of him, in the way that his other appetites had done. (The illustration provided by the Wikipedia bio must be disregarded. It was done in a later century by someone who had never seen him.)

In any case, at some point either before or after Cobham’s death in March 1597, it reverted to Falstaff, which, however associated with the historic soldier Sir John Fastolfe, provided a perfect counterpoint to the authorial name as published a few years earlier in Venus and Adonis and first put on a published play in 1598. While today’s academics ponder things like feminine endings, the poets in Oxford’s audience would not have missed the significance of Fall-staff as counterpoint to Shake-spear,

Why is it taking so long?

Why is it taking so long for the Academy to deal with the Authorship Question? 

It’s so obvious that a man from William of Stratford’s background, that of an uneducated sixteenth-century wool dealer’s son from a town three days ride by horseback from England’s only theatrical city, simply could NOT have written the works of Shakespeare. So why does the Academy lie about that?  Why have they continued to lie for centuries? 

One thing is certain, to attack the English Department for its stupidity has been a waste of time.  It arrived too late in the Shakespeare game to do anything but keep on turning in tight little circles around the kind of issues that are all their peculiar brand of philology will allow. No, our problem is with the History Department. Until we understand that, and the unseen immensity of the question of his identity, we will never get anywhere.   

Because while the English Departments care nothing about Oxford, or William, or any possible author, the History Department does care about him, because it hates him. It has hated the Earl of Oxford for centuries.  It sees him as a pampered brat who did nothing but waste his family inheritance and insult that kindly old gentleman, Lord Burghley. Alan Nelson is only the most recent in a long stream of historians who’ve been egregiously slamming Oxford for centuries.  Forty years before Nelson, sociologist Laurence Stone labelled Burghley’s wards “an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all.” 

Part of this is the Earl’s own fault.  Following his return from Italy in 1576, he effectively disappears from history.  Focussed on building theaters and giving actors work, he did what he could to stay out of range of the Reformation puritans and evangelicals whose passionate belief that making and watching plays was a slippery slope leading to eternal damnation.  Though his name pops up now and then in the Revels records and Court Calendar, these seem almost accidental, as though a new clerk was keeping track, one who didn’t know the actors preferred to keep his involvement a secret.

None of this, however, goes anywhere near explaining why every biographer, journalist or novelist who has ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has paired it with some nasty pejorative, such as: “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford”; the “violent” Earl of Oxford; the “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “profligate,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable” Earl of Oxford. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.”  To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read, he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.”  To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.”  To Alan Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel,”––this last because his mother wasn’t a thoroughbred aristocrat! 

Some of this mistreatment began in his own lifetime. We know this from the Sonnets, where he speaks of himself as ‘ïn disgrace with ‘fortune and men’s eyes,” and because in the version of Hamlet published while he was still alive, the dying protagonist begs his friend, “O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me . . . .”  What things unknown?  

As all are aware who have delved into what E.K. Chambers calls “the Shakespeare Problem,”  there are entire periods, whole sequences of events, that are missing from history.  One of these is the truth about Shakespeare’s identity.  Another is a satisfying account of the creation of the London Stage.  With both of these it’s as if a film about the moon landing goes from the planning stage to the return from space with nothing to show what took place in between.  Chambers’s only acknowledgement of  these blanks in the Record in The Elizabethan Stage, the great 4-volume compendium published in 1923, is the arcane Latin term, lacunae

All we have time for today is a close look at one important moment, and for that just the briefest of outlines. 

We’ll begin in the spring of 1590 with the death of the then Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham.  History’s claim––that Walsingham had no interest in the Stage––is another flat out lie, one of the many that we encounter when seeking the truth about the creation of the London Stage.  The record is clear, Walsingham had actively fostered it throughout the 1580s. Why then, as soon as he was gone, did it begin to suffer the setbacks that came close to destroying it?  The only possible answer is the return by Lord Burghley to running Walsingham’s office, the office that Burghley himself had created during the Queen’s first decade, and that he brought in with him his son Robert to help with those aspects of the job that his increasing age made difficult.  Among these it seems was an all-out attempt to control, or destroy the London Stage.

According to the Revels Account for the winters of 1590 through 1593, the three companies that had entertained the Court every winter for the decade that Walsingham was in charge, Paul’s Boys, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and the Queen’s Men, were dropped, one by one, from the roster. With their loss of the government’s support, some of  these companies were forced to break, and their actors to take off to the Continent in hopes of finding work there.

When Burghley’s attempt to get the popular playwright Christopher Marlowe incarcerated on a trumped up charge of counterfeiting failed in 1592, his brutal murder by government agents the following year was blamed on Marlowe himself.  To make certain that no one would bother to investigate his murder, a team of disinformation operatives were put to work creating documents that defamed his character, a defamation that has lasted to this day. 

