Category Archives: Blackfriars theater

Unravelling the Mystery: The Professor and the un-Countess

Reviewing Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe by Chris Laoutaris; Penguin, 2014

The great mystery, of course, is how and by what means the London Stage was brought to life during one of the most repressive periods in Western History. Laoutaris focuses on a small piece of that mystery, namely why the great Blackfriars theater, built in 1596 in the heart of London to stage the plays of Shakespeare, was shut down by order of the Queen’s Privy Council within weeks of its projected opening, then never allowed its use by the company that created it for almost ten years.

His premise, that it was the petition created by Lady Russell, Robert Cecil’s aunt and the self-appointed doyen of the Blackfriars district, that was what caused the Privy Council to close the theater, thus forcing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to move their operation across the river, is hardly new. Actually, despite the thundering claims of the title, there’s very little here that’s new, and what there is must be fished for in a sea of florid prose, almost 500 pages of it (in the paperback edition anyway), some of it in the cheesy “heart-pounding” style that literary historians have recently adopted from pop novelists like Dan Brown. I suppose this is meant to fool us into thinking that, like the optimist who dug his way through a room full of horse poop certain that there was bound to be a pony in it somewhere, the reader will eventually find satisfaction if the premise is simply repeated often enough. (Where are the editors? Where are the grammarians?)

Even the title is misleading: Shakespeare and the Countess, for of course Laoutaris, prize-winning professor from University College London, can show nothing that actually connects Shakespeare with Lady Russell or with anything, for that matter. Nor, in fact, was Russell ever a Countess, despite her great desire to be one. Nor was the move from Shoreditch to Bankside made by Shakespeare, but by James Burbage who never called himself “Shakespeare’s man.” In fact, the title is just another absurd effort, perhaps by the publisher, to use Shakespeare’s name to sell a book that has nothing to say about Shakespeare, certainly nothing new.

Laoutaris’s effort to make something out of some obscure connection between a member of a remote branch of the Arden family and the Throgmorton plot, plus his attempts to interpret bits of the plays in its light is just one more effort by the Academy to turn chalk into cheese. As for “the battle,” all Laoutaris dares to describe is a minor skirmish. He’s not about to go anywhere near the real fight.

The almost Countess and the not really Shakespeare

As everyone already knows who has been over this ground at least once, Elizabeth Hoby Russell ne Cooke, sister-in-law to Lord Treasurer William Cecil Lord Burghley and the aunt of soon-to-be Secretary of State Robert Cecil, was (probably) responsible for the petition that just before the winter season of 1596, robbed the Burbages of the beautiful new theater which they had just created in the Old Parliament Chamber in the Liberty of Blackfriars. Nor is it news that two years later it was the loss of this theater that led to the dismantling of their aging public stage in Shoreditch, and its resurrection across the river as The Globe. Nor is there anything new in the fact that the names of Shakespeare’s printer, Richard Field, and his company’s patron George Carey, were included in the list of signers, a fact that is certainly interesting––though hardly “astounding” or “shocking.”

All of this has been known for donkey’s years, though few may be aware that what we have today is not the original of the petition, if there ever was one, but a copy in which the signatures are all in the same hand! This is fine for those who can swallow whole the gargantuan anomaly that there ever was such a thing as a literary genius who couldn’t even write his own surname the same way twice. And although Laoutaris avoids the obvious conclusion offered by history that the closing of Hunsdon’s theater was something that Robert Cecil would have found a way to do had there never been a petition, he does provide us with some interesting new items that strengthen that conclusion.

History has gone along with the petition’s claim that the issue for the signers was the noise and disruption that a public stage would create in what they wished to keep as a quiet residential district. This is a dodge for at least two reasons. First, ever since the friars departed in the 1530s, the Liberty of Blackfriars was not and never had been a quiet residential district. Established as a “liberty” by Edward I in 1276, it had ever since enjoyed the freedom guaranteed such priories to provide folks in trouble with sanctuary from arrest by local officials. As such it was a place where social outsiders of all sorts sought refuge and ways to survive. All of the theaters built in the 16th and early 17th century were built in liberties, along with printshops, artists’ studios, and a variety of small manufacturies.

Second, Russell and most of her signers had personal reasons for wanting the theater shut down that had nothing to do with keeping the peace. Russell, who moved to Blackfriars in 1581 with her husband, Francis Russell, heir to the Bedford Earldom, was also attracted to what may have been the largest enclave of evangelicals to be found inside the City. Born as one of the five Cooke sisters, daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, tutor to Edward VI, his passion for the stricter forms of Calvinism was acquired in Strasbourg during Mary’s reign along with men like John Cheke, James Haddon, John Bale, and a handful of future deans and bishops of the English Church, Nowell, Grindal, Sandys and Aylmer.

This passion Sir Anthony transferred to his five daughters, whose educations in the Greek and Latin fundamentals of Church history placed them at the forefront of English evangelism. Four were then married to men who would soon be raised to power by Queen Elizabeth: Mildred to William Cecil Lord Burghley, Anne to Sir Nicholas Bacon, Catherine to Sir Henry Killigrew, and Elizabeth, first to Sir Thomas Hoby, then to John Russell, heir to the Earl of Bedford (who unfortunately died before his father, thus cheating his wife out of the title of Countess). Elizabeth in particular used her education and language skills to wheel and deal within a governing community uniquely trained to respect such things. Immediately upon moving to Blackfriars in 1581, she did what she did wherever she went, she took over the leadership of the little St. Anne’s congregation, where she encouraged the hiring of radical ministers.

The evangelicals vs the Stage

Blackfriars had been attracting radical protestants ever since 1550 when Edward VI’s grant of the district to Sir Thomas Cawarden, his Master of the Revels and a committed evangelical, gave him the freedom to dismantle the monks’ great church, mansions and quadrangle, and begin the process of rebuilding that resulted in the warren of residences, shops and little gardens that the precinct had become by the time the Russells arrived. For himself Cawarden had reserved one of the grander mansions and, as Master of the Revels, the west wing of the monks’ quadrangle which Henry VIII had used to store his party equipment. Bequeathing most of it to his neighbor and fellow evangelical, Sir William More, it was More who in 1576 had rented the old Revels apartment to Richard Farrant and his patrons for the little school that they turned into the first private theater in London. By 1581, when the Russells arrived, the little school’s rehearsal stage had been entertaining the surrounding community for almost five years, and, as Laoutaris notes, without complaints from their neighbors.

