One of the reasons why it’s been so hard to convince the world that the Stratford story is a sham is that no one’s ever come up with a single strong reason why the true author’s identity had to be hidden. Those who first drew the public’s attention to the subject in the 19th century pointed to his obvious knowledge of Court life, claiming that courtiers of stature would have hidden their involvement in the then déclassé public stage. Certainly this is true, but for most it doesn’t explain why the cover-up had to continue so long after the author’s death. Sir Philip Sidney’s work was in print, over his name, six years after his death. Oxford’s uncle, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, was similarly published over his within ten years of his death. So why not Oxford’s?
Most of the bigger things in life occur for more than one reason. If you look at your own life, you’ll see that you went to college for more than one reason, that you picked a particular college for more than one reason, that you married a particular person for more than one reason, changed jobs, bought a house, divorced, always for more than one reason. Nations go to war for more than one reason, and resist going to war for more than one reason. Just so, the Shakespeare authorship got hidden for more than one reason.
Had this not been the case, had it not been first to one person’s advantage (his own), then his tutor’s advantage, then to his guardian’s advantage, then to an entire community’s advantage, and ultimately to the advantage of the company he started, one that initiated an industry that has come to be seen as the fourth branch of government, the voice of the people, the truth would surely have been revealed somewhere. But it wasn’t, it didn’t, and some of these reasons have not faded with time. For the fact is, that there never was, during Oxford’s lifetime, any advantage to him, to his family, to the theater companies he created and those who profitted by them on into succeeding centuries, for the truth to be revealed to the public; never any advantage to any of these, and plenty of disadvantages.
Not everyone who knew the secret knew it in its entirety, that is, some knew one thing, some another, but the likelihood is that no one knew all that he was writing, or later, all that he had written. Even to this day there is disagreement over what was his and what was by some other writer or editor. The committee that produced the First Folio could collect versions of the plays from the various friends, actors, and printers who held them, but how sure could they be of what was and wasn’t his? Nothing was signed, and because like most men of his class, he dictated to secretaries, nothing was in his own handwriting.
Certainly the Queen knew that particular plays were his, at least since 1598, when the Meres book was published, at least of those plays named by Meres and most likely a dozen more, but it is very likely that of the 38 accepted plays and the 15 to 20 suggested early plays, there were some that she knew nothing about, and those she knew may very well have differed from the versions we know, because it was not advisable that she know the versions played for the West End audience, or on the road, or for a particular private gathering.
As Secretary of State, Oxford’s guardian (then his father-in-law) William Cecil/Ld Burghley had oversight over the press, so he knew all about using both the stage and the press for propaganda; it’s a fact that he made use of both in his early years as Elizabeth’s first Secretary of State. Burghley was instrumental in bringing printers over from the Continent to publish those works he considered essential to a reformation education. Though unfortunately his biographer, Conyers Read, does not elaborate, he refers to the press as “the weapon Cecil knew best.” Since Oxford lived with Cecil during the years he first began to publish, years when Cecil was doing his own propaganda, it was from him that he learned how to publish on the sly. Knowing him as well as he did, he also learned how to work around him.
ACT I: Hidden in plain sight
When he first began to write, no one, including the boy himself, had any idea where it would take him or how important his work would turn out to be. In fact the field in which he would flourish so luxuriously, English literature, hardly existed before he began transforming it. Given the intense, bustling environment at Cecil House, surrounded by poets and translators in that important age group for a young artist, six to ten years his seniors; then in his late teens at Court, with a ready-made audience hungry for sophisticated, educated entertainment; what would end as the most important body of work since Chaucer two and a half centuries earlier began simply as a lark, a folie, a bit of “pickle herring,” something to entertain the lads at Cecil House, then the ladies at Court.
The authorship issue was never about writing anyway, it was always about publication. So long as he wrote just for the Court community via the traditonal handwritten manuscript exchange there was no problem. But creating hundreds of printed copies for sale to all comers meant making public what the Court saw as its own private pleasure, making it available, if to a far smaller public than today’s where almost everyone can read, yet it meant revealing it to the same 15 to 20 percent of the population most eager to pry into Court secrets. And it was publishing that interested Oxford.
Writing was no big deal, everyone he knew did it. It was creating books that fascinated him; books, those magical vehicles of culture, that could carry a man’s life and reputation for hundreds, thousands of years into the future so that readers would come to know someone like Alexander the Great, or even the mythical Achilles, as though they had lived with him; knowing him better in some ways than they knew their own families. Publishing was also the best means of hiding his identity as author. While handwritten manuscripts could be traced back, if not to directly to himself, then to someone who knew who wrote it, typeset print was anonymous. All that identified the author was the name on the title page, or registered with the Stationers, and that could be faked a lot more easily than handwriting.
