The biggest problem caused the so-called Shakespeare critics by the Stratford biography has been the way it skews the dates of the plays. With no perceivable connection between the life of William of Stratford and the themes of the plays, there’s been no means of connecting the plots and themes of the plays to particular points in time. Even an event common to all Englishmen, the victory over the Spanish Armada, August 1588, is too early for Henry V, which would otherwise be seen as the kind of patriotic call to arms most likely written in advance of the great showdown. But no, Shakespeare cared nothing for the events of the day, or so we’re told. How about King John, that ends with this otherwise pointless threat:
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them! Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
This they locate in 1596, when Essex, Raleigh, the Lord Admiral and hundreds of impressed sailors were in the process of attacking Spanish Cadiz! As usual it’s not Shakespeare but the so-called critics who care nothing for the events of the day.
Anyone who studies the history of literature knows how anomalous it is that one of the world’s greatest writers shows no interest in the themes and events that dominate his own life. Think of D.H. Laurence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Hemingway, Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Proust, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Arthur Miller. Where in all the history of fiction is there another who shows so little interest in the events and issues of his or her own life, particularly the playwrights, who must capture the interest of an audience who must share to some degree the same stream of historic events?
While genre writers gather facts and themes from other sources, seeking primarily to entertain and sell books, great writers of literature seem to turn to writing more to pursue the questions that torment them than for any other purpose; the oyster creates the pearl from its anguish. The thinker, desperate for direction in a particular area, will turn to philosophy while the artist will conjure up a plot that parallels his situation, peopling it with characters based on friends, enemies and mates, as much to see where the story ends as to tell it to others.
Surely this is one of the ways we can be most certain about Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, for by using what we know of his life as a frame of reference for the plays and poems it turns out that we have the best means yet for dating the plays, for apart from the Roman history plays, all of them, even the English history plays, fit perfectly as descants on his own situation at the time, as well as appropriate responses to the national events surrounding him. When we know the dates of these events, both national and personal, we have a much more solid means of locating the plays in time.
From his life we know that he began in his teens and twenties by writing comedies for Court holidays and weddings. With his banishment from Court in his early thirties he turned to writing more serious works for the educated lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End. When this came to an end in the early 90s with the death of Walsingham and the ascent to power of Robert Cecil, he entered the final phase of his career, revising his early plays for public consumption via the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. This was the period when he produced the works then published as by William Shakespeare.
Here is a list of some of the major themes and issues of Oxford’s personal life as they relate to the origins of the Shakespeare canon:
1572: Loss of honor of his cousin Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, having been persuaded by his wicked brother, Henry Howard to plot with Mary Queen of Scots to overthrow Elizabeth, resulting in Howard’s destruction: Macbeth.
1576: Breakup of his marriage: he dealt with this in at least seven plays. Of the evil rumour and his own suspicions: in Pericles and Hamlet; about the one who started the rumor: Iachimo in Cymbeline, Iago in Othello; about his own insane jealousy: Othello, Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado; his attempts to explain or resolve the problem appear in Much Ado, All’s Well, and Winter’s Tale.
1581: Accusations of treason by his cousin Henry Howard and Charles Arundel that he countered with two plays for the Inns of Court audience dealing with similar issues in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.
1581-1596: Love and friendship: With the Earl of Rutland: Damon and Pythias, Palamon and Arcite (Two Noble Kinsmen), Two Gentlemen of Verona; Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton: Romeus and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Ann Vavasor: Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet; the Earl of Southampton: Merchant of Venice, Sonnets 1-126; Emilia Bassano: Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Sonnets 40-44, 127-152.
1595-1604: Troubles with his adult daughters: In a revision of The Tempest created in 1595 for the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth to the Earl of Derby, he substitutes a fantasy relationship between himself and his daughter for the reality of having abandoned her and her mother shortly before her birth; In King Lear he shows his anger at his two older daughters and their husbands, for how they’ve been treating him and his servants, along with his emotional dependency on his youngest daughter and perhaps his fears that she could meet with harm.
Financial troubles: His loss of inherited estates and rightful offices to the machinations of his in-laws and evil stewards is seen in: As You Like It, The Tempest, and Hamlet; the loss of investments in Merchant of Venice; the loss of credit in Timon of Athens.
Murders of patrons and friends: fears that these were murdered: his own father, the sixteenth earl, in Hamlet; his patron the Earl of Sussex, also in Hamlet; his patron Francis Walsingham, his patron Lord Hunsdon, the manager of his acting company, James Burbage, perhaps even his companion in his teen years, the Earl of Rutland, in Richard III. The death of playwright Marlowe is mentioned by Touchstone in As You Like It.
Models for his characters:
Issues with females: for his first love, Mary Browne, in the narrative poem Romeus and Juliet; for the poet Ann Vavasor, who gave him a son: Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado (before he was banished from Court for their affair), Cressida (when he believed she had wantonly given him up for another), Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet (having learned that she was still true to him), Desdemona (as a vital independent female); his wife Anne Cecil: Mistress Ann Page in Merry Wives; Ophelia in Hamlet, Hero in Much Ado, Hermione in Winter’s Tale, Virgilia in Coriolanus, Desdemona (as the victim of his jealousy); the poet and playwright Mary Sidney: Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in a late version of As You Like It; the poet and musician Emilia Bassano: the Dark lady of Sonnets 40-44 and 127-152, the Cleopatra of Antony and Cleopatra; Queen Elizabeth as Venus in Venus and Adonis, and as Gertrude in Hamlet; as the witches in Macbeth: Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret Douglass Countess of Lennox, and Bess of Hardwick.