Lady Russell was bound to find the theater offensive; as a devout puritan she would have been against all theaters, and particularly alarmed by their increase. Still, she might have found it the better part of valor to have held her tongue, considering that so powerful a member of the Queen’s privy council, Baron Hunsdon, was involved in creating the Second Blackfriars theater, particularly since her son, Sir Edward Hoby, was married to one of his daughters. Instead she felt Lord Hunsdon’s presence as a threat to her control of the precinct. Laoutaris provides a quote from her letter of January 27, 1596, in which she urges Cecil to appoint the Earl of Kent to a particular position, “I beseech you, quod facis fae cita [whatever you do, do it speedily] or I fear one of the tribe will be before him Hercules Furens [with the energy of Hercules]” (228). Laoutaris explains that by “the tribe” she meant the “Tribe of Dan,” which he has discovered from other letters was code for Hunsdon and the Carey family. Russell, bent on using her influence with her relatives to bring Calvin’s Dream to life in England’s green and pleasant land, was using her connection to the Cecils to get fellow members of “the Elect” into as many key government positions as possible.

Laoutaris doesn’t bother to parse this, but what it suggests is that to Russell and her sisters, who saw all personalities and current events through the lens of their interpretations of the Bible, the Carey family were the equivalent of the biblical “tribe of Dan,” meaning that they were nonbelievers, Canaanites, Philistines, whose purposes were antipathetic to Calvin’s Dream. To the Crown politics in which she was ever inclined to dabble was added her attempts to control what happened within her local precinct, and to the moral disapproval of plays in general was added the religious loathing of a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist. For Lady Russell, the petition probably had very little to do with noise.

In January of 1596, Hunsdon still held the lofty post of Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household. Two years earlier, it was he who had organized the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and who, throughout the late 1580s, had become holder of the lease to the little school stage, the First Blackfriars Theater. By the time Russell created the infamous petition, Hunsdon had added to his earlier holdings other properties surrounding the Old Parliament building, doubtless as a move towards turning it into the great theater that he and Burbage were planning to establish within the City proper. Thus it may well be the case that in 1596, Russell had cause to see Hunsdon, not only of the “Tribe of Dan,” but as dangerously intruding into what she felt belonged to her and God.

By January 1596, when she wrote so dismissively of Hunsdon, the Court was being split down the middle by Robert Cecil’s power struggle with the Earl of Essex. With so many members of the Court community married into each others’ families, the split tore families into warring halves, particularly along generational lines, the older and more conservative standing (not always happily) with the Cecils, while the younger generally backed Essex. Russell’s family too was split down the middle, her sister Anne Bacon’s sons, Anthony and Francis, siding with Essex, as did her nephew Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford, and her son Sir Edward Hoby. The only one who stuck with her and the Cecils was her youngest son Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby. Outraged by the disloyalty of her family members, Russell was driven ever more furiously to advise her nephew Robert Cecil, perhaps because he was positioned to get her what she wanted, and what she wanted at the moment was control of Blackfriars.

Cecil’s triumph

But by November, Cecil having finally been appointed to the post for which he’d been striving the past six years, that of the all-powerful Secretary of State, it may be that the petition was not all that necessary, since Hunsdon was dead by then (having been suddenly taken ill after dinner, two weeks after Cecil’s appointment), and with Cecil’s father a permanent Council member, and Cecil’s own father-in-law, William Brooke Lord Cobham, given Hunsdon’s place as Lord Chamberlain, the Privy Council was now so heavily weighted in favor of the Cecils that Robert could probably have managed to get the theater closed without any help from his aunt.

Laoutiras, of course, like most literary historians, has no grasp on the politics involved in the Cecil’s efforts to gain control of the London Stage, no notion of what it would have meant to Robert Cecil to have to face Parliament in October 1597 for the first time as Secretary of State, aware that as soon as the session was adjourned for the day, the MPs would be headed for a stage dominated by his enemies, one of them being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s primary playwright, his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford. By the early ’90s the Cecils had seen to it that Oxford could no longer use his credit as a peer to continue to support the Stage, but short of killing him, they could do nothing to prevent him from writing the Henry IV plays with which, the winter of 1596-97 he and his actors destroyed the reputations of his father-in-law, Lord Chamberlain William Brooke, and Brooke’s son, Henry Cobham.

Whether or not Cecil was responsible for the death of Lord Hunsdon, or six months later the death of James Burbage, or two years earlier the death of Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange, or three years earlier, the murder of Christopher Marlowe, or six years earlier, of Francis Walsingham, each death dealing a devastating blow to the London Stage, it would have been hard for the theater community, both actors and audience, not to have been suspicious. When certain writers and actors retaliated that summer with a play titled The Isle of Dogs, a title that points to Marlowe’s murder, Cecil closed all the theaters, forcing the entire theatrical community to hit the road.

So when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men returned in the fall to a West End filled with MPs gathered for Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament, they came loaded for bear. With their livelihood threatened, and their manager and major patron both dead, the actors hauled out the big gun, devised over the summer by their great playwright, and aimed it right at Cecil. A version of the True Tragedy of Richard III had been revised into his caricature. Having been given by one of their supporters space to perform in one of the mansions on the river, the MPs hadn’t far to go to see Richard Burbage, cast as Richard III but dressed and behaving like Cecil, create the role that would bring him permanent fame as a great actor. And there wasn’t a damn thing Cecil could do about it. He had to ignore it. Retaliation would only confirm it. His revenge would be to erase every trace of Oxford’s connection to the Stage from the records collected by his father or within his power to survey as Secretary of State, Lord Treasurer, Master of the Court of Wards, and Chancellor of Cambridge University under King James.

Hunsdon and Field

As for their seeming disloyalty to Shakespeare in signing Russell’s petition, Laoutaris understands that by November 1596, both George Carey, the new Lord Hunsdon, and Richard Field were in something of a bind. He details how Cecil undercut Carey, how Cecil blocked his inheritance of any of his father’s offices so that all that stood between him and bankruptcy were his desperate letters to Cecil, begging his help in relieving what he termed “the burden of a naked honour,” pleas that “fell on deaf ears,” while Cecil insinuated to Elizabeth that “some thought” that Carey was behaving in a treasonable fashion. As Laoutaris puts it, in November 1596, “Hunsdon was walking a tightrope. He could not afford to anger the Queen or his mediators in the Cecil faction [meaning Russell]. His livelihood depended on it” (241-2).

As for Richard Field, first of all it must be said that printers in general were rarely bound by their personal religious or political affiliations. Printing was a business and so long as a book was properly registered with the Stationers, they were bound to print it. Now in his forties, with his own printing establishment and a family of his own, Field desired to be seen as a respectable member of his community. In addition, by 1592 he had become an important member of the St. Anne’s congregation. Nor was this purely a business move, for years earlier he had been apprenticed by his father, the tanner of Stratford, to the London printer Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot who had fled religious persecution in France in the early 60s, when, with Burghley’s protection, he became the leading printer of works of Protestant theology. Thus Field was an evangelical by persuasion, not just because of where he was located. And finally, if he had ever had a particular relationship with the Earl of Oxford, or at any time had looked to him as a patron, by 1596 Oxford himself was in so much trouble that he would have been useless to someone like Field.

