Merkel’s view of Titus Andronicus

Hi Marie: Having promised to read your material online (The First Mousetrap) and consider your theory that Titus Andronicus is an allegory for the fate of the Howard family, I am half convinced that you’re right, even more than half.  I have to hold off a bit because I don’t see the kind of clearcut connections between the play and the Howards, the kind we can see with some of the other plays, but that doesn’t mean you’re not right, or at least on the right track.  An early version of the play may well have been more clear.  As with plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, plots and characters were sometimes revised to fit later situations, so the version of Titus that ended up in the First Folio could also reflect such revisions, not necessarily by Shakespeare.

I don’t see that you claimed anywhere in your chapters or introduction that the author was the Earl of Oxford (did you and I missed it?).  In fact, you make a few comments that seem to connect its creation with William of Stratford.  Once Oxford is seen as the author, a possible connection with the Howards becomes much stronger.  They were his family, he was in their camp from his early 20s to his early 30s, and with Sussex and then Hunsdon as his patron (1572-’82) he had every reason to write in their defence.  Also, with Oxford as author, he would have had no need of Holinshed, for his primary source would be his Howard cousins, whose family history lay at the tips of their tongues.

You ask (rhetorically) if it’s possible to see Titus as Sir Thomas Smith.  Of course not, but it’s certainly possible to see in young Lucius’s notalgic wish to sit again on his grandsire’s knee a reference to how de Vere may felt at times during the five months he was left alone at Queens’ College.  In his first year or two with Smith, at age four and five he would still have been young enough to be taken onto his tutor’s lap for comfort or instruction.  I believe that the five months at Cambridge must have been a very lonely and stressful time for a little eight-year-old.  I think it’s entirely possible that when he wrote the part about Lucius he was recalling this moment.  I believe he was recalling this same period when, in King John, he visualized Prince Arthur living with a man who had been ordered to kill him, begging for his life, then trying to escape.  Not that de Vere’s Cambridge tutor, Thomas Fowle, had any such wicked intention, but it wasn’t his tutor he was recalling, only his own childish fears.  (It’s clear from Fowle’s biography that he was a hot-head.)

You point to the family relationships among the early patrons of the Court Stage, something worth repeating.  All three of the patrons who worked to get control of the Court Stage in the 1570s (and to keep it from then on) were direct descendants of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, your candidate for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.  To repeat: these were the Earl of Sussex, Ld Henry Hunsdon and Ld Charles Howard.  Howard relations of lesser rank were also the first and second Masters of the Revels, Edmund Tilney and Sir George Buc.  In short, almost everyone in charge of what got produced, both at Court and beyond, until the Pembrokes took over in 1615, were men descended from the 2nd Duke of Norfolk.

Most place Titus early, but in my view never early enough.  I’ve long seen it as the one early play that made it into the canon unrevised (at least, unrevised by Shakespeare).  We have other unrevised plays from that time, but they’re considered anonymous or are attributed to other writers.  The stilted, pompous language of much of it, the unreal female characters, the exceedingly  impressionistic treatment of history and use of Senecan horror tropes all suggest a very early origin.  These factors suggest that it was written by Oxford no later than his early 20s and possibly even in his late teens.  If written when he was 17 or 18, the reference to Lucius’s mother giving him Ovid would have been in time for Oxford’s mother to have seen the play.

It’s been suggested (by others?  by you?) that Tamora, Queen of the Goths, represents Mary Queen of Scots.  If this is about the Howards I don’t see how she could be anyone else.  Black Aaron could represent Bothwell and his baby represent the future James I.  Mary’s marriage to Darnley, the birth of James, the murder of Darnley, her marriage to Bothwell and flight to England all took place when Oxford was 17 and probably still spending most of his time at Cecil House where Mary was feared, hated and demonized, possibly to an extent that doesn’t come through in the records.  (English history is still confused about Mary;  as of now, the most detailed and trustworthy version of her life and fate is John Guy’s 2004 biography.)

It was what to do about Mary Queen of Scots that was the over-riding subject of political concern just as Oxford entered the adult world of Court politics and Inns of Court theater (The Supposes and Jocaste at Gray’s Inn 1566-’67).  So it makes sense that among his first attempts to entertain this community with something original would have been this effort to present the Howard case in Senecan technicolor.  That his close connection to Cecil House reflects William Cecil’s embroilment in Scottish affairs at this time, not only in Titus, but also in first versions of Macbeth and James I, also makes sense.

