Category Archives: Birth of British Press

Oxford’s authorship in a nutshell

This seems like the right time to restate the argument that lies at the heart of all the material collected here over the past decade and a half.  It’s a complex thesis, based on a multitude of lesser arguments.  A monolith like the Stratford biography, and all the anomalous notions that have accrued to it over the centuries, will not be replaced with a single article, blog, or book.

Stated simply, the argument, as presented here, holds that the name that adorns the works that laid the foundation for the English we speak today was purchased from its original possessor by the acting company that performed the “Shakespeare” plays.  That company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was forced to do this when, after roughly a decade of performance, it became evident that the plays would have to be published, which meant that there had to be a name on the title page where by tradition there could be seen the author’s name.  Since the real author could not be named (for a whole host of reasons), for the first four years of publication there was nothing but a blank on the plays published at that time where the author’s name should have been.

It was William of Stratford whose name was chosen to fill this slot primarily because it lent itself to a pun that describes the author as shaking a spear.  Thus, although it was a real name, one that a real living and breathing individual could answer to, it was also a signal to the handful of readers who cared about such things that it represented someone who found it necessary to hide his identity.  Such tactics were nothing new at that time.  One of the major failures of the academics who publish on this issue is their blindness to the constant use of anonymity, pen names, pun names, mythological names and initials that we see on and in all these early works, which said academics report without noting it as rather unique in the history of literature, thus relieving them of any need for an explanation.

The issue of who actually wrote these incredible plays, who was actually meant by the pun name Shake-speare, remained well below the horizon of public awareness until midway through the 19th century.  When it finally reached the public through Delia Bacon’s book it launched the present inquiry as one candidate after another was proposed and discussed until 1920 when a British schoolteacher introduced the Earl of Oxford, at which point all oddities and anomalies finally clicked into place.  We’re now three years from the centennial of that revelation, and still the argument remains just that, an argument.  So why keep trying?  Why is this particular argument so important?  

Because it matters who wrote the Shakespeare canon!  The shibboleth: “we have the plays, what does it matter who wrote them?” is nothing more than a tiresome excuse for ignorance. Does it really matter all that much to most of us whether the earth is round or flat, or that it goes around the sun, rather than the other way round, or that my desk is made, not of wood, but of atoms and electrons, or that the water in my glass is actually a combination of two kinds of gas?  If these matter, then surely the source of the language we share with millions of others all over the world matters!

Scorned for centuries as brazen, brash, and bawdy, it was not until a later generation of wits and poets discovered the depths in Shakespeare and the beauties of his language that gradually he’s become revered as one of the greatest psychologists of all time. Even so, the dullness of the philologists who have inherited the plays continues to maintain this ignorance of how he fought with his pen to keep ancient Humanism (Platonism) alive at a time when it was in danger of being destroyed by the ugly visions of hellfire and damnation thundered from the pulpit by Calvinists who, having commandeered the English Reformation, made use of it to spread their hateful doctrine.

If anything matters beyond the getting and spending of our daily dollar, surely it matters who it was that accomplished this amazing feat, plus others for which he’s yet to be credited.  For not only did he write these ground-breaking plays, more than any other single being, it was he who created the forum whereby they reached their audience, the rash of purpose-built theaters that housed what we’ll call the London Stage, at the same time leading the handful of writers and printers who launched the commercial periodical press, which we’ll call the British Free Press. Taken together, these two, the infant Stage and the infant Press, constituted the first manifestations of what today we call the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the people.  If Shakespeare was not the only harbinger of what we’ve come to call Freedom of Speech, he was certainly one of the most effective.

These plays were not merely entertainments spun to tease a lord or set a lady laughing. Even the comedies, but certainly the dramas and the tragedies, were pleas for human understanding (“O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!”) and at a moment in time when they were not merely welcomed but desperately needed.  Further, that they have been purposely and determinedly divorced from their true source, not just by the authorities at the time, but by the author himself and his closest supporters, is in itself a tale worth telling.  If we’re to fully understand the history of the English-speaking peoples, who they are and what they’ve done with the language he created, it’s essential that we know this story.  

