Alan Nelson and the Howard/Arundel libels

Among the things that block our path to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, the most difficult to overcome has been the damning portrait of Oxford created by Lord Henry Howard and his cousin Charles Arundel in their desperate effort to evade the hangman. At the launch of the 1580-’81 winter holiday season, Oxford, at his peak as Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, had gone down on his knee before her and a panoply of England’s nobility and officialdom, to ask forgiveness for having gotten involved in their plot to overthrow the Crown. Taken by surprise, it seems the Queen had all three detained. Letting Oxford go the following day, she had Howard placed under house arrest with Christopher Hatton for four months, and Arundel in the Tower, where it seems he remained a good deal longer.

We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors; from questions Oxford gave Thomas Norton so he could question the accused pair; their statements in defense, commonly referred to as “libels”; and a mention here and there as a news item in other letters. The French ambassador waited some two or three weeks before writing about it to his King, doubtless because Oxford had implicated him as well, so he may have been waiting until he could be certain what was going to happen to himself. (Nothing, as it turned out, since it was Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, who was most guilty of conspiring).

The statements that Howard, Arundel (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their defense were labelled “libels” right from the start, since they consisted of little more than an all-out attack on Oxford’s character. Their strategy, it would seem, was less to attempt to prove their innocence than to portray their accusor as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his innocent friends whose every living thought was for the Queen’s welfare, yadda, yadda, yadda. The first question at this point should not be what if anything in these libels was the truth, it’s why the Academy has chosen to believe these traitors and not the historical record.

According to history, neither the Queen nor any of the officials involved believed Howard and Arundel since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under lock and key. According to history, Henry Howard was certainly guilty as charged, since Walsingham, having devoted the following three years to tracking down sufficient evidence to indict him, had him arrested on November 4, 1583, along with Francis Throgmorton, for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as Charles Arundel heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, he fled to the Continent, where he published the libel known as Leicester’s Commonwealth. (He’s also thought to be the author of an earlier libel against the Queen and her ministers, Le Innocence de la Tres Illustre Royne.)

So how is it that at the turn of the 21st century English Prof. Alan Nelson of UC Berkeley had no trouble in finding a publisher for his so-called “biography” of the Earl of Oxford, in which he casts every incident in Oxford’s life in the mold provided by these two miscreants?  Titling it Monstrous Adversary, a phrase from one of Arundel’s libels, Nelson, it seems, is so bemused by his anti-Oxford animus that he doesn’t realize that he’s chosen to follow two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of treason!

“The evil that men do lives after them . . .”

Nelson, however, is only the most recent of a long stream of academics who have played fast and loose with Oxford’s reputation. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labelled him and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites,” and Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Yet by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been in disrepute. Never mind that he was Elizabeth’s Lord Great Chamberlain; that he was one of her enduring favorites; that dozens of important books were dedicated to him; that he was patron to top acting companies over the course of 30 years; that he published one of the most important works of the European Renaissace, Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier; that he was praised by a string of respectable contemporary commentators; that many of these praises came from foreigners whom he met on his trip to Italy, famous scholars like Johan Sturm and princes like Henri III of France. Nothing to his discredit was ever recorded from his visits to foreign shores.

Yet every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention him in passing has felt it compulsory to connect his name with a pejorative, as in “the notorious Earl of Oxford.” “Profligate,” “obnoxious,” “violent,” “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable,” are only a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace in 1912, he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read in 1960 he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse in 1964 he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel.”

Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his early days at Court, leaving a record of fights and feuds with his fellow courtiers (no murders, though he was badly wounded in one brawl). After returning from Italy, having gone undercover to create the London Stage and the commercial press, because he did (almost) nothing that got recorded, there was (almost) nothing in the record to counter the effect of his early antics. Then of course there were his in-laws, the Cecils, whose control of the record for some 50 years meant that only those letters and other documents that reflected well on themselves (or badly on others) were retained, a paper trail that historians ever since have been forced to follow if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House, and 2) if they were to get published.

Even so, much of the problem is Oxford’s own fault, for it seems he was a past master at making enemies. If, as we believe, it was he who lampooned Leceister as Robert Shallow in Merry Wives, Philip Sidney as Master Slender, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Lord Cobham (and his son) as Falstaff, William Cecil as Polonious in Hamlet, or Robert Cecil as Richard III, there was even more cause to hate him (and for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to hide his identity). If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as history and their biographies attest, dealing with a genius is never easy.

But nothing has caused him the kind of damage that Howard and Arundel did with their libels, a long, slow-acting revenge, one that lay dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP (Calendar of State Papers) until Looney proposed him as the most qualified candidate yet for the tarnished Shakespeare crown, forcing the Academy to assemble a counterattack to protect the sacred biography and dating system, and prevent the loss of centuries of accumulated suppositions based on the life of William of Stratford.

As for Henry Howard

By the time Oxford went down on his knee to the Queen and company, Howard was already known as a dangerous intriguer.  Incarcerated in 1571 during the investigation into the Duke of Norfolks’s treasonable plan to marry the Queen of Scots, for which the unfortunate Duke was beheaded, Howard, though later released, was never freed from the suspicion that it was he who had gotten his brother involved.  In 1595, Anne Bacon warned her son Anthony, “Beware in any wise of the Lord H! He is a dangerous intelligencing man . . . and lieth in wait. . . . The Duke had been alive but by his practising and double undoing” (Dumaurier Lads 109-10). In fact, that Oxford had welcomed them into his coterie was probably an act of altruism.

What would continue to save Howard from permanent incarceration was probably the fact that he was so closely related to so many peers and highly-placed officials. During this early period his intrigues were aimed at assisting the continental catholics in their efforts to get a catholic on the throne so they could return to England and he and his relatives could return to the Howards’ former commanding position at Court. Years later, after his conniving had paid off with high office and titles under King James, he continued to foster intrigues, though the plight of his fellow catholics had become less important to him by then than weaseling his way as deeply as possible into the upper tier of Court officialdom.

