Its almost as though Fate arranged events so that Oxford’s early years would lead to his particular achievement. Having been tutored for eight years by the nation’s top Greek scholar, a renowned orator who owned in the original Greek the ancient poets Pindar and Homer and the ancient dramatists Sophocles and Euripides, this was followed by several years in London at Cecil House with Lawrence Nowell, the scholar who rediscovered Anglo-Saxon by reading polyglot manuscripts in both Old English and Latin. During his early years in the country with Smith, Oxford had come to know country folk of every description, hearing their tales and learning what made them laugh, and after Cecil House came a decade at the royal Court where he experimented with poems, madrigals and stories performed by the choristers from Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed by a year in Italy where the Comedia dell’Arte was just blooming and Andrea Palladio was experimenting with the accoustics of round theaters made of wood.
Not only was Smith fluent in Greek, he was famous at Cambridge for his ability to recite passages out of Homer and other works in Greek and Latin. Surely he would have been pleased to recite some of these for his little student’s benefit during the years when, exiled from Court, he had nothing else to do. Thus we can assume that, not only was Oxford able to read these works himself as he got older, he knew from very early how they sounded to the ear, having benefitted by his tutor’s recitations. Smith would also have required that de Vere memorize some of these himself, for memorizing such works was the standard method in those days for teaching ethics and manners as well as style and grammar.
While with Smith, de Vere’s quest for interesting and exciting stories helped drive him to learn the languages in which they were buried as quickly as possible so he could read them for himself. No doubt his rapid facility pleased his tutor, but it may also have caused him concern, for extraordinary abilities in the young were considered prodigies (like the hair and teeth ascribed to Richard III at birth) and as such could be seen by the ignorant as machinations of the Devil. It seems that, as a boy, Smith had taught himself in much the same way, so his brilliant little student could not have had a more understanding or supportive tutor. However, having invested so many years in the boy’s education, and having no interest in performance art himself, Smith must have been dismayed by the uses to which his star pupil was putting his education at a Reformation Court where having too much fun was frowned upon.
Oxford was living with his tutor at Ankerwycke during the years Smith was renovating Hill Hall in Essex, something that those who have studied its architecture ascribe in part to the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose book (in four languages: Latin, French, Italian and Spanish) is listed in Smith’s 1566 library list, and in which the ancient genius describes how sound can be amplified in round theaters made of wood. One of Smith’s friends was the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, while one of his students was that historian of exploration, Richard Eden. Smith’s knowledge of the Law, Roman history, distilling, horticulture, medicine and hawking are also reflected in Shakespeare’s works.
Arriving at Cecil House at age twelve, Oxford was immersed in the excitement over translating into English important works in Latin and French for William Cecil’s campaign to educate the English in the ideals of the Reformation. The young students from the nearby London law colleges who were doing these translations were also translating tales from Boccaccio, plays by Seneca, Ariosto and Machiavelli, and poetry by Petrarch, Ronsard, and Tasso. This they did for each other, not for Cecil, whose interest in literature did not extend beyond Latin interpretations of Calvinist doctrine. Of course Oxford joined in. A poet by nature, a patron of the arts by heritage, what else would he have done?
Surely one of his first acts as a patron was to arrange for the results of these translations of Renaissance artistry in the first of the anthologies that began to appear at that time: Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, published in 1565. Included were stories related by Herodotus, Boccaccio, Plutarch, Aulus Gellius, Aelian, Livy, Tacitus, Quintus Curtius, Giovanni Battista Giraldi, Matteo Bandello, Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, and Queen Marguerite de Navarre, most of them found in either Smith’s or Cecil’s library, and from which in coming years he would take many of the plots and characters for his comedies and dramas. The sources for both his English and Roman histories were also to be found in Smith’s library, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans in several languages, Edward Halle’s history of the Wars of the Roses, plus all of the original sources that went into creating Holinshed’s Chronicles.
His plays were too popular to contain within the walls of the Court. A public bereft of its traditional mummings and processions by a harsh Reformation government was hungry for entertainment, so during the 1570s his plays began to escape the Court by way of the choristers, who, after performing them for the Queen, would head back to the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral to perform them for Londoners for several weeks throughout the winter holiday. The young choristers at Paul’s had been playing for the public for some years before Oxford got to London. They were the first to perform plays at Elizabeth’s Court, replacing the masques that were her chief entertainment during those early years in the 1560s.
