The Scenario that works!

Readers new to the Authorship Question will quickly see that the Shakespeare story as I tell it is considerably different from the one told in school and from the one told (or, more precisely, clumsily and obscenely aimed at) by the movie Anonymous.  So perhaps this is a good place to restate why I believe in the scenario I outline here.

First, I agree with the majority of those who can see from the utter impossibility of the Stratford biography that the best candidate for what came to be called the Shakespeare canon is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  While the rest may have a credential or two, he has them all.  But after 20 years of studying the matter I can no longer think of myself as just an Oxfordian––I’m an authorship scholar, by which I mean that I now question the authorship of (almost) every single work of the imagination published during the Elizabethan era!  To stop with Shakespeare gives the impression that he was an anomaly at a time when everything else was normal (according to today’s view of the world).  That’s simply not the case.  By today’s world of theater, writing and publishing, everything then was an anomaly.  He was only part of it.

Second, when you read Shakespeare here, understand that I mean the poet, not the man who sold him the use of his name.  Because it was de Vere, not William of Stratford, who made the name famous, de Vere’s the one who deserves it.  If I sell you my house, even if I rent you my house, if you make it famous as the place where something of great human significance occured, historically it becomes your house, not mine.

The third thing I began to realize as I dug more deeply was how little evidence there was, not just for Shakespeare, but for anything relating to the origins of the English Literary Renaissance.  There’s no argument about this; all scholars of the period are aware of the holes in their story, even if they don’t see how deeply or widely the lack of evidence extends beyond their particular focus.  So if I was going to figure anything out, I was going to have to cast a much wider net than those who concentrate just on Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Marlowe, or the history of the London stage.  Sooner or later I thought, I’ll find out what happened to all that evidence.  And I have.  I can’t prove it, not in the way it would take to overturn the Stratford monolith, not all by myself, but perhaps someday somebody will.

Of course the answer was there all the time, the Baconians were the first to see it, parts of it, but finding out exactly how and when it happened has proven to be the final, central, determining piece in the scenario.  As forensic scientists know, everything that happens leaves a network of clues that extend around it in time and space, so however much hard evidence is missing, there will be clues in the mainstream history, in biographies of those involved and of similar phenomena from other times and cultures.  Current studies like that of the psychology of creativity have added important insights.

And there are always the dates, that is confirmed dates, that function as linch pins for the sequences of events that create the network of clues that must take the place of the missing evidence.  Dates of events seen as “coincidental”––events within a particular circle that occur at the same time or close to it but are otherwise unrelated––are just about impossible in the small world that was the 16th-century London stage, periodical press, and Royal Court.  That such events are unrelated is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Fourth, I came to realize how very different life was then from what it is today.  While the subliminal backdrop to our view of literature and entertainment today is of hundreds of writers publishing hundreds of thousands of books by thousands of publishers and thousands of films made by hundreds of filmmakers written by hundreds of screenwriters, whose names change on a weekly basis as tens to dozens join the ranks or fall by the wayside, most of whose names mean nothing to anyone but their close associates (think of the long roll of credits that follows every film)––we must force our imaginations to provide a scenario where where there were two or three playwrights, six or seven professional-level actors, and seven or eight printers and publishers, all of whom knew each other or were at least very aware of each other’s existence over many years.

In other words, the illusion that Philip Sidney existed apart from Christopher Marlowe, Bacon apart from Nashe, Mary Sidney apart from Bacon, or any of these apart from the man considered by one of orthodoxy’s favorite supports, Francis Meres, to be “best for comedy” during the 1590s is just that, an illusion created by a lack of evidence.  If I live two blocks from a bakery, do we need an affadavit to prove where I buy my bread?  These people knew each other, had relationships with each other, relationships that drove the story of the blaze of literary splendor that was the English Literary Renaissance.  What was that story?  And why is it so obviously missing from the record?

