Dating the plays by Oxford’s biography

Now that we know something of Oxford’s personal timeline we can begin to locate the moment when it’s most likely he was inspired (or driven) to write the first version of a particular play. This is complicated by the fact that all but one or two of his greatest plays are the result of his own revisions over the years (not to mention changes made by the editors of the First Folio) and by the fact that a number of his early plays have been assigned by academics to other writers. Thus the following assignment of most of these first versions, however based on data and common sense, is necessarily largely conjectural. For all but a few, an effort to prove his authorship would require a long article for each, while this essay is simply an effort to organize them into a hypothetical timeline as a starting point for more detailed research. The dates of these important turning points in his career are 1562, 1576, 1581, 1589, 1597, and 1604.

Because so many of the plays reflect incidents in Oxford’s life, characters and plots that reflect it are the most determining factors, but style is also important. The first period begins with his arrival in London and the publication of the sweet love poem Romeus and Juliet. When seen as his chosen means of attracting female companionship, it seems clear that it succeeded with at least one attractive and intelligent girl, Mary Browne, daughter of the wealthy and important courtier, Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montacute (Montague) who, sadly, was a confirmed Catholic. As his first love, she was also one of his longest (in later years, mother of the 3rd Earl of Southampton, the “Fair Youth” of the Sonnets). At the time of her marriage to the 2nd Earl of Southampton, February 19, 1566, Mary was thirteen and Oxford was fifteen, the same ages of the lovers that someday Shakespeare will place in the literary firmament of stars. 

1562: Arrival at Cecil House; The Court; Paul’s Boys

To Romeus can be added plays created for the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral and their master, Sebastian Westcott. Known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, Westcott’s little company almost immediately became the primary entertainers for the Queen’s winter holidays. To this period can be added the plays written for the university commencements at Cambridge in 1564, Damon and Pythias; and at Oxford in 1566, Palamon and Arcite (ignore the references to Richard Edwards, Oxford’s cover at this time.) During this period Oxford converted the choristers at the Queen’s Chapel at Greenwich Palace to a second boys company, known as The Children of the Chapel.

Following the death of his father in 1562, the new Earl of Oxford spent his teen years as a ward of the Queen, entertaining her Majesty while squirming under the thumb of her “favorite,” the Earl of Leicester. Though technically her Master of Horse (the chief military post) Leicester, (still only Robert Dudley) had assumed control over those Court functions not directly within the purview of her Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, with whom Oxford was housed at that time. During these years, while Dudley was profiting from the Queen’s gift of the “management” of Oxford’s inherited estates, his jealousy caused him to do whatever he could to prevent the brilliant youth from establishing himself as a force in European literature, an area Dudley claimed for himself, not as a writer, but as the Court’s leading literary patron at that time. Leicester and his adherents, based in the Inner Temple in Westminster, would fight Oxford for years over control of the Court Stage. 

1571, the year Oxford turned 21, fortune finally began to smile upon him. With his former tutor, Sir Thomas Smith now Secretary of State (Cecil having moved on to the more lucrative office of Lord Treasurer), plus the advent of the sophisticated Earl of Sussex as the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, suddenly Oxford had supporters at Court who were not afraid of Leicester.

Sussex had a forceful personality, and soon showed his determination to take control of those areas that traditionally belonged to his office, among them Court entertainment. Surely this was the moment when Oxford became the Queen’s Minister of Pastime (without portfolio). Now officially an adult, he began writing for the adult actors, who, unlike the boys, were old enough to earn a real living by entertaining the public at theater inns and Guild halls. In this they had the tacit support of Elizabeth, for unable to support them herself, due to the puritan attitudes of her most important ministers, she knew they had to find a way to survive.

Surely Sussex must also have played a part in persuading the Queen and Burghley to finally allow him the “Grand Tour” of the Continent that he had been demanding since turning 21, the traditional cap to the education of a peer, which they had been denying him, primarily for fear that he’d join one of the enclaves of wellborn English catholics overseas and they’d never see him again.

Plays that originated during this period (revised later for Court and public performance) include Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cymbeline, As You Like It, Macbeth, Richard II, Woodstock, Ironside, and the True Tragedies.  

1576: Oxford returns from Italy; the first commercial public stage

With Oxford’s return from Italy in March 1576 came the creation that summer of the great public stage on the major highway leading into London. Built to hold two to three thousand viewers at a sitting, the poorest members of the working class, for only a penny (the cost of a small loaf of bread) could see the show from the orchestra pit. Every day of the week but Sunday, upwards of two to three thousand members of the London public, poor or wellborn, male or female, young or old, gathered in the great stage every afternoon but Sunday, from four to six pm, for the next twenty years. 