Born into chaos

The author, it seems, was born into hiding. His father, scion of one of England’s oldest and most prestigious families, appears to have been the product of an ancient bloodline sliding into the decadence inevitable to such very old families, but from which Oxford was saved perhaps by his mother’s less rarified genes. His great uncle, the 14th Earl, an ignominious wastrel, had spent his heritage on a Disney World version of a feudal palace which collapsed into ruin not long after his death at age twenty-six.  The 15th Earl, stripped of several of his ancient prerogatives by the disease-crazed Henry VIII, managed to hang onto the earldom, but shortly before Oxford’s birth, his father, the 16th earl, came perilously close to losing it to the greed of Protector Somerset, uncle of Henry’s son, the Boy King, Edward VI.  

Although Earl John and his domain were saved by the palace coup of 1549 during which Somerset was overthrown by his own Privy Council, he and his domain remained vulnerable to whatever determined gang would next take over the Crown. That was John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, but with the death of the poor little King four years later, Northumberland and his followers were themselves overthrown by a nation nostalgic for a time not all that long ago when Church ales and merry-making had not yet become the road to damnation.  

The bloodbath, however, was far from over, as Edward’s sister Mary, a determined Catholic, proceeded to marry Philip of Spain, son of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Their interest in the marriage alliance was invested in the hope that they could reestablish Catholicism in what under Edward and Somerset had become the most dangerously heretical nation in Europe.  

As the merry-making that followed their marriage fell silent, and the nation prepared for a new round of treason trials, hangings and burnings, Earl John and his supporters did what they could to prepare. The Oxford domain was particularly vulnerable due to its location along the coast that faced those European nations where Protestantism had taken deepest root and was most threatening to the European Catholic hegemony.  Earl John himself was suspected of complicity in the first Protestant effort to overturn Mary’s rule, the so-called Dudley conspiracy of 1555.

As Shakespeare demonstrates in more than one of his plays, in nations ruled by the whims of heredity, underage heirs of monarchs, and of great noblemen as well, were particularly vulnerable during moments of national revolution. As the Christmas holidays of 1554 came to a close, and Mary’s henchmen began gearing up for the bloodbath with which she hoped to end the great heresy perpetrated on her people by her brother, the four-year-old heir to the great Oxford domain was removed from the dangers threatening his unstable father.  Quietly, without notice or surviving letter, he was placed with the man who would be his tutor and surrogate father for the next eight years of his life.

Thus it was due to the political chaos of the time that Sir Thomas Smith, former Secretary of State under Somerset, and before that Vice-Chamberlain of Cambridge University, was given the humble task of “bringing up” the boy who would give the world the Shakespeare canon.  It was this great educator, statesman, polymath and follower of Plato’s philosophy who gave Oxford the education that we see reflected in the works of Shakespeare, an education to which almost no one else in England at that time could have had access.  Among the hundreds of books in Smith’s library were the plays of the great Greek and Roman playwrights, Euripides, Sophocles and Plautus, favorites at that time for teaching boys Greek and Latin due to the fact that their plots and characters were better suited to capture the restless attention of teenagers than the proverbs of Erasmus or the letters of Cicero.

The hiding continues

With his removal to London in 1562, the twelve-year-old Oxford found himself a member of a coterie of young translators employed by Secretary of State Sir William Cecil and his friend Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, as they sought to get the major works of Calvinist doctrine translated from Latin and French into English. As for this crew of translator-poets, most of them six to ten years Oxford’s senior, would this budding genius have forced himself to sit by modestly, constrained by the tradition that forbade peers of the realm from competing with ordinary artists, or would he, unable to resist, reveal his talent by tackling the most demanding translation of all, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, famous as ancient Rome’s masterpiece of Latin literature, its first four books published just three years later under the name of his uncle, the translator Arthur Golding?  Is it just my wild imagination that hears in Golding’s Metamorphoses the same youthful voice, in a meter and rhyme scheme similar to the ground-breaking poem Romeus and Juliet (attributed to another member of the Cecil House coterie), and published almost as soon as he arrived in London?  