The one and only Shakespeare

As an historian, I can’t go beyond the constraints imposed by these limits.  There were very few individuals during the early years of the English Reformation who could write engagingly in the 1560s and 70s, even fewer could or even wanted to get their own work produced or published, and as for those who could put on a risque and satirical play for the public and get away with it, the list narrows to one, however difficult it may have been all these centuries to identify him.  As for style, themes, and subject matter, biographies of other geniuses require that there be one Shakespeare and only one.  Just as no two people could have painted the Mona Lisa and no two people could have conquered Asia in the 3rd century BC, no two writers could have written (or co-authored) Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar.  There was, there had to be, only one da Vinci, only one Alexander, and only one Shakespeare.

Since all the other world-creating geniuses were leaders who left their arenas of endeavor permanently altered, causing those who came after them to imitate them, so the author of the Shakespeare canon must have been a man of great respect and high standing in the small literary circles of his time, and he had to have been born early enough that lesser writers who dealt with similar themes and subjects and whose styles show similarities to his, were his followers, and not he theirs.  That Shakespeare could possibly have imitated the lesser writers of his day, that he rewrote their works, is a cart-before-the-horse fantasy created by left-brainers who simply do not understand the nature of the thing they write about.

Yet it’s also true that great peaks in artistic endeavor are almost always driven by groups.  To develop, artists must have an audience on a level equal, or almost equal, to their own, colleagues who appreciate them, rivals who challenge them, enemies who drive them to retaliate.  Think of the French Impressionists, the Scribblerus Club, Bebop, Motown.  The films Ocean’s Eleven and The Seven Samurai have plots based on a group of talented individuals that come together to accomplish some goal.  But there’s always, there has to be, one or sometimes two, central figures.  The problem for the Elizabethan era is that the central figure is missing.  Some have tried to make it Sidney; others have tried to make it Bacon, or Marlowe, or even Mary Sidney, but in every case, while a few things may click, too many do not.  Those clicks are important, but it’s the collegial relationship with Shakespeare that they represent, not the poet himself.

With Oxford at the center, they all fall into place: Philip Sidney, a great writer, four years his junior, his first and most challenging rival, who refused (or was simply unable, largely for political reasons)  to follow him into the theatrical arena, and whose own achievements pushed  him more than once to go beyond himself; his cousin Francis Bacon, his partner in many ways and the second most important figure in the story, who eagerly followed him until he (Bacon) got the Court job he’d been striving for from the beginning, defended him during his hard times, and helped to edit his collected works after death; Stephen Gosson, an early neophyte who, like Marlowe later, betrayed him early on, selling out to the Bishops who were trying to shut him down; Lord Strange who, egged on by Leicester, was trying to replace him as the Prospero of the London stage;  Mary Sidney, who in his life loved and hated him, and after his death, helped save his work for posterity; and Christopher Marlowe who studied with him, adopted his style, rebelled against him, and foolishly refused to listen to his warning.

With Oxford as author the lives of the others involved at that early stage in the English Literary Renaissance also fall into place: the actor Edward Alleyn, whom he trained to play his youthful protagonists, and who deserted him to work with Marlowe; the secretaries whose names got attached to his early works: Anthony Munday, John Lyly, and Thomas Kyd; his friends from college days: the Catholic apologist Richard Rowlands, aka Richard Verstegen, and George Pettie, whose name he borrowed for two of his early works; the Bassanos, the Court musicians whose talents graced his early productions; their sister, the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier whom the world knows as the first feminist in English Literature and sees as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (and most certainly Cleopatra); the patrons whose protection allowed him to continue to write under increasingly difficult circumstances: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the Earl of Southampton, the Earls of Pembroke, and (to some extent) both monarchs.

Also clear are the enemies who appear in several plays as villains: his cousin Henry Howard, later Earl of Northampton, who trashed his reputation, and his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, later Earl of Salisbury, who used the power bequeathed him by his father, Lord Burghley, to destroy the evidence of his leading role in the great literary revolution that the Cecils were so determined to quash.  With Oxford as author, no falsification of evidence, no forced rearrangement of dates, no ignoring of documents, no overblown imagined scenarios, are required for all of these to fall easily into place around him.