Other parts of the play may reflect later events.  Oxford’s writing for the Court and Inns of Court went into high gear in 1572 when Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain and began his push to take the Court Stage away from Leicester.  A rewrite of Titus may show his reaction to the execution of  his cousin Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk that same year.

In any case, his involvement with the play, and with the Howards, would necessarily have ended in 1580-’81 when he broke with Norfolk’s brother, Henry Howard.  This fight was no tiff between friends, but a deadly duel in which Oxford accused his cousin of treason and Howard accused Oxford of murder and pederasty.  Once Oxford saw his cousin as the Iago who had broken up his marriage and so deeply damaged his wife’s reputation, most of his nastiest villains would be based on Henry Howard, something that could not have escaped the man’s acute paranoia.  Even if we could somehow account for the old-fashioned style, it’s unlikely that ever again he’d write anything that might seem in any way to promote the family that seemed determined to destroy him throughout the early ’80s.  (The dedication of Robert Greene’s Tritameron of Love (printed 1587, but probably written two years earlier, may have been a deliberate effort to show that Philip was not included in Oxford’s blacklist.)

I do not believe this play was written for performance at Court.  If it was, then it was not about the Howards.  To have performed such a crudely violent play before the Queen, one that ripped open unhealed wounds, would have been sheer lunacy.  It is said that no one ever mentioned her mother in Elizabeth’s presence.  No one, least of all Oxford, would have dared to touch her deepest and most personal anxieties in this way.  Most likely he wrote it for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.”  Many early versions of his best plays can be seen as pleading a particular case to this audience of lawyers.

I don’t agree that a great dramatist like Shakespeare would ever change character personas in midstream, with Titus representing Thomas Howard at one point and Henry VIII at another.  If this is what’s happening it must have been done by some later reviser.  No doubt Shakespeare did sometimes conflate historic noblemen with their descendants, not only for dramatic purposes, or because peers and their heirs were known by the same titles, but because, at that time,  men and women were still seen less as individuals than as limbs of a single ongoing entity, the Family.  In this way kings could be addressed as “England,” or “France.”  However, to conflate a character with his enemy  or his moral opposite would be to utterly lose the message, something no dramatist would ever do, not even one still learning the ropes.

The problem may be with rewrites.  In my view, Oxford would not have cared about this play after 1581, but anything by him would have been valuable later.  It may be that Henslowe had one of his writers do some surgery on it that left it making very little sense in terms of finding the original source.  If the original reflected the kind of political dynamite that you suggest, there would have been more than one reason for such a revision.

Your material is very well-written and easy to follow, difficult where such a complicated story is concerned.  I know how hard it is to make a complex narrative clear for readers.  Shakespeare turned to drama, but we can’t do that, can we?  My hope is that someday we’ll be able to see how and where every play fits into the true story, not only of Oxford, his tutors, patrons, and the other writers, but of the entire Elizabethan period.  So I’m happy to see that you are on the case.  More power to you.

7 thoughts on “Merkel’s view of Titus Andronicus

  1. Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks so much for sharing your initial reaction to what I’ve posted online from “The First Mousetrap”. It’s encouraging to hear that, so far, you find my theory intriguing and worth considering. Many of your comments circled around the issue of when the play was written, when it might have been revised, and by whom. Another strand probed the likely candidates for character parallels. Whom might Titus the Grandsire mirror? Or Tamora the foreign queen? Aaron the blackest of villains? etc. If your interest holds, I’d like to pursue these questions further, but for this post, I’d like to address your observation that I made no claims for Oxford as author.

    This is a first book for me, and I may not have chosen the right approach. I wrote it entirely from the Oxfordian perspective, but always with a general audience of Shakespeare lovers in mind. My goal was to offer these readers a new view of the Bard as a passionately engaged commentator on his times. I didn’t want to start out by saying, in effect, “Look, Oxford really is the right answer, just read this book and you’ll see why!”

    Each chapter builds on minutely observed historical connections with the words of the play, introducing the Howard and de Vere family members as their parallel characters appear. I begin with Act One, and work chronologically forward through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. By the time the reader gets to chapter 15, when the story completely intersects with Edward’s childhood, I’m hoping that without my prompting, they’ll be furiously scribbling in the margins, “Oxford, and no one else, MUST have written this play!”

