By 1559, the dawn of the Elizabethan era, nine-year-old Edward de Vere had probably already absorbed much of the philosophy of the English Reformation from one who had helped to create it, his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith. He would have learned very early that Wittenberg in Germany was the ultimate Reformation university, the place where it all began. He would have learned about Amleth, the Danish prince who went mad, or pretended to go mad, from his tutor’s copy of the Gesta Danorum (Danish Histories), by Saxo Grammaticus, lodged on the shelves of Smith’s library at Hill Hall in Essex, just north of the forest of Waltham.
Smith may have introduced the future Great Lord Chamberlain to this bit of Danish history as an example of leadership gone awry, or the boy himself may have stumbled across the well-known tale in in his pursuit of some understanding of the class he was born into but with which he had never yet spent much time. During what appears to have been a solitary childhood in the country near the Forest of Windsor, Oxford would have entertained himself as best he could with the books in his tutor’s library. Through these he was introduced to the heroes and villains of English history, many of whom played a part in his own family history. Besides these there were as well the heroes and villains of Roman history and, beyond them, the Greek and Trojan gods and warriors of Homer and Euripides, all available in his tutor’s library. He spent hours with these heroes, brought to life by his imagination and his tutor’s recitation in Greek and Latin.
This life of solitary study came to an abrupt end with the death of his father when he was twelve. Transferred to Cecil House in London, he was soon immersed in the hurly-burly of life at the center of a Renaissance Court. Befriended by the young translators from the legal colleges that surrounded Cecil House, he fell quickly into the role of patron, and began using his education with Smith to do his share of translating and to create works of poetry and drama to entertain his friends, most of them older than himself by some six to ten years. Following the rubrics of noble behavior as prescribed by Smith and ancient tradition, while promoting his friends, he kept his own authorship more or less a secret.
At some point during the nine years that Oxford spent as a ward of the Crown it would have come clear to him that his estates were being used, and abused, by the Queen’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester. Because it was accepted policy that the Crown had the use of an underage peer’s estates, there wasn’t much he could do about it except wait until he turned twenty-one. By then, with his mother and stepfather both dead and Leicester at the height of his power at Court, it seemed best to ignore this offense as water under the bridge, or at least pretend to do so. Patronized by Leicester’s bitter enemy, the Earl of Sussex, Oxford rose rapidly at Court, due partly to his lordly largesse, which was getting him into financial trouble, and also no doubt to his wit and his talent for entertaining.
Then, just as he turned thirty, the bottom fell out. Forced by his conscience and perhaps a sudden fear of potential consequences, he turned on his Catholic friends in the Howard circle, revealing before the members of the Queen’s Presence Chamber during the winter holidays of 1580/81 that he had been involved with them in some rather dangerous plotting against the regime. The Queen forgave him (a mark of his popularity). Then, when one of her maids gave birth to his child in her chamber in March 15, she went totally berserk, had the offenders, baby included, thrown in the Tower, where she left Oxford for two months, then banished him from Court. Adding insult to injury, she found it expedient to sooth the offended members of the ruined maid’s family by raising their prospects at Court and turning a blind eye to their vicious attacks on milord and his men.
Oxford in the early 1580s
Released from the Tower in June, Oxford retreated to Fisher’s Folly, his manor just outside the City Wall in Bishopsgate, where, burning with rage and humiliation, he refused to continue to write for the Court. Rejected by those who fawned on him during his days of glory, barred from most of the pastimes that had filled his life until then, and unable to travel about freely due to the danger of running into his lover’s relatives, he turned to the Stage to plead his case before the audience he trusted most, the lawyers and students of the Inns of Court.
