The major reason why, so far, it has been impossible to prove conclusively Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon, is the fact that there are simply no records of what, considering the impact it has had on the lives of English-speakers ever since, of what must have been an astonishing phenomenon at the time. This, of course, was the sudden appearance, almost overnight, of the first two commercially successful, purpose-built public theaters in England: Burbage’s great open air theater in Shoreditch, north of the City, and the first indoor theater, known to historians as the First Blackfriars Theater, located in the southernmost corner of the City Wall, as close as possible to Westminster. How can it be that this major advance in human communications, equal in impact to the advent of the printing press, the radio, the telephone or the internet, something that took place in the teeth of tremendous controversy, how could it have left so little in the way of official records?
In researching these matters, again and again I found myself running into what seems to be an interrupted narrative, the interruption occurring just where I would expect to find relevant material. Eventually it became necessary to face the fact that this couldn’t possibly be ascribed to accident. Accidents are random; when disappearances exhibit patterns it becomes ever more likely that such blanks reflect a purposeful intent to alter what should have been a feast of references.
In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s 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 Wisner 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 in those times, have hopelessly vanished. With them have disappeared the voluminous and detailed correspondence and memoranda covering the origin, selection, licensing, casting, mounting, costuming, rehearsal and finished production of literally scores of plays, including Shakespeare’s. (121-22).
He then quotes A.L. Rowse who mourns the fact that the Burbages’ papers did not survive as did Henslowe’s notebooks. An expert businessman, as the success and duration of his theater proves, did Burbage simply not bother to keep records?
In 1912, C.W. Wallace, complaining of 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). Were no accounts kept before 1581, or did someone get rid of them after she died? 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans, with Lyly answering to Lord Burghley.
Among the paper trails that have mysteriously vanished are those followed by David H. Horne while he was writing his biography of George Peele, published in 1952. Peele was the purported author of several plays from the early days of the First Blackfriars Theater. A student at Christ Church College Oxford from 1571 to 1579, Peele had returned to London in 1581, the year Oxford was banished from Court. Regarded as author of the only surviving play known to have been produced at the First Blackfriars Theater by the Children of the Chapel, The Arraignment of Paris, he, like Munday, was also involved in creating the public shows the City produced for visiting dignitaries.
So far there’s no direct evidence that connects George Peele to Oxford such as we have for Munday and Lyly. In discussing the “continuous tradition of amateur acting at Christ Church” College at Oxford (a tradition that appears to have begun with Palamon and Arcite during the 1566 commencement when Oxford and Rutland were awarded Masters degrees), Horne complains about his inability to provide further details: “unfortunately the Disbursement Books, from which come most of our knowledge of the plays, are missing for the greater part of the period of Peele’s residence.” He adds in a footnote, “These are the first of many records which have hiatuses at the exact places where they might be expected to yield information about Peele.”
William Ingram, in his Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London (1992), notes that there is a great deal more information on the companies playing in the provinces in the 1580s, gleaned from local records, than there is for the London companies, this despite the obvious fact that London was the great center for English play production. “There are simply not many direct references to plays and playing in the City from the middle third of the century. An historian concerned with events in the City will have to find alternative kinds of evidence to consider. . . .”
Gingerly avoiding the issue of the missing impresario (an issue that Wallace was brave enough to address), Ingram speaks of the “unfortunate remedy in our own time, namely the general avoidance of biographical study as a component of Elizabethan theater history. . . ; when we do make use of biographical material . . . it is often in the service of some other agenda.” Is this due to “avoidance,” or to the fact that there simply isn’t enough to make use of?
