While it may be understandable why the Academy would cling to the Stratford biography as yet another manifestation of the human tendency to prefer the tried and untrue to anything too radical, there is a peculiar intensity to its hatred for Oxford that provokes curiosity. Why would academics like Lawrence Stone choose him as its poster boy for what he calls “ an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites”? Why would Alan Nelson choose to believe convicted traitors like Henry Howard and Charles Arundel over one of the Queen’s favorites? It seems there’s more to this than meets the eye, nor are we going to understand what Oxford has been up against, both during his lifetime and ever since, until we know what it is.
As described in the previous blog, at the launch of the winter holiday season of 1580-’81, Oxford, then at his peak of his popularity at Court, went down on his knee before her Majesty and an assortment of the nation’s top peers and officials to ask forgiveness for having illegally attended Catholic Mass with His cousin Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel. The Queen, taken by surprise in holiday mood, had all three detained while she went on with her big annual party. Letting Oxford go free the following day, she had Howard and Arundel put under arrest with Christopher Hatton, where Howard remained for four months, Arundel then removed to the Tower where he remained a good deal longer.
We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors, from the questions Oxford gave rackmaster Norton so he could interrogate them and from their own statements in defense. The French ambassador waited several weeks before informing his king, doubtless until he could be certain about what was going to happen to himself since he had been implicated along with Howard and Arundel.
Dismissed as “libels” from the start, the statements that these two (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their own defense consisted of nothing but an attack on Oxford’s character. Clearly their strategy was not so much to prove their innocence, something it’s clear they could not do, as to portray him as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his dear friends, those whose only purpose in life was to honor and serve her gracious Majesty, yadda, yadda, yadda. According to history, no one at the time believed what they said since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under constraint, nor is there any indication that any of their assertions were ever verified by the courtiers they named as witnesses to his wickedness. Why then has the Academy chosen to believe them and not Oxford?
If we choose to believe the record, it’s obvious that Howard was guilty as charged, since Walsingham, who devoted the following three years to tracking down evidence with which to indict him, had him and another conspirator, Thomas Throgmorton, arrested in late 1584 for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as he heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, Arundel demonstrated his innocence by immediately departing for the Continent where it’s believed he authored that scathing piece of sedition, Leicester’s Commonwealth.
How is it then that at the turn of the present century English Prof. Alan Nelson had no trouble finding a university publisher for his so-called “biography” in which every incident in Oxford’s life is framed in the light of these libels? Titled Monstrous Adversary, a phrase he took from one of Arundel’s thrusts, Nelson, it seems, is so enamored of these accusations that it hardly matters that it came via two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both arrested and imprisoned, Howard with Throgmorton, who was later tried and executed for treason, while Arundel’s guilt was demonstrated by the rapidity with which he hightailed it to the Continent following news of Howard’s arrest. (Where Wikipedia’s biographer of Arundel got the notion that he and Howard were “eventually cleared” is a mystery; the history of the incident is clear.)
The “greatest wastrel of them all”
The only possible explanation is that Nelson’s way had been prepared well in advance by centuries of damning references by historians, journalists, novelists, publishers and reviewers. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labeled the Earl of Oxford and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford as “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Nor was this anywhere close to the beginning of this onslaught, for by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been disdained by historians whose information came to them through the Cecils, whether through their control of the State papers or their vast collections at Hatfield House (notably by Dugdale in his Baronage of England, 1675, repeated by Sidney Lee in his DNB biography of Oxford c.1890).
The sorry fact is that every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has felt it compulsory to introduce it with a pejorative, such as “the notorious Earl of Oxford,” as he was called by John Lyly’s biographer Warwick Bond. “The profligate Earl of Oxford,” “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford . . . the violent . . . dissolute . . . feckless . . . atheistic . . . arrogant . . . supercilious . . . spoiled . . . pathologically selfish . . . ill-tempered . . . disagreeable Earl of Oxford,” to list but a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read he was “a cad . . . a renegade . . . an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel” (this last because his mother’s family, the Goldings, were only gentry!).
Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his roaring twenties. Having left a record of feuds with his fellow courtiers (albeit no murders), later, when he was creating the two City stages and busy writing plays to keep the actors busy, because he kept a low profile, there’s nothing to offset the record of his youthful pecadillos. Filling the gap left by this absence of information, we have only his in-laws whose hands-on control of the record for some 50 years means that only the letters and other documents that reflect well on themselves (and badly on those that displeased them) survive, giving historians no choice if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House; and 2) if they were to attract the attention of an Establishment publisher.