A decade of creating Court entertainments, plus a year abroad observing the vital theater traditions of Italy, had honed his writing to the level of a skilled professional, far beyond what anyone else in England was capable of at that time, most still mired in the dull style of the “drab era.” No longer bound to amuse the Queen with yet another witty comedy for the little boys, or another variation on the Petrarchan sonnet or Italian madrigal, he was finally free to write as he pleased. The result was a barrage of serious plays for the adult actors. Filled with the energy of an arrow finally loosed from a long-held bow, some of these were destined to evolve into masterpieces.
A good test to decide which of the Shakespeare plays originated at this time of intense creativity is whether and how it deals with the subject of treason. Divorced from Court society, Oxford was in no position to defend himself in any other way against the charges being spread about by his cousin Henry Howard that he was a blackguard and a traitor. As a form of special pleading, they were also a way for him to work through his questions about himself. Was he a hero or a villain? When he looked at his behavior from the point of view of his patrons, he saw someone stupidly heading for disaster while from Howard’s point of view he was, if not a traitor to the Queen, then certainly a traitor to his friends. Was he stupid or wicked?––neither was pleasant to consider.
Bored, used to writing, he turned to pen and ink, or rather to the secretaries who took his dictation. Characters from his early reading returned to save him from his artistic and moral dilemma. Historic figures like Richard II, Bolingbroke, Brutus, Coriolanus, and Amleth, recalled from his years with Smith, were brought back to life with his busy pen. Also present was the brilliant mathematician and astrologer, Jerome Cardan, whose book about the death of his son, translated by his friend Thomas Bedingfield, Oxford had published in 1573. Out of this mix came, more or less in chronological order, “The Play of Sir Thomas More,” The Spanish Tragedy, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Richard II, and Hamlet (among others).
He had been comparing himself to Richard II for some time, largely due to Richard’s reputation as a spendthrift. The recent close call with treason awakened him to a further resemblance, the ease with which he had fallen into bad company. That it was Oxford’s own predecessor, Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford, who was the villain of Richard’s story, the seducer who destroyed the nation by taking the King’s focus off his duties as monarch and onto his own villanous self, added weight. Had he inherited some terrible weakness from this Earl? Had it come to him though the fourteenth Earl––another lunatic spendthrift? But how was a man to live up to his duties as a nobleman without spending money?
Oxford now saw how Plutarch’s military hero could have ended up as a traitor. (Smith had Plutarch in his library, in three languages!). Furious at being treated dismissively by the Roman Senate (in Oxford’s case, the Queen and Burghley) the Roman general’s attraction to his enemy caused him to change sides. In Oxford’s case, this was the already legendary military hero, Don John of Austria, who not all that long ago (1571) had achieved the victory of the age over the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto and for whom Oxford, writing in the early ’80s, still felt a young man’s admiration (Don John died in 1578).
Since Don John (thought by some to be the original of the many Don Juans of literature, due to his famed capacities as a lover) was the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the brother of Philip II of Spain, the English tended to downplay his abilities since, to them, he was a dangerous enemy. In fact, it would have come to light right about the time that Oxford wrote the first version of Coriolanus that the Don had been involved in a conspiracy to conquer England and marry the Queen (reflecting his notion perhaps that no woman was capable of resisting him).
Oxford’s play ends with Coriolanus falling on his own sword, perhaps a demonstration of how ashamed he was of his flirtation with treason (though not ashamed enough to do it himself). That it was written closer to 1583 than earlier can be seen by his effort to make amends with his in-laws, portraying Burghley as the upright Menenius, Anne Cecil as Virgilia––perhaps our best look at who she was, to Oxford anyway––and less admirably, her mother Mildred as the overbearing Volumnia. ( It’s possible that Volumnia was actually based on Mildred’s even more overbearing sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, whom Oxford may already have come to know as an unfriendly neighbor of the little theater in Blackfriars.) Based on its style, the version that we have of Coriolanus is probably an update from the early 1590s. Apparently it wasn’t something he considered worth revising during his final period.