Issues with male friends: Rutland as Damon in Damon and Pythias, as Arcite in Palamon and Arcite, as Valentine in Two Gents; Southampton as the Fair Youth of Sonnets 1-126, Bassanio in Merchant of Venice, Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida; Sir John Perrot as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One and as described in Henry V.
Satires of rivals: The Earl of Leicester as Shallow in an early version of Merry Wives; Sir Philip Sidney as Silence in Merry Wives, as Aguecheek in Twelfth Night; Lord Strange as Petrucio in Taming of the Shrew; Ben Jonson as Caliban in The Tempest; Sir Walter Raleigh as Jaques in As You Like It; Francis Bacon as Puck and Ariel; the sixth Earl of Derby (his son-in-law) as William in As You Like It; the Earl of Essex as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida; George Peele imitating Marlowe as Ancient Pistol. It should be noted that revisions of the comedies over the years means that some earlier satires were replaced by a later figure, which is certainly the case with Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as the original play would have been much too early for the spearing of Antonio Perez, a Court figure from the 1590s.
Spearing of enemies: Christopher Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, perhaps as Osric in Hamlet; Henry Howard as Iachimo, Iago, Lady Macbeth, and Cassius; Roland Yorke as Parolles in All’s Well; the Earl of Leicester as Claudius in Hamlet; Robert Cecil as Richard III and as Laertes in the final version of Hamlet; either Mildred Cecil or her sister Lady Russell as Volumnia in Coriolanus.
Acknowledgement of patrons and contributors of their talents: of Benedict Spinola in Baptista Minola of Two Gents, and perhaps Benedick of Much Ado; of Queen Elizabeth as Portia in Merchant, as the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, the King in All’s Well, and the Abbess in Comedy of Errors; of the Bassano brothers in The Spanish Tragedy; and finally of King James as the Duke in the final version of As You Like It.
Portrayals of guardians: Sir Thomas Smith as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, as Gonzago (and Prospero) in The Tempest, as the Duke of Gloucester in Thomas of Woodstock and probably also Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost.; William Cecil as Polonius in Hamlet, Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Feu in All’s Well, and Menenius in Coriolanus.
Is it any wonder that the actors, their patrons and Oxford himself all felt it necessary to hide his identity?
6 thoughts on “Oxford’s issues and Shakespeare’s plots”
I had assumed Mary Browne was introduced to de Vere during the Thomas Howard incident, 1569-72. Was she in court from a young age? When were they in contact?
All members of the Court community would have known each other from childhood, from holiday gatherings.
Bravo for the swift and telling realignment of the true Shakespeare’s life with events in his world and incidents in the plays! Incidentally, editors of the Sonnets occasionally point out that when this sonneteer makes mention of the Fair Youth’s position in “all the world,” that “world” means England. (“World” should of course be understood also to comprise large parts of Italy and other places in the writer’s experiential or mental geography. But there’s a good measure of truth in such editorial comments.)
This tracks perfectly with Oxford’s sense of injured dignity and shame concerning Countess Anne’s purported behavior, which he claims Burghley’s blabbing has made “the fable of the world,” the talk of all England. I suspect the Stratfordian couldn’t possibly have cared less about any “world” much outside New Place, or outside what random allusions in masque, play, dumb-show or puppet show (“motions”) he could understand when attending the London theaters–along with the bear-baiting rings.
True, but let us let go of William and concentrate on the history of the period. We spend much too much time arguing with the Stratfordians (wasted because they pay no attention to us) and not nearly enough in digging through the history of the period for answers to questions like why he hid his identity. It wasn’t just because for an earl to publish his own work was against tradition. That’s true, but it’s only a very small part of the reason, or reasons. It doesn’t answer the question of why the lie continued after he died and for centuries later, or why those who knew the truth never left any notice of it in a letter. It doesn’t answer the question why the English Departments went for it so totally when they were first created around the turn of the 20th century. There are answers to these questions, but if we keep going around and around the same old arguments, we’ll never get to them.
We need to move the question to a new space, forget about the academics, allow William’s role to diminish to his actual part in the story. Important though it may be, it’s actually far less important than the role played by Francis Bacon or the Earl of Pembroke,who are never mentioned. We need to write our own history of Elizabethan literature. Although Shakespeare is the great figurehead, he is only one piece of a much bigger puzzle. Until we embrace the big picture, we’ll just keep going in circles.
” ……We need to write our own history of Elizabethan literature.”
Actually, of Elizabethan *history*, if not the entirety of the history of post-medieval England.
Once the Author is identified (as de Vere), the ramifications and implications are absolutely huge, paradigm shifting.
As has been noted, the late Elizabethan period saw the birth of “the Fourth Estate”, as more and more people learned to read (less so than to write!) as a consequence of the spread of the printing-press.
Hence the ‘pamphlet wars’ which broke out at the time, in which de Vere was one of the most active protagonists, and finally the realization and use of the power of the theatre as an extension of it (note the repeated attempts by the likes of the Burghley’s, who couldn’t hope to use the theatre to their advantage, to stamp them out).
Once the plays (and poems), as they finally appeared in public in the mid/late 1590’s and early 1600’s, are put in the correct context and can hence be properly understood, they open up a new vista of the period, one which saw the denouement of a truly mighty power-struggle.
If only the appropriate resources were lent to researching it, something which is, for the time being, strenuously impeded.
Once again, Stephanie, thank you for this amazing blog.
I should have said “the Cecils” (their family name) rather than “the Burghleys”.