Yet much of the problem remains Oxford’s own fault, for if in fact it was he who lampooned Leicester as Robert Shallow and Philip Sidney as Master Slender in Merry Wives, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, William Brooke Lord Cobham as Oldcastle/Falstaff, not forgetting William Cecil as Polonius or Robert Cecil as Richard III, this would certainly be cause enough for these men and their families to hate him, and for both his friends and his enemies to approve the need for secrecy when it came to identifying the author of the plays that, by the 1590s, had become so popular that by then all efforts to stop them were doomed to failure.
If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as the biographies of geniuses invariably attest, life with such a one is never easy. We must have compassion for Burghley when he groans to his diary: “no one can envy me this match!”
None of this, however, has done Oxford the kind of posthumous damage that’s attributable to the Howard-Arundel libels, the long, slow-acting revenge that lay more or less dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP, the Calendar of State Papers. until Looney’s book sent the Stratford defenders in search of something with which to ward off this new and most dngerous threat to the sacred biography. There, just waiting to explode, they found the libels. Thence cometh the storm of pejoratives, overkill for a reckless aristocrat, but well deserved for a “monstrous adversary, who would as soon drink my blood rather than wine” as Arundel put it, with the kind of rhetorical flourish that so delights a middle class historian with a bloody toff in his sights (Nelson 214).
These libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, might 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 he ought, 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 good reason to hate, and may well have made some outrageous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading figure at Court is absurd. Obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any one of them confirm any one of Howard’s accusations, himself a figure of dubious reputation, already under suspicion of plotting against the state and blamed by many for involving his brother in the plot to marry him to the Queen of Scots, the plot that ended his life.
However these charges were perceived at the time, none 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 until it may be what has cost Oxford his posthumous reputation, the real reason for all those otherwise groundless pejoratives. This was the charge that he “polluted” his young pages.
A certain hysterical tone
In researching the history of the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the tone of some of the “Documents of Criticism” in Volume IV of Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage that a strangely familiar ring. At some point it came to me: the tone with which the 16th-century preachers thundered against theaters and plays had the same shrill tone we hear when today’s evangelicals, inheritors of the Devil and his lust for sinners, rant against gays, legal abortion, and Planned Parenthood, all connected in some way with that great bogey of the evangelical reformers, sex.
It seems that 19th-century academics, infected by the homophobia to which the entire English establishment had succumbed by then, caused them to fasten on Howard’s charge with the same sick excitement that the idea of sex between men was arousing in the English at large. When Delia Bacon’s theories on the Shakespeare authorship question named Oxford as one of the group led by Francis Bacon that (she theorized) had co-authored the plays, anyone pursuing what was known about Oxford could easily have found the Howard-Arundel libels in the State papers.
With the same hysterical enthusiasm that had women turning out by the thousands to stone the victims of their mania (Louis Crompton, Byron and Queer Love), Howard’s accusation, however unproven and ignored by his contemporaries, was too compelling to treat objectively. Thus, although Stone and his predecessors would appear to base their hatred of Oxford on his treatment of his in-laws and the reckless sale of his inheritance, the tone of their pejoratives can only be explained by these libels, in particular the charge that at that time had the entire 19th-century British establishment in a state of frenzy, the one that allowed them to label him with the uber-pejorative homosexual, for nothing else in the record could possibly justify the intensity of this 19th-century hatred for a long-dead nobleman.
The very term homosexual derives from this period, when the sexual inquisition sought to justify its methods by lending them a scientific tone. The term used in Oxford’s day and for centuries after, was sodomite, the basis for the uniquely English curse “sod off!” meaning “fuck off!” or the term “poor sod” for someone in trouble.
Seeking what could possibly connect the homophobia of the 19th century to the hysterical rants by 16th-century evangelical bishops against the London Stage, one factor was evident, both derived from an irrational fear of sex. It was not until other aspects of the latter half of the sixteenth century revealed a connection that the reason for this sex-revulsion appeared. This was the same general period when: 1) puritanism took hold as the ruling policy of the English Reformation, growing and spreading until it culminated in the civil war of the 17th century with its 20 years of puritan control of society, and 2) the syphilis epidemic.
