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.
11 thoughts on “The real authorship conspiracy”
Thank you Stephanie. There was also the plan centered around William Herbert, who became Lord Chamberlain, to minimize publication of Shakespearean plays and poems, punishing those publishers who defied the tactic. The final eclipse happened with the publication of the First Folio, a contrivance that separated the author Oxford from the pseudonym Shakespeare/Shake-speare, rearranging it upon the Stratford Shakspere.
I am very grateful to you for doing this blog and creating such clarity. I am of the opinion (after spending some time in England, visiting St. Albans, etc.) that Bacon and the circle of 13 were responsible…maybe more than one voice, possibly 4. And yes, always under threat of discovery and punishment. I had heard Bacon almost went to the Tower for Hamlet…for obvious reasons if you know his true history. I am sure you do. I expect to spend many hours on your page here and reading with great delight some words of truth!
I’m glad you’re enjoying it Shellie. I hope you find the evidence here that convinces you that the Shakespeare canon could only have been written by one very unique individual. Those that are often included in group theories were the authors of other works, not his.
Well, I hope I do, too. I truly wouldn’t be surprised if it did turn out to be all Bacon…especially not with the Rosicrucian history, his title of Lord Verulamium (Lord Spear Shaker) and how he was revered at the time. I look forward to having some time to spend on the research and will be seeing the movie (“Anonymous”) next weekend which I believe puts forth DeVere…again, many thanks!
I would (be surprised that is). Bacon’s writing isn’t at all like Shakespeare’s. Bacon called himself Lord Verulam based on the fact that his manor at St. Albans was located on or near the site of the ancient Roman town of Verulamium, the Latinization of a word in ancient Brithonnic meaning “Settlement of Broadhand.” It’s Oxford who was called Spear Shaker, or something close to it in Latin, by Gabriel Harvey.
I too think one mind composed the bulk of the Shakespeare plays: this is why Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters, by William Plumer Fowler, is so convincing. Fowler overestimates the power of verbal parallels, but he has caught an astonishing large handful of Oxford’s phrases that ring with the authentic “Shakespeare” voice.
I’m also persuaded by Morris Palmer Tilley’s assessment of proverb material in Shakespeare’s plays. He finds in Shakespeare more proverbs, more successfully articulated and blended, than in any other Elizabethan dramatist. This comes about largely because proverbs were mastered not by ear, by a “hand-me-down” serendipity within the family (though training the ear was important), but by saturation in the proverb books of Erasmus and others. We tend to think of proverbs as mere oral folklore.
Anyway, Oxford’s letters reveal an ability equal to “Shakespeare’s” for shaping and recombining old proverbs. Question, though: do you know of anyone’s having done a serious study of the literary sources behind Shakespeare’s fairy lore? I’m convinced that, just as with the proverbs, knowledge of the “little folk” was a written, literary construct and didn’t solely depend on the oral storytellings of one’s Warwickshire grandmother or maiden aunt.
I agree. It would be a major addition to Oxfordian research if someone would capsulize Fowler’s book, compiling the most compelling comparisons. Unfortunately that person would have to know very well, not only Shakespeare, but also the other literature and letters of the time, to grasp what was unique to Oxford. A tall order. One thing that comes clear from reading his letters, they become more “Shakespearean” in the 1590s, which is, of course, when Oxford “became” Shakespeare. It’s subtle, but it’s there all right.
You’re right about the proverbs coming from the classics, not (perhaps never) solely from folklore (they migrated from Greek into Latin and from Latin into French, Italian, Spanish and German. It was a method of training in 16th-century grammar schools, to have the boys translate proverbs from the Greek and Roman classics into English or from English back into Greek and Latin. This was seen as having two good results, they learned the languages and at the same time, words of wisdom that hopefully would stick in their minds. Obviously Shakespeare kept at it, turning one after another into memorable sound bytes. If you would ever consider collecting examples of such a use of proverbs in Oxford’s letters I would be delighted to post it here.
Like all great thinkers, Shakespeare’s tendency to combine sources came from a search for the underlying truth behind appearances. With such a range to use for comparison, from the Greek tales he was given by Smith to translate to the old wive’s tales told by the kitchen staff around a winter fire, he was hoping to find those things that were the same at all times and in all places. In England the major source was the ancient Celts, whose lore fed the Irish and Scottish poets, creating a forest background for the Arthurian and Orlando legends born from the medieval conflicts with the Saracens, aka the Turks. Good starting points might be Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and works by William Butler Yeats. Oberon is first found in Robert Greene’s James IV. Oxford got that from Berner’s translation of Huon of Bordeux. These were his companions during a childhood that seems to have been rather solitary.
I am reading with great enjoyment all the posts here. I have not been focused on this area and have only the information from “Dedication to the Light” Series 1, Volume 3: Festival of Dedication, by Peter Dawkins, from the Francis Bacon Resarch Trust, pub. 1984…and a trip to St. Albans with that group. During that trip and in the book it is suggested that the works also contain a great deal of coded information, a practice which was common in those dangerous times. Do any of you have any information on that aspect? Certainly, the author was well versed in Astrology and metaphysics in general, which since Eliz I had the astrologer John Dee as an advisor, was not uncommon but was highly guarded for obvious reasons. Thank you!
Thank you, Stephanie, for the pointers in a decided direction on Shakespeare’s fairy lore. It just has never made sense coming from a surmised Warwickshire wet nurse…
Oh, yes, you’re quite right about the marked Shakespearean tinge to Oxford’s letters in the 1590s. One difficulty in substantiating this impression is the very proverbial texture itself. A case in point: in a letter of July, 1600, Oxford writes, “Well, I will not use any more words, for they may rather argue mistrust than confidence.” To me at least, this seems to hark back to Ignoto’s assertion in his commendatory verse to The Fairie Queene:
And to the “Rosalind” boy actor in As You Like It, whose epilogue reads like a riff on the “Ignoto” motif:
But it’s hard to “prove” that these connections are authentically Shakespearean (i.e. De Verean): the saying “Good wine needs no bush” is proverbial, as Morris Palmer Tilley documents it. And of course, when Spenser scholars like Judith Owens, in 2002, argue that Ignoto could be Spenser’s publisher, Ponsonby…well, I see what we’re up against.
Well, I’m no longer “up against it” because I no longer care what foolishness the orthodox Shakespeare establishment thinks. Oxfordians are in much the same position that the Protestant dissidents were in the 1590s when they quit trying to bring the Anglican Church back to Reformation ideals and started creating their own sects, moving to Holland and then to America where they were free to live by their beliefs. When a scholar like Harold Bloom sees Hamlet as the secular Christ, you know we’re dealing, not with history, but with a powerful belief system, a replacement for the religious sweetness that the Reformation, with its Devil and threats of Hellfire, did so much to destroy.
Tilley is important in many ways, but chiefly for the evidence he provides that the names Shakespeare, John Lyly (that is, the author of the Euphues novels) and George Pettie were all fronts for the same writer. Of course he sees them as separate writers, following each other, but their fondness for the same proverbs suggests that they, like Shakespeare, were fronts used by de Vere at earlier stages of his development. Lyly was Oxford’s secretary during the 1580s; George Pettie was a student at Christ Church Oxford under Canon Thomas Bernard along with one “Richard Vere,” otherwise unknown to history, when, in 1566, the play Palamon and Arcite was performed, later revised as Two Noble Kinsmen. This is a major clue that these three names, belonging to real men, were used by Oxford as fronts for his writing from different stages in his career.