As Hamlet put it, “The time is out of joint, O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right.” When it comes to the truth about Hamlet and his creator, it’s been out of joint for a very long time indeed.
To tell the true story of Shakespeare a number of things are required that have been overlooked by the academics, whether accidentally or on purpose. The Academy and its precursors have always assumed and continue to assume that the public was Shakespeare’s only audience, the Court seeing what had been written primarily for the public for purely commercial purposes. This has skewed our understanding of Shakespeare’s purpose to the extent that he cannot be properly understood.
The second greatest misunderstanding is the lack of awareness of the importance of the patrons, and their true role in the creation of the London Stage. The third has been the lack of awareness of the political nature of the Stage, as it was then and as it had always been throughout the ages. The fourth, and in many ways the most destructive to the truth, has been the utter blindness to the dimensions and nature of the evidence that should be in the record, but isn’t. Finally, the prosaic nature of the academic mind has missed, and continues to miss, the importance of humor, the sheer joy in the power to create laughter, from the courtier’s slashing wit to the slapstick antics of its clowns, is something that can be traced from the puns that so distressed Samuel Johnson .
Right from the start Shakespeare wrote with three audiences in mind: the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public. For the most part, the comedies and wedding plays were written originally for the Court. These escaped to the public due to the hunger for entertainment in a London bereft of its Church Calendar by the Reformation. The deeply philosophical plays, those that deal with issues of social justice and the Law were written primarily for the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, often with Parliament in mind. These are the plays with the more obvious political content, and the ones that the actors had the most trouble getting published. But the public may have actually have been his first audience, if, as we believe, he began by writing for Paul’s Boys almost as soon as he arrived in London.
The Academy tends to treat the Privy Council patrons of the major acting companies as mere figureheads, whose only purpose was to provide a legal cover for the actors, with an occasional letter to some official who was giving them grief. The truth is otherwise. Without their powerful patrons on the Privy Council there would never have been a London Stage. It’s clear that some, like the Earl of Leicester, maintained actors as a measure of their social and financial power, but there is little evidence that they influenced their companies’ productions. Others, like the Earl of Sussex, and later Lord Chamberlains like his vice Chamberlains Lord Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, saw the companies they patronized as a means with which to steer public opinion in a desired direction. For them their actors were means to a political end, largely through Parliament. Such a patron was the Earl of Oxford, and while his role as playwright were hidden from the start, there is no argument that he began as a major patron of the Stage.
One of the constant themes throughout the long history of interpreting Shakespeare is the mantra intoned whenever there’s any suggestion that his works were at all political. While some of these misapprehensions are merely stupid and others are genuinely wicked, this one is both. The only possible excuse they have is that they either never studied the history of the period, or that they forgot it after taking the tests. As historian A.F. Pollard, writing in 1919, put it:
No period of English literature has less to do with politics than that during which English letters reached their zenith; and no English writer’s attitude towards the questions with which . . . political history is concerned is more obscure or less important than Shakespeare’s. . . . Shakespeare himself . . . shuns the problems of contemporary politics. The literature of his age was not political . . . and its political writings . . . were not literature. (History of England: 1547-1603)
The truth, of course, is that throughout its entire history, the Stage has always been political. The Dionysia that was the forum for playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles was used to present political as well as philosophical arguments to the public. If we don’t see the connection, due to our lack of awareness of the politics during that period in Greek history, that doesn’t mean there were none. Seneca was a politician, up to his ears in the politics at Nero’s court. Machiavelli was a politician under the Florentine Medici. And how about Mikhail Bulgakov, Bertolt Brecht, Garcia Lorca, how about Arthur Miller and Vaclav Havel? Playwrights have endured blacklists, exile, the torturer, the hangman and the stake. As Alec Wilder put it in his Introduction to American Popular Song, “theater has always dared. It has troubled princes and prelates alike. . . . Possibly no other art has so consistently taken such extravagant chances in provoking authority.”
That the Academy has ignored the evidence that the first and second Blackfriars playhouses were created on purpose to give access to the MPs who gathered in Westminster every three or four years for one of Elizabeth’s infrequent parliaments does not mean that this was not its primary purpose. It does, however, point to the Academy’s gargantuan ignorance, whether incidental or purposeful, of the history of the period.
