Recently I had the privilege of telling some bits of this story to a team creating a feature length documentary on the authorship question under the direction of two long time friends. I didn’t know what they would ask, so I wasn’t able to prepare. I wanted to do something, so I decided as a warmup to interview myself. As it turned out, the real interview was terrific fun. Hopefully my dear readers will get to see me in action. In the meantime I put myself on the spot.
ME: What first got you involved with the Authorship Question?
SHH: Ogburn’s book, the questions he left unanswered, my lifetime of reading the biographies of artists, my move to Boston and to working in the Public Relations Department of Boston University with access to their first class academic library.
ME: What do you consider your most significant areas of reseach?
SHH: Uncovering and publishing the facts behind his childhood, chiefly his education with Sir Thomas Smith and Smith’s own story, almost as interesting as Shakespeare’s. One of the major arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare is that his tutor’s major interests are those areas where Shakespeare’s knowledge is almost infallible.
ME: What areas are those?
SHH: Smith was steeped in English and Roman history. He had been the Greek orator at Cambridge in his early days, where, under Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, he soon became the first Chair of Civil law, which the Reformation wanted to see replace Church Canon Law. Smith was fascinated with astronomy/astrology and had a library of books on the subject. He was a passionate gardener, largely due to his interest in medicine, for which he had labs where he and an assistant distilled Paracelsian curatives. He enjoyed hunting and falconry and, of course, reading his favorite works of Greek and Roman literature, among them Homer, Plutarch and Ovid. Of all these things Shakespeare shows an intimate knowledge.
ME: What else have you discovered?
SHH: I believe it was Ogburn who mentioned the possibility that the answer to why we have no Shakespeare juvenilia is that Oxford published his early work under other names, so while I was working for BU I began examining the works of Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, George Peele and the other University Wits in the standard accepted editions. At one point it became clear that some of the Wits, two being his secretaries, were Oxford fronts in the 1580s, most notably Robert Greene.
ME: What point was that?
SHH: When I realized that Greene supposedly died in September 1592 and Shakespeare’s name first appeared on a published work nine months later. It’s this kind of connection, made through dates and locations, that make it possible to recreate the Shakespeare story, the real story.
ME: Why? Orthodox Shakespeare scholars see no need to recreate the story.
SHH: That’s because they don’t understand what makes an artist tick. The Stratford version makes no sense in terms of the life of one of the greatest artists who ever lived. An artist on Shakespeare’s level would never begin by adopting the work of lesser writers or end by leaving the London Stage in the middle of a booming theatrical career to return to a hometown off in the sticks where he passes the time suing his neighbors over petty debts.
At a certain point you realize that there must have been a mighty effort on someone’s part to cover the author’s tracks. Sure, this author wanted privacy (most writers do), and his patrons wanted his identity kept a secret for their own reasons, but beyond these there seems to have been a movement to completely extinguish all evidence, not only of his career but also of the people he worked with. This is the main reason why we find it so hard to uncover the real story, not only about him but also about Marlowe, Peele and others, records that are strangely missing just where we would expect to find evidence. This is true in too many areas for it to be purely coincidental.
ME: What do you think happened?
SHH: William Cecil Lord Burghly was a record-keeper. Half or more of the records on which our knowledge of the Elizabethan era is based come from his years of collecting documents. When he died in 1598, his son Robert inherited the collection along with his passion for collecting, and also, no doubt, for the control that came with them over what would become the history of the Elizabethan era.
Burghley would have had a cache of papers on his ward and son-in-law that he knew he would probably destroy at some point, keeping them until he was sure which ones he might want to save. If, as I believe, Robert Cecil hated Oxford (with good reason, if he was aware that Shakespeare’s Richard III was believed by many to be a portrait of himself), he also had reason to destroy everything that connected him and his family to Oxford’s works, and probably, if he could, the works as well. The Cecils have retained control of these papers ever since, where they still reside at Hatfield House, Robert Cecil’s home base. As I write, no history of the time of any importance gets written without access to them.
In 1601, Cecil became the Chancellor of Cambridge University, giving him access to university records, including the buttery books where records of the presence or absence of Christopher Marlowe in the spring of 1586 are strangely missing. There are also records missing for George Peele at Oxford that could shed light on his career with the Wits. Nevertheless, I believe that despite this holocaust of the records, there is enough circumstantial evidence to claim that, largely due to his hatred of Oxford, Cecil also hated his team of writers and secretaries, known to us as the University Wits, and was determined to shut them up permanently. The only two he didn’t dare to touch, at least not in person, were his relatives, his first cousin, Francis Bacon and his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford.
ME: What is the connection between Oxford and Bacon?
SHH: As adults they were colleagues within the Elizabethan writing establishment, but they had known each other since childhood. Their maternal care-givers, Burghley’s wife and Bacon’s mother, were sisters, members of the female intellectual elite known as the Cooke sisters. Bacon was 11 years younger than Oxford. During Oxford’s years at Cecil House, a stone’s throw from York House where Bacon was born and spent his childhood years, he would have seen little Francis grow from toddler to child prodigy. When at 18 Bacon returned from Paris in 1578, he found Oxford already working to create a vernacular literary English. Both dedicated to the goal of English literary excellence, they worked more or less together for the rest of their lives to create the English literary establishment, writing and publishing both their own works and those of others, often at some risk. Bacon wasn’t Shakespeare, but he was the pen behind two of the most important names in Elizabethan literature.
ME: What names are those?
