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 Oxford-Shakespeare.com 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.
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.