Theatrical birth pangs: 1776 to 1584

Early in April 1576, following a year of exciting adventures on the Continent, the Earl of Oxford arrived back in England to a sea of troubles.  During his final days in Paris, someone from home had prepared him for the gossip he’d encounter on his return.  Rumor had it that his daughter, born during his time away, was another man’s child.  Worse, it was even rumored that that other man was his wife’s own father, Lord Burghley, who, concerned that after five years of marriage there was still no Cecil heir to the Oxford earldom, had taken matters into his own hands.

This of course was nothing more than foulest, cruelest rumor, and Oxford would have cause to work different versions of the dreadful story into six plays over the years, but in his hot youth, when touched where he was most vulnerable, he was all too easily roused to unthinking fury.  Brooding on this and other worries, his mood was hardly improved when the ship that carried him accross the Channel was boarded by pirates and all he had with him was lost.  Ignoring his well-intntioned brother-in-law, Thomas Cecil, who had come to meet him at Dover, he returned to London with one of the “lewd friends” that Burghley so disliked.  Refusing to have anything to do with either his wife or her father, he rented rooms at the Savoy and turned his attention to plans already in progress to create the suburban theaters that he and Sussex and Burbage agreed were the only way to accommodate the burgeoning London theater audience in a way that would stop the constant interference by the Mayor and other London officials.

Once Oxford calmed down, the truth about his daughter must have been obvious, but by then he also realized how important it was that he break off as completely as he could with Burghley, whose habit of prying into everything he did or said was driving him mad.  He was not in love with Anne, never had been, and although he was sorry for her, stuck as she was between her husband and her father, he had his life to live.  If Burghley wouldn’t let her go, then let him keep her, “for there, “ he wrote, “as your daughter or her mother’s, more than my wife, you may take comfort of her, and I rid of the cumber thereby.”  The future Shakespeare was never one to mince words when he was sore.

Within days of his return a huge new theater began taking shape in the outskirts of northeast London.  Based on temporary stages he had seen in Siena built by Palladio and on plans for theaters in the ancient Latin tract on architecture he borrowed from his tutor, the innovative yearround theater, the first of its kind in England (and possibly in all of Europe) was built to hold somewhere between two and  three thousand paying customers at a time.  Meanwhile plans were in progress to turn one of the apartments in the Revels section of the Blackfriars compound on the Thames into a school for the Queen’s boy choristers, where the little stage meant for their rehearsals could be used from time to time to entertain the audience that meant the most to Sussex and his vice Chamberlains, the lawyers, scribes, and parliamentarians of Westminster.

The summer of 1576 saw audiences flock to the big round public theater in the East End, where herds of apprentices and tradesmen and their wives and sweethearts were eager to pay their pennies to see plays they were told had been performed for the Queen.  Burbage and his crew grew bold as they collected the money that had always escaped them at the theater inns, where they could only pass the hat at intermission.  That winter those residents of the West End who could afford it were charmed by the boys at the little stage at Blackfriars where they paid a substantial fee to see, by candlelight, richly furnished early versions of A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens.

The residents surrounding the new theaters were not so thrilled by the litter, the noisy crowds and late hours––but with powerful privy councillors like the Earl of Sussex and Lord Hunsdon as patrons (Hunsdon now living next door to the little theater), and the Earl of Rutland, whose City manor stood a few yards from Burbage’s stage on land that until recently had been his family’s heritage, and where he still held rights––there was little the neighbors could do, at least, not right away.

For six years, all went relatively smoothly for the newborn London Stage and its patrons. Then in 1581 Oxford got himself bounced from Court for impregnating a Queen’s Maid of Honor.  Furious at how he was being treated by the Queen and the Court; fearful for his life and the life of his retainers at the hands of his mistress’s angry relatives; bitter at his mistress for what he saw as her willingness to drop him for a better prospect––he refused to continue to write for the Court and began turning out plays filled with personal passion and aimed at the West End audience.  This probably meant using the little theater at the Blackfriars school, probably with adult actors from Burbage’s and Worcester’s Men, and probably fairly late into the night.