The biographies of other great literary lights lead to the conclusion that despite what they may pick up here and there from their reading, all great writers, particularly poets, draw primarily from their own experiences for their major works.  Writers, great writers, write as a means of emotional catharsis, to explore an issue that affects them deeply, a philosophical dilemma that demands resolution, a situation that demands the truth.  Theirs are the pearls of literature, surrounded by the art of a creature irritated into self-protection.  The themes that they explore, particularly those they explore repeatedly, will always connect to something in their biographies.  The fact that so much of what Shakespeare wrote about fits the life of the Earl of Oxford requires either that he was someone very close to Edward de Vere, or, pace Bishop Ockham, that he was Edward de Vere!  Further, the fact that nothing in any of his works suggests the scenario crudely attempted by the film Anonymous demands that the real story, involving all these writers, a story far closer in nature to a spy thriller than this absurdly ahistoric soap opera, get its day in the court of public opinion.

20 thoughts on “The Scenario that works!

  1. Stephanie,

    I would like to think that this is an introduction to a book. I like the definition “authorship scholar”. Finding little here to argue with I do want to take the opportunity to ask couple of questions. I think you (and Nina Green) posit Oxford behind the writings of Robert Greene. While I, like you, am open-minded regarding attribution in this era, Greene’s writings strike me as rambling and tedious; quite the opposite of Shakespeare. Are there any stylistic characteristics that you believe are inherently Oxfords or not Oxford’s? Which works would you categorically exclude? Jonson? Spenser? Sidney?


  2. Great question! But not one I can answer properly here. Pehaps in a future blog.

    Greene’s style differs from Shakespeare’s in the same way that a bud differs from a flower, or more á propos, a caterpillar from a butterfly. Greene belongs to the 1580s, Shakespeare to the 1590s and beyond. Their similarities may show better in the plays later attributed to Greene that Oxford wrote during the 1580s for the Queen’s Men: James IV, Friar Bacon, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, etc.. These clearly show his (then unique) method of creating drama. Plays are not the same as stories in books, which is what Greene is known for.

    Greene’s pamphlets, or tales, were based on the genre known as Greek romance, books like the Aethiopika of Heliodorus or The Golden Ass of Apuleius that originated in the second and third centuries AD in which the style was purposely rambling, the old storytelling method similar to the Arabian Nights, where one incident reminds the storyteller of another, the purpose being to keep the audience interested. Shakespeare is the name attached to the plays he wrote (rather, rewrote) for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s. By then he’d learned a lot from writing for pretty much the same crew (whatever they called themselves) for the past 20 years.

    I’ve written at some length here on the three stages of Oxford’s career, first for the Court in the 60s: patterned after Seneca and Ariosto; then, following the break with the Court in the 1580s, plays written for the West End lawyers with more attention to the Greek dramatists; then in the 90s, plays adapted for public audiences. Each of these stages followed a series of devastating events in his personal life, and each involved a quantum leap in style and depth of human understanding. It’s interesting that his sources seemed to remain the same from first to last, based on his childhood in the country and the books he read while studying with Smith.

    Elsewhere I’ve given lists of the names he used over his 30 year career. As for those you name, both Jonson and Sidney are their own men, neither used standins, neither stood in for anyone else, and both had their own unique styles. The Spenser canon belongs to Francis Bacon, as does the Nashe canon. You’ll find more by typing keywords into the search field in the upper right corner of each page.

    Many thanks for a thoughtful, intelligent question.

  3. Stephanie— 

    I love the big picture approach to the Authorship Question that you get by looking at the whole Elizabethan era. Unfortunately you take a small point of contention to wrap your article at beginning and end. You call the movie Anonymous clumsy, obscene, and crude.  How much better your article would have been, if you had avoided folding it into your obvious venom at the movie Anonymous.


  4. As always, it’s nice to read how you tie everything together; context is so important. I have a question, which I’ve never seen addressed. Why were none of Greene’s plays included in the First Folio?

  5. I’m sure you’re aware that until the turn of the century, when several Baconians claimed that the author of Shakespeare was also the author of the Robert Greene canon (and almost everything else ever written), no one had any idea (except Oxford, Bacon and a handful of theater and publishing people) that Oxford was the true author of either Shakespeare or Greene.