Taking advantage of the traditions of his class as patrons of the arts, Oxford began a long career of publishing what he regarded as important works, some by his friends, some his own, some translations of famous foreign works, , some about science, or music, or psychology, or but mostly works of the imagination, stories and poems.
In this he was also following in his guardian’s footsteps, although most of what he considered worth publishing differed considerably from Burghley’s view of what was important. Reformation ideologues, William Cecil and his in-laws occupied the legal and social center of a deadly serious, extremely repressive Reformation culture that saw adherence to Protestant beliefs as paramount. They also saw sex as filthy and satire as rebellion. So Oxford’s first step in what would become the long and complex process of hiding his authorship began by persuading pals like George Gascoigne and his uncle Arthur Golding to let him use their names so he could get his plays and poems published without Burghley’s permission, possibly even without his knowledge of their source.
Though not aware of everything Oxford wrote, William Cecil must have been aware of his ward’s talent. That would have been impossible to hide, and, as a propagandist himself, he probably saw the boy’s gifts as something he might put to future use. The ward, however, was destined to take a different path in life, one he wanted his guardian, and his guardian’s wife, and her family (and perhaps even his own wife), to know as little about as possible. In his teens, his writing was just a lark, something to entertain his friends before settling down to––as he would often term it––“a graver labour.”
By his late teens, when he was more or less on his own at Court, there was no need to hide from the other members of the Court things like his madrigals and interludes written for holiday performance. On the other hand, satires or poems that touched dangerously on intimate matters, however discreetly distributed within his own circle, must inevitably have spread further, raising eyebrows along with the question of their authorship. So long as none of this escaped the confines of the Court community there was no real harm in it. But when, just before taking off for a year on the Continent, in a first of many anthologies, he published along with love poems by himself and his friends, a “tale” that dwelt too obviously on the sex lives of certain courtiers, it released a firestorm of furious retribution. This did nothing to prevent him from publishing, but it did help to make him more cautious about what and how he published.
ACT II: Birth of a professional
Then in 1572, when the Earl of Sussex came on board as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, what had begun as a lark began turning serious. At that time it was still the Earl of Leicester who ran the Court Stage, but Sussex, who hated Leicester, was determined to get the oversight of Court entertainment back where it had been for centuries, in the Lord Chamberlain’s hands, that is, under his own control. And unlike Leicester, whose taste ran to more old-fashioned stuff, Sussex understood how important the Court Stage could be in winning hearts and minds, not only at Court, but with the influential West End community that lived and worked within walking distance of Whitehall. Quickly bored by the constraints of what he could and could not produce at Court, it was this audience he was most eager to reach. Thus it was that the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral, known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, began performing Oxford’s plays, first at Court, then for a week or two after, at the little theater connected to the Cathedral.
If a professional is defined as someone who works to a schedule, who provides for a public demand, who competes successfuly with others in the same line, as opposed to someone who merely hangs out a shingle, frames a certificate, and earns a living wage, then by age 25 Oxford was functioning as a professional dramatist. Not that that was his ambition; not at all. His ambition from childhood had been to follow his ancestors as his nation’s foremost military leader. Fate, however, had other plans. The times were not right for someone of his station to risk his life in dubious battle––not while the British Media was straining to be born. Paul’s Boys were only one of a number of companies that sprang into being at that time, foremost among them the men who wore Leicester’s livery, but who were free to play for anyone who could pay.
As competition for space at the theater inns became intense, trouble with the City officials increased. For them it was one thing to deal with the rowdy holiday crowds for a few weeks in December and January, a tradition too old and too ingrained to stop, even for determined Reformation puritans, which is what most London mayors were at that time––but to allow it to continue on into the spring and summer was, so far as they were concerned, simply out of the question. Their escalating demands to “pluck down” the theaters drove the Privy Council to seek solutions. Thus it may well have been Sussex who persuaded Burghley and the Queen to finally let Oxford have his much desired tour of the Continent, particularly to Italy where he could see at first hand how the Italians did it.
To Sussex and his relatives on the Council, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard, the Stage as a factor in English society was obviously not going to be suppressed. Rather than fight it, they must join it, regulate it, and use it to promote Crown policy. That this was in any way the motivation for Oxford’s trip would have to be kept to themselves, since any sign to the City or the Clergy that the Council’s interest in the burgeoning London theater went beyond the Queen’s right to her “solace” would cause even more trouble than was already the case. For Burghley this may have seemed like a way to keep his wayward son-in-law in the fold. For enemies like Leicester and Hatton it meant getting him out of the way, at least for awhile.