    On your observation that I “make a few comments that seem to connect its creation with William of Stratford”: “Seem” is the operative word here. If you read those two paragraphs carefully, you’ll see that the first depicts Shakespeare the poet, in terms that fit Oxford: “Perhaps the poet and playwright in Shakespeare wished to honor an “ancestor” of his own, so to speak. Henry Howard, known even today as “the poet earl of Surrey,” helped to lay the groundwork for the capacious structure of Elizabethan poetry…”

    The second depicts William the player, in terms that fit Wm. of Stratford: “As an actor and entrepreneur, however, William Shakespeare may have viewed the Howard clan from a more practical standpoint. Elizabethan law required companies of players to perform as the servants of some nobleman… The young thespian aspirant, who would a decade hence hold quite a share in the Globe Theater, saw a number of troupes pass through Stratford while he still lived there…”

    This is the only paragraph in the book that focuses specifically on Wm. of Stratford. After that ambiguous grounding of an authorial presence, his person is irrelevant to my narrative.

    Since I had so many other fish to fry, I didn’t devote a lot of time in the book to nailing down the composition or first performance dates, (aside from taking Ben Jonson somewhat at his word!) or discussing possible revisions and collaborations, so it might be useful to compare notes on these issues, if you’d like.


  2. Yes, the approach is certainly an issue with a book. Your theory pulls so many threads together that I can’t help but feel that, whatever details may prove problematic, that it combines a defense of the Howards with the reactions of Cecil House to the adventures of Mary Queen of Scots plus the very early style, puts this among the earliest of his plays, sure works for me. I’ll be happy to hear more.

    1. Okay, let’s start with the dating/revision/collaboration question, with collaboration the topic for this post. If Oxford indeed collaborated, that information should inform our thoughts on the date of composition.

      My first Oxfordian impressions told me that this was an early play for de Vere, and that he’d intentionally adopted an archaic tone of voice. Then came Brian Vickers’ “Shakespeare, Co-Author”, two years after I’d started writing “The First Mousetrap”. Since I’d trusted what seemed the scholarly consensus among editors of the play, who mostly discounted Peele’s hand in “Titus”, I had to stop everything and read Vickers’ arguments with an open mind. I also corresponded with Ward Elliot, and carefully examined the Stylometric “numbers” of the Elliot & Valenza study. Once I put aside my preconceptions, I had to admit that Peele was somehow involved with Act One and (less clearly) with scenes in Act Four.

      Vickers’ book devotes a long chapter – almost a hundred pages – to examining just about every piece of evidence imaginable for Peele’s hand in the play. His arguments were so persuasive that Jonathan Bate, (one of the editors I’d trusted) endorsed his conclusions. However, one very sharp critic, Jim Carroll, stubbornly disagreed with Vickers in a very long thread on Hardy Cook’s forum, with Vickers actively participating. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in the collaboration question:

      SHAKSPER 2003: King John, Titus, Peele:

      Neither Vickers nor Carroll, nor Ward Elliot (who had told me that the numbers for “Titus” were very close to the fringes of being IN Shakespeare’s ballpark), ever fully considered the possibility that Peele had written the first draft, and handed it off to Shakespeare, who then made additions and corrections to the piece. After all, how likely is it that Peele, the elder, established playwright would allow Wm. the young whippersnapper to mess with his work?

      Seen from the Oxfordian perspective, we realize that “Shakespeare” wasn’t just starting out, but would have been a senior figure in any collaborative effort in the late 1580s and early 1590s. Oxford seems to have worked with other playwrights at this time, as the recent book, “Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship” confirms, offering new computational evidence for Marlowe’s hand in the Henry VI plays.

      In my view, Oxford enlisted George Peele to join him in writing this play, and then changed some of the content, and some of the rhythms, of what Peele contributed.

      Over to you!


  3. Thanks, Marie. Nothing could please me more than this kind of colloquy. I’ll be happy to follow your agenda and address collaboration first, though with the caveat that I see no real boundaries between collaboration, dating, and style. When we have all the elements in place, these must fit together and reinforce each other, like a stroke in billiards when all the balls go into their respective pockets. For certainty, it’s got to be all or nothing.