“The end crowns all”

Howard’s final turn on the stage of history came in the second decade of the 17th century when his niece Frances (Fanny) Howard created the major scandal of James’s reign. Having encouraged her in her efforts to seduce Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, when Carr’s secretary, Sir Thomas Overbury, got in the way, Lord Harry persuaded the King to get rid of Overbury by sending him on an extended embassy to Russia. When the foolish secretary refused, the King had him incarcerated in the Tower. (Overbury was being difficult because he was in love with Carr. The entire upper tier of the Court at that time was gay, the King was gay, Carr, his official favorite, was mostly gay, Carr’s secretary, Overbury, was gay, and Howard, by then Earl of Northampton, was gay.)

When at a crucial moment in this gruesome tale the unhappy Overbury died in prison, supposedly of an overdose of poisoned tarts, someone squealed, and the wheels of the Law began to turn, inexorably moving ever closer to Fanny, now Countess of Somerset, and her hapless husband. Having been given a royal wedding by the King the following December, the couple were eventually indicted two years later, and though spared execution, they spent the rest of their lives either in the Tower or under permanent house arrest in the country.

As David Lindley shows in his excellent book on the subject, The Trials of Frances Howard (1993/96), it’s clear that the ultimate decision was reached through a plea bargain that saved the lives, if not the reputations, of those involved. Largely because of her mother’s involvement in the scheme (the reprehensible Catherine Knyvett), she and Fanny’s father, Lord Treasurer Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk, were disgraced as well. At least one benefit to literature came from this scandal, Carr’s fall opened his office of Lord Chamberlain to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, giving him, and his brother the Earl of Montgomery, control of the London Stage for the next two decades.

Although the documents generated by this long drawn-out court case prove that Howard was guilty of masterminding this bedroom coup through his power over his niece (as seen by the disgustingly salacious nature of his letters, read aloud in court for all to hear), that it was he, not Fanny, who sent the poisoned tarts was never pursued because Howard had taken the truth with him when, ever so conveniently, he died before the questioning began. As for poor Fanny, it may be that she would have been better off had she gone through with the trial. Having fallen from her status as her nation’s bejeweled princess to its most reviled and detested criminal, called every dirty name in the book, locked away in the country, she died utterly without friends including the husband who blamed her for his disgrace. (The only thing ever written in her defense, then or later, IMHO, was John Webster’s The White Devil.)

Back to the “great treason”

Shortly after Oxford’s revelation in December of 1580, Walsingham began to focus on the household of the French Ambassador, Mauvissiere.  With clues painstakingly gathered by means of spies in the ambassador’s household, it took three years of patient fishing before he got the evidence he needed to arrest Francis Throgmorton, Mary Queen of Scot’s contact, and Henry Howard, Throgmorton’s accomplice. Throgmorton withstood a racking, but when threatened with a second, came across with the information that Walsingham so desperately needed if he was to convince the Queen that there was a real danger that had to be faced, and overseas agents to be paid for.

From Throgmorton Walsingham learned that the plot in question was the creation of the great French grandee, the Duc de Guise, who, in concert with the Pope and the King of Spain, was planning an all-out attack on the English mainland.  According to Throgmorton, the French army was to invade England from Scotland at the same time that the Spanish navy struck at its southern coast.  As the two armies marched towards London they would gather with them the hordes of English catholics that, in their imaginations, were eager to replace Elizabeth and her ministers with the Queen of Scots and those they were promising to give a place at Court.  (Hutchinson 1o5).

In tracing the links that finally led the Queen’s Secretary of State to Howard and Throgmorton and “the great treason,” neither of Walsingham’s biographers, Conyers Read (1925) nor Robert Hutchinson (2007) mention Oxford, but it should be obvious that it was Oxford’s public “confession” that led Walsingham first to Mauvissiere’s household, then to Howard and Arundel’s involvement, then to the Spanish Ambassador, who was given his walking papers in 1584. England would not have another Spanish ambassador until 1607, when James signed a treaty with Spain.

That “monstrous adversary”

In examining the libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s in modern spelling, most would seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than was wise, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had reason to hate, and may well have made some outragous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading courtier is absurd: obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any Court figure ever confirm any of Howard’s accusations.

However serious these charges may have seemed at the time, none of them would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years to come until it may be what has cost Oxford his reputation for so long, if not (as we hope) forever. This is the charge that he had “polluted” some of his young pages.

Oxford the homosexual

Among the pejoratives attached to Oxford’s name over the centuries, homosexual has been by far the most damaging, not because there’s any more substantiation for it than for any of the other charges, or that it was seen then as anything but yet another slander, or that it was true, but because of how a puritanized English society came to see it later, when homosexuality had become the foulest of crimes as well as a sin, and all that it took to condemn a man as a homosexual was for someone to accuse him.

Throughout the preceding centuries, sex between men (oficially a crime only since 1535), was almost totally ignored in Elizabeth’s time. In fact it could be said that there were no homosexuals then because the word homosexual, along with the concept that men who have sex with other men are a race apart, would not appear until the late 18th century (Bruce R. Smith, 1990).  Until then the term used was sodomite, which simply referred to anal sex, whether male-male or male-female, forbidden since biblical times, less perhaps for any moral reason than because it violated the ancient nostrum: “be fruitful and multiply.” (Primitive cultures are apt to allow male-male sex as a means of regulating population size since too many births could overwhelm the food supply.)

Until the 18th century, men who preferred to have sex with each other were no more scorned than men who spent too much time and energy having sex with women. It was the kind of sex that was the issue, not the kind of partner. During the reign of Elizabeth the only men on the record as indicted for sodomy were accused of abusing boys, but this was less because it was a disgusting violation of morals than because it was a cruel misuse of power, similar to beating a boy to death for misbehavior or not doing his homework. Sex between adult males was not an issue then, or at least, not what it would become later. As Jeremy Bentham noted during the most rabid period of English homophobia, if sex between men was in fact a crime (which he doubted) it was the only one that caused no one any harm.

That tone of hysteria

In reading whatever I could find from and about the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the documents in Volume IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage: “Documents of Criticism,” that had a certain tone with which I was strangely familiar. After awhile it came to me: it was the same hysterical tone we hear today in condemnations of homosexuality by evangelical preachers and politicians.  And it was the same tone used in the mid-to-late 16th century by preachers and city officials with regard to the bawdiness of plays and their reasons for banning them from London.

