Modern readers of Shakespeare come to the plays through the First Folio, the versions of the 36 plays published in 1623 by the patrons of his company, known by then as the King’s Men. Publication then, and ever since, has performed a cleansing process on the plays, providing texts without any of the baggage, attitudes or complications that history attaches to important works of the past.
In Shakespeare’s case, partly because they were written so long ago (though, as it turns out, not entirely) it’s been next to impossible to place the plays in history in any meaningful way. Roughly half had previous publication in quarto format, the other half were never published until the First Folio. Some were registered with the stationers, others not. Some were mentioned in letters or publications by contemporaries, most were not.
Although we have a few holographs (handwritten versions) of other plays from around that time, none are by Shakespeare. Unlike their sister company, the Lord Admiral’s Men (later Prince Henry’s Men) documented by the diary of theater owner Philip Henslowe and other papers retained at Dulwich College by his stage manager Edward Alleyn, if anyone in Shakespeare’s company ever kept any records, they didn’t survive. The only records to survive are mid-17th century court cases over ownership of the by then lucrative company shares. Whoever or whatever we mean by Shakespeare, he or it created one of the most successful businesses of the period, at least for those who ran it in London.
One result of this has been that even those who should know better tend to approach the plays as though they were more or less all written under the same impulse, to make money for both the writer and his actors, and for the same public audience––the only issue being when. Because the Stratford biography forces them all into a decades late 15-year time-frame, efforts to see genuine connections to current issues and events have failed, creating a Shakespeare who plucked his subjects more or less out of thin air, and all for the same audience, an amazingly well-read public, with the Court little more than an adjunct, as it is today.
With Oxford as author, all of this changes; the process becomes at once much more complicated and also much more interesting. The unspoken assumption that everything that Shakespeare wrote could have been seen by anyone in his time who came to London or who had a penny to spare falls by the wayside. The fact is that different audiences saw very different kinds of plays, even in some cases, different versions of the same play. The illusion given by the First Folio, that all the plays share a sort of equality of presence, fails as well. As with the works of every other great artist, each play has a history of its own, and all are closely connected to events in the life of the author and of the communities, the nation, and the world in which he lived alongside his fellows.
With a solid historical framework in place, it shouldn’t be nearly so difficult to place each play within a relatively narrow and realistic time-frame, even in some cases down almost to the very day. In attempting to set dates for a particular play, it helps to determine for which of his three audiences did he write it originally: the Court, the Inns of Court, or the public? Eventually all of his plays ended up as public entertainment, but few (if any) were written originally with only the public in mind.
His Court audience
As a member of the Court from probably around age 17 until he was banished at 31, Oxford’s energies were chiefly directed towards entertaining his own community. He was not unique in this, or rather, he was unique only in the quality of his work, for all of the upwards of 40 or 50 individuals who formed the core of the permanent Court community, those who had suites of rooms at Court where they lived yearround, were expected to contribute their particular skills for the support and/or pleasure of the group. As the crème de la crème of English society, they were expected to sight read music notation, to sing complicated vocal arrangements, play the lute or the virginals, and perform the latest dances.
Oxford’s dancing was obviously admired by the Queen; of the handful of his poems that come down to us, many, perhaps most, are song lyrics (madrigal lyrics often sound like complicated poems), while in later years he was praised by a fellow composer as being as accomplished musically as any professional. So we can assume, based on what evidence remains, that he quickly rose in the Court’s estimation for his contributions to musical and dramatic events.
His writing for the Court may have begun with interludes, witty dialogues exchanged by two or three of the boy choristers, interspersed with musical offerings by the boys, the Court’s permanent staff of musicians, or courtiers with pretentions to expertise. These interludes soon expanded into full length plays like Love’s Labor’s Lost, that were made up of a series of comic or romantic interludes interspersed with songs and sometimes dances, even, as in The Tempest, with the company taking time in the middle of the show for a feast served by the cast. E.T. Clark has identified several of these from their early listings in the Revels records.
Most of the plays termed comedies in the First Folio began as entertainments for the Court community. Over time, some of these became standard entertainments, revised every few years by adding new topical material and characters, or revising old material to fit new situations. In this way a character like Armado in Love’s Labours Lost represented a different Court figure when the play was first written than he does in the 1623 version, in which he represents Antonio Perez, whose presence at Court can be easily assigned to a few years in the mid-90s. This has confused scholars who would otherwise place the play as early as the late 1570s when Elizabeth was contemplating marriage to the duc d’Alençon. It may be that the play was originally very early, but once it became a favorite at Court, he would update it every few years for the winter holidays. How many versions survived, and what dicing and splicing the First Folio editors may have done with them we can only guess.
When writing for the Court Oxford was of course always aware that the core of his audience were the Queen and her entourage of ladies, the wives and daughters of leading Court officials. In writing to please them he learned early that what entertains men is not always appreciated by women, particularly the sort of well-bred, educated women who were welcomed by Elizabeth into her private circle. That this was Oxford’s primary Court audience can be seen from his early published works (attributed to Petti, Lyly or Greene) that were specifically targeted toward female readers.