The following year came the murder of Marlowe’s patron, Ferdinando Lord Strange, recently raised to 5th Earl of Derby. In 95 came the marriage of Ferdinando’s younger brother William, now the 6th Earl of Derby, to, of all women, Oxford’s daughter. With Ferdinando out of the way, the marriage, arrranged by Burghley, gave the Cecils the entry into the upper peerage that had been denied them when Oxford failed to provide them with an heir.

This brings us to 1596, the year the Queen finally gave in and appointed Robert Secretary of State. Two weeks later, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, creator of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that was meant to replace the companies disbanded by the Cecils, died unexpectedly following a healthy dinner. 

Two weeks after Hunsdon’ death, his office as Lord Chamberlain was given to Cecil’s father-in-law, Burghley’s main supporter William Brooke Lord Cobham, which put Brooke on the Privy Council, thus giving control of the Council to the Cecils. By October, the Council had been persuaded by Elizabeth Russell––Robert’s Aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law––to prevent the Burbages from opening their elegant new theater in what she regarded as her personal bailiwick, the Liberty of Blackfriars. The following February, James Burbage, builder of the first public stage in London and father of the team that led the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was also dead.

When Cecil , now the most powerful man in England, was informed the following May that he was the butt of a play being performed at a new theater by a company made up of actors from those he had forced to disband, he ordered all the theaters in London closed for the rest of the summer.  He would have to allow them to reopen in October because that’s when upwards of 500 parliamentarians from all over England would pour into Westminster for the Queen’s Ninth Parliament, hungry for the kind of entertainment that they could find only in the nation’s capitol.  Cecil could not afford to displease these important constituents by keeping the theaters shuttered, so they reopened in October.  That is, all but two, one of them the Burbages 20-year-old public stage.  It remained closed––permanently.

With no theater in which to perform, no Court patron to protect them, their manager dead, their livelihoods at stake, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men turned to the one thing they had left, their playwright.  Faced with the destruction of the industry he had created and with the loss of contact with what by then must have become an immense public audience, Oxford called once more on his “Muse of  Fire.” Revising his old True Tragedy of  Richard the Third  into the brutal and humorless play we know today as Richard the Third,  the Company, with the help of someone close to the press community, launched their attack. With no theater available, they would have arranged to perform it nearby in the hall of  one of London’s great manors.  

The Court was used to Robert Cecil’s deformity, his spindly little legs, hunched back and crooked neck. Born with a serious form of the scoliosis that touched so many members of his mother’s family,  Robert had borne the slings and arrows of this cruel misfortune, the dismissive attitude of the tall men and beautiful women who winked at each other over his head in a Court ruled by a Queen who surrounded herself with tall, handsome, long-legged men.  But the parliamentarians from the north and west of England may never have seen him in person until he stood before them in Parliament as the Queen’s new representative. 

And so, as the footlights were lit, and the young Richard Burbage, hunched over and garbed all in black, entered the darkened room, the audience of  MPs and Court regulars gasped to see the image of  their new Secretary of State.  With Burbage mimicking Cecil’s lurching gait, speaking in accents modelled on the voice they had been hearing every day in Parliament, they listened with astonished horror as he mouthed the opening lines: 

“I that am rudely stamp’d, . . . Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up,”––a description written by one who had been present during his mother’s pregnancy,  who had seen the anxiety with which his family anticipated his birth (his mother had a history of miscarriages), one who had seen his struggles to breathe and walk.  Thus did Richard Burbage launch his career as one of the most famous actors of his time, in the role for which he would forever be best known. 

As the parliamentarians watched in stunned silence while the evil king proceded to destroy one after another of his rivals, the question must have struck many: Who could have written this devastating slander?  Who was daring enough to risk Cecil’s wrath?  Later, as Parliament finished its business and the MPs returned to their home territories, the scandal would have spread like wildfire throughout the nation––but only whispered, behind closed doors, for no one who had seen the play would have dared to speak openly.  No one would have dared to put anything on paper.  Despite the lack of incontrovertible evidence, that this is what happened is the only possible explanation for what followed.

Before the arrival of the MPs in October, someone had seen to it that this revision of The True Tragedy was made available to them in inexpensive quarto.  However prepared by this, what the audience would not have been prepared for was the comparison of their new Secretary of State with Richard III.  There is nothing in the published version to suggest it.  Only those who had seen it would make the connection.  And with no record of the performance but hearsay, how could anyone prove that the comparison with Cecil was intentional, or anything but the viewer’s naughty imagination?