Missing Privy Council minutes
In the first paragraph of his Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, 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.” Lacunae is Latin for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” As listed by Chambers, these lacunae are eight periods where the minutes of the Privy Council are missing, and since it’s most unlikely that the Council failed to take minutes during these periods, the question becomes, why the blanks? Since several of these missing sections cover periods when it’s likely that the Court Stage, and/or the Stage in general, would have been a matter for intense discussion by a Council wherein at least two of its members had become patrons of two of these theaters, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that someone in a position to alter the record, did so on purpose. Following are the eight lacunae cited by Chambers:
1: May 1559––May 1562: This three-year blank took place at the beginning of the reign when little effort was being expended on holiday entertainment. It covers the period when Ambassador Throgmorton was petitioning Cecil to have Sir Thomas Smith sent to France, which would have left the twelve-year-old de Vere without a tutor, a period followed by the death of Earl John that August. Three months later comes a second hiatus;
2: September 1562––November 1564: It was during this two-year period that plays began replacing masques at Court. It begins with Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, continues through the period when Richard Edwards supposedly took over the Children of the Chapel and when Paul’s Boys first appeared at Court, through the winter holiday of 1563-64 at Windsor, where the Court was entertained by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under Richard Farrant, later Master at the Blackfriars School. It covers the period when when Damon and Pythias was performed for the Court during the commencement exercises at Cambridge University, when Oxford and Rutland were given Masters degrees.
3: December 1565––October 1566: These ten months represent the period when Paul’s Boys, performing three plays over the Christmas holidays, rose to the level they would maintain for the next thirty years. On New Year’s Day, Sapientia Solomonis (“The Wisdom of Solomon”) was performed for the Privy Council by students at the Westminster School, during which a velvet sword scabbard belonging to the Earl of Rutland was broken (Holmes 77-8). On February 19th, when Oxford was fifteen, Lord Montague produced a masque at his City mansion in Southwark for the wedding of his 13-year-old daughter, Mary Browne, to the young Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen; his Romeo was fifteen). In June, Oxford and Rutland received Masters degrees at Oxford University, where later that summer Palamon and Arcite was performed for the Court.
4: May 1567––May 1570: During this three-year blank in the Privy Council minutes, the Court scribe recorded the titles of eight plays performed over the Christmas holiday of 1567-68 that touch the history of Shakespeare’s works including the King of Scots, Wit and Will, and Orestes. In addition to the plays performed by three Children’s companies, adult companies joined the roster. For the Christmases of 1568-69 and 1569-70: Rich’s Men, Paul’s Boys and the Chapel boys performed one play each.
5: July 1572––February 1573: It was during this six-month period that Sussex took control of the Court Stage away from Leicester, opening the door for more plays by the Earl of Oxford. That Christmas saw Oxford’s man Lawrence Dutton act as payee for Lane’s Men, the first of a yearly series of holidays in which Dutton was payee for two more companies, companies that in 1580 would be revealed as Oxford’s.
6: June 1582––February 1586: This three-and-a-half-year stretch (the longest of Chambers’s lacunae) includes the latter half of Oxford’s period of banishment when productions of Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, attributed to his secretary John Lyly, were performed by Oxford’s Boys on the Blackfriars School stage. The spring of 1583 saw his return to Court, the death of Sussex, the creation of the Queen’s Men by Walsingham, and probably also the first versions of plays like Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Julius Caesar, produced for his Inns of Court audience, possibly on the Blackfriars School stage, plus Romeo and Juliet produced for the public at Burbage’s Theatre. Over the Christmas of 1584-85 Oxford’s Boys performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.
7: August 1593––October 1595: It is simply not possible that the creation of the “theatrical duopoly” by two members of the Privy Council, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Henry Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by Charles Howard, would have left no trace at all in the minutes. This is also the period that saw the Cecils’ takeover of Walsingham’s office; the first Marlowe sting in Flushing; the Dutch Church libel, the torture of Thomas Kyd; the hanging of John Penry (May 29, 1593); and the assassination (or transportation) of London’s most popular playwright, Christopher Marlowe (May 30, 1593). It saw the registration in May through June 1594 of the first batch of plays later attributed to Shakespeare; the 1595 wedding of Oxford’s daughter to the Earl of Derby; and the Masque at Gray’s Inn produced by Francis Bacon for Christmas 1594-95 which included a performance of The Comedy of Errors.