There is much of use in this book, for, however inadvertently, Laoutaris includes details that are important to the fullest possible picture of the period, particularly of the family into which Oxford married, and which both made it possible for him to create the London Stage and prevented his getting much satisfaction from it, including the credit for creating it. The only problem for those of us in search of such details is the miserable style in which so much of it was written.

Shakespeare and Christmas

One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.

For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.

We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth.  Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.

Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep  surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.

Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference.  Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.

Enter Paul’s Boys

Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.

Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.

While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.

At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays. 

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel

Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.

The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports.  But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.

Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name.  In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.

Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?

It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.

These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:

Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.

It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.

1597: The Showdown

Orthodox Shakespeareans are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end, with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s, for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain Gray’s Inn in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy, or the two narrative poems on sex he published with the help of the Earl of Southampton, Venus and Adonis, comic (it was not consumated), Lucrece, tragic. However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

However it happened, Oxford was to some extent both a product and a victim of the Cecil family. Whether by luck or design, eight of the leading noble youths of his time, himself and seven others, were, by the early deaths of their fathers, brought under the advising arm of Sir William Cecil through his office as Master of the Court of Wards. Whether by luck or design, the raising of these important social leaders by Cecil was a major move in the fight to turn the nation from Catholic to Protestant, from allegience to Rome to allegience to the English Crown. As the first of Burghley’s wards, Oxford became to some extent the leader of a faction that saw the Cecils as upstarts and political manipulators (“a politician did it,” said John Webster), out to take away their power and destroy their class. By his marriage to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford was also the most thoroughly embedded into their faction, a 16th century version of “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

Any society as small, closed, tightly-woven and barricaded against change as the power center of Elizabeth’s Court develops excruciating tensions that only increase over time, often continuing on past the deaths of the principals, who pass their rivalries and hatreds on to their heirs. This was the case with Lord Burghleyand the Earl of Leicester, whose rivalry got passed on to their heirs, Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, just as Burghley’s efforts to control the life and behavior of his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, and his nephew, Francis Bacon, got passed on to his son, Robert Cecil.

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.  At a Court that worshipped tall, handsome men, himself shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who (literally) looked down on him, men like Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves. Most of all he hated his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford. Partly because Oxford was a leading member of that hated class, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and partly because his father loved and admired him. Luckily for Oxford, out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.

Robert hated his brother-in-law for many reasons: because he had everything that he lacked, because he was admired by the Court for his social prestige, his good looks and his talent, but mostly because of the rude disdain with which he treated his father’s and his sister’s love. Although Court protocols and family solidarity required that they maintain a pretense of cordiality, as soon as the death of Walsingham in 1590 placed the reins of power in his hands, Robert began planning how to destroy the man who had broken his sister’s heart and, in his view, sent her to an early grave.

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction. If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed it to occur. If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could. Whether he acted with complete complicity with his father or to some extent acted on his own is a question that we probably can’t answer.

Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588, Burghley, as Master of the Court of Wards, had moved to have Oxford’s debts to the Court called in. This was less of an immediate threat to Oxford himself, who was already broke, than to the patrons who had backed his loans, and whose own estates were now threatened. What it did destroy of Oxford’s was his credit, that is, his ability to use the perquisites of his title to raise cash. Without credit he could no longer pay actors and musicians, stagehands and costumers. The Queen saw to it that as a peer of the realm he was saved from the humiliation of complete bankruptcy by arranging his marriage to an heiress in 1592, but apart from a few donations, most notably from the young Earl of Southampton, Milord was pretty much silenced.

Theater of Blood

In attempting to explain what happened to Marlowe during the plague of 1593, biographer Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning) resorts to a metaphor by which he compares the way governmental sting operations to plays. According to Nicholl, poets find spying an easy step because they live in the fantasy world of The Theater. This is absurd; would Kurt Weil have spied for the Nazis? Would Vaclav Havel have spied for the Soviets?  An artist of surpassing power and reckless honesty, Christopher Marlowe did not, could not, have agreed, or been forced, to spy for the Crown he detested.  But the metaphor works if placed where it belongs, with the other side, with Robert Cecil, for the plot with which he brought down the dangerous playwright in May of 1593 was just as creative as anything Marlowe himself ever produced for the stage.

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 3 instead.)

For Cecil, the removal of Marlowe, whether by murder or transportation, and without any blame attached to himself, was a magnificent coup, and for those who knew the truth, which must have been pretty much the entire Privy Council and London theater community, brought him another great benefit, the respect he needed to move with confidence in the brutal world of Elizabethan politics.  It also had the salubrious effect, salubrious to the Cecils, that is, of throwing the London Stage into a chaos from which they had every hope that it couldn’t recover, at least, not in its current form.

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen and the Council to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil had been on the Council since 1591.) We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that Catholic gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, his granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the 6th Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage.  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, as a client of Leicester’s, he too had inherited the hatreds of their rivalry.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in the early 70s, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Ferdinando’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been a motive to do something to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

The crisis that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put an author’s name on their plays  is best summarized with a timeline:

  • June 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594: The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signals the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s and Queens.
  • Apr 4 1594: The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning. Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company returned to the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594: The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally-licensed companies, what Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly” that from then on had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • Feb 4, 1596: The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential MPs the following winter.
  • July 5, 1596: The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council and the most powerful man in England. Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596: The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons. Four months later . . .
  • Nov 1596: The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, accedes. Two months later . . .
  • Feb 26, 1597: The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Four months later . . .
  • Jul 28, 1597: The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.”
  • June-Aug 1597: The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson. The LCMen take to the road. Two months later . . .
  • Oct 1597: The opening of Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation. Immediately before or shortly after . . .
  • Oct -Nov 1597:  the production of a new version of The True Tragedy of Richard the Third somewhere in the West End (since the Company now has no theater of its own) where the MPs can see it, in which Richard Burbage, by his dress and body language, makes it clear that the play is intended as a stab at Robert Cecil, who, as Secretary of State, is playing a new and important role in the Parliament then in session, and the publication of the anonymous first edition of the revised play, now named Richard III, which allows the MPs to share the play with others who haven’t seen it.
  • Jan-June 1598: The publication of a second edition of the play, now with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it has appeared on any play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did so seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time. Fired with fury by the deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.  We can also imagine the “tall men” stationed at each entrance, with an eye out for troublemakers.

Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue.  Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside early in 1599.