    The First Folio was restricted to plays written (or revised) for performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from about 1590 on. Most of his earlier work, published as by Lyly, Lodge, Gascoigne, etc., remained with the Queen’s Men or the Lord Admiral’s Men, the LCMen keeping those plays that Oxford, and they, wanted for themselves. A few of those left out in 1623 crept back in later, like Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen. TNK was a rewrite of Palamon and Arcite, written originally for his commencement from Oxford in 1566. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a pastiche of scenes from several old plays, including bits from TNK and James IV.

  6. What warning did Oxenford give Marlowe and why did Marlowe not listen to him? Was it pride (rivalry, jealousy), or politics or both?
    What do you think of the work done by Wraight, T.C. Mendenhall, and
    Daryl Pinksen on the authorship question?

  7. Please read my article “The Great Reckoning: Who Killed Marlowe and Why.” That will answer your questions.

    Though I don’t agree with her conclusion (that Marlowe returned to write the Shakespeare canon) I have great respect for Wraight, and agree with a number of her other opinions. I’ve read Charles Nicholl, who gave us the most important information, and Calvin Hoffman, plus several orthodox Marlowe biographers, but not the two you mention.

  8. Dear Stephanie,
    Contrary to your belief, expressed above and elsewhere, that Bacon had ambitions toward law or civil advancement, he was driven to them solely by the need for funds.
    He wrote to Burleigh…..
    “I confess that I have as vast Contemplative Ends as I have moderate Civil Ends: for I have taken all knowledge to be my province……..”
    “This….Philanthropia, is so fixed in my Mind, as it cannot be removed”
    His desire for advancement was driven by the need to fund his great works (of which Baconians hold the Shakespeare canon to be a secret part), the ‘Great Instauration’ and the ‘Novum Organum’.
    He ever hoped that James I would put his weight behind his life work as so many of his friends and “Wits” had done, along with his mother and brother Anthony.

  9. Dear Graeme,
    You really mustn’t ever take Francis at face value. His true nature only appears when seen in toto, from youth to age, including what I propose that he was doing during the quarter of a century that it seems he was waiting for a Court position, writing for Oxford and Walsingham’s literary underground.

    The letter to Burghley that you quote was just as much a political maneuver, intended to press his recalcitrant uncle into getting him a paying job at Court, as it was a heartfelt plea. By threatening to become a “sorry book-maker,” he was threatening to join the ranks of the group most feared by Burghley and Robert Cecil, a group that in fact he already belonged to, the scribblers of what had once been Fisher’s Folly, and that I believe he and his brother had taken over, following Walsingham’s death and Oxford’s bankruptcy.

    Indeed Francis did have “vast, contemplative ends,” just as he had the very obvious ambition to achieve the level at Court that he felt he deserved, both in terms of his talent and his father’s high position as Lord Keeper. Do you really think that Essex’s long ongoing efforts to get him a Court position were all his own idea, that Francis would have preferred to be left alone? That all his activity at Elizabeth’s parliaments were just for the fun of it, since they paid him nothing? LOL!

    Francis wanted it all. Had he been what you seem to think he would never have kowtowed to James and Buckingham the way he did. He played their fool so he could continue to work on another of his lifelong projects through Parliament and his post as Lord Chancellor, modernizing the Law. This was just as much his “true work” as his philosophical writing, much of which remained unfinished and unpublished at his death.

    Yes, he was interested in the theater and did produce a number of theatrical works, mostly masques or other revue type shows, but also, I believe, the Court plays attributed to John Lyly. In the mid-90s when Robert Cecil took over as Secretary of State, both Oxford and Bacon knew they would have to change tactics. Oxford began planning an escape to the forest, while Bacon left the world of underground publishing having, finally, gotten a job working for the Queen. From then on he never published another underground tract or poem, but worked hard to be seen by history as the true son of his respected father.

    Francis was not Shakespeare. First of all, their contributions are too great for one individual to have done both. Also, their voices are as different as their personalities. As you must know from reading other essays here, I believe they worked together their entire lives on the great project to which Sidney and Mary Sidney were also dedicated, the creation of a genuine English literary language, the major reason why both were so bent on breaking through the shibboleth that prevented courtiers from publishing. If the great works they and others were producing were going to last and to spread beyond their little circle, they had to get published, and to get published they had to have a name on them that would not bring them grief.