After July 1596, with Robert Cecil in supreme power as Secretary of State, in control of the Privy Council and its minutes, only one more large lacuna remains:
8: April 1599––January 1600: This period follows the publication in 1598 of the first plays to bear the name William Shake-speare, a period when Cecil was struggling to maintain his control of the Privy Council against a rising tide of wrath emanating from the group surrounding the Earl of Essex. The Globe was being built on Bankside by the Burbages with timbers from their old Theatre in Shoreditch. While patronage of the company remained with the new Lord Chamberlain, Hunsdon’s son, no patrons’ names were attached to the Globe as this appears to have been paid for by the central actors themselves, thus creating the unique cooperative structure in which they functioned as “sharers,” while protecting the real investors from Cecil’s wrath, since it’s most unlikely that the actors would have had the funds necessary for creating such a structure. It is also during this period that the Burbages were allowed to rent their shuttered Blackfriars Theater to the popular new commercial Children’s company, the “little eyeasses” that Shakespeare derides in Hamlet.
It is also true that the minutes of the Privy Council from January 1602 to May 1613 are missing. According to the National Archives, where the surviving Registers are now located, this substantial loss, covering the entire period that Cecil was Secretary under James, was due to a fire in 1619 that destroyed the old Banquetting House where a great number of government papers had been stored.
Missing collections of private papers
Among the documents that would surely shine a brighter light on the Elizabethan era are the private papers of some of the leading figures in our story, three in particular: the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Essex, all to some extent rivals or adversaries of the Cecils. Some of Leicester’s papers, long thought lost, appear to have been widely dispersed after his death and have recently been catalogued, but these are only a fraction of what there should be considering the place he held in government and society and for how long he held it.
Following Essex’s execution, his papers were appropriated by Secretary of State Robert Cecil, remaining ever since among the collections at Hatfield House. It’s interesting that, in that time of avid playgoing by Essex’s associates, there should be in what remains of Essex’s papers, such a total lack of evidence of his interest in, or patronage of, the Stage, its actors, or its playwrights.
As for Walsingham, all that remains of his papers are the letters that relate to his official duties as Ambassador to France and Secretary of State. According to the author of his DNB biography, their fate after his death was “complicated.” As Walsingham’s brother-in-law, Robert Beale, stated not long after Walsingham’s death, “all his papers and books both public and private were seized on and carried away.” Seized on by whom? Only the Cecils, by then in control of everything related to Walsingham’s office, would have had the authority. In the process all private material was weeded out and has disappeared with the exception of two semi-official diaries or ledgerbooks, one covering the years 1570 to 1583 (Martin, ‘Journal of Sir Francis Walsingham’), and the other 1583 to 1584 (BL, Harley MS 6035). As a result, Walsingham’s official career can be reconstructed in detail, but his personal history remains a blank.
In The Lame Storyteller, a compilation of essays and notes by authorship scholar Peter Moore, he includes items culled from nineteen of the twenty volumes of Cecil family papers known as the Salisbury Manuscripts to which he had access at the University of Maryland library. Among the many mentions of Oxford over the years, Moore notes “the total disappearance of Oxford between 2 June 1590 and 9 March 1595 . . . until we reach the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to William Stanley . . . in January 1596” (251). This of course was the period when Oxford, having been forced by Burghley to sell Fisher’s Folly, wrote the bulk of his sonnets to Southampton, when Marlowe was assassinated, Robert Greene “vouchsafed” to die, Hunsdon launched the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the battle between Cecil and Oxford reached its apex during the Parliament of 1597-98.
It should be clear by now that we will never find that “smoking gun,” that piece of conclusive evidence that will put an end to the Stratford hoax for the simple reason that someone from Shakespeare’s own time devoted a great deal of effort to destroying everything that testifies to Oxford’s connection to the London Stage and Press. That person could only have been Robert Cecil. Driven by his hatred of the Stage for its power over the minds and hearts of the public, its rough treatment of himself and his hatred of its creator for his treatment of his father and his sister, driven by his need to retaliate for the repeated editions of Richard III published every other year during the twenty years he functioned as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth and King James. Only Cecil had the power, the time, and the motivation to wreak such havoc with the record, a record that his powerful descendants have prevented from being seriously questioned for the four centuries that, until very recently, has remained at Hatfield House, the Cecil family home.