This chain of events suggests a bloody behind-stairs struggle for control of the London Stage.  Whether or not Robert Cecil was responsible, via the “projectors” he’d inherited from Walsingham, for the deaths of leading members of the Stage community––from Marlowe to his patron Lord Strange, to the “sporting” Thomas Kyd, to the grand-daddy of the Lonson Stage, James Burbage, to his patron Lord Hunsdon––is less important to our story than the actors’ suspicions.  It should be our suspicion as well, based on how the Master Secretary would go on to entrap and destroy other leading members of Court society, the Earl of Essex, his own brother-in-law George Cobham, and his former friend Sir Walter Raleigh.   The level of hatred and fear engendered by Cecil in his years of power under King James is clear from the stream of slanders and verse libels that deluged London following his death in 1612.

It should also be the clincher to the argument about why Oxford hid his identity. Had anyone during the first decade of James’s reign––anyone beyond the inner circles of the Court and Stage community, that is––known for certain who it was who wrote the 1597 version of Richard III, Oxford would have been as dead as Marlowe, Kyd, Stanley, Burbage and Hunsdon.  As it was, since the playwright was, as he kept reminding Cecil in his letters, a member of Cecil’s family, father of his nieces, etc., Oxford escaped, both with his life and with his papers––not an easy task, but one facilitated by the accession to power in 1603 of King James and his fondness for Philip Herbert, and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, who would make it their job to see to it that Oxford’s works, and the Stage he created, be secured from harm and eventually published.

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, with the management of Oxford’s son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, this was allowed for a newly-formed company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapels, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  After 1608, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, its rise to a level of success had never before been seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

These are only the most salient points in the story of this final showdown.  The thread presented here, the string of deaths, theater closings, constant publication of revised versions of Richard III (eight in all, over the years, every time Cecil got another office or title), the fact that it was the first play to be published under the name Shakespeare, must be correlated to several other threads, if all taken together, make a subject worthy of a full length book.  What part did Essex play? Bacon?  The Queen?  The printers?  The publishers?  George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir and the Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign? Where does the revision and publication of Richard II that accompanied the publication of Richard III fit in?  Hopefully time will tell.

Who was Hamlet?

Hamlet has always been seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, his most fully realized character.  In calling him “the secular Christ,” Yale professor Harold Bloom makes the most extravagant comparison that a Christian culture can offer.  In fact, it may be that more has actually been written (in English) about this fictional being than has been written about the Savior.

Those who’ve looked into it have found it impossible to locate anything in the life of William of Stratford that corresponds in any way to Hamlet’s life and situation.  He would have had to get all of it from books, but all the literary sources tracked by Bullough and others were in Latin or French in his time, most in volumes that, even had he the Latin promised by T.W. Baldwin would have required connections to private libraries that academics can only assume, since there’s no hint in William’s real biography (as opposed to the fictional versions conjured up by academics) of any such connections.  The one possible reference to William’s personal life, the son named Hamnet that died at age 11, was obviously named after his friend, Hamnet Saddler, while the character in the play is just as obviously based on the life of a Danish prince named Amleth, whose story, far from popular, lay buried in a Latin history of Denmark written in the 12th century.

This and other primary souces for Hamlet Prince of Denmark are found in Oxford’s tutor’s library: the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, not translated into English until 1608; the Roman history of Titus Livius, Latin, not translated into English until 1600; Valerius Maximus (used in schools), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (both Latin rhetoricians).  Others connect with Oxford’s years at Cecil House: Beowulf, probably translated from Old English into Latin and/or English by Laurence Nowell for the benefit of his students at Cecil House c.1563; Seneca’s plays, the Agamemnon and Troas, translated by members of the Cecil House coterie in the mid-1560s and published by Thomas Newton in 1581. The plot of the play within the play, “the mousetrap,” based on the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was still a matter for Court gossip in 1575 when Oxford was traveling from one Italian Court to another.  Della Rovere having been Castiglione’s patron for many years, in his youth he formed one of the group whose conversation makes up the major portion of Castiglione’s book, The Courtier, also in Smith’s library in the original Italian (translated into miserable “drab era” English by William Cecil’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby while Oxford was at Cecil House.

While most of Shakespeare’s protagonists can be matched more or less easily to some phase of Oxford’s biography, the version of Hamlet as we have it from the First Folio (1623) seems to be a sort of overview of his entire life, a figure made up of his most personal view of himself, with a plot compounded of the central experiences of his life, the loss of his Earldom through the early death of his father; the loss of the Court Stage through the death of his patron; his troubled marriage; the enemies who were out to shut him up.  It is a tragedy much like the one that overtakes Oedipus, the unfolding of a dire situation into which he was born and from which he cannot excape.  But unlike Oedipus, whose tragedy turns on his ignorance of the past, Hamlet’s much-vaunted indecision seems more a stoic determination to see how things will play out.  Having confirmed what he has guessed by Claudius’s response to the enactment of the murder of Gonzaga, he senses that any further intervention on his part will only make things worse: “Let Hercules himself do what he may; the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”

Like Hamlet, Oxford was born into a troubled dynasty. It’s clear that his father, the sixteenth earl, though termed “the good earl,” was not up to the task of sustaining a feudal domain that was so obviously doomed by the political and economic forces assailing it.  Like Hamlet, Oxford was more interested in literature and science (returning to Wittenberg) than life at Court.  Like Hamlet, he was romantically and sexually involved with the daughter of the monarch’s primary court official, Polonius/Burghley.  Like Hamlet, he was jealous of her relationship with her father.  Like Hamlet, he used the Stage to explain himself to the Court while claiming to entertain it.  A thousand years of history had put the Earl of Oxford in the position he was in, one from which his only escape was to create two brand new arenas where he had free rein, the Stage and the Press.

In Hamlet Oxford dramatized his attitude towards William Cecil Lord Burghley, his father-in-law: “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”; his attitude towards his wife, Burghley’s daughter (Ophelia): “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny”; his bitterness over the Queen’s business-as-usual attitude while the Earl of Sussex was dying: “a beast, that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer”); his disdain for the Earl of Leicester (Claudius): “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; his astonishment at his brother-in-law’s (Robert Cecil’s) hatred: “What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever”; his disgust at how his unscrupulous friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), are conspiring to destroy him: “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”  Only the end differs, but when he first wrote it of course he had no idea how it would end.  Nor do we, 400 years later.

One would think that identifying Polonius as Burghley would lead, automatically, to the identity of his daughter, and from her to the identity of her lover/husband, i.e., Hamlet, but one would be wrong, for to the so-called literary critic, history is just another form of literary fiction, something to be trimmed or amplified as needed to fit their theories, leaving the truth to the historians of wars and political coups who, equally culpable, pay no attention to literature.  For who but the Earl of Oxford, England’s Lord Great Chamberlain by seventeen generations of inheritance, would have dared to describe the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”––and lived to write again?