It was not until I saw a connection between other aspects of that period that the reason for this began to appear. This was the same general period when: 1) Calvinism took hold as the ruling aspect of the Elizabethan Reformation, spreading until it led to the Civil War and twenty years of Cromwellian puritanism in the 17th century, and 2) it saw the spread of the “great pox,” what we now call syphilis.  This was no coincidence!  This was cause and effect!

The ultimate in STDs, horrific in its effects if left untreated and without any truly effective cure (until the invention of the microscope and the discovery of penicillin), since it was first reported in Naples in 1495, syphilis had been spreading among the more sexually-active members of the population long enough that its horrific effects on partners and their children was known and feared by the time Calvinism began taking root, gradually spreading to affect the attitudes and tone of what was on its way to becoming the Church of England. To John Calvin and his followers, all sex was sin, and, as products of Original Sin, all humans were headed for the permanent and unremitting torments of hell unless they banned sex from their lives and thoughts (excepting only what was absolutely necessary to maintain the human race).

Of course there was a connection between the spread of this grim religion, with its emphasis on the evils of sex, the horrors of hell, and the hellish horrors of this incurable disease.  This explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women, and homosexuals that continue to haunt the still essentially puritanical nature of the dominant American culture (remember who first stepped off the Mayflower with what religion in 1620).  Why the original fear of sex should have shifted to gay men towards the latter half of the 18th century, culminating in the homophobia of the latter half of the following century, must have something to do with the tendency of humans to let the majority off the hook by turning some hapless minority into scapegoats.

The pillory

Louis Crompton, one of the first of late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its particularly insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were almost as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic Church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, England gave it a pass, entering instead upon the cruelest period of homophobia ever known in the West.

Most readers know what happened to Oscar Wilde, the wittiest, most successful playwright of his day, who, accused by his boyfriend’s father of a sodomitical lifestyle, was robbed of his name, his career, his family, his liberty, and really his very life. Few however are aware today of the extremes of cruelty to which this anti-sex hysteria drove, not just the handful of lawyers, jurors, and journalists who saw to Wilde’s destruction, but the nation that followed it with slavering excitement in the news media. For roughly 50 years, men accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. The excitement felt by people who believed that God hated sex (as they contemplated with sick enthusiasm thoughts of men having sex with each other) had become a psychological disease. There was a political aspect to this as well. Since some of the most capable politicians and businessmen were gay, this pogrom helped to eliminate them as competitors for positions of authority and power. (Still to this day a politician who craves to rise knows that he’ll do better with a wife and children by his side.)

Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope were subjected to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, their head held fast in one hole, their hands in another, forced to stand for hours in the most public of locations, they would be subjected to the hysteria of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands, who, screaming abuse, were allowed to pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even stones and bricks, for hours on end. Those who survived were often maimed for life. Some, like Byron, seeing themselves in danger of arrest, fled to live abroad in permanent exile. Others, fearing discovery, committed suicide. Nor was this for any actual act; since that of course was difficult to discover (since photography had not yet been invented) new laws were created that enabled the police to arrest and arraign men for “attempting to commit sodomy”!


The barbaric nature of this punishment is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils, burning, drowning, or stoning to death a member of the community as a scapegoat. Frazer in The Golden Bough describes these rituals as he found them described in ancient Greek documents:

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, . . . At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments . . . and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then . . . stoned to death by the people outside of the walls.   The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats.

The word scapegoat shows how over time this ritual had been transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be michievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the poor creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the inhospitable wilderness.

Yet use of a human scapegoat has never been completely eradicated or shifted to a domestic animal, for it continues to errupt again wherever tensions get intense enough and humanitarian controls have weakened, the only difference being the nature of the chosen outcasts, whether witches for causing droughts, plagues, and the deaths or diseases of neighbors or domestic animals; catholics by protestants or protestants by catholics for heresy; communists and terrorists for anarchy; southern American blacks for speaking out in their own defence, and Jews and gypsies for almost anything. And still today in rural areas of the middle east, the law allows men and women accused of committing adultery to be stoned to death by their neighbors.   That 19th-century England found it useful to relieve public tension by giving mobs the opportunity to exorcise their frustrations by stoning one or two helpless men, sometimes to death, every year for a good half-century, is but one instance in the long history of these orgies of public violence.

“The love that dares not speak its name”

So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice in the 19th century, so dangerous was it even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest it for fear they too would get sucked into providing the Establishment with yet another scapegoat. So shameful had male-male sex become that it was shameful even to mention it. The DNB, launched in 1885, avoided any mention of the part sex played in the lives of their subjects; that someone “never married” was as far as it would go.   Men became afraid to show each other affection, or even to touch each other in public. The  handshake took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that could be construed by a prurient public, themselves starved for affection, from “getting the wrong idea.” Boys were starved of love, sent off by age six or seven to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they were far more vulnerable to molestation than they would have been at home.

Crompton attributes this to religion, which is certainly partly true, though it does not explain why France and the rest of Europe did not exhibit the same reaction (they chose instead to persecute women for witchcraft). Bentham, seeking an explanation, notes that it seems to have had something to do with protestantism, but he doesn’t go far enough. Protestantism yes, but one form in particular––Calvinism.

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

As a reaction against the corruption of the Church of Rome, Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of its supposedly celibate prelates, but that was only one aspect of a far more complicated campaign to gain for the northern states control of its lands and wealth, along with a great nostalgia for the simplicity and purity (they imagined) of the early Christian Church.  During the reign of Mary Tudor, when so many of the protestants who had overseen the Reformation under her brother Edward fled to Germany and Switzerland, when they returned under Elizabeth, they formed a party that influenced the nature of the English Protestant Church. Embracing the severities and rigors prescribed by John Calvin, governor of Geneva, they formed a block in the Parliament and on Elizabeth’s Privy Council passionately devoted to the kind of reforms promoted by Calvin.