Like other noblemen of his rank, Oxford’s father had maintained a corps of musicians and actors who entertained his friends and constituents in other parts of his domain, and probably also at Court. When he died, these actors and musicians had to find work elsewhere. It’s possible that some of them ended up with the Earl of Leicester who had been given by the Queen, via the Court of Wards, the use of the Oxford estates while de Vere was underage, so that the company that’s gone down in history as the first to be identified in Elizabeth’s reign, Leicester’s Men, may have included at least one or two actors who had once been members of the 16th earl’s retinue.
The evolution of his style
The earliest evidences of Oxford’s style are, if not all of Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then those parts that appear later in Shakespeare, and Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, published around the same time, where the similarities in style are so close to the Ovid that that alone should claim it for the same author. The translations of Ariosto’s I Suppositi as The Supposes, which appears later as the sub-plot in Merchant of Venice, and Jocasta, a translation of a French translation of Euripides’s The Phoeniciae, also has echoes in Shakespeare. Poems like “Framed at the front of forlorn hope” or “Fain would I sing but fury makes me fret” from his mid-teens, reveal the kind of verse that was popular when he first came to Cecil House.
Unlike others writing then, Oxford dares to vary the numbing drumbeat of the traditional fourteen-syllable iambic line by adding or removing syllables. Traces of the euphuism that will peak in the late ’70s with his Euphues novels can be heard in the introductory verse to Barnabe Googe’s Eclogues, published, probably by Oxford, in 1563. Later, in searching for a style that could match or equal the styles of the Spanish, French and Italians, he and the other creators of the English Literary Renaissance would experiment widely, not only with versification and syntax, but with every other aspect of style.
Because the academics are so clueless when it comes to understanding the rebellious, anti-establishment nature of the dawning ELR (Elizabethan Literary Renaissance), they not only fail to see their need for anonymity, they fail to understand their efforts to develop, not a recognizable style, as would later writers, but in their efforts to hide their identities, a flexibility of style, even a variety of styles. In our hunt for the truth behind the pseudonyms, the initials, and the proxies, we must dig deeper than surface characteristics to the personalities, the beliefs, themes, passions, hatreds, that motivate an individual’s creativity. Just as it can be difficult to discern the difference between a late Mozart and early Beethovan, it can be difficult to separate one voice from another, and indeed, one writer’s early voice from his or her later voice (Yes, her––Mary Sidney was a founding member of this crew of ELR instigators) or even, as in Bacon’s case, from one pseudonym to another. By his early twenties Oxford’s style had evolved to the kind of poetry found in his Hundreth Sundrie Flowres and his introductory poem to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comfort. Clearly he had moved away from the incessant alliteration of the 1560s and was broadening his language.
With the return to England of his cousin Francis Bacon in 1578, Oxford was glad to help the eighteen-year-old get started by publishing his Shepherd’s Calender, under the pseudonym Immerito, the kind of insider’s pastoral portrait of the literary community of the Court he would continue to produce during his youth as The Faerie Queene, both later attributed to a government functionary off in the wilds of southern Ireland named Edmund Spenser. Calling himself E.K., Oxford beefed up the slender volume with a lengthy “gloss,” a running commentary on Bacon’s characters, language, style and archaic words. When this is compared with his introduction to works he published by his friends, Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s English translation of Cardan’s Comfort, it’s clearly the same voice.
There are touches of the elaborate style that will come to be known as euphuism in these early works that will increase until they hit a peak with his Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, a romanticized version of Oxford’s adventures in Italy, published in 1578 and attributed to his secretary, John Lyly, followed two years later by Euphues His England, also attributed to Lyly. Oxford did not invent euphuism, it came to him from several sources, but it had become a fad at Court, where much like the later phenomenon of préciosité at the Court of Louis XIV, courtiers attempted to converse with each other in the kind of witty figures of speech that he came close to parodying in Euphues, and several earlier works like Pettie’s Petite Pallace, attributed to George Pettie, possibly his former classmate at Oxford, and Zelauto, a dry run for Euphues, which he attributed to another secretary, Anthony Munday.