But the main problem with our history of the Stage is that most of it is missing.
The missing evidence
This lack of evidence is of two kinds, anything that can tie William of Stratford to the world of the London Stage, and anything that can tie the Earl of Oxford to the works of Shakespeare. These have different causes. Evidence for William is missing for the simple fact that William had no such connections. After four centuries of research, we know as much now as we’re ever likely to know about the illiterate William. The voluminous records collected by Halliwell-Phillipps, Chambers, Schoenbaum and others reach as deep into his family history as it’s possible to go, but in all they’ve produced there is no solid unequivocal third-party evidence that establishes him as a writer, an actor, or anything other than a small town entrepreneur, a buyer of land in Stratford, briefly, an evader of taxes in London, and the source of the name that enabled the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to publish the plays with a name in the author’s slot on the title page. All evidence that appears to confirm his status as an actor or a sharer can be seen as red herrings dragged through the record by the Company’s manager, John Hemmings, whose purpose was to sidetrack inquiry.
As for the missing evidence of Oxford’s involvement in the birth of the London Stage and the British Free Press, E.K. Chambers has provided the evidence for what would nornally be easily located in the minutes of the Privy Council during those periods when the council must have been involved in events that turned on the building of the public stages and the civic upheavals they created. In the first paragraph of Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, page 259), E.K. Chambers comments that “It must be borne in mind that orders relating to plays are probably missing (from the Privy Council register) owing to lacunae”; Latin, not for some paper eating caterpillar, but for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” The lacunae in question are eight instances, listed by their dates and without further comment, in which whole sections of the minutes kept by the clerks of the Privy Council are missing. That these are periods when the Stage was causing public commentary is easy enough to show.
It’s been stated often enough how difficult it is to prove a negative, but here the evidence of tampering is simply too great to ignore. In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s 1984 biography of Oxford he quotes Charlotte Stopes: “The volumes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Warrants, which “supply much information concerning plays and players, [are] unfortunately missing for the most important years of Shakespeare history.” He then quotes Charles Barrell that the official books of Edmund Tilney and George Buc, “Masters of the Revels under Elizabeth and James respectively, together with all office records of the Lord Chamberlain who supervised the Masters of the Revels . . . have hopelessly vanished” (121-22)
C.W. Wallace, complaining in 1912 about the lack of information in the Audit Office relating to payments made for plays, notes, “Perhaps if we had the Books of Queen’s Payments we should find the records as in previous reigns. But no such account books of Elizabeth prior to 1581 seem to be extant” (107-8). 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans. And, as noted by Scott McMillin, the records for the City of Southampton that would normally show payments for touring companies are missing between 1594 and 1603, the period when the young Earl of Southampton, by then Master of Tichfield Manor, would normally have been involved in arranging for plays to be produced at nearby Southampton.
Doubtless a more thorough search than mine would turn up a great many more of these lacunae, all of them easily assigned to Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, Earl of Salisbury, whose control over the record during his years as King James’s Secretary of State was unmatched by any other, then or later, and whose motives, as Oxford’s brother-in-law, were equally unmatched.
The missing joie de vivre
It may be that in one way the academics don’t take Shakespeare seriously enough, while in another way they take him much too seriously. They don’t take him seriously enough to see the immense effect he had on history, that he created modern English, that he was the first to put to their greatest use the first theaters ever built in England, or the sheer impossibility that a genius of his stature could ever have worked as a play-patcher or learned from writers like Daniel or Chapman. On the other hand, when it comes to examining his process, they take him much too seriously.
One of the most obvious qualities that strikes those of us who read him for pleasure rather than grade averages or professional standing, is the humor with which every phase of a play is charged. Johnson castigated him for his predilection for puns, not realizing that such shenanigans were half his motivation in writing. In fact it can be said that there was a fourth audience for whom he wrote, one as important to him as any of the other three, namely the small circle of fellow writers, patrons, and gifted actors, the “generals” for whom he produced his “caviar.”