So harsh was the Calvinism promoted by the returned exiles, that it begs the question why were so many attracted to his message?  The answer surely lies in the increasing awareness of the effects of “the Great Pox,” syphilis.  One of the most insidious diseases ever to wreak its horrors on the human race, by Elizabeth’s advent the English had had plenty of time to understand all too well that it was spread through sexual intercourse, and to recognize the horrific effects this could have on its victims and their mates and subsequent children.  At a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this to be interpreted in any way other than as His punishment for their sexuality?

“The cause of plagues is sin and the cause of sin are plays.”

When Oxford, Sussex, and James Burbage set about to create public stages in London, they found themselves up against a wall of repression. The ruling parties in London disliked the advent of the public theaters in 1576 for different reasons: the officials were afraid of contagion from the plague and other diseases, while the preachers were afraid of God’s wrath, afraid that people who had enjoyed themselves at the theater might forget for the moment that having sex would lead them to the fiery furnace. (There was also the likelihood that too many would rather be at the theater than at church).

Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sexy nature of the plots, the suggestive postures of the actors, and the fact that men and women could sit next to each other in the audience.  In their view, the door to the theater was the pathway to perdition.  In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the Church’s outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin . . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays! (Chambers 4.197)

The almost 200 pages that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate the theaters and the sneering disregard of officials for actors and anyone involved in producing plays.  Clearly, anyone who had something to lose would have wished to keep his (or her) involvement with the public stage as quiet as possible.

Shakespeare and history

Shakespeare’s name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, but it only became famous after 1610 when his company, by then known as the King’s Men, was allowed to use their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars complex.  With King James as their patron and Queen Anne as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared. However, as time went by, enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I.  His wife, Queen Henrietta, raised in Paris, preferred the lavish masques then popular in France.  It was largely her overspending that led to the Civil War that closed all the theaters for twenty years, after which new audiences under Charles II saw Shakespeare as old hat.

Shakespeare’s reputation continued to diminish until the 18th century when a new respect was cultivated by the next wave of brilliant poets and scholars: Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Edmond Malone. But it was not until the turn of the 19th century that a new set of actors brought a new style of acting to the public stage and the public took to “the Bard” in numbers not seen since the early 17th century.  Awakened by poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Shakespeare’s genius, as his name approached the level of national icon, interest in his identity ground to a halt when Sir Edmond Malone published the Sonnets as originally written.

With the bowdlerized pronoun returned to the original “he,” horror struck the Establishment: the great Shakespeare was a homosexual!  With homophobia on the increase, all interest in uncovering the truth about the authorship withered away and the Academy bound the Stratford biography to itself with hoops of steel.  Better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite!

Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, other forms of repression continued. Still in effect were any number of anti-gay laws; it was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him. Sex-hatred was on the rise again, to peak in the 1950s. (Consider what was done to Alan Turing, the hero of British Intelligence who helped bring World War II to an end). Already in bad with the historians, Oxford’s threat to the sacred Stratford dating scheme set him up as ripe for posthumous scapegoating.

Shakespeare scholars, aware for at least a century of Oxford’s involvement in the early years of the London Stage as a patron and a playwright (“best for comedy”), not only did not dare to promote him, they were constrained to revile him! That’s where academics like Stone and Nelson acquired that hysterical tone in their comments on Oxford! The same tone heard in the sermons by the bishops lambasting the plays and actors in 16th century London! It’s the language of sex-hatred! The language of the Calvinist Reformation: sex as “filth”!  Sex as “pollution”!  No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, could hold out against the horrors of being called a homosexual!

“A wounded name”

It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s his accusation that Oxford forced himself on his pages that continues to deny the Earl of Oxford his true place in history!  While to Stone he was only a violent wastrel, Nelson has swallowed Howard and Arundel’s charge of pederasty hook, line and stinker!  Letting no opportunity pass to stick on more tar and feathers, he ignores Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy­­––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust.  The “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1582––testimony to his role as patron to the Children of the Chapel––more evidence of his sexual depravity.

Truly we must ask ourselves, is this evidence of Oxford’s diseased behavior?  Or isn’t it rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination?  He seems a little skewed in this regard in other areas, for instance describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for such a term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary reference I’ve ever seen to Anne’s looks was “comely,” and that, going by her lifelike image on Burghley’s great tomb, an exaggeration.

Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, the product of the Cecils’ outrage, the Howard libels, and the rabid homophobia still in effect, is the academic version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence, if only with words. That’s why he’s been bombarded ever since, not with the rocks and dead animals that killed and maimed the poor “inverts” pilloried in 19th-century London, but with every bad adjective any English-speaking academic could conjure up.  No matter that there’s no other record of these crimes, or that no one else (except for Arundel) ever came forward to back up Howard in these, or any other of his charges, all the homophobic needs to unleash his fury is an accusation.

Shakespeare and sex

The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. As the poet John Masefield wrote: “sex ran in him like a river.” And while there are hints here and there of male-male passion in the plays, most of the attractions he so convincingly dramatizes are between men and women.  John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was Love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the Sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; sex plays no obvious part in them as it does in those written to and for the Dark Lady.  What did he want from the youth?  Surely what he wanted was his love.  He says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and survivors of 19th century homophobia, love means sex.  If it doesn’t show, that’s just because the writer was being cagey.  Parse every sentence, search every etymology, there must be sex in it somewhere!

Love is not incompatible with sex, but sex changes it. Shakespeare says it himself in Sonnet 129, sex is “savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . . .” “Not to trust”––surely that is the point, true love is all about trust.  Separated by years, by reputation, only love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written after time has passed:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Where the Poet’s relationship with the Youth is harmed it’s because there has been a breach of trust, which he forgives on the youth’s part in some sonnets and, for which he asks for forgiveness on his own in others.  If there is sex in this then it’s regarded in a very different light than we regard it today.  As Shakespeare shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, sex in a relationship makes men vulnerable to jealousy, a destruction of trust that can lead to emotional agony, and to tragedy.