Euphuism was such a hit that when the children performed for the Queen at Christmas in the 1570s, they were expected to speak in this style, so when Oxford was banished from Court for impregnating Ann Vavasor, I believe that Francis Walsingham, then Secretary of State, gave Bacon the task of providing these plays. Despite his stylistic flexibility, euphuism did not come easily to Francis, whose tendency to ramble was the antithesis of the rapid twists and thrusts of Oxford’s euphuism.
The plots and characters of plays like Campaspe and Endymion were based, like the plots and characters of The Faerie Queene, on Court gossip. Distressing reactions by the Queen had taught those in charge of her entertainment that although she enjoyed seeing her Court portrayed in a humorous and gently teasing way, if a playwright crossed the line her anger could be deadly, so holiday plays had to be written by someone not only well-versed in insider gossip, which someone like John Lyly was not, but sensitive enough to know where and how to draw the line. Such a writer was Francis Bacon.
While exiled from Court in the early 1580s for his affair with Ann Vavasor, Oxford, now based at Fisher’s Folly in Shoreditch, turned away from euphuism, child actors, and Court comedies to create philosophical and political works for Burbage’s adult actors to perform before the audience that meant the most to him, the “gentlemen” of the Inns of Court, the lawyers and parliamentarians located in the West End. For them he wrote early versions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice, and Coriolanus, all of which touched on issues that were important to his audience, his patrons, and to him personally. These he produced at the little school theater he and his patron, Lord Hunsdon, had built in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just over the City Wall from the West End.
This, his first quantum leap in style, was motivated by anger at the Queen and Leicester and rebellion toward the Cecils. Possibly excepting the 1603 quarto of Hamlet, none of these early versions are still in existence today. A clue to his style of the time is The Spanish Tragedy, later ascribed to Thomas Kyd, probably one of his secretaries at that time. Several scholars have detailed its similarities to Hamlet.
With his return to the Court in 1583, sponsored by the new Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, Oxford developed another style, one that could communicate more easily with provincial audiences. Walsingham’s need for plays that the newly formed Queen’s Men could take to the coastal communities where it was feared that Catholics might welcome the Spanish, gathering to attack, spurred early versions of what became Shakespeare’s history plays. Again, we know most of these only from their later versions, but the early quarto of Henry V, known as The Famous Victories, can give us a sense of their original style, along with two that never made it into publication. These were Thomas of Woodstock, the prequel to Richard II, and Edmund Ironside (aka “War hath made all friends”) which portrays the struggle of one of England’s earliest kings against the Danish invaders.
Also in the late 1570s and early 1580s Oxford began publishing stories modeled on Boccaccio and Greek romances. Some he published as by George Pettie, some as by Thomas Lodge, most as by “Robert Greene,” these inexpensive paperback pamphlets were the earliest peeps of what one day would become the British popular press, and where within a decade Oxford’s early plays would find their path to publication via the so-called early quartos.
Trouble in Illyria
Like the single cell that doubles when the organism reaches a certain size, the burgeoning London Stage saw a second round theater created in 1587, this one created by the entrepreneur Richard Henslowe, where Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn entertainmed the working class apprentices south of the Thames with the popular Tamburlaine, too popular where the Crown was concerned. Soon more trouble arose when a clever dissident calling himself Martin Mar-Prelate began publishing witty diatribes against the Anglican Establishment. Oxford and Bacon pitched in against both, but the damage was done. Seen by the Cecils and other Court conservatives as responsible for the creation of the media, the London Stage and the commercial Press, Oxford and Bacon did their best to put out the fires started by Marlowe and Mar-prelate, but they were helpless to prevent the calamities heading their way.
The Cecilian revenge
With the death of Oxford’s wife in 1588, Anne Cecil, her father moved to cut back Oxford’s power, calling in his debts to the Crown so he was forced to sell Fisher’s Folly and dismiss his secretaries. Then with Walsingham’s death in 1590, the Cecils took over his offices, Burghley filling in as Secretary of State while Robert took over his crew of black ops agents. Together they went after the theater community that, in their view, had gotten out of control. They shut down Paul’s Boys, dissolved the Queen’s Men, and damaged Henslowe’s operation at the Rose Theater by arresting Marlowe on a charge of atheism and having him either murdered or transported out of the country.