These were not the kind of plays that he could have written for the Court.  Angry at Ann Vavasor for what he believed was her perfidy in taking up with another man, he rewrote one he’d written earlier about the Trojan war, lavishing it with irony, and pouring all his pain over his mistress into the plot and characters in Troilus and Cressida.  Furious at his cousins for accusing him publicly of treason, he dramatized the assassination of Julius Caesar, with Brutus in a situation similar to his own, and Cassius, whose “lean and hungry look” identified him as his cousin Henry Howard.  Frightened by the determination of his mistress’s male relatives to kill him, he wrote another in which he portrayed himself as already dead, observing from above as an imaginary father takes bloody revenge on his killers by means of a play within a play (The Spanish Tragedy).  Then, with the discovery that his mistress still loved him, he poured his lonely heart into a blazing new version of Romeo and Juliet.  Finally, as his patron and surrogate father, the Earl of Sussex, sickened and died, he accused the Earl of Leicester of poisoning him by drawing parallels between him and King Claudius and between Elizabeth and Queen Gertrude in a first version of Hamlet.

Since the Blackfriars theater was cheek by jowl with the City manors of Lady Russell, Mildred Burghley’s termigant younger sister, and of Sir William Brooke Ld Cobham, longtime supporter of Ld Burghley and Robert Cecil’s future father-in-law, that it wasn’t long before they became aware of what sort of plays were now taking place next door should go without saying, as should the probable fact that this was the real reason why the Blackfriars landlord, Sir William More, began petitioning the privy council to shut down the school, for Sir William, determined to rise at Court, would never have taken on councillors as powerful as Sussex and Hunsdon had he not had some hefty backing of his own.

The War with Spain and the rise of the Stage

As the threat of attack from Spain took center stage at Whitehall, Secretary of State Francis Walsingham moved quietly ahead of Burghley, Sussex, and Leicester as Privy Councillor with the most important duties.  Then, as Lord Chamberlain Sussex’s health began to fail, Walsingham moved, again quietly, to take his place as major patron of the Court Stage.  Although not in his job description, the Secretary, whose shoulders bore the responsibility of preparing for the inevitable attack from Catholic Spain, had a vision whereby a Crown company made up of the leading actors from Burbage’s and other companies could bring the kind of plays that Oxford was capable of writing to the hinterlands, plays that mixed entertainment with English history and anti-Spanish propaganda.

Himself a student of history, Walsingham understood that nothing binds a people together like a shared past.  What past was being shared then by his largely uneducated countrymen were stories from the middle east, told in the Bible.  Rouse their emotions with English stories, whether proud or bitter, and they’d be British first, Catholics second.  That this was clearly the mandate for the creation of the Queen’s Men can be seen by their travel itineraries for the years 1582 through 1588.  These show that the company spent more road time than anywhere else in towns along the southeastern and western coasts where the Spanish were most likely to attack (McMillin 175-78).

It should be clear that plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and Edmond Ironside were written for the same reason that, during WWII, when little was being filmed in England due to the stringent economies forced on the British by the war, the government made it possible for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V to be lavishly costumed and filmed in expensive color.  During the war the American military did the same thing, enrolling director Frank Capra and others to produce propaganda films, while giving movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Paul Heinreid deferments so they could continue to play roles in anti-Nazi films like Casablanca.