These were an hilarious folk, addicted to laughter, but of a sort way above the public that the academics in their ignorance propound were his primary audience; men and women delighted by wit derived from Renaissance educations of the highest sort and perhaps a good deal else that we can have no notion of today. That he gave the great comedians of his time, men like Richard Tarleton (of the Queen’s Men), Will Kemp (of the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), and John Lowin (of the King’s Men, later their manager after the death of Hemmings) a stage, an audience, and plots to extemporize upon means nothing to these serious fellows, intent upon squeezing every last drop of significance from how often feminine endings may or may not appear, utterly deaf to the beauty that is the ultimate reason we still read his plays and return again and again to see them brought to life.
10 thoughts on ““The time is out of joint””
Dear Ms. Hughes, thanks for this informative post! What are the chances, do you think, that Hamlet was banned or otherwise suppressed due to its parody of Lord Burghley among other things?
I believe that the first version of Hamlet was written in 1583-84 out of intense feelings following the death of Sussex, and that it was performed at the little Blackfriars theater for a small audience of insiders. We can’t know how extreme it was because the style would not have been what it would become later. For instance it would not have had Ophelia die. The style was probably more like the style of The Spanish Tragedy, which was probably written at about the same time. The version we know was a revision from after both Anne’s and Burghley’s death, published in 1604, but probably revised shortly after Burghley’s death at about the same time that the name Shakespeare began appearing on title pages while he was in a struggle to the death with Robert Cecil.
I find it odd that Oxford would satirize his father-in-law because during the 1580s, Burghley helped Oxford in many ways – he asked Walter Raleigh to help get Oxford reinstated at court; he got Oxford appointed Commander of Horse in Holland; he got Oxford a life long pension through the Secret Service; he got votes for Oxford as a Garter Knight; etc. All that clearly was a result of Oxford reconciling with Anne, who bore him three children that decade.
Gary, Oxford wasn’t a “nice” man, few geniuses are. Until Ann Vavasor he suspected all women of being profligate by nature. As for Burghley’s treatment of Oxford during the 80s, apart from working to get his acting company accepted at the universities, I don’t know of any proof that it was he who got him the command under Leicester, or the votes for Garter knight. If this comes from Read, I don’t trust him. He gives Smith’s achievements to Burghley, when he must have known better. Also, we don’t know how Oxford treated Burghley in the Ur-Hamlet, apart from the fact that he named him Corambis (ambivalent heart), he may have portrayed him more politely, or less obviously. The version we know comes after the Cecils attempts to destroy the Stage and impoverish Oxford.
What a brilliant essay, filled with insight and historical context. Many thanks.
Let me add that I believe English, Theater and History professors all decided to remain ignorant of the Elizabethan Era because that allows them to be as theoretical as they want to be into the future – their theories become invulnerable to critical response.
It’s like exotic math for theoretical physicists. It can be whatever you want it to be!
I think as Gary does. Bravissimo!
Spot on! Thank you
I agree with you here on every point and very recently I was helped (again!) by your many insights shared here to reason through what I think is the likelihood that Oxford–speaking of his brilliance combined with his sense of humor–probably first wrote, as a good deal younger fellow, writing under the pen-name of “Francis Thynn” (so Thin he wasn’t even ‘there’ ( ;^) )”The debate between Pride and Lowlines” (date unknown and perhaps never published formally) and then, later, perhaps to help launch his use of the pen-name “Robert Greene”, “plagiarized” his own unpublished work, this time, writing as “Greene” and deliberately reproducing in every detail the same thing that, it was put about, had been previously written by “F. T.” and understood as referring to “Francis Thynn,” this time under the title, “A quip for an upstart courtier“, (1592)– using, as he did (later?) the term “upstart” in “Greene’s” phrase, “upstart Crow”– and essentially creating some Elizabethan-style PR controversy getting people to notice this “debate” and it’s author, “Robert Greene”, who’d have so much more to say in print from that point on.
Here, too, from my recent reading is a citation I found striking and interesting:
(pp. xii, xiv)
(Preface) Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny, (1955), Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press)