Maybe now that the English-speaking culture is attempting to eradicate the evils done during that long-ongoing spasm of sex-hatred, we can relax and see the Earl of Oxford in a clearer light.  The least we can do is to take him at face value, and not be picking through his verse in search of a reality that may be ours but that almost certainly was not his.  The Sonnets were written before the centuries of homophobia changed forever how the English, poets and academics alike, thought about sex. The imagery of the Sonnets, that so many have struggled to prove did or did not indicate sexual relations, cannot be taken as evidence, for we do not know, nor will we ever know, what exactly the poet had in mind when he wrote them.

Oxford and Southampton

But if, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, we do know a few things that the academics do not. The majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife dead, his in-laws out to deprive him of his access to the Stage and the Press. Living in a hostelry down by the river, in “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that can’t be faked.  Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he was enrolled at that time.  On his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love, not the sexual kind, but the unconditional love of a mentor, a father figure.  His own father was long since dead, he did not get along with his mother, and his guardian, Lord Burghley, was obviously mostly interested in what he could get from Southampton, if not entry to the peerage by marriage to his granddaughter, then a goodly chunk of his inheritance as a fine for having refused her.

Much as Sussex had been to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb and to be young, alone and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. It’s likely they first met when Burghley was urging the teenager to marry Oxford’s daughter, and Oxford, willing to assist, wrote the first seventeen sonnets for his seventeenth birthday in 1590, the so-called marriage sonnets. They met, and formed a bond out of their mutual need, one that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, by which time Southampton had reached his majority, grown a beard, and was capable of making his own way at Court.

No longer in need of a father, by 1594 the Fair Youth had turned to the one to whom he would (disastrously) pledge his allegience for the next seven years. By then Oxford, married again, living in the kind of luxury he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours writing sonnets, a good thing since he was no fan of the Earl of Essex, Southampton’s New Best Friend.

As for the nature of the passion expressed in the sonnets, why should we care? Homophobia had not yet made men overly cautious about the terms they used to express their feelings for each other, the rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a rather misplaced, prurient concern over something that shouldn’t really matter, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare first became acquainted with their same-sex context, a period poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired so long before by Calvin’s fear of syphilis.

Frankly what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who it seems was using makeup and dressing as a girl in his teens, was already well-versed in homosexual sexplay by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man, a surrogate father, helping this youth to accept his role as a lover of women, a necessity if he was to marry and continue his line, the Sonnets make a lot more sense, all of them, including those written for the Dark Lady which do address their sexual relationship in no uncertain terms, then as a wouldbe lover consumed with lust.

In any case, what’s important about these libels to history is not whether or not Oxford was a monster, but the fact that it was his “confession” in December of 1580 that put Walsingham on the track that enabled him to prepare for the attack of the Spanish Armada.  What’s important to literary history is not whether or not he had sex with Southampton, it’s that the time spent writing these sonnets, probably on a daily basis during a period when he had little else to do, gave him the command of the language he needed for the plays he would soon be writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, plays that would make his cover the most famous name in literary history.

Howard and Shakespeare

As for Howard, Oxford had his revenge, though sadly not seen by anyone but that rather small percentage of his audience who knew that he was the author.  There’s no doubt that at some point he came to realize that Howard was responsible for the rumor that broke up his marriage.  Proof of this are the villains in two of the plays that bear the Shakespeare name, and several others that came earlier.  That Howard was the model for Iago is beyond dispute.  That he was also the model for Iachimo and Lady Macbeth is almost as convincing.

One of the strongest arguments for Oxford as author of the canon is the fact, obvious to those who know both the plays and Oxford’s biography, that six of Shakespeare’s plays  involve the story of the breakup of his marriage, either as the main plot: Othello, The Winter’s Tale, All’s Well, and Cymbeline, and, as backstory: Pericles and Hamlet.   When the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays have been completely integrated into the history of the English Court during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we’ll have a fuller understanding of both––and not until then.


17 thoughts on “Alan Nelson and the Howard/Arundel libels

  1. Excellent, Stephanie. Alan Nelson’s many slanders against de Vere are effective in turning people against de Vere partly because of our wish to idealize the author of Shakespeare’s works. I believe Freud was the first to describe this dynamic, in saying we form emotional relationships with our favorite writers, and, in this case, we want the author to be as perfect as are his literary works.

    1. The irony, or one of the ironies, is that because historians following the Cecils, the Pembrokes (and Oxford himself) have him separated from his main fields of endeavor, while we struggle to get him accepted for writing a few plays and poems, utterly lost has been what is probably just as important to the history of the English culture is the fact that he was the major force involved in the creation of the London Stage. That the first two successful public stages in England were built immediately after his return from Italy is a fact.

  2. Magnificent, Stephanie–in setting the record straight about Oxford-Shakespeare, about the prurient-minded Professor Nelson, and about so much more. This posting amounts to a vindication of so many tragically mistreated, scapegoated relationships, and a stirring defense of the theater and poetry against scare tactics. Withal, it is also a fair appraisal of Oxford the difficult genius, and quite poignant in its treatment of his connection with young Southampton.

  3. And another thing. What you write about Oxford’s disclosure to the Queen, and the importance of Ward’s account, rings true because that revelation is one of the real services that Oxford did for her. We know, counting royal favors–from her grant to him of the manor of Rysing to the thousand-a-year annuity–that Elizabeth could count on her wayward “cousin” for certain useful truths–sufficient reason for her to stand “between much heat and him.”

  4. Yours is a very fine and thought provoking post, more an essay, really. Others have challenged it in various ways; that is not my purpose, but rather to provide support and corroboration via cross reference to other writers, under four headings.
    1. DH Lawrence
    Lawrence strongly corroborates your thesis about syphilis, and the Renaissance, in a great essay much about Cezanne, Introduction to these Paintings.

    Click to access 9959-introduction_to_these_paintings.pdf

    He has a very deep take on Shakespeare in general, relevant to our understanding of the Authorship issue, in his reflections on Hamlet in the chapter The Theatre of Twilight in Italy,
    on which I talked at the Leavis-Lawrence day at the DH Lawrence Festival in Nottingham 2014:

    Click to access ALittleLawrenceisaDangerousThing-LeavisonLawrenceonShakespeare.pdf

    The hostile treatment of Lawrence by the English Intelligentsia is highly reminiscent of the treatment of Oxford. But in the case of Shakespeare, it was possible, psychodynamically, to split him into two: – Oxford, all bad, versus Stratford, all good, and, above all, inoffensive. By the way, I think Oxford’s offensiveness is part of the case for him as Shakespeare, because, by jingo, the author of Hamlet and of Troilus and Cressida knew all about how to be offensive!!

