Highly unlikely! We’ve just passed one of the two major turning points of the ancient festal year, June 24th, Midsummer’s Day. The modern world pays little attention to this annual event, but that was not the case in Shakespeare’s day, as we see from the title of one of his most festal plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with several of the ancient festal holidays, the solemn, or sacred, aspect of this annually-recurring moment (the summer solstice) was traditionally preceded by a day, or in this case a night, of merry-making. How likely is it that the death of the greatest literary artist ever produced by the West occurred on this of all days?
Just as the ancients assigned its opposite, the 24th of December, to the eve of the birth of Christ, they assigned June 24th to the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist. Whatever may have been the true role played by John in the advent of the Christian Messiah (something that has caused a good deal of controversy and will probably never be settled), there’s no doubt that he was a hugely important figure in his time and for centuries afterwards. Da Vinci for instance is thought to have been a member of an underground society dedicated to his worship, which has been connected by modern mythologists with the Greek god Dionysos, whose power was dramatized by Euripides in 405 BC in The Bachae. The Templars, whose beliefs, acquired from Arab mystics during the Crusades, survived annihilation in the 13th century to resurface four centuries later as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, held John as their patron saint. The first English Masonic Grand Lodge was formed on June 24, 1717. Rosicrucians trace their English roots to Francis Bacon, whose candidacy as Shakespeare owed a good deal to the hints they found in Shakespeare’s works of similar beliefs. In particular Sonnet 125 reflects the language and images of a Masonic ceremony.
One of the problems with both the Stratford myth and the attempts by Oxfordians to displace it is that everyone seems to forget that with Shakespeare we’re dealing with a genius! The Stratfordians have tied him down, like Gulliver, to a level equal to their own: a hack who sold his craft for money, a plagiarizer of lesser writers who began by revising the works of earlier unknowns. Oxfordians, not much better, remain tied to their argument with the Stratfordians, unable to let go of what bits and pieces were bequeathed us by the Cecils and the historians who clung to the paper trail they so artfully manipulated, so that, using our native common sense together with a broader historical background, one that surpasses what the Cecils could control, allows us to see him for who he really was. The fact that that he, and only he, could possibly have done what the orthodox have assigned to dozens of other writers, innovators, patrons, publishers, theater builders and managers, many of them nothing more than figments of their own seriously limited imaginations.
As one of the greatest dramatists of all time, as well as greatest of historians and philosophers, Death stalked almost everything Shakespeare wrote, just as it stalked everyone in his audiences, from courtiers to printers’ devils. All of his tragedies and many of his dramas deal in one way or another with death, with its role in life, and––most subtly due to the religious constraints of his time––with what comes after. As for his own death, the deaths of geniuses are almost as significant as their lives. Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah by coming to Jerusalem when he did? Lord Byron, whose life so closely parallels that of Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer), certainly orchestrated his own death as a call to arms to the intelligensia of Europe to free Greece, ancient parent of the English culture, from centuries of Turkish tyranny.
None of this would matter had there been sufficient evidence that de Vere actually died on the date that history assigns him. That he happened to die on a day central to the worship of John the Baptist, aka Dionysos, god of merry-making, whose festal date was the occasion for most of the ancient Greek dramas that we see as fundamental to our theater today; this would simply be a coincidence, however astonishing. But evidence is lacking! What there is is only what could easily have been patched together by family members and patrons in high places, out to give him a few years of peace and privacy, safe from those who wanted to kill both him and his great work, so that he could finish what we know as the Shakespeare canon, foundation of the language we speak and all the great works of literature that have followed.
These two pieces of the Shakespeare puzzle: the anomaly of his death and the nature of the date he supposedly died, taken together, were a trumpet call to examine the possibility that, like Byron, knowing his mortality was nigh, he chose to die in his own way and in his own time. Added along the way have been other puzzle pieces, the strange behavior of Robert Cecil as soon as the word went out that Oxford was dead, arresting Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) on June 25th so that he could examine his papers in case he was holding some of the plays; the plot of Measure for Measure, performed the night of Oxford’s daughter’s marriage to the Earl of Montgomery (one of the patrons who had secured his safety), in which Duke Vincentio, the “duke of dark corners,” retires from his official duties in exactly the same way we’re suggesting that Shakespeare retired from his, in the only way he could; and finally the fact that one of his ancestors, an Earl of Oxford, had “died to the world” in a way that was no longer available to de Vere, by joining a monastery. And there are a number of other, if lesser, puzzle pieces that fit with this scenario that otherwise have no place and must be left aside.
Why do I call him Shakespeare and not de Vere? Because Shakespeare is not just a pseudonym, purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from William of Stratford so that the plays could be published. Shakespeare the playwright is a being with his own history, an entity as real as Dionysos was to the Greeks or John the Baptist to da Vinci, or Jesus to Christians today. Half human (de Vere), half fiction, Shakespeare (the Poet) had, and still has, a life of his own. He is an immortal that, if anything, was for his creator more like one of the personalities that manifests in people with multiple personality disorder. When de Vere took up his pen, the “spear” that he “shook” in defense of merry-making and platonic love, he was, while engaged in the pursuit of the dramatic truth that he shared with his admired forbears, Euripides, Plautus, and Terence, another, and better, being.
This is the epiphany, the satori, the ecstasy that draws all artists. Scorning the banal cruelties and mediocrities of ordinary life, this is the “zone” (or “vein” as the Elizabethans termed it) that, when an artists achieves it, however briefly, makes worthwhile all the suffering they cause, not only to themselves, but to those who love and protect them. Anyone who has ever been patron or handmaiden to a gifted artist will understand what I’m talking about. As the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson wrote in Eros Turannos:
Meanwhile we do no harm; for theyThat with a god have striven,Not hearing much of what we say,Take what the god has given;Though like waves breaking it may be,Or like a changed familiar tree,Or like a stairway to the seaWhere down the blind are driven.