Screwing with history

Hamlet is a prime example of how the Lestradian stupidity of the officials in charge of interpreting Shakespeare has skewed the history of an entire era.  While Nashe’s 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon gives clear evidence of a version of Hamlet from before that date, this must needs be seen as an “Ur-Hamlet,” written of course by one of their anonymous pre-Shakespearean ghost-writers who provided the lazy Bard with so much of his material.  And because no proper niche can be found for Hamlet in current events of the 1590s––where the Stratford biography has forced all dates of composition––nothing can provide anything either personal or popular that might have inspired the playwright to write the play, so the commonplace is that Shakespeare, despite his obvious connection to the Crown’s own company for forty years, never bothered his artistic head with what was going on around him.  Thus is historic accuracy set aside, a thing of small importance.

Moving even further from the particular to the general, this has led to a general agreement among the Lestrades of the 20th century English Departments that there is no such thing as a compulsion among, not just Shakespeare, but all the world’s greatest writers of fiction to base their creations on aspects of their own lives.  That this won’t work with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henri Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, etc., makes no difference.  One must never allow dull reality to get in the way of theory.

Recall George Orwell’s interpretation of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in his 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four?  Recall Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who scoffs at Alice’s inability to believe in the impossible, while she herself has managed to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Recall as well that her creator, Lewis Carroll, that is Charles Dodgson (his real name), was a math professor at Oxford, whence cameth most, perhaps all, of the characters Alice encountered in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Recall Alice’s ultimate response, which we should all take to heart, when she cries out at the end of Looking Glass, “Who cares for you, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

The play’s the thing

History records that throughout his twenties Oxford was riding high at Court. “The glass of fashion,” he was promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, rapidly assuming the role of Queen’s favorite: (Gilbert Talbot wrote his father May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other.”)  He was the essence of Renaissance nonchalance, of sprezzatura.  He refused the Queen’s order to dance for the French envoys.  He called Sir Philip Sidney a puppy.  He turned the tables on his Catholic friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, for attempting to suck him into dangerous treason plots as they had the Duke of Norfolk.  But this ascent came to an abrupt halt when his lover, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, gave birth to his illegitimate son in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, sending the jealous monarch into a prolonged tantrum.  Playing the humiliated goddess for all it was worth, the infuriating revelation that her charms were not sufficient to keep her favorites in line meant the Queen must needs turn her erring Actaeon into a villain and sic the hounds upon him.

After two months in the Tower, commiserating with the ghosts of the kings who had preceded him, some perhaps in the very same room in which he found himself; after months of house arrest and an edict banishing him from Court for an indeterminate period, the notion that once back at Fisher’s Folly Oxford would simply sit on his hands for two years while the Queen got over her hissy fit is so unlikely, well, who but the White Queens of the university English Departments could possibly swallow such a notion?

Feeling abused and unappreciated, bored with writing comedies for children to perform for the unappreciative witch on the throne, he threw himself into creating plays for Burbage’s adult team, the kind of plays he would never have dared to produce at Court.  Some versions were created primarily for this team to perform for the public at Burbage’s big open air stage in Shoreditch (Romeo and Juliet); some were aimed at provincial audiences (King John, The Spanish Tragedy); most were aimed at the West End audience, the gentlemen of the inns of Court, performed by Burbage’s men on the little stage he and Lord Hunsdon had created in the Blackfriars complex shortly after his return from Italy in 1576.

Hamlet: the backstory

Having been appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1572, the Earl of Sussex had named as his vice-chamberlains Henry Hunsdon, later (1594) the patron of Shakespeare’s Company, and his son-in-law Lord Charles Howard, later (also 1594) the patron of Marlowe’s Company. Sussex was determined to replace Leicester, whom he detested, as leading member of the Privy Council, which meant, among other things, taking the Court Stage under his own jurisdiction, where by long tradition it belonged. The Revels account for the early 1570s suggests that this was when Oxford, backed by Sussex, began providing plays for the various children’s companies to perform during the winter holidays.

A decade later, during the period that Oxford was banished from Court (1581-83) the Earl of Sussex began to weaken from what has since been diagnosed as consumption. As Sussex faded, Walsingham, by then Secretary of State, moved to take control of the Stage before Leicester or one of his clients could take it back. In all of England there was only one playwright who Walsingham could be certain could charm the provincial audiences into backing the Crown against the Spanish Church. For this he had to have Oxford back at Court. History relates that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who persuaded the Queen to allow Oxford to return, though what is more likely is that Raleigh was acting more in Walsingham’s interest than in Oxford’s. If I’m right about the kind of plays he was producing at the Blackfriar’s Theater during his banishment, members of the Privy Council, including Oxford’s father-in-law, may have preferred, as the saying goes, to have the rascal inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.

Since 1572, when the Pope first issued the bull that guaranteed God’s forgiveness to whoever would rid Christendom of that Whore of Babylon, the heretical Queen of England, Walsingham was preparing for the inevitable attack by the Spanish Armada. Having spent years on the Continent, he was deeply aware (to an extent that Her Majesty and Burghley were not, neither having spent any time abroad), of the inevitability of a military attack. Having had a sophisticated humanist education at Padua, where the Roman theater had never completely died, Walsingham was also aware, as had been Sussex, of the power of the stage to win hearts and minds to a cause, in this case, patriotism over religion––for the coastal towns where the Spanish were certain to strike first, were still largely wedded to the Old Faith.

“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue”

Oxford had every reason to detest the Earl of Leicester. Not only was he a rival for the Queen’s favor, it was Leicester to whom she had given the use of his estates while he was underage; Leicester who had rudely cheated his mother of her portion of his father’s will while he was still too young and powerless to defend her. While his banishment from Court extended from months to years and his enemies were elevated in importance and allowed to attack him in the streets without reproof, Leicester, who had not only impregnated one of the Queen’s ladies but had married her in secret, was returned to favor while he had still to go about incognito in fear for his life.

From July to the end of October 1582, while he was still under banishment from Court, his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), 27-year-old Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), aka Lord Willoughby, was in Denmark to bring the Order of the Garter to the Protestant King, returning to England by November. Then again, in 1585, with the renewal of hostilities in the lowlands, Bertie was sent as special ambassador back to Denmark in October to urge the Danish king to contribute aid to the Dutch in their fight against Spain. This took some time. As the DNB puts it: “He filled his spare time with visits to Tycho Brahe’s observatory to examine the new comet the astronomer had just discovered, evidence of an enduring scientific interest.”

Having finally succeeded in getting a promise of troops, Bertie arrived at Amsterdam in March 1586, where Sidney got him a command, ultimately taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces when Leicester departed in December 1587. Oxford and Bertie were friendly enough that Oxford spent time with him and his sister in June 1582 (Nelson 281), and though no letters have turned up, it makes sense that, with Oxford’s interest in the stars, his brother-in-law would have discussed with him what he saw in Denmark after his first four-month visit in 1582, and would have written to him of more recent developments during the five months in 1585 that he waited around at the Danish Court for the King to respond to his request.