Although there’s much to suggest that Oxford preferred to write for the West End, he never ceased to entertain his home community, providing plays for Court weddings until his final days. Among his final revisions were those produced for the 1604 wedding of his youngest daughter, Susan Vere, to the Earl of Montgomery. The Folio version of The Tempest comes largely from the 1595 version he wrote for the marriage of his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to the Earl of Derby, which he further revised as The Spanish Maze for Susan’s wedding. The Folio version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for the wedding of his old flame, Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton, to Sir Thomas Heneage in 1594. Taming of the Shrew was written originally as a wedding roast for the 1579 marriage of Lord Strange to Alice Spencer.
His West End audience
Outraged at his banishment from Court and by the way he and his men were being threatened by his lover’s relatives as Elizabeth sat by and did nothing, Oxford wrote nothing for the Court for the two years that he was ostracized (1581-’83), turning instead to his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.” For them he could unfurl the full power of his rhetoric on the kind of issues that would never have passed the Court censors. The West End (more accurately the city of Westminster) was where the legal colleges, the Inns of Court, were located. Further west, between the Strand and the Thames, stood the great City mansions where the most prestigious courtiers and government officials lived.
For Oxford and his patrons, this was the most important audience in London, particularly during the relatively infrequent moments when Parliament gathered to vote on a subsidy for the Queen. Once we can begin to focus on details, it will be helpful to use these times as moments when he was most intent on reaching this audience with plays relevant to current issues, for it was then that the most influential men in England gathered together at one time and in one place. Plays that deal with national issues, like treason (Julius Caesar), colonization (The Tempest), or the Law (Merchant of Venice) are most likely to have been first written for this audience, and the only possible stage where they would have produced these plays was at the little stage in the chorister’s school at Blackfriars. The big public theaters were located in suburbs far from Westminster, while the Blackfriars stage was a mere hop and a skip to the west along Fleet Street, or, if coming by water from one of the mansions on the Strand, just footsteps from the elegant old Blackfriars watergate.
Happy finally to be writing for adult actors (no more little eyeases!) I believe that it was for this audience that he produced the first version of Timon of Athens, the first version of Troilus and Cressida (written before he discovered that Ann Vavasor was not the Cressida he had so unkindly assumed), of Romeo and Juliet (after discovering that she still loved him), of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus (written to explain his urge to desert England and fight for Spain), and of The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet (written out of anguish at the death of his patron, the Earl of Sussex, and suspicion that he’d been poisoned by his enemy, the Earl of Leicester). The only one of these that we have today in anywhere near the original version is The Spanish Tragedy (attributed to Thomas Kyd); all the others were rewritten for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men during Oxford’s final Shakespeare period (1593-1608).
The public plays
Last, and in many ways least, at least so far as his personal interest was concerned, there was the public audience that, through their far greater numbers would make his works “popular” as neither the Court nor the Inns of Court ever could, something that gave a great deal of power to the company that produced them. When Oxford first began producing plays at Court in the late 1560s and early ’70s, the various children’s companies that performed them were allowed to supplement their sparce Court stipends by performing the plays they’d rehearsed for the Court a few times at the little theater at Paul’s Cathedral school for choristers. These early comedies migrated rapidly to both the public and private theaters. Because their subjects were popular and easily understood and no deep knowledge of history or philosophy was required to enjoy them, they pleased the public, and because any satires of known Court personalities would be lost on a public audience, there was no reason for the Privy Council to get in the way.
By 1583, with the creation of the Crown company known as the Queen’s Men, Oxford found himself writing for the provincial audiences that, as McMillin and Maclean show, were the new company’s primary focus. It’s possible to see in these early plays, most of them termed as “apocryphal,” his attempts to deal with local or at least popular issues as in Arden of Faversham, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, The Birth of Merlin, James IV and Edmond Ironside. Responding to Walsingham’s desire to teach the provincials something about their history, he also wrote the early versions of what, as Shakespeare, he would turn into the great history plays: The Famous Victiories turning into Henry V, the Contention between York and Lancaster into the Henry VI series, and so forth.
Early in James’s reign, towards the end of the Shakespeare period, perhaps in exchange for stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, Oxford consented as his share of the bargain to provide updated versions of what early Court plays remained for the now royally established King’s Men, versions that would make them one of the most successful commercial enterprises of the Stuart period. It seems he was embarrassed about this. Feeling called upon to explain to his community why he was turning plays that they regarded as theirs into public works, he produced at a great welcoming get-together for King James at Wilton or Salisbury the summer of 1603 a new version of As You Like It in which, as Touchstone, he explains his need to marry the provincial and unpoetic public audience he personalizes as Audrey (audire, Latin for to listen). A man must marry and a playwright must have an audience.
Of course many plays migrated across these boundaries and although not everyone could see a play at Court nor could a poor apprentice afford one of the expensive indoor private theaters, members of the first two audiences could always see a play at one of the public theaters should they wish, and probably did quite often––all but the Queen, that is. It’s so unlikely as to be impossible that she ever ventured outside her Court confines for any purpose; every venture from one arena to another was in the nature of a state occasion. Her dignity could not be impeached by being seen in anything less, and her person had to be protected from the lunatics and drunks that were constantly threatening to do her in. In Tudor and Stuart times, the theater came to the monarch, not the monarch to the theater.
This of course was a boon for Oxford and his patrons, for they could trust that some of the material would never reach her ears. We know what happened a few times when that occurred. She would never come to them, and no one in his or her right mind would tell her things that might stir her anger enough to allow the theater’s many and determined enemies to “pluck it down.” It also made it easy for him to hide from her how much of what came from his literary circle came directly from him. Those darn secretaries, always publishing things behind his back!