Thus was created, not just a theater, but an immense public audience greater than anything that could be reached anywhere near as directly, either by the Church or by the State. To these years can be assigned early versions of many plays that would later be polished to the form we know from the First Folio, among them all the plays based in Italy: The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale

1581: Fisher’s Folly, plays about history and politics, the Queen’s Men

The first major turning point in Oxford’s career was the unhappy day in March 1581 that his son by maid-of-honor Ann Vavasor was born in the Queen’s chamber. He spent the next two months in the Tower, where he sat upon the ground and told himself sad stories of the deaths of kings. His friends would have brought him books, among them the Geneva Bible, a traditional companion for an incarcerated friend, causing him to ponder the relationship between Saul (Elizabeth) and David (himself).

Following two months in the Tower he was remanded to house arrest at Fisher’s Folly, the estate in Shoreditch he’d just finished renovating, a five minute walk to and from the big public theater he had helped to fund on land controlled by his friend from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland. Together with his secretaries, first Anthony Munday, then (following Munday’s shameful destruction of Edmund Campion) John Lyly, and actor and musician friends like the Bassanos, he hung out at the Pye Inn just around the corner, where he discovered the 16-year-old Edward Alleyn, younger brother of the inn’s owner John Alleyn.  

With nothing compelling him to provide the Royal Bitch with comedies, Oxford turned to what had been his favorite audience ever since his days at Gray’s Inn, the lords and lawyers of the legal colleges, the Inns of Court in Westminster, where he found ways to shake his spear at those who were calling him a traitor (any sort of Court offense could be considered treason), in plays that examined issues of betrayal, Timon of Athens, a blast at the courtiers who had turned on him as soon as the Queen withdrew her favor, and Julius Caesar, murdered by the noble Brutus, who, like himself, was torn between loyalty to a leader and the human freedoms threatened by that leader. 

This was also the most likely moment when the first version of Hamlet was written, though it could not have been anything like what it would become by the time Oxford’s patrons finally got it published in the 17th century. Most probably first written following the death of Sussex, who had begun to fail about the time Oxford was banished, his death blamed by some on Leicester.

Sussex had been something of a father figure for Oxford. Now, with him gone and no one to take his place, the Queen still bitter about his affair with Vavasor, Leicester was again in a position to keep him cornered. It’s also the perfect moment for The Spanish Tragedy (wrongly attributed years later to Thomas Kyd, his scrivener), which provides a taste of his style as it was in the mid-eighties.

Reinstated at Court two years later by Sir Francis Walsingham, now Secretary of State, who (silently) stepped into Sussex’s shoes as patron of the Court Stage, (ignore the standard depiction of Walsingham as having no interest in the theater), and who needed Oxford to supply the touring company he’d just created with rousing plays meant to stimulate patriotism, which Walsingham, in creating the Queen’s Men as a touring company, sent to play for the folk along the shores where he was certain the Spanish Armada would attack.

As the Queen’s Men, the first acting company given royal sanction, it was led by the leading actors of Oxford’s Company, the Dutton brothers. With the comedy team of Richard Tarleton and Will Kempe to provide the laughs, the company was a great success with the public, and also at Court where the Queen’s Men would dominate the winter Court Calendar for the next ten years. Plays written during this period include Ironside and James IV, and early versions of King John and Henry V.

1589: bankruptcy, Walsingham’s death; Southampton and the Sonnets

The leap in Oxford’s writing style from Spanish Tragedy to Romeo and Juliet came with the death of Anne Cecil in June of 1588, shortly before the showdown with the Spanish Armada. With Anne gone, also gone was her father’s hope for a son whose status as heir to the Oxford earldom would open his door to the upper peerage. With his dynastic need to support Oxford gone, and his outrage over plays like Hamlet and Pericles intensified by the deaths of both his daughter and his wife, Burghley used his status as Lord Treasurer to nullify Oxford’s primary source for funding the London Stage, his credit as a peer of the realm. 

Essentially bankrupt, Oxford was forced to sell Fisher’s Folly and say goodbye to all but one or two of the team of secretaries, poets and musicians. Now in his forties, he ended up at Mme. Penne’s, a hostelry for men of class and uncertain means located between Blackfriars and the Mermaid Tavern near Long Wharf. With his companies dispersed and his actors out of work, he whiled away the hours writing sonnets for and about his one remaining patron, the teenaged Earl of Southampton, and the mistress they came to share, the dark-eyed musician and poet Emilia Bassano. From this period came the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. From these efforts also was born the voice known to historians as Shakespeare’s.

