For a good two years following his release from the Tower, Oxford had to be careful whenever he went into central London because Ann Vavasor’s relatives were out to get him. Furious that he seemed to be getting away with his “crimes,” Thomas Knyvett and his men would lie in wait, watching for an opportunity to attack him and his men. As a result, Oxford was forced to restrict most of his theater activities to his own Bishopsgate neighborhood, Burbage’s Theater and the Curtain in Norton Folgate. It’s not much of a stretch to include the neighborhood pub as one of his hangouts. This was the Pye, located on on Houndsditch just outside the City Wall and Bishopsgate, next door to Fisher’s Folly.
Act I Scene 1: The Pye Inn
Our scenario: One afternoon in 1582, having pulled in their server, the innkeeper’s son, to read lines until a missing actor shows up, the Wits discover a star. The boy is a natural, tall, good-looking, with a great theatrical voice and presence. Six months later, 16-year-old Edward Alleyn appears as Romeo at Burbage’s Theater, with Juliet played by Burbage’s 14-year-old son, Richard.
Not possible? Think again. Do we really have to do more than put these three (the era’s great playwright and its two greatest stars) in exactly the same location at exactly the same time?
In hopes that Ann will hear about the play and contrive to see it, Oxford makes use of his actor to say what he can’t say in person. At the beginning of Act II Scene 2, as Romeo sees Juliet appear above him at her bedrooom, he speaks to himself (and the audience) in a stage whisper:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It’s pleasant to imagine that Ann came to see the show; that when he was told she was present he instructed Alleyn, when he came to these lines, to turn to the section of the theater where she was sitting with her friends, and speak them to her directly. “Pay no attention to Elizabeth,” he’s saying, “She’s a sick pup, green with envy. Only fools bow her authority. Do as I do, and cast her off.” As if poor Ann could afford such insolence, as she explains in her beautiful poem.
In any case, since Oxford was aware that the Court knew all about their affair, that they would know exactly who was meant by “the envious moon,” and while certain that Elizabeth herself would never come to the public theater, that many members of the Court could and would and that their reports would probably reach his lover (the mother of his only son), now living with some older family member for safekeeping, Oxford could hope that even if she wasn’t able to get to the theater herself, her friends would report Romeo’s speech to her in detail.
No Court member of Burbage’s audience could miss the connection between Milord’s own drama and the parted lovers, Romeo’s banishment, and the street fights, made thrillingly realistic by regular practise at William Joyner’s fencing academy, located on the floor below the Blackfriars theater. Burbage’s lead actor, Richard Tarleton, was so skilled in swordplay that he gave exhibitions.) Several commonplace books books from the period contain poems that dwell on the romance, several by Oxford, at least one by Ann. Nor would their audience miss the message: that Nature has given Love the power to overcome even the most rigid constraints of prejudice and duty.
And although aware of the risk he was taking , Oxford also knew it was unlikely that any Court member, even members of the Howard family, would endanger their own relationships with the royal shrew, or perhaps even the existence of the London Stage, then in early flower, by informing Elizabeth of what had been said about her at the public theater. Later, when the play gets so popular that Burbage is ordered to perform it for the Queen (winter holiday of 1582-’83?), it’s easy enough to drop the dangerous bits about green and white livery and the “inconstant Moon.”
Oxford’s “unworthy instruments”
Our Poet must have known that this would only add fuel to his enemies’ fires, and indeed a scathing note from one of Ann’s uncles has survived to show what he was up against:
If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown. I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits. Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting mind? Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels? If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers. But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse. For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer. (Nelson 295-6)
The term “unworthy instruments” is ambiguous, unless, of course, Vavasor means plays. That this note was written shortly after Romeo and Juliet appeared on the public stage is suggested by the reference to “that shadow of thine,” by which I feel certain he meant Oxford’s involvment in the London Stage. Oxford is “so much wedded” to this “shadow” that, according to Vavasor, he has lost all concern for his honor as a lord.
Surely Vavasor is saying: 1) that if Oxford wasn’t so sexy his niece would never have lost her virtue, and that 2) despite some unspecified punishment already dealt him––possibly the wound he got in a street fight on March 3, 1582––he’s gone on to do something else to aggravate Vavasor––perhaps produce Romeo and Juliet on the public stage, not the sort of behavior Vavasor expects of a manly man. Thoughtfully he gives Oxford the opportunity to redeem his masculinity by means of a duel––which, of course, never happens, writing plays being so much more effective and enjoyable than risking one’s life over a fool’s concept of honor.
This scenario places the first version of the play Romeo and Juliet sometime after March 3, 1582, when Oxford was wounded, probably shortly after.
The Vavasor note, found in Burghley’s papers, is dated “19 January, 1585” in Burghley’s hand, but since there’s no other indication that they were still fighting in the streets in 1585––the last documented event was February 21, 1583 (Nelson 283)––the note was probably dated when it came into Burghley’s possession, not when it was written January 1585 was just prior to the time when, for practical reasons having to do with his efforts to get the Queen to give him a command in Holland, Oxford was more closely involved with his father-in-law than usual, and more likely to have passed on to him some of his papers, particularly those that showed how important it was to have a chance to redeem himself.
Alan Nelson assumes that the word shadow (296) refers to a member of Oxford’s family––barely possible and most unlikely. Although shadow as a derogatory term for a parasite or hanger-on was in use at that time (OED), it makes no sense that, in 1582, when according to Burghley, Oxford had only a single page to attend him, he was “devoted” to some unknown parasite. The OED gives us another meaning in use at that time that works a little better: “6b: a portrait as contrasted with the original; also . . . an actor or play as contrasted with the original.” That’s more like it.