    Later poets like Jonson, Harington and Donne were not so committed to this because Oxford, Bacon, and the Sidneys had already accomplished it, leaving the way open for them and later writers, to write and publish more or less as they pleased. The revolution had succeeded, and all that was lost was their identities on various works attributed to lesser folk. In the second half of his life, Bacon worked hard to create a body of work that he could put his name to and that would guarantee him a place in history.

  10. You are right, of course, that his meteoric rise under James I was welcome after years of artful repression by his uncle Burleigh! (A relationship not unlike his cousin’s) Indeed, he loved pomp and ceremony. But it was testimony to his genius and to say he ‘played the fool’ to his monarch (and favourite) is a gross distortion and unworthy.
    As to his driving passions there is ample contemporary evidence of his high minded intent but his most productive period is shrouded in secrecy.
    What is known is that after his return from France in 1579, where he mixed with Ronsard and the Pleiade, who had reformed the French language, he was filled with the certainty that he could do the same for his own mother tongue. Yet despite commentary of remarkable industry he apparently published nothing for 19 years.(!n 1598 ten essays appeared) These were the years when the majority of the Shakespeare plays were written. These were the years of borrowed monies and his ‘Scriptorium’ at Twickenham Park ! (Ben Jonson, the poet laureate was one of his ‘good pens’)
    Although younger than De Vere there is no evidence that he was subordinate.
    To state that ‘The Comedy of Errors’, performed under Bacon’s direction for the Christmas revels of 1594/5, was the work of De Vere, would need substantiation. The theme, ‘the Prince of Purpoole and the Honourable Order of the Knights of the Helmet” is definitely Bacon’s and refers to his muse Pallas Athena, the ‘spear-shake. The play is integral to the theme.
    Thank you for allowing me on your forum, Stephanie. Our loves are in opposition!

  11. Bacon was often embarrassingly servile towards James and Buckingham as we know from the letters that remain. In the end, they simply got rid of him so Bucky Dearest could have York Place.

    The first edition of his essays were published in 1596.

    You can’t state flatly when the Shakespeare plays were written because you don’t know. Nobody does. You say Bacon was writing the plays during the years he was without a Court position, I say he was writing the Spenser canon, then the Lyly plays, then the Nashe canon, all of which fit perfectly into the time slots required, and all of which he gave up when he began getting real work at Court.

    Oxford was eleven years older than Bacon and an Earl while Bacon wasn’t even a knight until James took over, so ipso facto Oxford was Bacon’s superior.

    I never said the Gray’s Inn entertainment was by Oxford. Bacon organized the whole thing, everything that is but the play. That was Oxford’s, written years earlier, and revised for the 1595 winter gala.

    Where does Bacon state that Athena was his muse?

    Where is it stated that Ben Jonson was one of Bacon’s “good pens”?

    You’re quite welcome to “my forum.” I’ll be happy to provide more information on how I see the important role that Bacon actually played as soon as I can. Like Marlowe and Sidney he had an important role to play in the development of Shakespeare, but also like them, he did not write his works. In fact, I think he would be furious to know that he is more famous now for writing what he didn’t write, than for what he did write. For (I believe) he strived mightily throughout his teens and twenties to sound as different from Oxford as he possibly could. Even so, several of his phrases slipped into his writing, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, or it could even be the other way around. This happened with both Bacon and Marlowe, which is one of the reasons I’m so sure they all worked together at Fisher’s Folly for a few years in the mid-1580s.

  12. Dear Stephanie
    Bacon did not state that Pallas Athena was his muse – in accordance with his desire for secrecy. It would have blown his cover if he had.
    An early reference that I can give you is a sonnet addressed to FB in the Lambeth Episcopal Library, written by Jean de la Jessee, one of Ronsard’s followers. In it he addresses Bacon, speaks of his own muse, then ‘votre Pallas’.
    In the Manes Verulamiani, elegies to him after his death, he is himself referred to as ‘Pallas Athena’, as well as ‘Apollo’ and ‘the 10th muse’. See Elegy 4:
    ‘So did Philosophy, entangled in the subtleties of Schoolmen seek Bacon as a deliverer… He renewed her, walking humbly in the socks of Comedy. After that, more elaborately he rises on the loftier buskin of Tragedy….’