SHH: Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe.
ME: That’s pretty radical. Why them?
SHH: Neither one has a decent writer’s biography. So somebody had to write the works published under their names and clearly it wasn’t the same mind or pen that wrote the Shakespeare canon. The styles may differ, but when you examine certain factors, their timing, their attitudes and the purpose for which they were written, they fit Bacon to a T. And they also fill in what he was doing during the years while he was waiting to get a genuine job at Court.
ME: How did Oxford come to use the name Shakespeare?
SHH: When Henry VIII left the neighborhood of Blackfriars in the 1520s, he turned the old monastery over to his revels master. From then on the western range was used for rehearsals and storage of revels equipment and costumes. This would have been where Oxford rehearsed with the Children of the Chapell when he got involved in holiday entertainments at Court in his late teens and early twenties. When he returned from Italy in 1576, he helped start the children’s theater there, near the dance and fencing academies and a few hundred feet from Richard Field’s print shop, where he had some of the works he sponsored published.
In 1593, when he turned to Field to publish Venus and Adonis and was lacking an author name for the title page, Field suggested a man he knew in his hometown up north whose family was scuffling. Oxford could probably have found another front, but William’s name could be spelled so that it made a pun, “will shake spear.” That’s what his plays were about, shaking a spear (meaning his pen) at the evil-doers and fools in his community in the ancient tradition of the Court jester. This way he had a solid cover, but buried within it was a pun, a clue that the name was a front. The name Robert Greene held similar clues. Robert was the traditional name for a robber, as in Robin Hood (Robert of Lockesley), while Greene suggested the greenwood, ancient location of holiday pranks and merry-making. Also, serendipitously, Greene in French is Vere.
ME: How many people knew the truth about the authorship?
SHH: The only people who would have known for certain were members of the Court community, and not all of them would have been in on everything he did. The Queen and the Privy Council knew about most of his plays (though almost certainly not all). He’d been writing for the Crown since the 1570s, in the ’80s for the Queen’s Men, then in the ’90s for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. So his identity as author of plays for the Crown companies was something of a state secret.
For the actor-sharers of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men it was a business secret. As the primary reason for their financial success, their playwright’s identity was something they would sooner die than reveal. It was also a family secret. Several of the most popular Shakespearean characters were based on members of Oxford’s family and other important figures at Court. Of course there may have been a greater number who found out, but were wise enough to keep it to themselves. And even more who suspected, but again, thought better of any urge to share their suspicions, except among close and close-mouthed friends.
ME: Is this the reason why the coverup continued after his death?
SHH: Absolutely. If Shakespeare’s Richard III was Robert Cecil, to Oxford’s daughters, it was a portrait of their uncle, their mother’s brother. Polonius, that doddering old sycophant, was their grandfather. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was the still highly revered Queen Elizabeth while her longtime favorite, the Earl of Leicester, patriarch of the Sidney family and uncle of William Pembroke, Oxford’s patron during his final years and publisher of the First Folio, was the original for the murderous King Claudius.
We can only make these connections through scholarship today, but in those days, knowing that it was the Earl of Oxford who created these characters would have suggested the originals to too many for their identity to remain private for very long. There was a lot of dirty family linen mixed in with the wonders of the Shakespeare canon that had to be either washed or eliminated before his plays could be put forth to a public audience.
ME: Is this why it took so long to get the First Folio out?
SHH: Anyone who’s ever had to dicker with the inheritors of a great writer’s estate in order to publish their collected works will understand how very hard it must have been.
ME: Many believe that Ben Jonson edited the First Folio. Do you agree with that?
Pembroke would have given Jonson the task of preparing the front material that was intended to solidify the authorship with the front man, but his most logical choice for editor was his mother, Mary Sidney. I believe that after her death, the editing was finished by Bacon, who had just lost his Court position and so had the time. The Countess and the former Lord Chancellor were the only individuals that Pembroke could trust because only those who had known the originals were aware of the delicate issue of covering the identities of their caricatures. Jonson was simply too young. The front material was the means for creating the cover story, and in later editions, for making it stick. It was also the means for telling his readers that Oxford had finally been buried in the Abbey, and that this was when it got the name Poet’s Corner.
ME: I understand that you don’t believe he died in 1604, why is that?
It’s a long story, but basically because there’s nothing in any of the letters being sent within his family circle at that time that addresses his recent death. Yes, there are legal documents, but most unusually, nothing personal. Also suspicious is the fact that his death supposedly occurred on one of the major turning points of the year, Midsummer’s Day, also celebrated since time immemorial as the Feast of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the Freemasons, who were famous for their ability to disappear when confronted with enemies. Oxford had been angling for years for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, something the Queen denied him but that King James, probably with the encouragement of the Pembrokes, signed over to him in 1603, where he could live at peace and in safety from his enemies, polishing his favorite plays.
ME: What do you consider the most important points you’d like to make regarding the authorship?
SHH: That the question has got to go beyond Shakespeare. There are at least two other Court writers who used fronts to get published, Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney, and there may have been others. Some of Spenser sounds a lot like Raleigh.
The major point is that there was not one gifted writer at the Court of Elizabeth, but at least five: Oxford, Bacon, Philip Sidney, his sister Mary, and Sir Walter Raleigh. These plus the commoner, Marlowe, were the force that singly and together, created the English Literary Renaissance. Why did they hide? For starters, we should note that the one writer who didn’t hide, Marlowe, got murdered. I would say that’s a pretty good reason.