The masterpiece amongst these treason plays is Julius Caesar. We have no earlier versions of Julius Caesar as we have of some of the plays from this period, but I feel certain (for a number of reasons) that the first version was written during this time when issues of treason were uppermost in his mind. His personal identification would have been with Brutus––”the noblest Roman of them all”––without whose participation the conspiracy against Caesar must have collapsed. Thus we see Oxford’s Brutus as one who conspires, not out personal ambition, but to defend the Republic (England) against Caesar’s (Leicester’s) thirst for power.
Other characters are easily identified as his Catholic friends. His Cassius, who had “a lean and hungry look; he reads too much; such men are dangerous,” is an obvious description of Henry Howard. Lean certainly, hungry (for income and to have his family honor reinstated), and learnéd (he was the only nobleman in his time to be a fixture at one of the universities), Howard was even more dangerous to those he called brother or friend than he was to his enemies. For the rest of it, Brutus’s fate is one that Oxford could easily imagine for himself, had he stuck with his cousin’s plot.
So who was Caesar in Oxford’s fantasy?
The most likely target of conspiracies in her time was certainly the Queen; it’s also certain that the audience––the budding politicians at the Inns of Court––would see her as the potential target of a papist conspiracy. However, I believe that the truth, known only at the very center of the inner circle of Court politics, was that the conspiracy at which the play hints was not about getting rid of the Queen, but about the planned assassination of the Earl of Leicester.
Henry Howard had good reason to hate the Earl of Leicester, whose father, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had done nothing to save Howard’s father, the poet Earl of Surrey, when Protector Somerset was railroading him to the block. Also, as Howard and many others saw it, Leicester had assisted in the sting operation that in 1572 brought Howard’s older brother, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to the block, first by encouraging him to seek marriage to the Queen of Scots, then blowing the whistle on him to the Queen. People like Howard liked to believe that Leicester had the Queen bewitched, so that if he were removed, the scales would fall from her eyes and she would begin to see things their way.
That Leicester was the target of the conspiracy revealed by Oxford makes more sense at this angle than any intended harm to the Queen, something that no one in England (but a few rabid papists) would tolerate, while few would mourn the loss of Leicester––or so we’re told by generations of historians following the Cecilian paper trail. Killing Elizabeth would have meant removing a properly anointed monarch from a long-established position, while the death of Caesar was meant to prevent the creation of such a position, a situation much more comparable to the removal of Leicester, who many believed was looking to make himself king by marrying her.
There were at least two other plays from this period of the early 1580s that would be revised often enough over the years that they would rise to the level of masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, written (I believe) as a valentine to Ann Vavasor, once he realized that she still cared for him, and Hamlet Prince of Denmark.
There’s no need to go into the literature on Hamlet––no need and certainly nowhere near enough time or space. That it’s the most revealing of all the plays of its author’s persona is widely accepted (however ignored by the advocates of the Stratford biography, for by no means can William’s background be stretched to connect with either characters or plot). That this must be the so-called Ur-Hamlet, so called because 1589, when Nashe mentioned the play in Robert Greene’s Menaphon, is simply too early for most historians to credit it to Shakespeare, though some have done so anyway, so compelling is the evidence.
The Spanish Tragedy
In a reverse attribution of the sort that we see so often due to the late dating required by the Stratford biography, a number of important scholars have noted the similarities between Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy (later ascribed to Thomas Kyd) which suggests to them that Shakespeare was influenced by the Kyd play.
What’s far more likely is that The Spanish Tragedy was something of a dry run for Hamlet. In a return to the style of Titus Andronicus, Oxford released his fury at the Court in this Senecan style bloodbath. That Spanish Tragedy is earlier than even the earliest version of Hamlet seems evident in the fact that although the essential relationship in both plays is the bond between father and son, their roles are reversed. Where in Hamlet it is the son who must avenge the father, in Spanish Tragedy it is the father who must avenge the son. Thus Spanish Tragedy should date to sometime before the death of Sussex, Oxford’s patron and surrogate father, in June of 1583.