The sudden death of Walsingham in 1590 initiated a series of deaths in the 1590s that would open the door to the Cecils’ takeover of the government and bring the endangered London Stage to the verge of collapse. One in particular, the 1593 murder of playwright Christopher Marlowe by government agents, a sting obviously masterminded by William Cecil’s son Robert, cries out for an in-depth examination by an authorship scholar that will correct the notions purveyed by Charles Nicholls’s The Reckoning, the best source so far for the plot to take down Marlowe, despite his absurd attempt to put the blame on Essex.

1594: A second marriage; The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Henry IV

Meanwhile Oxford’s long time patron, Henry Carey Lord Hunsdon, having been made Lord Chamberlain in 1587, together with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, were working behind the scenes to find a way to save the London Stage. Hunsdon, the Queen’s cousin (possibly her half-brother if Henry VIII was his father as was rumored) and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, both long time patrons of the Stage, enrolled by Sussex as his vice-Chamberlains back in the 70s, came up with what academic Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly.”

Their idea was to split the authority over the London Stage between them. Hunsdon’s team, to be known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would have Oxford as playwright, what was left of the Queen’s Men, the public Theatre in Norton Folgate for their stage, popular comedian Will Kempe as their star, and the brilliant businessman John Hemmings as their manager. Howard’s team, the Lord Admiral’s Men, would consist of Philip Henslowe’s team at his Rose Theater in Southwark, Marlowe’s playbook, and the popular Edward Alleyn as both their star and stage manager. Much about this crucial moment in theater history would be clarified if someone could examine Henslowe’s Diary, which covers the most important period in this story, the fight to save Oxford’s public audience. 

Many of the plays from this time are revisions of his earlier plays. Plays created for Hunsdon’s team include Henry IV parts one and two, Othello, a revision of Henry V, and the creation of Falstaff, who became so popular as performed by Will Kempe, that in 1597, when no comedy scenes had been provided for him that season in Richard II and Richard III, Kempe took off on his own, leaving Oxford to manufacture an offstage death scene in Henry V, in which the death of Falstaff is described as a repeat of the death of Socrates, perhaps a gracious tip of the hat to the great comedian.

Oxford left Penne’s in 1592, the Queen, perhaps at Hunsdon’s suggestion, having arranged a marriage for him with one of her wealthy ladies-in-waiting. They moved to King’s Place in Hackney, where he provided his new wife with and her family with an heir to the Oxford earldom, and where he had what he needed to provide The Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays. The remaining  reigns from the Lancastrian cycle that began with Richard II and ended with Richard III were both difficult since neither king offered a story worth telling: Henry VI was a disaster as a king, and Henry IV was hugely unpopular, particularly with those who had loved Richard, including his own son, Prince Hal, whose youthful rebellious attitude towards his father was due to his love and admiration for Richard, as medievalist Terry Jones explains in Who Murdered Chaucer?

Possibly spurred by Hunsdon, who needed plays for his new company, in 1592 Elizabeth arranged a second marriage to another of her Ladies-in-waiting, whose wealthy family would be able to keep him in sufficient comfort that he could continue to provide plays for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Meanwhile, Hunsdon and Burbage began making plans to turn the old Parliament Chamber in Blackfriars into a splendid new indoor theater walking distance from Westminster and the parliaments that took place there every three or four years. 

Given the mandate to provide Hunsdon with plays, Oxford began the process of revising plays Richard II and Henry V, filling the gap between the two with with Henry IV parts one and two. For these he combined memories of his recent time at Mme Penne’s with memories of his years at Fisher’s Folly, turning Marlowe, Kyd and Peele into Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, for whom he created his hilarious sendup of Marlowe’s style.

1597: The showdown with the Cecils: Richard III and the advent of “Shake-speare”

The Cecils were not slow to react. Burghley’s incessant petition to the Queen to make his son Robert the next Secretary of State finally paid off the summer of 1596 while their rivals, the Earl of Essex and his followers were off on the Continent burning the Spanish city of Cadiz. Two weeks later Hunsdon died (unexpectedly from all evidence) and two weeks after that the Queen in her wisdom appointed Robert’s father-in-law, William Brooke Ld. Cobham, to take Hunsdon’s place as the new Lord Chamberlain and consequently patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Elizabeth’s failure to block the Cecils’ coup is a tragic final act to an otherwise exemplary reign. 

A few weeks later the actors got news that the beautiful new theater their father and Hunsdon had created in the old Parliament Chamber would remain closed, thanks to a petition to the Privy Council created by Lady Russell, Robert’s aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law. Evidently Robert Cecil, now with the power to deal a death blow to the London Stage, was clearing the decks for his trial performance as the Queen’s newly appointed representative in the Parliament set to convene the following October.

