June 24 seems like a good moment to consider the day Oxford said goodbye to his life as a courtier back in 1604, the day history says he died. But once again, the fantastical duke of dark corners has left us with very little to back it up. True, there are any number of official documents that uphold this date, but as Chris Paul has explained in elaborate detail, there’s nothing from anyone else, no comments in personal letters from family members or people who knew him, none of the references to him use terms that one would think would be used in referring to a friend or family member who’s passed on, not for another three or four years.
It sounds crazy. No wonder no one believes it. But something happened on that day, and I don’t think it was Oxford’s death. In a scene that could come from A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, I think it was a party, held in the heart of the Forest of Waltham in the center of his ancient family domain, or perhaps on the lawn of Havering att Bowre, with music by some of England’s best musicians, perhaps a play or recitations by the leading actors of the King’s Men. Those who attended were the crème de la crème, not just socially, but artistically and intellectually, the soul of English humanism, the Pembrokes, the Sidneys, Oxford’s daughters and their husbands, fellow Freemasons, and the inhabitants of the forest, the woodsmen and their wives, glad to have Oxford as their overlord. Even perhaps the Queen. Even perhaps the King. Late on the 24th, like Duke Vincenzio in Measure for Measure, or Lear on the moors, or Touchstone in the Forest, or his own ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, who ended his life in a monastery, he said goodbye, to them and to the world. Shortly after they left he had it put about that he was dead.
I didn’t just conjure this up out of thin air. As Paul relates, after begging, then obtaining, the stewardship of the Forest, while making legal preparations for some kind of exit, several interesting things occur with regard to the part of the Forest where from early 1604 on he was the head guy, among them the following:
On April 4, 1604, King James confirms the Charter of Havering-atte-Bower, including the provision that the tenants “shall have one fair every year at the village of Havering, the same to last three days, that is to say in the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist and two days then next and immediately following . . .” (ERO Q/AX 1/1/2) In view of the effort made to secure special rights to the citizens of the Liberty of Havering at this time, it is also interesting to note that, three months in advance, someone has also made an effort to get the King to put his stamp of approval on their traditional midsummer’s eve celebration. Since June 24th would be the date of Oxford’s death (or his purported death), these matters assume an even greater interest. (19)
Why would Oxford do such a thing? First and foremost, to get the privacy he needed to write. Anyone who has ever devoted themselves to writing, whether for a living or as a hobby, knows that to produce anything worthwhile requires hours of unbroken concentration. How was he to do that at the center of a busy household? Pestered by suitors (seekers of favors), creditors, and probably also his ambitious wife, the days went by. Aging, perhaps in pain, he was content only while he was writing. But to get back into it he had to get into the zone, the mood, the state he’d been in when he first created what he was now intent on revising, get into what in his day they called “the vein.” For that he needed an environment that stimulated his imagination.
This was why he fought so hard to get the stewardship of the Forest from Elizabeth, why he’d been fighting to get it for years. In his view the Forest was his; it had belonged to his family since the reign of Edward II, then taken from his grandfather by Henry VIII, and never returned. Then, miracle of miracles, with the advent of King James the young Earl of Pembroke and his brother stepped in to become his advocates, getting the king to patronize his acting company, and helping him to get the stewardship of the Forest. And none too soon, for irony of ironies, at the same time that the King becomes his patron, he also puts Oxford’s two worst enemies into the nation’s top two positions of power at Court, each of them (separately) having wooed the King by letter for months before Elizabeth’s death. (Is that Karma, or what?)
To Oxford, wise to the ways of Court politics, it seemed inevitable that these two enemies, now working hand in hand, would seek reparations for his portrayal of them as Shakespeare’s worst villains. He knew he hadn’t long to live himself, but he was damned if he was going to let them get their hands on his papers and destroy everything he’d worked to create. That’s when it must have come to him. Not only would he retire to the woods, he would die to the world. Pembroke, the one courtier that neither Howard or Cecil could touch, would keep copies of his plays and his poems where they were safe, and publish them some day when the time was more ripe (when both these enemies were dead).
He’d die to the world, and of course he’d go out with a bang, with one last entertainment. (Why else was that codicil added to the King’s warrant reaffirming the Midsummer festival at Havering?) Prospero was burying his book. Oberon was done with casting spells. He might be dying, but he’d do it in his own way and on his own terms. For these two deadly plotters he’d create a little plot of his own. Guessing what they were up to, he’d have it put about on June 24th that he’d died. Surely one or the other would make a move to get their hands on his papers.
Sure enough, the night of the 24th, Cecil pretended that he had intelligence that suggested that Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) was plotting against King James. Cecil had Southampton arrested and his papers examined. Whatever they may have found, it didn’t cause Southampton and trouble. Nor did it prevent Oxford from continuing to write and perfect his masterpieces for another three or four years until death finally claimed him. It did, however, make it very clear to the Pembrokes and to the King’s Men that they were going to have to continue to keep the papers safe and the authorship of plays like Macbeth, Othello and Richard III a closely held secret.