As a close friend and colleague of Oxford’s tutor, the former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, Walsingham understood that Smith’s former student badly needed something useful to do, something to keep him from continuing to cause trouble for the Court.  Writing for the Queen’s Men would keep him busy in a worthy cause.  It also made use of his knowledge of English history, knowledge stored in the papers and manuscripts he inherited from his father, passed down from one earl of Oxford to the next, papers that he kept closely guarded, allowing only those closest to him to know what they were.  No one was in a better position to turn the story of England’s past into exciting drama, an argument that helped him get the majority of the Privy Council behind the Queen’s Men, and finally, to get the Queen to fund Oxford’s crew at Fisher’s Folly, as neither he nor the improvident earl could continue to fund the stage on their own for much longer, now that Sussex and his wealth were gone.

For the adult actors this was a major step forward.  In previous years they had to share the Court stage with the children’s companies.  More recently they suffered from the heavy competition from the other companies that were springing up like mushrooms to meet the public demand for more plays.  So although they couldn’t have been pleased by the prospect of so much travelling, the fact that they were guaranteed first place at Court with fees, props and costumes supplied, was a terrific boost.  Also, when in London, no longer to be confined to the little school stage at Blackfriars, but as the Queen’s own company, to be guaranteed the Belle Sauvage Inn as their primary winter venue meant they were guaranteed London’s best holiday audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.

Since Francis Bacon, too, was without a job, and since he too was a gifted writer who was already successfully entertaining the Court with installments of his Faerie Queene, Walsingham put him to work writing the holiday comedies for the choristers that Oxford no longer cared to bother with.  These had to be written by a courtier steeped in Court gossip, one who knew how to amuse without offending the great ones in the audience, how to tease without wounding their equally great and touchy egos.   It was this last factor that Walsingham failed to consider well enough when he brought young Christopher Marlowe on board as an apprentice to Oxford and Bacon.  Talented he certainly was, and a quick learner, but, to everyone’s grief, including his own, Marlowe turned out to have a very different agenda than what Walsingham and Oxford had in mind for him.

Shortly before the beginning of this turbulent period (December 1580), Richard Farrant, the school master in charge of the children’s school at Blackfriars, died, leaving his wife with the boys to care for, and nowhere near enough money for them or her own family.  As More continued to press for the power to close down the Blackfriars theater through 1581, ’82, and ’83, its lease got passed around, from Farrant’s widow to Henry Evans, assistant master in charge of the boys; then from Evans to Oxford, who by then was back at Court; from Oxford to his secretary, John Lyly; and from Lyly to Lord Hunsdon, who joined with Walsingham to keep the school, or the theater at least, from going under.

Officially the school came to an end in April 1584 when the court decided in favor of the landlord, though proxy data suggests that the little stage may have been allowed to operate as a private theater until Hunsdon’s leases were up in 1590.   It’s hard to believe that this important space, which for most of its existence over the past fifty years had been used to rehearse or store props for Court revels, would have continued to stand silent and empty for the first six of the ten most important years in the birth of the London Stage: from 1584 to 1590, most particularly from November 1584 to March 1585, when the West End was crammed with important men from all over England, gathered for Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament.  Oxford, Hunsdun, Charles Howard, Rutland, Bacon, Beale, and Raleigh, were all present and took part, as is shown by the journals of the houses of Lords and Commons in the records online. (Comes Oxon. Magnus Camererius, means Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain.)

Parliament’s holiday break that year lasted from Dec 21 to Feb 4.  This would have been the ideal time for plays aimed at the visiting members to receive their greatest attendance.  The Revels accounts show that the Queen’s Men produced four plays at Court that winter, so we would assume that these were performed later at the Belle Sauvage.  Oxford’s name is unusually prominent in the Revels account for this holiday season,  along with the traditonal “activities” (acrobatics), he’s listed as patron for two plays, one by his “servants,” the other by his “boys,” who produced, on St. John’s Day, December 27th, a play titled The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, which E.T. Clarke suggests was probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These, or others not appropriate for the Court, would, like the plays performed by the Queen’s men, have been performed somewhere handy to the West End during the same time period.  That “somewhere” would either have been the little stage at Blackfriars, or in a hall in one of the waterfront mansions on the Thames, the most likely being Somerset House.  Then the primary London residence of Lord Hunsdon, it was located directly across the Strand from Cecil House.

