Yes, there was a conspiracy connected with the authorship of the Shakespeare canon, but its major impetus came from a very different source than the author himself or his patrons.
As I keep repeating, one of the important factors to consider while attempting to recreate the missing portions of the history of this period is the very small size of the community we study. Accustomed as we are today to vast numbers of writers, actors, theater companies, publishers, agents, and so forth, we find it hard to see clearly the truth about a time when the commercial stage consisted of a single public theater, then two, then three; of a single indoor private theater, then two, then none, even, at the very beginning, a single playwright and a mere handful of actors anywhere close to what we mean today by “professional.”
This blindness of historians to the implications of the small size of the theater community and of the “authorities” who fought its inception and growth contributes to the way they miss what may have been the most basic reason for this long struggle for control, which was not merely the fear of sin or epidemics or riots, but the power of the stage to communicate a message to thousands at one sitting, a power the authorities did not want in the hands of unreliable poets and actors. How new was this power, how astonishing to both those who wielded it and those who feared it, can be seen from the preface to the posthumous pamphlet published under the intitials “B.R.”:
I am the spirit of Robert Greene, not unknown to thee (I am sure) by my name, when my writings, lately privileged on every post, hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.
The printing press was becoming a powerful tool in the hands of those who knew how to use it. Not only did it give access to “infinite numbers of people,” but by rendering text in an anonymous type, it could obliterate the trail that led to the hand of the author, or his secretary. At the same time, from a public stage that reached thousands at a sitting, too many for anyone to locate individual listeners, a message could be broadcast with a speed and a volume never known before, and none but a handful of worried officials would have cared who wrote it.
We’ve described how the London Stage came to fill the empty place left by the Reformation’s destruction of the Church calendar, causing the holiday entertainments created for the Court to migrate to the new commercial theaters and acting companies. We’ve examined the reasons why this was seen as a threat by both the City fathers and the Church authorities, why they tried so hard to stop it from the start, and why they kept trying long after it was obvious that the theaters were there to stay. But we haven’t seen much to show why and how, in the face of so much opposition, the stage managed to survive.
There were four faces to the English establishment in London: the Crown, the City, the Church, and the People. The Crown and Privy Council held sway in the then separate community of Westminster; the City fathers ruled within the old walls that defined Central London; and the Church, that is the bishops, chief among them the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, had a voice in both arenas. As for the people, however disorganized and without representation, they made their needs felt through the threat of riots at the ancient turning points of the year, the traditional moments for feasts, toasts, plays, music, dancing and physical competitions, that is, for the kind of merry-making that led to satires, pranks and, in times of duress, riots. Since the Reformation had terminated this form of social release, the stage became the focal point for popular discontent. Any move to close it for anything but the plague was sure to meet with trouble.
From the first appearance of the London commercial stage in 1576, while the Church and the City fathers were against it, the balance remained (precariously) with the actors and the people. This was due to the influence of certain patrons on the Privy Council whose mandate it was to provide entertainment for the Queen, and who saw the power that the stage was gaining with their suburban constituencies. (Howard was Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, where the Bankside theaters––the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe––were located.) During the 1580s, under the patronage of Privy Councillors Secretary of State Walsingham, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the commercial press was born while the commercial stage continued to expand by leaps and bounds. Towards the end of the decade, both stage and press shot beyond what the conservatives on the Privy Council considered safe. The alarming excitement aroused first by the anti-establishment play Tamburlaine, then by the anti-clerical Mar-prelate pamphlets, threatened their heretofore close to total control of what London, and the nation, saw and read.
Once past the crisis of the confrontation with the Spanish enemy in 1588, the attention of the “authorities” turned to the enemies within, the Catholics, the Protestant dissidents, and the pesky actors and pamphleteers. With the death of Walsingham in 1590, the aquisition of his agencies by Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil put the Cecils in a position to to eliminate these through a series of strikes, that, due to their almost complete control over the record, they were able to portray as unconnected to themselves or to their agenda. This campaign to eliminate the connection between cause and effect has left the close relationship between the newborn media, the stage and press, and the politics and issues of the day so blurred that historians ever since have failed to see them.
Orthodox historians are fond of mocking our efforts to clear up the history of this period, deriding the questioning of the authorship of the Shakespeare canon as a “conspiracy.” Yes, there was a conspiracy, but it wasn’t the hiding of the author, it was this campaign by the Cecils, working underground and sometimes “at a distance” via agents, to destroy the genius of Oxford and his actors. That was the real conspiracy. Had they left the record intact, the native curiosity of historians would have put together the true scenario long since.