    2. Rene Girard
    Your discussion of scapegoating led me to think about the great French thinker and critic Rene Girard, who links mimesis and scapegoating and makes them the heart of his anthropology. He wrote deeply about Shakespeare, in this light, and I reviewed his book, and sketched his theory, for Brief Chronicles:

    Click to access Girard.Review.pdf

    3. Ted Hughes and Richard Wagner
    You illuminate, in evoking the deep Calvinistic hostility to the theatre, the colossal achievement involved in developing the whole thing to the point of the creation of mature Shakespearean tragedy, comparable, as Ben Jonson and DH Lawrence indicate, to Greek Tragedy. Apart from the novel, the only later drama comparable to that of Shakespeare is, in my view, that of Richard Wagner, especially The Nibelung’s Ring. And Wagner illustrates that such achievement, going against the grain of the time, – as Greek Tragedy as religious festival did not, – presupposes a capacity for impresario-like charisma and organisation, force of will and autocratic energy, of a high order. There is no sign of this in the Stratford man, but a great many indications in the case of Oxford. Apart from Lawrence and Girard, and, – partially, – Wilson Knight and Harold Bloom, the only modern author, who has really done justice to the vast mythic-tragic sweep of the Shakespeare oeuvre, is Ted Hughes in his great work, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Interestingly, the boar is at the heart of his mythic-shamanic analysis.

    4. Oscar Wilde and Oxford as a great talker
    Finally, I have always felt that the creator of Hamlet, Antony, Ulysses, Falstaff, Jacques, Mercutio, and so on, has to have been a master conversationalist, comparable to Oscar Wilde,
    Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and Sidney Smith, and that there would be evidence of it. There is none for the Stratford man, but here in the great libels we do have it, as we would expect, in excessive and imaginatively creative form, with men having to leave the table because of uncontrollable laughter, for Oxford:
    “[1.2] Not muche vnlike to the lie that went before, I have hard him often tell,(107) and as often hard it affirmed by his owne knaves when he call[+ed] them for witnesse, that at his beinge in Italie ther fell discord and discencion in the Cittie of Genoa betwene too families whervpon it grewe to warres, and greate ayde and assistance geven to ether partie, and that, for the fame that ran throughe Italie of his service done in the Lowe cuntries vnder the Duke of Alva he was choseen ^and made¬ generall of thirtie thowsan that the pope sent to the ayde of one partie. and that in this action he shewid so greate discretion, and goverment as by his wisedome the matters were compowndid, and, an accorde made beinge more for his glorie then yf he had fowght the battell, this lie is verye rife with him and in it he glories greatlie, diverslie hathe he told it, and when he enters into it, he can hardlie owte, whiche hathe made suche sporte as often have I bin driven to rise from his table laugheinge so hathe my Lord Charles howard, and the rest, whome I namid before and for the profe of this I take them all as wittnises ”

    Thank you for your very rich and creative paper!!”

    1. Thanks, Heward. Your last point raises an issue that lay outside my essay, how Oxford’s friends reacted to his stories of things that happened during his trips to the Continent. I see no reason why most of these were necessarily lies, or even exaggerations. During the political battles then going on between the Italian city-states, the advent of a charismatic prince from another country willing to take leadership on one side or the other seems perfectly possible. I know from personal experience that after spending some time in Morocco in the 1960s, an American friend to whom I related a particular incident simply did not believe me, and accused me of lying! So far as I know, none of those Howard mentions as present during these dinners had been to the continent, and even if they had, they would not have been invited to dine with the level of princedom to which Oxford had access, due to his title and his status at that time with the Queen.

  5. Yes Stephanie! Re Oxford’s exploits, at least three things I can immediately think of do confirm your point: George Chapman’s allusion to him in, I think, the Return of Boissy D’Ambois; the report by Edward Webbe of his challenge in Palermo; and the very high opinion that Sturmius had of him, including asking for him to command in the Low Countries. Yet an element in the Ben Jonson account De Shakespeare Nostrat in Timber
    about him tallies both with the burlesque element which comes out in so many of the plays – in Falstaff, in Bottom, in Hamlet himself, and in the whole uncanny ethos of a play like King Lear – and with that element of Arundel’s account. I don’t think he necessarily told lies but rather burlesqued himself, which was mistaken by lesser and less imaginative men as deception. Oscar Wilde, as you know, had the same problem.

    1. Yes, and he had a great need to make people laugh. He began with comedies; his community, fearful of disease, of going to hell, of being attacked by the Spanish, desperately needed laughter. Most of all, it should be obvious that the Queen loved him for his ability to make her laugh. Intelligent, highly educated, she would have been hard to please. That he pleased her is why she continued to save him from ruin. It also explains why she wouldn’t give him the stewardship of Waltham Forest. She wanted him at Court, and if he wasn’t going to stick around and write plays that made her laugh, she wasn’t about to give him what he wanted.

  6. This is wonderful work Stephanie. I was so glad you addressed what I frequently muse about. . .how much of Oxford’s writing is about love and how much is it about sex? Your commentary also brought to mind the homosexual pairs of Greek soldiers who fought in the Battle of Leuctra and how that intimate noble male partnership imagery had to have been an influence on Oxford’s worldview. (We know he had read his Plutarch and there is evidence of familiarity with the Leuctra soldiers both in the use of “Coriolanus” as a heroic character name, as well as in a line spoken by Hotspur in Henry IV which many poetry analysts through the centuries have linked to an event in the Battle of Leuctra: “Zounds! How has he the leisure to be sick, In such a jostling time?”)