Calvin, syphilis, and original sin
Early in the 16th century, when Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of the Church and the nations of northern Europe moved to take control of their lands and wealth away from Rome, these grim political and economic issues came with a great nostalgia for what many imagined was the purity and simplicity of the early Christian Church. When the protestants who fled under Mary returned under Elizabeth, they formed a united front in Parliament and on the Privy Council (John Neale, Elizabeth and her Parliaments, Chapters I and II) that determined so much about the nature of the English protestant church from then on. Mary’s Catholic bishops along with the more measured tenets of the Lutherans back from Frankfurt were overwhelmed by the numbers and wealth of those returning from Strasbourg and Geneva where they had absorbed John Calvin’s beliefs and policies. So harsh, so frightening, so restrictive were these that it must beg the question how they were able to attract so many followers.
As explained in 1989 by the sociologist Stanislav Andreski, professor of comparative sociology at the Polish University in London, the answer lies in the fear of syphilis which, as the English were all too aware by the time of the exiles’ return, was spread through sexual intercourse. Having seen, or experienced, the suffering it caused, not only to the victim, but also to his wife and their children, and even, as they were surely already aware by then, to their children’s children, at a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this blow to the very root stock of the human race to be interpreted by the protestant bishops and their congregations other than as punishment for their sexuality? “In Adam’s fall, we sinnéd all.”
For a frightened and vulnerable population, halfway measures would not do. The pendulum of public concern swung, not to a rational call for caution, but all the way to the opposite extreme: a rigid puritanism that saw all pleasure as the pathway to sex and sex as the pathway to damnation. And as plays were meant to give pleasure, therefore plays must be sinful and the Stage the “sink of all sin.”
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 sinful nature of the stories, the “lascivious writhing” of the actors, and the fact that men and women sat next to each other in the audience. For the Elizabethan evangelicals the door to the theater was the entrance to Hell. In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the 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 understand 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 in small type that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate these doorways to damnation. Clearly, a writer or patron who had a reputation to protect would have wished to keep his connection to the London Stage as private as possible.
There can be no doubt that the English Reformation with its focus on purity of religion and lifestyle and, most of all, its negative attitude towards sex and all sources of pleasure, was turned in this direction by the horrors of this new disease. Possibly brought in from the New World, possibly a more virulent strain of a milder form found in North Africa, wherever it came from it spread terror throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where its effects are still to be seen in the harsh puritanism of extremist Islamic sects like the Taliban.
While earlier historians rarely acknowledge factors like weather or disease as a root cause of political evolution, the increasing relevance of sociology has shown that epidemics like the plague and influenza have had as much or more to do with social change as anything else, and although a lasting sense of shame seems to have prevented both sociologists and the medical establishment from including syphilis in their studies, there can be no doubt that it’s the major reason for both the rants of the 16th-century bishops and the century-long epidemic of homophobia in the 19th that exiled Lord Byron and destroyed Oscar Wilde.
While historians of the Reformation tend to focus on factors like the malfeasance of Catholic prelates, the corruption of the papacy, and the need of the northern European states to establish their own political authority, these fail to account for the harsh nature of the religion that it spawned, in particular the focus on sex as original sin. Nor do they attempt to explain why this harsh, unforgiving and joyless religion should have taken such a powerful and unrelenting hold on the population at large. That it was the fear of syphilis that fueled the sex-averse nature of the English Reformation explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the cruel attitudes towards women and homosexuals that continue to infect American culture. (Recall who it was who first stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, driven by what beliefs.)
The role of the scapegoat
Why the fear of sex that still haunts the Church of England should have shifted to gay men towards the end of the 18th century, culminating in the ferocious homophobia of the 19th, must have something to do with the unpleasant tendency of human societies to relieve its anxieties by turning its most vulnerable minority into a scapegoat.
Louis Crompton, one of the first of the late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its own insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were just 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, rather than move with the liberal tide, England fell victim to one of the cruelest epidemics of mass hysteria ever known in the West.
For roughly 50 years, Englishmen accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. Tortured by the guilt engendered by centuries of indoctrination in the extreme belief that they were born sinners, the English reverted to a stone age method of exorcising their communal sense of guilt and shame. Hatred of gay men became a sort of communal mental illness that infected English society from the lowliest reader of tabloids to the highest levels of the political system, as can be seen by how it was used by the Uriah Heeps of English society to destroy men of otherwise impeccable repute, driving those who did not dare to challenge it either to exile or suicide.
Jeremy Bentham, one of the few English writers who dared to write against this epidemic, (though not daring enough to publish it), describes the expression on the face of one such judge: “He had just come from the Circuit. For an offense of the sort in question he had just been consigning two wretches to the gallows. Delight and exultation glistened in his countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience” (Crompton 21, 30).
Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope or prison were condemned to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, his head held fast in one hole, his hands in others, forced to stand for hours in some public location bib enough to hold the largest possible number of people, police stood by while he and his friend were subjected to the violence of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands (Crompton 21). Screaming abuse, these would pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even bricks and stones, for hours on end. Nor was this for the act itself; since that was difficult to prove (telephoto lenses had yet to be invented) so new laws had to be created so that the police could arrest men socializing at gay clubs just for “attempting to commit sodomy”!
It did not help Oxford’s case that several of these 19th-century gay bars were located on “Vere Street,” although this had nothing to do with the 17th Earl, since it got that name in the 18th century from Sir Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford by the 2nd creation, who at that time owned and developed the area just northwest of the theater district, where Oxford Street and Harley Street are still located.
“Degraded and useless beings”
The barbaric nature of this sexual inquisition is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils by burning, drowning, or stoning to death a “scapegoat,” some vulnerable member of the community whose punishment would expunge the sins of the community at large. In The Golden Bough, anthropologist James Frazer describes such a ceremony as found in an ancient Greek document:
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. (Bough 509).
The word scapegoat shows how at some point back in the Stone Age this ritual got transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be mischievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the innocent creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the cruel and inhospitable wilderness.
Yet while laws have kept pace (however slowly) with the drive towards human rights, scapegoating has continued, erupting whenever humanitarian feelings weaken in the face of increasing tensions, the only difference being the chosen outcasts: witches for causing droughts and diseases; Protestants for heresy; Catholics for treason; southern black Americans for being “uppity”; Jews and gypsies for anything and everything. Even today, Sharia Law allows people of the rural Middle East to stone to death a neighbor accused of adultery. That for a good 50 years, the 19th-century English found it useful to relieve public tension by hanging, or allowing mobs to stone to death, one or more helpless men a year, driving others to exile or suicide, is but one instance in the long dark history of these orgies of violence.
So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice, so dangerous did it become even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest for fear they would end up tarred with the same brush. Nineteenth-century journalists used catchphrases that enabled them to refer to homosexuality without naming it. The DNB, launched in 1885, continued to avoid any mention of it in the lives of their subjects; that some famous figure “never married” is as far as it would go. Men became afraid to show each other affection, in public or in private, for fear someone would “get the wrong idea.” Handshakes took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that might cause the prurient, themselves starved for affection, to “get the wrong idea.” Yet even to this day young boys continue to be sent away to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse than they would normally be at home, cared for by someone who loves them enough to protect them.
Shakespeare and history
Shakespeare, whose name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, became famous only after 1610 when his company, the King’s Men, was first allowed the use of their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars precinct. With this as their major venue, and King James as their major patron and his Queen as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared.
Thirty years later, as Court enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I (his Queen, raised in Paris, preferred the masques of Inigo Jones), for Shakespeare had become old-fashioned. Vanishing along with the theaters during the 20-year Puritan Interregnum, he was returned to favor in the 18th century by connoisseurs like Pope, Johnson, Garrick and Malone. Even so, it was not until the turn of the 19th century, when, based on Malone’s edition of 1783-90, actors like Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons began performing him as originally written, that an educated public took to him with the enthusiasm of the early Stuart period.
With Shakespeare’s genius proclaimed by poets like Coleridge and Swinburne came a resurgence of interest in his identity. Sadly, this interest collided almost immediately with the tidal wave of homophobia then engulfing the English. With Malone’s edition of the Sonnets, finally published in their original order and form with the bowdlerized “she” replaced by the original “he,” a horrified doubt struck the British Establishment: was the great Shakespeare a homosexual?
Suddenly all interest in discovering the truth about the authorship withered away as the Academy bound itself with hoops of steel to the inoffensive Stratford biography; 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, sex-hatred was on the rise again. It was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him, or to destroy him physically, as the fate of Alan Turing, the long-unsung hero of World War II, demonstrates, to the eternal shame of the 20th-century British.
Long discredited by historians who confined their researches to the collections at Hatfield House and the Calendar of State Papers, Oxford’s threat to the sacred dating scheme rendered him vulnerable to the Academy’s version of scapegoating. Henry Howard’s long buried bomb lay ticking in the archives. No matter that it was created by a traitor desperate to save himself from the hangman. No matter that it was only an accusation, one that was never proved or verified by any supposed witness. As with the men who had been pilloried a half century earlier, no proof of such a charge was needed. The accusation was enough. 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, a Queen’s good opinion, could withstand the shame of the accusation. Doubly shameful! Triply shameful! Here’s where it remains within the Academy to this day!