By 1573, desperate to escape the Court and those servants who were forever spying on him for his father-in-law, Oxford’s genius for disappearing is rather humorously revealed in Alan Nelson’s account of his preparation for a journey to Ireland (that never took place). Over five pages (100-104) Nelson details efforts by Burghley’s agents to pin him down long enough to get his signature on papers that, doubtless, put Burghley in control of his estates, should he die while overseas.  

Let them quibble as they would, by late 1574, Oxford had the Queen’s permission to travel to Italy, and travel he did.  While it’s unlikely that he managed to ditch all those who who seemed most likely to report back to Burghley, or that over the summer of 1575 he sailed the Mediterranean totally without companionship, there remains no evidence that he took anyone with him on that supreme adventure.  No one, at least, whose name has survived.

He vanishes from the record

With his return to England in April of 1576, followed by the sudden appearance in London of the first two commercially-successful purpose-built theaters in English history, the kind of reporting that tracks him during his early days at Court dries up almost completely. While a poem or two surfaces in anthologies, his own efforts to get himself and other poets published appear to cease.  Why?  Because he has begun what has become a lifelong concentration on producing plays for the Court, the public theaters, and most significantly, the parliaments that gathered in London every three or four years, and which provided him with his most influential audience, leading men of education and significance from all the shires and towns of England.

Playwriting had several advantages over publishing. First, since only a handful of Londoners could read at that time, plays could reach a far greater audience; second, it satisfied his appetite for dramatic action in ways that poems and tales were lame by comparison; and third, it did not rouse the anxieties of the authorities as did published works since no one outside the Court establishment paid any attention to who was writing the scripts.  His coterie knew; the officials knew; but neither the public nor the outside reading world knew, and most of these did not care. So long as he wrote nothing objectionable to the world view purveyed by the religious and political authorities of his time (most notably his in-laws) he was allowed to continue.  Even Burghley was doing what he could in 1580 to assist the Earl of Oxford’s acting company in gaining access to the universities (something the universities continued to reject).

Yet sooner or later a break was bound to come between two such differing world views.  With the banishment from Court that followed his affair with the Queen’s Maid of Honor in 1581, if it cut him off from Her Majesty’s favor, it also meant he was free to give vent to his own personal concerns in plays for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” from the eastern half of Westminster.  In works that erupted from his frustrations with the Court, his fury at the Queen and his rivals for her favor, and his knowledge of English and Roman history, it was then that he wrote The Spanish Tragedy, plus the earliest (now lost) versions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice, plays that would certainly not have pleased either the Queen or his Calvinist in-laws.

Brought back to Court in 1583, probably by his tutor’s old State Department friend, Sir Francis Walsingham, now Secretary of State, who needed him to help launch the newly formed traveling company, the Queen’s Men, for them Oxford wrote early versions of what would later evolve into plays like Edward IIIHenry V, King John, plus some that never made it into the canon, such as Thomas of Woodstock and Edmund Ironside.  

The coming of Shakespeare

When his wife died just before the attack of the Armada, Lord Treasurer Burghley, furious with his son-in-law for his perceived mistreatment of Anne, not to mention his mistreatment of Burghley himself as Polonius (and perhaps also Shylock), put a stop to his obnoxious play-making by seeing to it that his credit was destroyed.  Forced to sell his home of ten years and disband his staff of secretaries, Oxford spent three years, from 1589 through 1591, in penurious disgrace.  During this period, while the Stage too was under attack by his in-laws, he occupied himself with writing sonnets, some to his one remaining patron, the young Earl of Southampton, others to Emilia Bassano (Lanier), mistress of the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, who shortly would reinstate him as the main provider of plays for the newly-created Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  

Thus was launched the company that would bring fame to the plays that Oxford, doubtless glad to be back with his favorite team of actors and now, in his forties, at the peak of the matured style that we know from the First Folio, would mostly recreate from plays he’d written originally for the Court and parliamentarians over the past twenty years. Some, chiefly old comedies like As You Like it and Love’s Labor’s Lost, he revised to suit the temper of the times; some, like The Merry Wives of Windsor and Antony and Cleopatra, he wrote in response to current issues.