Cut off from his power base, Oxford turned to poetry, writing Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, which he dedicated to the young patron who helped pay for their publication, and whom he hoped to see married to his daughter. Burdened by debt, grief, fear of old age and remorse for the wife he’d mistreated, at a loss with no company to write for, he filled in the empty hours by writing sonnets to his young patron and the mistress who was giving him another sort of grief. As he wrote a new voice began to take shape, an amalgam of all his earlier experimenting. Thus occured his second quantum leap in style, which in a few years would be producing the earliest of the works we know as Shakespeare.
Having rid himself of the Robert Greene insignia in advance of the coming Cecilian pogrom, when he saw that to rescue his reputation as England’s greatest poet from his old rival Sir Philip Sidney, whose sonnets were thrilling the reading audience that he and Bacon had created, he was driven to publish Venus and Adonis, his printer helped out by offering the name of one of his hometown neighbors, a name that could double as the kind of pun that would alert Court and Inns of Court readers to his identity as author while maintaining his anonymity with the general public. The following year one of his old patrons stepped in to create a new Crown company, one that required revisions of his old plays. Establishing ownership through registration with the Stationers, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with James Burbage and his son Richard at the helm, began planning to turn the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars into a grand new theater in time for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments, due to open in October 1597.
But unfortunately for the Company, having finally squeezed the office of Secretary of State out of the nervous Queen, Cecil now had the power of the most potent post in the government. One after another he removed the theaters and patrons that Oxford relied on to see his works performed, including the Blackfriars stage where they would have been able to entertain the members of Parliament.
Whether or not Cecil was in fact responsible for the deaths of Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon in 1596 or theater manager James Burbage in early 1597, or the patron of Marlowe’s company, Lord Strange, in 1594, their suspicion plus the simple need to survive drove the Company to publish a brutal new version of Richard III in which the members assembling for the 1597 Parliament could not possibly see the wicked tyrant as anything but a portrait of Robert Cecil. Cecil would continue to gain power through his manipulation of the Queen and then King James, and his destruction of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and his own Cobham inlaws, but his reputation was damaged beyond repair.
Thus it was largely to protect himself from Cecil that, with the death of Elizabeth and the advent of King James, he obtained the right to remove himself to the safety of the Forest of Waltham, where given peace and quiet and the protection of the King, he experienced the final quantum leap in style, the glorious versions of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, some of them in time to see his youngest daughter Susan (his Cordelia) married to the nephew of his old adversary, Philip Sidney. To achieve the total privacy he needed to complete his great work, he arranged that the records would reflect that he had died, a ruse he portrays in one of his last plays, Measure for Measure.
That he chose June 24th for this disappearing act was another signal to his literary and Masonic community that he was only dead in name, that being the traditional date for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Freemasons and one of the four major holidays of the seasonal year. That he actually died on this date was a coincidence so unlikely as to be impossible.
For three decades the Company continued to produce the plays he left them, most of them years of great success, far beyond what most theater companies have ever managed to achieve. When his son-in-law, the Earl of Montgomery, and Montgomery’s brother, the Earl of Pembroke, finally published his collected works in 1623, the obvious fact that so many of his characters were based on Court personalities was papered over by hints that directed attention towards the man with the punnable name, a provincial who could not possibly have known enough about the Court to have portrayed those leading figures whose relatives were still alive, and whose descendants would continue to desire anonymity for generations, right up to this very day .
Thus the major problem of Oxford’s final years, keeping his papers safe from the Cecils, was accomplished and the great plays were saved for posterity, though sadly, at the cost of his name.
Apologie for poetic license
This overview of a long and complicated career will be considered merely another one of my “flights of fancy” by those Oxfordians who have dedicated themselves to imitating the philologistical left-brainers who claim authority over anything related to Shakespeare, an exercise in futility in my view. As the great Duke Ellington once sang, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” which is as true of history, even literary history, as it is of life, swing here meaning story. Without story there’s no drama, no motivation, no clash of wills, no paradox, irony or pity. There’s nothing but data, a pile of facts, a Frankenstein’s monster without a heart, the only thing that, however sturdy his arms and legs, will bring the wondrous monster to life.
With overviews like this, statements of fact must by necessity be heavily condensed and bridged with conjecture, but be assured that my conjectures about Bacon, Mary Sidney, Marlowe, Alleyn, of Oxford’s flight to the Forest of Waltham, are based on evidence too massive and detailed to be included in a step by step account of his career in anything less than three volumes in very small type for which I have no time or energy and can imagine no readers.
I’ll always be more than willing to respond to requests for specific references.