    Like you my first impression of Titus was that it was early, mostly due to the Senecan nature of the play. Perhaps because I was reading a lot of early (nonShakespearean) works the language didn’t seem “intentionally” archaic, because it sounds enough like other early works (i.e., Gorboduc) dating from Oxford’s Cecil House days to suggest that this was the kind of style he was hearing from his coterie at Cecil House.

    I’ve never really been able to follow the events in the play. If it is coherent, I’ve missed it. This too suggests that it’s early, before he knew much about creating plots and characters. Early fits well with the Senecan style, considering that another member of the Cecil House coterie, Alexander Neville, was translating Seneca while Oxford was present. The ties to Ovid also suggest Cecil House days, when either Oxford or his uncle (or both) were translating The Metamorphoses.

    I read Vickers’s book with interest, but left the chapter on Titus with the feeling that the addition of Oxford would solve most of the problems that he must needs solve with Peele because William’s biography is so lacking. This is the problem for many orthodox scholars like Brian Vickers and Penny McCarthy, who attempt to cover the same ground we do but without Oxford, which forces them to attribute more to functionaries like Lyly and Peele than they deserve. How much is too much is one of those things that I find it impossible to say at this point. Peele’s biographer, David Horne, tells how the much-praised Latin playwright William Gager, who was well-acquainted with Peele at Oxford, seems to suggest that Peele was not what he seemed in print (42-6). One swallow doth not a summer make, but it suggests that there are others out there if we will look for them.

    The question that critics like Vickers can’t help with is how reliable is the orthodox view of how much of Peele’s (or Lyly’s or Kyd’s or Munday’s) canon is actually theirs? If some or all of these canons are actually Oxford’s, or one of the other Court writers who used such men to hide their authorship, then such comparisons are worthless. At this point we can’t make that determination, or at least I can’t. However trustworthy and useful Vickers may be in in his methods of assigning authorship, without a solid base of certainty with which to compare other works, it’s just another house of cards. It may look good from a distance, but best not to start buying furniture.

    You describe Peele as an “older, established playwright,” but that’s a Stratfordian construct. In fact, Peele was six years younger than Oxford; the date of his arrival in London, when he first became involved in writing for the Stage, is put around 1580, by which time Oxford had been creating theater for over a decade.

    My scenario: Oxford hired Peele to take the place of Anthony Munday, whose function with the Folly group is suggested by the fact that Hand A of the Sir Thomas More manuscript is his. I believe Munday lost favor with Oxford when he allowed himself to be used as the informant whose false testimony made it possible for Burghley to hang Edmund Campion. Peele’s arrival in London fits perfectly with Munday’s departure. Peele’s most obvious function for the Folly group (under Walsingham) was to organize public events like the Alasco visit and mayoral pageants, the sort of thing Oxford didn’t want to be bothered with.

    At this point I see Titus as Oxford’s first (or first we know of) effort as a teenager to write a totally original play for either the Court or the Inns of Court. In the early ’80s, doing possibly for the first time what he would later do so often, he tarted it up for the Queen’s Men to use on their road trips. That the published version was assigned to three of the early acting companies supports this. Thus the version that we know from the First Folio is a veteran of a number of rewrites.

    By the mid-’80s Oxford had moved on to newer, better styles, and anyway (as would happen with The Spanish Tragedy) it had become too popular to alter. In 1594 when Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and Lord Admiral Howard reset the playing field and assigned his early plays to the various companies, it was handed off to Henslowe and Alleyn. A final rewrite by another playwright may have been done in the early 17th century when, either shortly before or after Oxford’s death, several of his early plays were brought back, many (most? all?) revised by Jonson or others to make them more palatable for a Jacobean audience.

    I await your thoughts.

  4. Hi Stephanie,

    That was a lot to think about!

    Looks like we have some areas where we agree; some in which we’re following parallel roads to the same destination, and others where we flat out disagree. On these, it may be that we’re starting from different assumptions. The way I see it, I don’t need to be right, or prove that your take is wrong: I’m here to learn. After spending five years living with this play day in and day out, I know that one is never “finished” with any Shakespearean play.

    Here’s where we agree:

    1. We need to consider, if only to rule out, that the Kyd, Munday, Greene and Peele canons, (along with others, I’m sure), may include either original work by Oxford, or work that he “corrected” and/or “improved”, thus leaving his partial fingerprints on their oeuvre.