His “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 the accusation that he molested his pages that has denied the Earl his true place in history. While Stone in 1964 withholds the true basis for his denunciation, referring to him only as a violent wastrel, Nelson in 2000 lets no opportunity pass to explain every action of Oxford’s life as motivated either by his violent nature, based on his behavior in his early twenties, or the pathological sexuality Nelson conjures up out of every possible situation.
Ignoring 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 presence of a “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1583––testimony to his role as master of the Children of the Chapel––is of course just more evidence of his depravity. And so forth and so on throughout the entire hagiography.
Rather than evidence of Oxford’s monstrous wickedness, isn’t this rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination? He appears to be similarly skewed at other points as well, describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for the term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary description of Anne is the tepid “comely,” which, going by the lifelike image on her great tomb, would seem a polite exaggeration.
Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, a product of the Cecils’ rage, the Howard libels, and the homophobia still rampant within the airless think tanks of the Academy and its spinoff, the Birthplace Trust, is its version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence with nouns as bricks and adjectives as rotten vegetables.
Shakespeare and sex
The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. And while there are undeniable hints of male-male passion in the plays, why should that upset us? Perhaps as with the seacoast of Bohemia, Shakespeare is telling us something, something the world may not want to know but that nevertheless is true. If we have any experience at all with the theatrical community, are we surprised that the man who created the London Stage may have been what today we would label a bi-sexual? A great propounder of the virtues of nature, of the pollination of flowers by bees, the propagation of apples by grafting, the behavior of stallions when a nearby mare is in heat, most of the relationships he so convincingly dramatizes are those that portray how nature has contrived to propagate the human race by the complex, difficult and sometimes hilarious methods required to combine the genes of a Beatrice and a Benedick so the human race can continue.
As for sex with boys, it’s anyone’s guess. Mine, based on some years of studying my fellow humans, is that men do not molest children unless they themselves have been molested in childhood by a male friend or relative, often one they trusted, even loved. The nature of Oxford’s years with the honorable Sir Thomas, the unlikelihood that Smith would have risked allowing him unsupervised time with anyone he didn’t thoroughly trust, or that any of Smith’s servants would have dared to violate this trust, suggests that unlike so many men at that time, Oxford escaped this kind of damage to his emotional integrity, which, to my way of thinking, makes it most unlikely that he would have ever molested a child himself. Like so much else in this story, this too is merely conjecture, yet how are we to know the truth about anyone’s sex life? I believe we see the truth in Julius Caesar, when Brutus asks his page to sing for him, then, when the boy falls asleep, tenderly decides to let him sleep.
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; if sex plays a part in them, it’s not obvious, as it is in those to the Dark Lady.
What then did he want from the youth? Surely it was his love; he says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and the 20th-century survivors of 19th-century homophobia, love can only mean sex. Well, certainly love is not incompatible with sex, but by no means are they the same thing. As he puts it in Sonnet 129:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Not to trust!––surely that is the point, genuine love is all about trust. As he shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, if not to the purgatory of Calvinism, it leads to the hell of jealousy, the tragic destruction of trust. Only true love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive the years. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written when his time with the Fair Youth had 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.
If we must conjecture
If, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, then we know a few things that earlier researchers may not. Thanks to Claes Schaar and his supporters, we know that the majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s. We also know that this was when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife and oldest friend dead, his followers departed, his in-laws out to deprive him of access to the Stage and Press that he spawned out of his great need to communicate with those fellows of a like mind that he could reach no other way. Living in a hostelry near the river, “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he wrote the Sonnets because he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that’s not Time’s Fool, that “bears it out, even to the edge of doom.”
Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living by then in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he had been enrolled in 1589. More or less on his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love. His own father long since dead, his relationship with the mother from whom he’d been separated since he was six years old, fraught with the tension that accompanies the relationship between many a teenaged male and his mother, young “Rosely” had no friend to sustain him, as Oxford had Rutland and Sussex. Burghley, his guardian, was obviously less interested in him than what could get from him, if not entry to the peerage by marrying him to his granddaughter, then a sizable chunk of his inheritance.