This then is the backstory to the first version of Hamlet. Out of the death of Sussex; the unseemly return to favor of the Earl of Leicester whom he and many others suspected (probably unfairly) of having Sussex poisoned; Saxo’s report on the mad prince Amleth of Danish history; the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had certainly been poisoned; his own dilemma with his wife and her family; the interest raised by Thomas Digges’s publication in the mid-1570s of evidence that the universe, rather than bounded by the ancient Ptolemaic nutshell, was actually an infinity of space filled with stars; plus reports from the Danish Court on Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Oxford created the first version of Hamlet, the one mentioned in passing by Nashe in such a way that suggests its popularity as early as 1589.

Returned finally to Court in June 1583, a week before Sussex’s death, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, contemplete life at Court without his major patron, Milord’s temper on his return was pretty much identical to Hamlet’s as the scene opens at the Danish Court, and that he too continued to dress, and act, as though in mourning. The “inky cloak” that shows Hamlet’s grief over the death of his father, mirrors Oxford’s refusal to show an interest in the holiday festivities that until his banishment had been his primary function at Court.

Just as Hamlet, while preferring to continue his studies at Wittenberg (the reading and translating in which Oxford had been immersed since his return from France and Italy), having yielded to his mother’s wish that he remain at Court, remains disaffected until, inspired by the actors, he creates a play that puts him at risk of assassination. Returned to Court by the efforts of Raleigh and Walsingham, having tasted the freedom of writing what he pleased, Oxford had no intention of churning out the kind of comedies that pleased the Queen. Enrolled by Walsingham in creating history plays that would help to turn the mood of the coastal towns away from religion and towards patriotism, he writes The Troublesome Raigne of King John, launching a series in which, encouraged by Walsingham, Smith’s close friend during their days together in the Secretary’s office, he finally gets to engage with genuine policy issues.

The version of Hamlet that we know from the First Folio is not, of course, the version that Nashe referred to in 1589 in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon with the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches,” or even the one Thomas Lodge referred to in 1596, referring to the ghost that cried at the theatre, “like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Nor even the one published in 1603, which suggests its publisher, Nicholas Ling, had waited until the Queen was gone.

The one we know is the one published the following year 1604, when the original models for all the principals but Laertes were no longer capable of being wounded. The Hamlet we know was revised from the perspective of later life, in full knowledge of the curve of events, and how “the end crowns all.” If the original “antique Roman” was Rutland, the name Horatio suggests that Hamlet’s plea to tell the truth about his “wounded name, things standing thus unknown,” was directed to his cousin Sir Horatio Vere, who in 1604 was achieving distinction on the battlefields of Europe. But not Sir Horatio, nor any other member of Oxford’s family or audience, had the audacity to broach the subject openly in print, then or for generations after. As Shakespeare put it, “the rest is silence.”

 

To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

Theatrical birth pangs: 1776 to 1584

Early in April 1576, following a year of exciting adventures on the Continent, the Earl of Oxford arrived back in England to a sea of troubles.  During his final days in Paris, someone from home had prepared him for the gossip he’d encounter on his return.  Rumor had it that his daughter, born during his time away, was another man’s child.  Worse, it was even rumored that that other man was his wife’s own father, Lord Burghley, who, concerned that after five years of marriage there was still no Cecil heir to the Oxford earldom, had taken matters into his own hands.

This of course was nothing more than foulest, cruelest rumor, and Oxford would have cause to work different versions of the dreadful story into six plays over the years, but in his hot youth, when touched where he was most vulnerable, he was all too easily roused to unthinking fury.  Brooding on this and other worries, his mood was hardly improved when the ship that carried him accross the Channel was boarded by pirates and all he had with him was lost.  Ignoring his well-intntioned brother-in-law, Thomas Cecil, who had come to meet him at Dover, he returned to London with one of the “lewd friends” that Burghley so disliked.  Refusing to have anything to do with either his wife or her father, he rented rooms at the Savoy and turned his attention to plans already in progress to create the suburban theaters that he and Sussex and Burbage agreed were the only way to accommodate the burgeoning London theater audience in a way that would stop the constant interference by the Mayor and other London officials.

Once Oxford calmed down, the truth about his daughter must have been obvious, but by then he also realized how important it was that he break off as completely as he could with Burghley, whose habit of prying into everything he did or said was driving him mad.  He was not in love with Anne, never had been, and although he was sorry for her, stuck as she was between her husband and her father, he had his life to live.  If Burghley wouldn’t let her go, then let him keep her, “for there, “ he wrote, “as your daughter or her mother’s, more than my wife, you may take comfort of her, and I rid of the cumber thereby.”  The future Shakespeare was never one to mince words when he was sore.

Within days of his return a huge new theater began taking shape in the outskirts of northeast London.  Based on temporary stages he had seen in Siena built by Palladio and on plans for theaters in the ancient Latin tract on architecture he borrowed from his tutor, the innovative yearround theater, the first of its kind in England (and possibly in all of Europe) was built to hold somewhere between two and  three thousand paying customers at a time.  Meanwhile plans were in progress to turn one of the apartments in the Revels section of the Blackfriars compound on the Thames into a school for the Queen’s boy choristers, where the little stage meant for their rehearsals could be used from time to time to entertain the audience that meant the most to Sussex and his vice Chamberlains, the lawyers, scribes, and parliamentarians of Westminster.

The summer of 1576 saw audiences flock to the big round public theater in the East End, where herds of apprentices and tradesmen and their wives and sweethearts were eager to pay their pennies to see plays they were told had been performed for the Queen.  Burbage and his crew grew bold as they collected the money that had always escaped them at the theater inns, where they could only pass the hat at intermission.  That winter those residents of the West End who could afford it were charmed by the boys at the little stage at Blackfriars where they paid a substantial fee to see, by candlelight, richly furnished early versions of A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens.

The residents surrounding the new theaters were not so thrilled by the litter, the noisy crowds and late hours––but with powerful privy councillors like the Earl of Sussex and Lord Hunsdon as patrons (Hunsdon now living next door to the little theater), and the Earl of Rutland, whose City manor stood a few yards from Burbage’s stage on land that until recently had been his family’s heritage, and where he still held rights––there was little the neighbors could do, at least, not right away.

For six years, all went relatively smoothly for the newborn London Stage and its patrons. Then in 1581 Oxford got himself bounced from Court for impregnating a Queen’s Maid of Honor.  Furious at how he was being treated by the Queen and the Court; fearful for his life and the life of his retainers at the hands of his mistress’s angry relatives; bitter at his mistress for what he saw as her willingness to drop him for a better prospect––he refused to continue to write for the Court and began turning out plays filled with personal passion and aimed at the West End audience.  This probably meant using the little theater at the Blackfriars school, probably with adult actors from Burbage’s and Worcester’s Men, and probably fairly late into the night.