Because Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon worked hand in glove with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, both long time patrons of the London Stage, to bring an end to the theatrical chaos created by Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, who, now as Secretary of State was using his power to destroy the London Stage, they formed new companies which, doubtless they promised the Queen, would conform to their new set of rules. 

Henceforth there would be two licensed companies: the Lord Admiral’s Men, patronized by Howard, would operate out of the Rose Theater on Bankside; the other, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, out of Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch.  Plays that in times past had been shared between the two companies were to be divided, with those that Oxford was interested in revising assigned to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and those that he no longer cared about, or that had become so identified with Edward Alleyn, the leading actor at the Rose, assigned to the Lord Admiral’s company.  These they identified by stating on the title page what companies had performed that particular play.  

At this point the issue of what author’s name to put on the published plays arose in such a way that it simply could not be dismissed.  For the first four years, from 1594 to 1598, the Company simply ignored the problem by leaving blank the space where the author’s name was normally placed.  Then, in the fall of 1597, with the opening of the Queen’s ninth parliament, came the inevitable showdown between the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Robert Cecil, who had eliminated the most popular playwright in London and most recently saw to it that there would be no theaters available to them for the near future.  Clearly Cecil was determined to destroy his brother-in-law’s bully pulpit before it could trouble him during his first turn before Parliament as the Queen’s new Secretary of State.

Oxford shakes his spear

Faced with the loss of both their theaters, their father and manager James Burbage having died following the previous holiday season, and their great patron and protector, Lord Hunsdon, having also died recently and suddenly, Oxford unleashed the devastating power of his pen.  Revising his earlier and milder version of Richard III, now, with Richard Burbage as the evil King, adopting Cecil’s perpetual black attire, his manner of speaking and his wobbling walk , Burbage and Company trashed their enemy to such an extent that, despite the official heights to which, as first Baron Cranborn, then Earl of Salisbury, he eventually rose, there was from then on no more hated man in all of England.

This showdown, while almost totally erased from history, obviously demanded adjudication by the only one in a position to do it, namely the Queen.  Though missing from the record, the results clearly left Oxford and his company untouched (she could not do without her holiday solace), while Cecil, officially as powerful as ever, was forced to live from then on with his unofficial reputation utterly and permanently destroyed, a situation that must have lent a bitter and resentful force to the vicious brutalities with which he would rule England under King James until his death in 1612.

Interest in the authorship of this play, which must have thundered through the pubs and wine shops both in London and in the towns throughout England to which the MPs returned early in 1598, each with a copy of the published play in his pocket, must have been what finally compelled the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to publish a second edition of Richard III, this time with a name on the title page.  Thus was the name of the humble wool dealer’s son from the market town two days journey from London to escalate into a permanent and everlasting brand.  

Richly recompensed for the use of his name, the wool dealer’s son soon bought himself the biggest house in his hometown; for his respected sire he bought the crest that had once been denied him as “without right,” and ordered an impressive monument to be placed in the local church in which his father’s bust, clutching a sack of wool, dominated a spot high on the wall beside the altar.  

Years later, when both William of Stratford and his wife were past questioning, the vicar of Trinity Church, would enjoy emoluments brought him by a team from London whose job it was to replace the image of the mustachioed Shakspere Sr. with a more gentlemanly figure and the woolsack replaced with a quill pen and a pillow. Whatever had once been the message, if any, beneath the bust, was replaced by something in Latin that seemed to suggest that William Shakspere had been something of a modern Nestor, a character from ancient history whose only importance was due to how old he had been when he died.  Nothing to do with drama or literature.  No mention of Plautus or Euripides.

Meanwhile, the Burbages’ company, protected by the Queen and raised to an even greater level of importance by her successor, who demonstrated his patronage in a way that she never had by allowing them to call themselves The King’s Men, went on to ever greater acclaim and great financial success.  Of course by this time the official name of their playwright had become so installed in men’s minds that there could never be any possibility of changing it, even if the Company, or the Court, had wished to do so, which they most certainly did not, for reasons that were not only political, but deeply personal to those involved.  Thus was the brand name irrevocably wedded to the canon, and so was also launched the centuries of failed attempts to bring their location in time and their relation to the events reflected in the plays into alignment with the biography of the illiterate original owner of the name, whose birth date, sometime in April of 1564, presented such a problem when it came to dating the plays.