Oxford had a lot of reasons for wanting to visit Italy. Not only was it the source of the Italian Renaissance, of the western world’s most dazzling art and architecture, home to painters like Titian, scholars like Jerome Cardan and poets like Tasso, it was also where the immensely popular comedia dell’arte troupes were performing on the streets and in the halls of princes, and where the great architect Andrea Palladio was constructing experimental theaters of the sort that he and Sussex and Hunsdon thought might be the answer to their greatest need. They had the actors, with Oxford they had the scripts, they certainly had the audiences, and in James Burbage they had both an actor and a builder who had already built one public theater that, unfortunately, had failed. What they needed were better locations and better theater designs. It may be that while Oxford was in Italy, they were already at work on plans for these.
That this was one of the most important reasons for Oxford’s trip seems obvious by how the first two commercially successful, yearround, purpose-built stages in England (possibly in all of Europe) began taking shape within weeks of his return. With two theaters, several adult companies and three companies of boy choristers hungry for scripts, Oxford was now a fully fledged theater professional, duty bound to keep them satisfied, and desperately in need of assistance. This came with his acquisition of the manor known as Fisher’s Folly located in the heart of the theater district. With the financial assistence of patrons like the Italian banker Benedict Spinola, the music of artists like the Italian Bassano brothers, and the transcription skills of secretaries like John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and eventually Francis Bacon, Oxford was off and running.
It’s hard to see where he found time to write the first two novels in English history, Zelautoand Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit. With these he performed the first of his great upward leaps in style. What we call euphuism may already have been a fad at Court by the time that he both raised it to an art form and dealt it its death blow, for having taken it to its peak, there was nothing left but to turn it to satire, some of it his own. It does give us an idea of what some of his plays from this period were like. In any case, now that he had secretaries he no longer had to beg the use of their names from friends or family members. And since no one at that time saw any point in publishing playscripts, the issue of their official authorship had yet to appear.
ACT III: Banished: The second leap
Court life was never easy for Oxford. He tended to drink more than was healthy and spend more on clothes and luxuries than was wise. He got caught up in dangerous intrigues and overreacted to the rivalries that surrounded him. Young and handsome, the temptations of sex and the hungers of his heart got him involved with too many women, none of them his wife. His Catholic cousins played on his sympathies and on his bitterness towards Burghley and Leicester for their use and misuse of his estates. Believing himself to be in love with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor, he dreamed of escaping with her to Spain where he’d been promised military action and a decent income. It all came crashing down when the dishonored Maid gave birth to his bastard in the Queen’s chamber, and he found himself in the Tower for two months, then banished from Court indefinitely.
However wounded his pride, exile gave him the space he’d been craving and rage gave him the impetus to take the second of the three great quantum leaps in self expression that would ultimately place him in the pantheon of the world’s top creators. No longer bound to produce lighthearted comedies for the Court, he turned to writing tragedies for the West End, both the classic Greek and bloody Senecan varieties. With Sussex dead and Walsingham pressing for history plays for the newly formed Queen’s Men, he took refuge in the familiar preoccupations of his childhood, studying the papers that Richard Field and others were preparing to publish in Holinshed’s name, some of which came from his old tutor Smith. Reading and translating Roman poets and Greek plays, his style deepened. Trimmed of euphuistic artificialities, the old fourteeners replaced by iambic pentameter, the most natural rhythm for English, he spoke more simply, directly, and powerfully to the audience he cared most about.
Although by June of 1583 he’d been accepted back at Court and had returned at least to the appearance of living with his wife, he was by then too deep in the production of the works that meant something to him, and to the lifestyle that allowed him to produce them, to ever go back to full attendance on the Queen. She craved a return to the early days when he was always around, dancing attendance and producing the kind of entertainment he’d taught her to prefer, but there was no privacy at Court, and he had to have privacy to write. So there developed a neverending tug of war between them, him straining for freedom, which she would continue to dangle before him but with no intention of giving him anything that might mean losing him. He was the goose that laid the golden eggs that made her Court so popular, and at so little cost to herself.
Restless, seeking new outlets, it was during this period (1582-92) that Oxford launched the English periodical press with the series of pamphlets he published as by Robert Greene. After 1589, when Bacon joined him with their joint attacks, first on Martin Mar-prelate, then on Marlowe and Alleyn, they kept the fun going with a phony pamphlet war in which Bacon’s fictional persona, Thomas Nashe, and Oxford’s fictional version of poor Gabriel Harvey (very much alive but in no position to do any kicking), taunted each other with hilarious abandon, thus establishing the first audience for what would evenually become the British tabloid press. Unfortunately for the lads, neither the Cecils nor the Bishops saw the humor in this, and with Robert Cecil approaching an age where he could enter the fray, the stage was set for the final act in the birth of the English Stage, the creation of the fictional author, William Shake-speare, poet, playwright, actor and sharer.
Coming: Act IV: Shakespeare: The third and final quantum leap