Thus it was that by the Christmas season of 1597-98, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, led by the Burbage brothers (their father had died the previous February), after twenty years of commercial success, found themselves on the verge of annihilation: both their father and their Privy Council patron dead, their public stage in Norton Folgate closed and not likely to reopen anytime soon, their great new indoor theater in Blackfriars permanently shuttered. As they faced the prospect of a Parliament without any means of providing it with the entertainment that was a large part of the MPs’ pleasure in coming to London, the Company, desperate to save itself, pulled the one arrow left in their quiver, their playwright. 

It is my contention that Oxford revised his earlier True Tragedy of Richard the Third into what we know today as his darkest and most vicious play, Richard III. Friends supplied his Company with a nearby hall where, over the Christmas break, they performed the revised play for an audience of MPs, during which Richard Burbage, in a costume based on Robert Cecil’s standard garb, mimicking his voice and wobbling gait, they conveyed the message that England’s new Secretary of State was a reincarnation of its most evil king. 

The shock waves created by this theatrical coup (however unrecorded or later erased from history) rolled, with the return of the MPs to their home territories, to the furthest corners of the nation. Although every reference to this showdown would be wiped from the record during his fifteen Robert’s years of total power as Secretary of State under James I, something happened the winter of 1597-98 that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to add the phrase “by William Shake-speare” to second editions of both Richard II and Richard III. Thus was Shakespeare introduced to the world as the author of these two current plays, at the same time that an obscure writer published in a pamphlet titled “Wits Treasury” how William Shakespeare was the true author of ten other popular plays plus his “sugar’d sonnets shared among his friends.”  

1604: The death of Adonis, the Forest of Waltham, King Lear and Hamlet

Something, probably the enmity of Robert Cecil, prompted Oxford in the early nineties to return to petitioning the Queen for the return of his family’s ancient stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, an inherited office stolen from the 15th Earl by Henry VIII. Had Oxford been willing, or able, to provide her with the comedies she craved, she may have been more willing to grant his request, but it may also be that she feared that once he had rights to the Forest he would simply disappear into it and she would never see him again, which is, effectively, what he actually did following her death and the new monarch’s willingness to grant him the desired stewardship. Immediately following the King’s grant, sometime early in 1604, came the rumor that Oxford was dead

Since the date given for his death, June 24th, is not only the Summer Solstice, the prehistoric turning point of the year, it is also the traditional date for the death of Adonis and the Feast of St. John the Baptist, traditional messiah of the Society of Freemasons, the Society that would raise the statue to Shakespeare that dominates Poet’s Corner in the Abbey. So the suspicion arises that, given the stewardship of the Forest where he had spent the latter half of his childhood with Smith, Oxford was performing his final disappearing act. Desperate for the privacy to complete his life’s work, desiring protection from his creditors, who from then on would have to deal with his “widow” and her family, he put the business of protecting his works into the capable hands of the Pembroke brothers and Susan, his youngest daughter, his Cordelia. 

It is my contention––based on a good deal of evidence, however circumstantial––that Oxford lived on until 1608 or 09, giving a final philosophical and contemporary spin to those plays that Susan, Ben Jonson, John Hemmings, the Pembroke brothers and their mother Mary Sidney may already have been planning to publish as a collection. In 1591 and 1596, Mary, by publishing her brother’s work, broke for the first time the ancient tradition that literature produced by courtiers should not be made public.

New plays written by Oxford during this final period include King Lear which touches on how he felt about his current treatment at the hands of his older daughters, and Measure for Measure, which perfectly describes how he was pretending to be dead. Plays most obviously revised include As You Like It, to which he added the scenes in which Touchstone and Jaques hang about with Duke Senior, a flattering portrait of King James during one of his hunting expeditions. Oxford would continue until his final days to add bits to The Tempest from reports that came his way from explorers like his mother’s cousin Bartholomew Gosnold whose “discovery” of Cape Cod in 1602 was reported that same year by John Brereton in a pamphlet published by George Bishop. A final version of Hamlet also seems likely, the faithful friend acquiring the name Horatio at a time when Oxford’s cousin Horatio Vere was achieving status as a general in the ongoing continental wars.

Another list tracking what happened to the plays and his audience following his death, would be useful, but since all we are seeking here is a hypothetical timeline connecting the subject and characters of some of his most popular plays with the ups and downs of his life, “the rest is silence.”

5 thoughts on “Dating the plays by Oxford’s biography

  1. The Inns of Court, instead of being ‘in Westminster’ as you have it (‘1581’, third paragraph), should be ‘in easy reach of Westminister’, ‘a moment’s stroll from Westminster’, ‘within earshot of Westminster’, etc. The Inns are not (and never were) located in Westminster.

    1. I take Westminster to begin after Ludgate and the Fleet River. Wikipedia claims it begins with Temple Bar, but back when the Abbey was first built, and Westminster meant the area surrounding the Abbey, when Fleet Street was a dirt road, surely the City of London began after crossing through Ludgate to the area within the City Walls.

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