These were not the kind of plays that he could have written for the Court.  Angry at Ann Vavasor for what he believed was her perfidy in taking up with another man, he rewrote one he’d written earlier about the Trojan war, lavishing it with irony, and pouring all his pain over his mistress into the plot and characters in Troilus and Cressida.  Furious at his cousins for accusing him publicly of treason, he dramatized the assassination of Julius Caesar, with Brutus in a situation similar to his own, and Cassius, whose “lean and hungry look” identified him as his cousin Henry Howard.  Frightened by the determination of his mistress’s male relatives to kill him, he wrote another in which he portrayed himself as already dead, observing from above as an imaginary father takes bloody revenge on his killers by means of a play within a play (The Spanish Tragedy).  Then, with the discovery that his mistress still loved him, he poured his lonely heart into a blazing new version of Romeo and Juliet.  Finally, as his patron and surrogate father, the Earl of Sussex, sickened and died, he accused the Earl of Leicester of poisoning him by drawing parallels between him and King Claudius and between Elizabeth and Queen Gertrude in a first version of Hamlet.

Since the Blackfriars theater was cheek by jowl with the City manors of Lady Russell, Mildred Burghley’s termigant younger sister, and of Sir William Brooke Ld Cobham, longtime supporter of Ld Burghley and Robert Cecil’s future father-in-law, that it wasn’t long before they became aware of what sort of plays were now taking place next door should go without saying, as should the probable fact that this was the real reason why the Blackfriars landlord, Sir William More, began petitioning the privy council to shut down the school, for Sir William, determined to rise at Court, would never have taken on councillors as powerful as Sussex and Hunsdon had he not had some hefty backing of his own.

The War with Spain and the rise of the Stage

As the threat of attack from Spain took center stage at Whitehall, Secretary of State Francis Walsingham moved quietly ahead of Burghley, Sussex, and Leicester as Privy Councillor with the most important duties.  Then, as Lord Chamberlain Sussex’s health began to fail, Walsingham moved, again quietly, to take his place as major patron of the Court Stage.  Although not in his job description, the Secretary, whose shoulders bore the responsibility of preparing for the inevitable attack from Catholic Spain, had a vision whereby a Crown company made up of the leading actors from Burbage’s and other companies could bring the kind of plays that Oxford was capable of writing to the hinterlands, plays that mixed entertainment with English history and anti-Spanish propaganda.

Himself a student of history, Walsingham understood that nothing binds a people together like a shared past.  What past was being shared then by his largely uneducated countrymen were stories from the middle east, told in the Bible.  Rouse their emotions with English stories, whether proud or bitter, and they’d be British first, Catholics second.  That this was clearly the mandate for the creation of the Queen’s Men can be seen by their travel itineraries for the years 1582 through 1588.  These show that the company spent more road time than anywhere else in towns along the southeastern and western coasts where the Spanish were most likely to attack (McMillin 175-78).

It should be clear that plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and Edmond Ironside were written for the same reason that, during WWII, when little was being filmed in England due to the stringent economies forced on the British by the war, the government made it possible for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V to be lavishly costumed and filmed in expensive color.  During the war the American military did the same thing, enrolling director Frank Capra and others to produce propaganda films, while giving movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Paul Heinreid deferments so they could continue to play roles in anti-Nazi films like Casablanca.

As a close friend and colleague of Oxford’s tutor, the former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, Walsingham understood that Smith’s former student badly needed something useful to do, something to keep him from continuing to cause trouble for the Court.  Writing for the Queen’s Men would keep him busy in a worthy cause.  It also made use of his knowledge of English history, knowledge stored in the papers and manuscripts he inherited from his father, passed down from one earl of Oxford to the next, papers that he kept closely guarded, allowing only those closest to him to know what they were.  No one was in a better position to turn the story of England’s past into exciting drama, an argument that helped him get the majority of the Privy Council behind the Queen’s Men, and finally, to get the Queen to fund Oxford’s crew at Fisher’s Folly, as neither he nor the improvident earl could continue to fund the stage on their own for much longer, now that Sussex and his wealth were gone.

For the adult actors this was a major step forward.  In previous years they had to share the Court stage with the children’s companies.  More recently they suffered from the heavy competition from the other companies that were springing up like mushrooms to meet the public demand for more plays.  So although they couldn’t have been pleased by the prospect of so much travelling, the fact that they were guaranteed first place at Court with fees, props and costumes supplied, was a terrific boost.  Also, when in London, no longer to be confined to the little school stage at Blackfriars, but as the Queen’s own company, to be guaranteed the Belle Sauvage Inn as their primary winter venue meant they were guaranteed London’s best holiday audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.

Since Francis Bacon, too, was without a job, and since he too was a gifted writer who was already successfully entertaining the Court with installments of his Faerie Queene, Walsingham put him to work writing the holiday comedies for the choristers that Oxford no longer cared to bother with.  These had to be written by a courtier steeped in Court gossip, one who knew how to amuse without offending the great ones in the audience, how to tease without wounding their equally great and touchy egos.   It was this last factor that Walsingham failed to consider well enough when he brought young Christopher Marlowe on board as an apprentice to Oxford and Bacon.  Talented he certainly was, and a quick learner, but, to everyone’s grief, including his own, Marlowe turned out to have a very different agenda than what Walsingham and Oxford had in mind for him.

Shortly before the beginning of this turbulent period (December 1580), Richard Farrant, the school master in charge of the children’s school at Blackfriars, died, leaving his wife with the boys to care for, and nowhere near enough money for them or her own family.  As More continued to press for the power to close down the Blackfriars theater through 1581, ’82, and ’83, its lease got passed around, from Farrant’s widow to Henry Evans, assistant master in charge of the boys; then from Evans to Oxford, who by then was back at Court; from Oxford to his secretary, John Lyly; and from Lyly to Lord Hunsdon, who joined with Walsingham to keep the school, or the theater at least, from going under.

Officially the school came to an end in April 1584 when the court decided in favor of the landlord, though proxy data suggests that the little stage may have been allowed to operate as a private theater until Hunsdon’s leases were up in 1590.   It’s hard to believe that this important space, which for most of its existence over the past fifty years had been used to rehearse or store props for Court revels, would have continued to stand silent and empty for the first six of the ten most important years in the birth of the London Stage: from 1584 to 1590, most particularly from November 1584 to March 1585, when the West End was crammed with important men from all over England, gathered for Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament.  Oxford, Hunsdun, Charles Howard, Rutland, Bacon, Beale, and Raleigh, were all present and took part, as is shown by the journals of the houses of Lords and Commons in the records online. (Comes Oxon. Magnus Camererius, means Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain.)