Our evidence

What evidence is there at for this scenario?  If there is as yet no “smoking gun,” there is certainly enough to support what we describe here.  Without the slightest doubt it’s the Stratford biography alone that is the sole cause of what the uber-academic E.K. Chambers identified in 1925 as the two major aspects of “the Shakespeare Problem”: “Problems of Authenticity”: i.e., who actually wrote the canon; and “Problems of Chronology”: i.e., the issues created by the 15-year displacement forced on scholars by the impossible birth date of William of Stratford.  

With the Earl of Oxford as the true author, all of these problems vanish.  The plays appear right where they so obviously belong in the timestream of historical events; all the early plays that “foreshadow Shakespeare’s style,” and that academics have been forced to attribute to various nameless or weaker writers, take their proper place as the missing Shakespeare juvenilia; and Shakespeare (the poet) is finally free to jump to the forefront as the original inspiration for writers like Marlowe, Daniel, and Chapman––not, as the Stratford biography demands, the other way round.

A word to the wise: the trolls retreat to Facebook

I appreciate it when defenders of the Stratford faith show an interest in my work, but inevitably it becomes impossible to maintain a cordial discourse where one side knows nothing of the other side of the argument, and clearly has no intention of pursuing it, or if pursued, only to focus on the sort of details that are all that they are capable of seeing from the low levels of understanding where their educational limitations have left them.

Arguments at this level quickly become a waste of time, as I know all too well, having made similar attempts over the years, for instance on HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare), the online forum for authorship discussion established many years ago by two Oxfordians, which I left when it descended to the level of a schoolyard brawl.  The same was true on SHAKSPER, where, despite the prohibition of any mention of the Earl of Oxford, we were allowed to discuss such questions as whether great literature can ever be produced without an emotional connection to the author’s own life and experience.  No amount of quotes from great authors or examples from their biographies were sufficient to sway the left-brainers from the absurd notion that no such personal experience is necessary or that it even matters––a clear case of distorting reality to fit a particular case, since nothing has ever been located that could connect the plots and characters of Shakespeare with the life of William of Stratford.

I created this blog in 2009 because it gave me control over a forum wherein I was free from this kind of frustration, and free I intend to remain.  Having recently cleared the decks of a handful of impertinent comments, I see that these rudeniks have retaliated by creating a group on Facebook for which they’ve appropriated the name of my blog, where they are free to amuse each other with the kind of comments that are no longer welcome here, on the real politicworm.  Readers who are curious to see what they have to say please keep in mind that while they may have appropriated my brand, I myself have nothing to do with these guys except for the rather pleasant feeling that to cause this kind of a ruckus I must be doing something right!

NB: Please understand that even probing comments will always be welcome if politely presented.  Also know that a particular question can often be answered by typing a keyword into the search field in the upper right hand corner of every page.  If I, or one of the authorship scholars whose works are posted here, has written on that subject, this will bring a list of posts and pages that deal with that particular issue, and in much greater detail than I go into when replying to a comment.

Shakespeare ignored by the Academy

It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him.  As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”

The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!

When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?

If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.

They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.

In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.

In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.

But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.

Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?

It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.

We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.

It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”

Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?

Oxford’s life in a very small nutshell

Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history.  Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot.  At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.

He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months.  As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place.  As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died.  Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.

Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper.  That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously.  In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials.  For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.

Bound to the Cecils by marriage

The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family.  If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage.  His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage.  Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers.  He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates.  Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.

In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad.  Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities.  Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.

Birth of the London Stage

Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season.  Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater.  Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End.  These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.

Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London.  The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.

Banished!

In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor.  Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End.  This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage.  Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.

Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack.  It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.

The Cecils attack the Stage and Press

Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter.  Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of  Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.

Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the  Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work.  By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records.  Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.

Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue.  With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare.  Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.

Cecil ups the ante

Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season.  Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.

The actors strike back

Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard III in which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.

Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard.  Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes.  Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Final years

With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.

Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story.  The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.

When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language.  Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.