Much as Sussex was 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, to be young, alone, and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. What’s most likely is that they first met when Burghley was urging the youth to marry Oxford’s daughter, and that Oxford, happy to assist, wrote the rather conventional first seventeen sonnets during the autumn of 1590 for Southampton’s seventeenth birthday. Known ever since as the “marriage sonnets”; the lad was touched, he responded, and they met.
A bond was formed out of their mutual need, a bond that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, at which point Southampton, having reached his majority and grown a beard, found himself capable of making his own way at Court, at which point he turned to the one to whom he would give his allegiance from then on, the Earl of Essex, the Rival Poet of Shakespeare’s sonnets. By that time, Oxford, having married again, living in the kind of comfort he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours perfecting sonnets to a youth who, now dangerously allied with Essex, seemed to be approaching that “edge of doom.”
As for the nature of the passion expressed in the Sonnets, why should we care? The rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a prurient concern over something that shouldn’t be our business, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare’s identity was destroyed by their apparent same-sex context. Poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired centuries earlier by a long-forgotten fear of disease, academics have been driven ever since to stick with the impossible Stratford biography, rendering useless all subsequent attempts to bring order to the plays, the early quartos, their dates of composition, and their connection to the history of the period and the life of their author.
If we must conjecture, what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who in his teens was accustomed to wearing makeup and dressing like a girl, was already well-versed in homosexual sex-play by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man whose role, rather than Southampton’s lover, was that of a surrogate father whose job it became to help encourage him as a lover of women, a necessity if he were to marry one and succeed in continuing his line. After all, Oxford’s own sexual needs were being satisfied at that time by the Dark Lady, then by the new wife whose every thought was bent on providing him with an heir. Its unlikely that, himself in his forties, he would have had the testosterone for much more than that.
In any case, what should matter most to the literary scholar is that it was the time spent writing these sonnets, two years or so before the Queen set him up with a wealthy young wife and Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon got him writing again for the Stage, as he wrestled with the fourteen-line format of the sonnet, that gave him the command of the language that today we recognize as Shakespeare. And surely it’s about time that we let him take us to that better place where it’s love that conquers all––not sex, which leads to jealousy and the loss of trust––but the kind described by Plato, the kind that looks on tempests and is never shaken.
The present nauseating addiction to sex, if not to the thing itself, then to imagining it and to the nasty concern with what other people may be doing in private, is one of the long-lasting results of the terror instilled in human hearts back in the 16th century when they first awoke to the horrors of syphilis. The fear of desire this created, one that’s led to a fear of touch, which over time has tended to diminish in some segments of our culture, even in some poor souls to destroy, the natural ability to feel tenderness, or if felt, the ability to express it.
Beginning with Elizabeth’s reign and continuing on through the centuries of Church of England Establishment thinking, how many middle-to-upper class English boys whose souls did not utterly wither for lack of loving nurture, taken from their mothers at birth to be nursed by a professional wet nurse; ignored, beaten, and humiliated by their parents; sent to boarding schools at age six or seven where they were frightened and beaten by teachers, humiliated and sexually abused by older boys (Lawrence Stone, in his 800-page work of sociological fact about the Elizabethan era, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (1977), provides the background for this statement, most notably on pages 100-01, 106-7, 111-12, 132, 167, 171, 496, 493); how many of these boys, desperate for a little happiness, found it in the literatures of the French Pléiade and the ancient Greeks and Romans? How many have been finding it ever since in Shakespeare and the great English poets who have followed in his wake?
Regarded in this light, how is it that Oxford managed to throw off the repressions of “the drab era” to write from a place filled with so much passion and exuberance that we may see him as having rescued happiness itself from the Calvinists whose threats of eternal damnation were being thundered from every pulpit, every published sermon and religious text? It may be that along with the privileges of his social status, Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer) was granted another gift. If, as seems most likely, he was raised from birth to four by a company of ex-nuns, that it was their love, the murmured sound of their voices in the kitchen, their shared laughter at the table, the warmth of their shared embrace, that provided a subliminal memory, one that sustained him through all the tempests and soul-destroying politics of the years ahead, the deeply-held knowledge that there actually was such a thing as unconditional love.
Viewed in this light, his works can be seen as a constant effort to find again in the laughter and tears of his audiences, something of that nourishing love. Though the source lay beyond the reach of memory, was it not this that gave him his life’s purpose, to bring joy and spiritual awakening to those he admired, retribution to those he hated, and a living to the actors and musicians he loved for their power to move him emotionally and who loved him for his determination to use everything at his disposal to provide them with a living and a sense of their true importance?