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2 responses to “Theatrical birth pangs: 1776 to 1584

  1. Marilyn Jones-Wilson

    “Once Oxford calmed down, the truth about his daughter must have been obvious” – what was the truth about his daughter’s birth? And what were the six plays that address the question? Thank you.

  2. It seems Anne brought the rumor on herself by showing concern when she realized that she was pregnant that her husband would deny that it was his. This was later explained by means of the “bed trick” in All’s Well, something that someone in later years attributed to Oxford (I don’t recall exactly who). It seems that it was common knowledge that, for whatever reason, Oxford spent very little time with his wife during the early years of their marriage. In order to have sex with her husband, it may be true that Anne resorted to the same ruse that Helene uses in All’s Well to sleep with Bertram, and then when she found she was pregnant, was afraid that he might have forgotten, or never knew about it, having been drunk at the time, and so would deny the child’s paternity. This seems unlikely, since, in a letter from Europe, he responded with obvious pleasure to the news that she was pregnant, something he would not have done had he no memory of their night together. The baby was definitely born in July, not, as some have claimed, in September.

    It seems obvious that Oxford’s anger was not so much from any suspicion that the child wasn’t his as it was at Burghley for having made the issue, as he called it, “the fable of the world.” If he was angry at Anne, it was probably for having allowed her anxieties to set her up, and him as well, for the rumor that inevitably followed. As for the idea that the child was Burghley’s, that was surely the work of Henry Howard, whose pattern it was with many besides Oxford, to involve them in one of his Byzantine plots, then destroy them with rumors and accusations. Howard was a nasty piece of work.

    As for the six plays, the first was Pericles, in which it seems he still struggled with the vision of Anne and Burghley as the wicked correspondents of Howard’s rumor. Considering how Elizabeth Vere and her sisters must have felt about this play, it’s no surprise that it was left out of the First Folio.

    The next was probably The Winter’s Tale, in which he takes the blame on himself for allowing his all too easily aroused jealousy to get the better of him.

    In the third version, Much Ado, Anne’s sorry tale has been reduced to the sub-plot. Here the villainy has been foisted off onto a cartoon version of Don John of Austria, while the miraculous resurrection of Hermione in WT has become Hero’s trick resurrection. Significantly, while Anne’s story was relegated to sub-plot in Much Ado, the main plot reflects the relationship between Oxford and the first real love of his life, Ann Vavasor, suggesting that the first version of this play was written in 1579 or 1580, before the discovery of their relationship and consequent banishment.

    The fourth version was probably Cymbeline, in which he shifts the blame onto Henry Howard, naming him Iachimo, another name for Jacob, the wily deceiver of the Biblical story who cheated his honest brother out of his patrimony. The addition of Howard as villain puts the date after 1581, when he and his cousin had their massive falling out.

    The fifth, All’s Well, may have come before Cymbeline or after it, but either way it must have been written about the time he was anxious to get back to Court. In both of these he fantasizes Anne as an intrepid girl who dresses as a youth in order to track down her true love, rather the opposite of the part she actually played.

    The sixth, of course, is Othello, in which the story is finally told as an out-and-out tragedy. Named Iago, another version of Jacob, this portrays Howard as the sick creep that he actually was. Of the six, this is the only genuine masterpiece, and as such it was probably one of those he polished in his final phase. With memories of his wife’s death to haunt him, the death of Desdemona is far from the hocus pocus of Hermione’s resurrection or the trick that resurrects Hero’s reputation. Written with a heart torn with remorse, it is operatic in the grandeur of its language. “Yet the pity of it, Iago, O Iago, the pity of it!”

    The story is touched on in at least two other plays, in Hamlet’s otherwise inexplicable attitude towards Ophelia, and in the cruel treatment of Mariana by Claudio in Measure for Measure.

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