That the play created a firestorm of scandalized commentary at Court and in London may never have reached the record, but it is suggested by the fact that a second edition of the play was published at some point not long after the Christmas break, one with exactly the same text as the first except that the phrase “by William Shake-speare” had been added to the title page. Thus was the name Shakespeare launched to an eternity of fame and misidentification.

That life at Court appears to have continued as though undisturbed, suggests that Elizabeth got involved.  Normally she left all matters relating to her Court entertainment to her Lord Chamberlain,  probably so that her reputation not be tarnished with the evangelicals, but the subsequent smoothing over of what must have been a great if  whispered scandal could only have been done by the Queen herself.  In any case, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Lord Admiral’s Men continued to entertain over the winter holidays, and as Robert Cecil continued beside her as her main advisor, it must have seemed to most that he had survived the blow aimed at him by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  

There was, however, one who would continue to feel it and that most painfully, namely Cecil himself.  Having proven himself a Master of the Dark Arts by the success of the sting with which he destroyed Marlowe and his reputation, Cecil’s campaign to destroy the London Stage and its creator was to have been the ultimate demonstration to his enemies that he was proof against all efforts to hurt him.  That in the final showdown over the Stage Oxford had beaten him, and that the world, or that part of it that mattered, knew it, left him with a great thirst for revenge.

Having learned from his father how He who owns the Record owns History, once Cecil reached the level of power under James that gave him access to every record in the nation, can we doubt that he took advantage of it?  Can we imagine that having the power to eliminate everything about the London Stage, along with everything that connected it to his hated brother-in-law,  can we think for one minute that he failed to use it?  Having no other weapon with which to wound him, can we doubt that he did so?

What other explanation can there be for E.K. Chambers’s lacunae, the great gaps that appear in the record where there ought to be something about the Stage?  The only persons in a position to do that were the Cecils, who, except for the decade and a half that Walsingham held the office of Secretary,  had control of it for half a century.  What other explanation can there be for the barrage of pejoratives that has attended any mention of the Earl of Oxford from that day to this? Who else could have seen to it that nothing good about the Earl of Oxford remained in the record, while things like the Howard-Arundel libels remained?

Hatfield House, home to the Cecils and their descendants ever since Robert acquired the property from King James, has also been the permanent home of the archives from the Tudor period as collected by the Cecils over the half century that they controlled the record.  For 400 years, scholars requiring access to original documents from the Tudor and Jacobean period have had to apply for permission to study these in the library at Hatfield House, under the watchful eyes of their librarians.  

As other household archives ended up in the British Museum or the Public Record Office, those gathered by Burghley and his son remained under their family’s control at Hatfield House.  Only since 2003 has the creation of the National Archives and the growth of the Internet has made it possible for those of us without the support of a university to research these records without the okay of the Cecil family.

Long after the original Cecils were gone, generations of Robert’s descendants have served on boards and committees whose goal has been to oversee the creation of a morally acceptible English History.  Can we doubt that these have been partly driven as a means of protecting the good name of Salisbury, correcting anything that might threaten to damage it with an ugly truth?

In his 1973 memoire about his family, Lord David Cecil repeats the version of Oxford that the Cecils have been telling each other and the nation ever since.  It’s all there, including the accusations of pedophilia, which means that generations of Cecils, and those following the paper trails they left to History were all aware of the Howard-Arundel libels long before Alan Nelson published them.  There is a nasty quality to these off-hand slurs that reflects the tone of the terms used to defame gay men by inference during the 19th-century when England writhed in the grip of its epidemic of homophobia, a story that has barely reached beyond what it did to Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde. How it also damaged Oxford’s reputation is an important chapter in our story.

It was also during the 19th century that William Cecil’s lifetime goal, the raising of a humble family to the peak of power, was finally and gloriously achieved when the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, another Robert Cecil, rose to become Queen Victoria’s longest ruling Prime Minister and the major power behind the phenomenon known as the British Empire. The grand irony here is that as this Cecil’s economic and political might spread the English language and its literature around the world, it took with it the works of Shakespeare, including of course, his Richard the Third, an irony that Oxford would surely have appreciated, had he been around to see it.

DNB bio of Sir Thomas North

In a Facebook discussion of Sir Thomas North, the supposed translator of Plutarch’s Lives, I tried to send a pdf of his DNB biography, which did not work. So I’ll try to send it here.

There always been a suspicion that North himself did not translate the first thing he’s been credited with, the Dial of Princes. The evidence for that can be found in his DNB bio. Of course all evidence related to North is of interest, but so far I have not found a whole lot else. Interested in what others think.

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.