    2. Post-1604, several writers, with Ben Jonson the most capable and least likely to be detected, probably added “patches” and “additions” to many of Oxford’s plays left in manuscript.

    Keeping our focus on “Titus”, let’s look at your suggestion that someone gave the play a final rewrite shortly before or after Oxford’s death. One of the reasons I was so eager to take on this play is the relative purity of its text. The 1904 discovery of the 1594 Quarto gave us an authoritative version from which all others take their cue. Q2 in 1600 and Q3 in 1611 have few changes of any note from what we find in Q1, with one critical exception that I discuss in chapter 1 of TFM. Not until the Folio of 1623 do we find the second scene of Act III, with those haunting lines that I quote in my preface:

    Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
    In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
    As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
    Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to Heaven,
    Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
    But I of these will wrest an alphabet
    And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.

    I am certain that Oxford wrote this entire scene – the penultimate chapter of my book traces the many ties both to Oxford’s life in the late 1590s, and to his final, most harrowingly passionate play “King Lear.”

    My estimated guess for when he wrote that scene is sometime between 1598 – 1602. In spite of its less elegant prosody, it’s most likely a later addition, rather than something that the earl, or a censor or publisher, had excluded from the 1594 Quarto.

    Where we disagree is on the subject of dating. Even though I believe the biographical impetus for writing this play may well be the earliest of all Oxford’s works that turned up in the “Shakespeare” canon, I don’t think he wrote “Titus” – as we have it now – as one of his earliest dramatic efforts.

    Many of the play’s “apparent” crudities are more superficial than we realize, and even these don’t seem too far off the mark when compared to plays by others that we first hear of in the mid to late 1580s. Traditional scholarship on the play gives us many solid reasons to posit that whatever play Jonson referred to as being on the boards circa 1584 – 1589, “Shakespeare” revised before publication in 1594, probably at the same time he was working on “V & A” and “Lucrece”.

    From the Oxfordian perspective, when tracing the play’s subterranean historical narrative, I realized that Oxford had probably been working out his intricate design for years. Since I can’t KNOW when he first set pen to paper, and cannot PROVE my hunches, I don’t speculate. Scholars have long noted, and disputed, two significant “additions” to the play, both in Act I. I agree with those who consider these as “later”, and think of them as “afterthoughts”, but how long after I honestly couldn’t tell you.

    I’m aware that David Roper has used the Peacham drawing to prove that “Titus” existed in 1574, but this is a complicated case. Vickers had me convinced with his summary of the Peacham problem, but every now and then Vickers is just plain wrong, so I remain open. If something that early were to turn up, I wouldn’t be surprised.

    In my view, Oxfordians will find their strongest cases for Edward’s juvenilia among works securely dated either by their publication or existence in clearly-dated manuscript, such as the Golding translations of Ovid, or Brooke’s “Romeus & Juliet”.

    At the ’09 SOS-SF Conference in White Plains, Derran Charlton advised me of a manuscript he’d seen, in what appears as possibly Edward Oxenford’s hand, on the subject of “Caracalla”. Shivers went up my spine: we find this Caracalla under his given name “Bassianus” in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History” where he is one of the many early kings of Britain. The story involves two brothers, one of whom, Geta, the Romans wanted for king, but the Britains preferred the other, “Bassianus”, since he was a true-born Brit. Oxford certainly drew on Holinshed’s account of this “Bassianus”, where he uniquely appears as the younger brother.

    It seems there may be extent a Renaissance Latin play on “Caracalla”; regrettably, I’ve never found the time to pursue this lead. Have you ever looked into the possibility that Oxford may have written dramas in Latin that we’ve never considered?

  5. Thanks, Marie. We can live with a disagreement over the dating; at least I can. With a playwright who did so much revising over the years, and where documentation is so spotty, this is always going to be one of those issues that raises disagreement.

    My overriding interest is in fitting all these elements into a Big Picture, so going by its style, I simply can’t see Titus as any later than the mid-70s, certainly before he left for Italy. I gave most of my reasons for this already, so don’t need to do it again. However, I remain enthusiastic about your identification of the Howard family as the background for the play. Once I know how you see this aspect of the play, perhaps we can return to the issue of dating. Thanks again.

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