    Regarding Jonson, my source that he was one of FB’s good pens is Peter Dawkins, who lists also John Lyly, John Florio, John Davies of Hereford, Sir John Davies, George Herbert and George Wither. One of his sources for Jonson was Archbishop Tennison, ‘Baconiana’ 1679

    At Bacon’s sixtieth birthday celebrations Jonson described Bacon in almost the same words he used in his tribute to Shakespeare, prefacing the 1623 Folio:
    ‘…he [FB] who hath filled up all numbers, and performed that in our tongue, which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece, or haughty Rome.’
    Unlike De Vere he was a commoner, but he was never an inferior.

  13. If, as I believe, it was Bacon who wrote the Spenser canon, he would certainly deserve to be complimented in extravagant terms by those who knew the truth.

    Regarding Jonson as one of Bacon’s good pens, I asked Dawkins about that awhile ago. he said he couldn’t remember where he read it. Too bad, because it makes sense that when Walsingham died and the Fisher’s Folly group disbanded, Francis and his brother took over the business side of the Folly group for awhile until it shifted to Essex house.

    Bacon was hardly a commoner, a term we must reserve for members of what today we’d call the working class. Marlowe was a commoner. So was Jonson. But Bacon’s father had been the Lord Keeper, a member of the Privy Council, who had the right to live in grandeur in York House, which was where Francis was born. That he was never given a paying job at Court was outrageous; of course he did something with those years that the Cecils (and the Queen) kept him out of power. But writing the Shakespeare canon wasn’t it.

    Spenser is Bacon’s great contribution to English poetry as Nashe is his great contribution to satire. Almost everything published as by Spenser or Nashe reflects Bacon’s situation and philosophy (what doesn’t, like the Amoretti, was written by someone else). And although the styles of these different ventures may differ, there are similarities in usage that he could not escape. There’s no question but that Francis Bacon was as great in his way as Shakespeare was in his, but the two were simply not one.

  14. Thank you.
    The source for Jonson, as I wrote above, was Tennyson.(Baconiana 1679)
    You have not addressed Elegy 4 of the Manes Verulamiani above(or the rest of the elegies for that matter.)

    1. Graeme, I want to follow up on your suggestions and will as soon as I can. I love Francis Bacon, he’s utterly and totally fascinating, and I want to know as much about him as I can. I read all of Spedding years ago, and I feel strongly that the history fits well with what I’ve scaved up about him here and there. I’ve got six books about him, plus a stack of photocopies. I feel that adding to what we know of the official Francis, plus the Spenser canon, known to history as the first of the great English Renaissance poets, plus the Nashe canon, satires that still outperform almost everything deserving the name that came after, we’ve got the man, an absolute dynamo of mental energy. I also think that both he and Oxford were involved in creating the underground spiritual organization that became the English Freemasons.

      If you’re still on board six months from now and I haven’t gotten around to it, please remind me. I’m at work on a book and I can’t take any unrelated detours until I get a first draft finished.

  15. Stephanie,

    I may have mentioned some time ago that I spent some time investigating whether Oxford could have authored Spenser’s works and I finally put that aside, but what got me going in the first place was the suspicious nature of the “evidence” that is usually cited for Spenser’s authorship. I have George Harman’s book by the way. But, what finally convinced me that Spenser may have actually been the author of his works were the comments of Harvey who seemed genuinely to believe in Spenser’s authorship. How do you fit Harvey into the Spenser picture?

  16. Oh my! This is an episode that’s not to the credit of either of our heroes. It has to do with the story behind the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet duel. I’ll go into detail on this at some point, though I can’t right now. The quick answer is that Harvey was certainly well aware that Bacon was the author of the poems published first in 1580 as by Immerito, then in 1590 as by Edmund Spenser, who was far away by then, living in the wilds of southern Ireland. When Harvey speaks of Spenser, he means Bacon. In fact, the three may have known each other at Cambridge, for all were present there at the same time in 1573-75, Bacon a teenaged student at Trinity, Spenser a sizar at Pembroke where Harvey, in his twenties, was a Fellow.

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