  7. Excellent topic Stephanie. The 1581 Libels do have some difficult conundrums. But a clear key to how to unravel the mess is to remember that Oxford almost certainly had been acting as an agent of at least two members of the Privy Council (Burghley and Sussex), whereas his accusers/cousins were known Marianist sympathizers whom Oxford had obviously been commissioned to gull into betraying themselves (this parallels the 1578-79 conduct of Oxford’s servant Anthony Munday with regard to exposing Jesuits). Another clear key was that whereas Oxford faced disgrace for picadillos (e.g., bedding one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor), his accusers were in danger of their lives (although the Spanish & French Ambassadors were assured that they weren’t facing capital crimes, it didn’t help their cause that their first action after being told by Oxford that he’d informed on them was to seek political asylum at their embassies). So, as I see it, we should take their allegations vs. Oxford one-by-one and analyze them. Those that are capital crimes in that time (e.g., buggering boys, attempts at murder) can be dismissed as desperation by the accusers, grasping at straws to save their own necks by discrediting Oxford as much as they could (the one about buggering was a clear fabrication based on expanding the Orazio Cuoco rumor into two cases, with the second case being “the Baker’s boy,” where Cuoco can mean “baker”). But those that were not capital crimes (e.g., Oxford’s alleged boasts of adventures and bribes in Italy from Philip II and Don Juan of Austria), can be assumed to likely have had at least a core of validity about them. One more point, as noted by the late Peter Moore, is that the Howard and Arundel libels of Oxford almost word-for-word match each other, with Howard typically giving the greater detail where the accounts vary. Thus, Moore concluded that Arundel had been allowed to read Howard’s account before relating his own, and thus it wasn’t a 2 against 1 situation, but rather a rehersal against 1. Finally, the outcomes tend to reinforce who should be believed in this fracas — Oxford was in the Tower for only a couple of weeks for the Anne Vavasour disgrace, whereas Howard and Arundel were kept in their imprisonments for most of a year. Yes, Oxford remained under house arrest for some months after his release, and was banned from Court for 3 years, but that was par for the course whenever the Queen’s Maids of Honor were violated (look at what later happened to Raleigh, Southampton, and others). On the whole, the investigating officials clearly believed Oxford, but couldn’t save him completely from the Queen’s ire over Vavasour. By contrast, they clearly thought Oxford’s accusers were lying to save their skins, and we may ask why it was that the accusers were able to be saved at all? My hunch is that Oxford’s disgrace, as minor as it was relative to their crimes, discredited him just enough to save their skins. They may have been allowed to sign pledges and oaths, even denunciations of Mary Stuart, and then give their own informing on other Marianists, which would discredit them with Marianists, and in any case render them harmless for the near future. By the way, I question the premise that Oxford’s confession before the Queen on Xmas day of 1580 was necessarily before the entire Court, as your story began — rather, I suspect Oxford did so in the company of Privy Councillors, who would have then reported the degree to which Oxford had been their agent. Likely, as with Oxford’s 1574 bolt to Flanders and Brussels, he had been careful to keep several Privy Councillors informed of his intents and activities (Walsingham defended his activities in 1574). Similarly, in 1579 when Oxford himself libeled the Earl of Leicester, it was Walsingham to whom Oxford’s pathetic list of libels was dictated! W. Ron Hess (BEORNsHall AT

  8. Thanks, Ron, but I don’t agree that Oxford was in league with Burghley. He was extremely angry at Burghley at that time. There’s no doubt that he was in fact making plans to run away to Spain or Italy with Ann Vavasor, so he would have been keeping his father-in-law at arm’s length.

    If he was acting in concert with anyone it would have been Walsingham. As Howard states in one of his libels, Oxford and Walsingham were particularly close. Since W was having such a hard time getting the Queen to take these plots seriously, it’s possible to see the event as having been cooked up between the two of them as the best way of getting the Queen to pay attention while at the same time giving Oxford a way out of the plot that threw the onus onto someone other than himself. Nor was Burghley particularly eager for trouble with either France or Spain just then.

    It could even be that Walsingham had discovered Oxford’s name on some list and had warned him that he’d better get himself out of it before it blew up in public. Ward is absolutely right that it was Oxford’s revelation that caused the Queen to take the idea of a major plot seriously. All that’s needed are to compare the events with the dates. Historians leave Oxford out of it because they need to keep him in place as their whipping boy.

    With regard to where the revelation took place, Ward says the Presence Chamber, but whether he knew that from some document he didn’t cite or just supposed it, isn’t clear. (I’m not up to digging through everything again.) That it was the Presence Chamber makes sense, as that shows it as a theatrical gesture, done where the Queen will be forced to behave, and done so as to inform as wide a circle as possible so that some sort of action would have to be taken. Elizabeth was in the middle of her phony marriage dance with the French, and so was not inclined to take anything seriously that might mess that up. Also, as occurring at the very start of the holiday season, she would be in a holiday mood which she would not have been were only the Privy Council involved. Somewhere it mentions that of the three accused, only Arundel was present, and he was certainly not on the Privy Council.

    As for the Queen’s wrath over Ann Vavasor, it’s not likely that Oxford’s revelations about the plot entered into her reaction one way or the other. She knew Howard and Arundel well enough that she would not have been surprised to hear of their treachery. She might have used their charges to beat Oxford a little harder over his betrayal to herself with her maiden, but she would never have put any stock in anything Howard said.

  9. Dear Ms. Hughes:

    I am glad to hear your book nears completion. Eagerly I await learning from it. And I bow to your greatly superior command of both the Shakespearean corpus and its history. Maybe the substance of everything in this impressive essay is perfect. The immediate delivery thereof, inevitably, has details that might merit brief rereading.

    #1 In 1800s England “the handshake took the place of hugs….” Even if accurate, this naked declaration looks dubious. Biology alone presumably prompts men offering peace to other men to display an empty hand–especially an empty right hand, that usually being the stronger.

    As I pointed out to you (long ago: no matter) the close of Romeo and Juliet has the peace handclasp of Montague and Capulet. The context means the handshake has otherwise-opposite meanings as between the 2 R&J Quartos (!!), but the constant “reconciliation” meaning remains clear to Elizabethan audiences. If there is 1800s-“handshake evidence (not a source making such bare assertion) it would be nice to tell the reader (Perhaps all this is annotated, and I’m just not noticing the evidence.)

    #2A “Sex-hatred was on the rise again, to peak in the 1950s. (Consider what was done to Alan Turing,….” Is this proved someplace?

    The illusion thereof is possible in UK/US, given 1939-1963 (arbitrary closing date: Communist archtraitor Kim Philby escapes to USSR) For WWII//Korean War/Cold War Communist espionage issues (e.g., proved UK-Canada-US atomic-spies network) plausibly could lead to governmental employment discrimination against potential blackmail (= subversively exploitable) targets like homosexuals. Like Guy Burgess..

    #2B Syphilis, “ultimate in STDs, horrific” until “discovery of penicillin.” True. But abrupt UK-US rollback of STDs (and of maternal deathrates–always overlooked as deterrent to females’ casual sex) should have dramatically loosened NOT tightened sexual morals between 1945 and 1963–NOT between 1964 and 1982.

    Role of STDs (as threat or not) appears only as convenient, but not when their threat (or not) suggests an opposite conclusion.

    #3 Jeremy Bentham noted that sex between men as a crime would be “the only one that caused no one any harm.” Aw, c’mon! Somewhere we heard the rumor that sex between men is associated with promiscuous male anal sodomy. If that rumor were true, then a pool of syphilitic gay males helped keep the contagion alive and spreading.

    Was Bentham blind to whether London with such gay males would do for syphilis what such gay males in San Francisco actually did for AIDS (1972-1992)? What policy would Benthamite utiliarianism justify for plague-protection?

    #4 The 19C presented “most rabid period of English homophobia” sometime between Bentham and Wilde; it saw “excitement felt by people who believed that God hated sex (as they contemplated with sick enthusiasm thoughts of men having sex with each other) had become a psychological disease.” Yes, “the cruelest period of homophobia ever known in the West.”

    Maybe so. But ignored is the fact that this is the span of abrupt retreat of religious belief (“God hated sex”) in UK.

    . Role of religion would appear to push against the tide described. Religion seems selectively perceived.

    #5 Indicting men for sodomization of boys is defended as fighting “a cruel misuse of power, similar to beating a boy to death.” Any reader really awake might wonder why sodomizing a boy resembles beating him to death, inasmuch as the next sentence approvingly cites Bentham indicating man-man sex “caused no one any harm”. Beating to death vs. Causing no harm. It seems something has been grossly overstated or understated in adjacent declarative sentences.

    #6 “The all-male universities throughout the ages were almost as inclined to ‘inversion’ as were the priests and monks of the Catholic Church,…” Aw, c’mon.

    No evidence is cited that between 1495 and 1895 syphilis was more diagnosed for UK university/public school-boys than for farmboys or workingboys. None is cited comparing RC priests’/monks’ STD diagnosis-levels ANYWHERE, ANYTIME as exceeding those of married minsters or married Orthodox priests. (Nor have we evidence for a comparison of STD rates between celibate Orthodox monks and married Orthodox priests.)

    NO such evidence identifying school/clergy/religion-STD correlation is cited from review of medical insurance records, nor of medical examination records of draftees from UK/US for WWI, WWII, nor from ANYWHERE, for ANYTIME.

    #7 Given the role assigned Calvinism, it would not hurt to mention scapegoating–with a real goats, unhurt but merely driven into the wilderness–derives its English name from the Old Testament Jewish ractice. That was far more gentle than the homicidal pagan examples cited from Frazer. This more gentle source was the root of Calvinism, a belief defining itself against paganism.

    #8 That “still essentially puritanical nature of the dominant American culture (remember who first stepped off the Mayflower with what religion in 1620).” The Pilgrims were not Puritans. No matter. America is NOT puritanical and there is a reason for it, drawing on the Mayflower.

    Before about 1815-1820 the northeast (at least New England, drawing on Pilgrims and Puritans) had the Scripture-reading Biblebeaters, and the South had the lax-living Cavaliers. When the intersectional slavery debate erupted, each side, being Protestant, searched the Bible for ammunition. The South found LOTS of Biblical acquiescence with, or endorsement of, slavery. The North found nothing. The sections’ roles reversed in 40 years!

    The dominant section ever since has been, roughly, antipuritanical. That is why today liberal Protestantism is nothing but secular “nice ethics,” and not Biblical literalism

    The illusion of America as Puritanical persists because the only serious, Bible-Protestants (but for Mormons) are usually Southern-connected. How seriously Protestant is New York State at all?


    George Steven Swan

    1. George, Some of your response seems to be based on misunderstandings of points I was trying to make, or else I failed in making them, but we do seem to be at sixes and sevens and I see no profit in making any greater effort to be understood. I knew when I addressed this subject that I would get some problematic feedback, but believe it’s too important and crucial to understanding why the Academy is so passionately hard on Oxford. Having lived in twelve states in almost every part of the US, having lived in Spain and Morrocco, travelled in France, England and Germany, having read widely in the subjects covered in this essay, beginning long before I got interested in Shakespeare’s identity, at the ripe old age of 78 I feel I am as well qualified to address these issues as anyone. I’ll leave your comments in place in case someone else wishes to address them. But thanks as always for your interest.

  10. “Maybe now that the English-speaking culture is attempting to eradicate the evils done during that long-ongoing spasm of sex-hatred, we can relax and see the Earl of Oxford in a clearer light. The least we can do is to take him at face value, and not be picking through his verse in search of a reality that may be ours but that almost certainly was not his.”

    Yes, this.

    We ultimately don’t know what Vere did so we can’t say whether or not his behavior was outside of our social norms. But Oxfordians need to admit that whatever he did, it was clearly outside the social norms of that period.

    This link brings you to the first of the 8 sequential posts last month on The Festival Robe. There’s extremely important evidence there concerning both Vere’s sexuality and the reasons for his disgrace as perceived in the 18th and early 19th century.

    1. Christopher, I took a quick look at the page you sent and see that I don’t agree with your premise. My studies have led me in a different direction. I’ll leave it up in case others find it interesting.

  11. I think this has to be one of the most important chapters in the history of the English language, of English letters and of the history social affairs.
    A greatly astute and a very important synthesis is made here.
    So, I point out affectionately the few minor typos which marr the surface and can be easily corrected:

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