Parliament’s holiday break that year lasted from Dec 21 to Feb 4.  This would have been the ideal time for plays aimed at the visiting members to receive their greatest attendance.  The Revels accounts show that the Queen’s Men produced four plays at Court that winter, so we would assume that these were performed later at the Belle Sauvage.  Oxford’s name is unusually prominent in the Revels account for this holiday season,  along with the traditonal “activities” (acrobatics), he’s listed as patron for two plays, one by his “servants,” the other by his “boys,” who produced, on St. John’s Day, December 27th, a play titled The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, which E.T. Clarke suggests was probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These, or others not appropriate for the Court, would, like the plays performed by the Queen’s men, have been performed somewhere handy to the West End during the same time period.  That “somewhere” would either have been the little stage at Blackfriars, or in a hall in one of the waterfront mansions on the Thames, the most likely being Somerset House.  Then the primary London residence of Lord Hunsdon, it was located directly across the Strand from Cecil House.

Oxford’s three audiences

Modern readers of Shakespeare come to the plays through the First Folio, the versions of the 36 plays published in 1623 by the patrons of his company, known by then as the King’s Men.  Publication then, and ever since, has performed a cleansing process on the plays, providing texts without any of the baggage, attitudes or complications that history attaches to important works of the past.

In Shakespeare’s case, partly because they were written so long ago (though, as it turns out, not entirely) it’s been next to impossible to place the plays in history in any meaningful way.  Roughly half had previous publication in quarto format, the other half were never published until the First Folio.  Some were registered with the stationers, others not.  Some were mentioned in letters or publications by contemporaries, most were not.

Although we have a few holographs (handwritten versions) of other plays from around that time, none are by Shakespeare.  Unlike their sister company, the Lord Admiral’s Men (later Prince Henry’s Men) documented by the diary of theater owner Philip Henslowe and other papers retained at Dulwich College by his stage manager Edward Alleyn, if anyone in Shakespeare’s company ever kept any records, they didn’t survive.  The only records to survive are mid-17th century court cases over ownership of the by then lucrative company shares.  Whoever or whatever we mean by Shakespeare, he or it created one of the most successful businesses of the period, at least for those who ran it in London.

One result of this has been that even those who should know better tend to approach the plays as though they were more or less all written under the same impulse, to make money for both the writer and his actors, and for the same public audience––the only issue being when.  Because the Stratford biography forces them all into a decades late 15-year time-frame, efforts to see genuine connections to current issues and events have failed, creating a Shakespeare who plucked his subjects more or less out of thin air, and all for the same audience, an amazingly well-read  public, with the Court little more than an adjunct, as it is today.

With Oxford as author, all of this changes; the process becomes at once much more complicated and also much more interesting.  The unspoken assumption that everything that Shakespeare wrote could have been seen by anyone in his time who came to London or who had a penny to spare falls by the wayside.  The fact is that different audiences saw very different kinds of plays, even in some cases, different versions of the same play.  The illusion given by the First Folio, that all the plays share a sort of equality of presence, fails as well.  As with the works of every other great artist, each play has a history of its own, and all are closely connected to events in the life of the author and of the communities, the nation, and the world in which he lived alongside his fellows.

With a solid historical framework in place, it shouldn’t be nearly so difficult to place each play within a relatively narrow and realistic time-frame, even in some cases down almost to the very day.  In attempting to set dates for a particular play, it helps to determine for which of his three audiences did he write it originally:  the Court, the Inns of Court, or the public?  Eventually all of his plays ended up as public entertainment, but few (if any) were written originally with only the public in mind.

His Court audience

As a member of the Court from probably around age 17 until he was banished at 31, Oxford’s energies were chiefly directed towards entertaining his own community.  He was not unique in this, or rather, he was unique only in the quality of his work, for all of the upwards of 40 or 50 individuals who formed the core of the permanent Court community, those who had suites of rooms at Court where they lived yearround, were expected to contribute their particular skills for the support and/or pleasure of the group.  As the crème de la crème of English society, they were expected to sight read music notation, to sing complicated vocal arrangements, play the lute or the virginals, and perform the latest dances.

Oxford’s dancing was obviously admired by the Queen; of the handful of his poems that come down to us, many, perhaps most, are song lyrics (madrigal lyrics often sound like complicated poems), while in later years he was praised by a fellow composer as being as accomplished musically as any professional.  So we can assume, based on what evidence remains, that he quickly rose in the Court’s estimation for his contributions to musical and dramatic events.

His writing for the Court may have begun with interludes, witty dialogues exchanged by two or three of the boy choristers, interspersed with musical offerings by the boys, the Court’s permanent staff of musicians, or courtiers with pretentions to expertise.  These interludes soon expanded into full length plays like Love’s Labor’s Lost, that were made up of a series of comic or romantic interludes interspersed with songs and sometimes dances, even, as in The Tempest, with the company taking time in the middle of the show for a feast served by the cast.  E.T. Clark has identified several of these from their early listings in the Revels records.

Most of the plays termed comedies in the First Folio began as entertainments for the Court community.  Over time, some of these became standard entertainments, revised every few years by adding new topical material and characters, or revising old material to fit new situations.  In this way a character like Armado in Love’s Labours Lost represented a different Court figure when the play was first written than he does in the 1623 version, in which he represents Antonio Perez, whose presence at Court can be easily assigned to a few years in the mid-90s.  This has confused scholars who would otherwise place the play as early as the late 1570s when Elizabeth was contemplating marriage to the duc d’Alençon.   It may be that the play was originally very early, but once it became a favorite at Court, he would update it every few years for the winter holidays.  How many versions survived, and what dicing and splicing the First Folio editors may have done with them we can only guess.

When writing for the Court Oxford was of course always aware that the core of his audience were the Queen and her entourage of ladies, the wives and daughters of leading Court officials.  In writing to please them he learned early that what entertains men is not always appreciated by women, particularly the sort of well-bred, educated women who were welcomed by Elizabeth into her private circle.  That this was Oxford’s primary Court audience can be seen from his early published works (attributed to Petti, Lyly or Greene) that were specifically targeted toward female readers.

Although there’s much to suggest that Oxford preferred to write for the West End, he never ceased to entertain his home community, providing plays for Court weddings until his final days.  Among his final revisions were those produced for the 1604 wedding of his youngest daughter, Susan Vere, to the Earl of Montgomery.  The Folio version of The Tempest comes largely from the 1595 version he wrote for the marriage of his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to the Earl of Derby, which he further revised as The Spanish Maze for Susan’s wedding.  The Folio version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for the wedding of his old flame, Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton, to Sir Thomas Heneage in 1594.  Taming of the Shrew was written originally as a wedding roast for the 1579 marriage of Lord Strange to Alice Spencer.

His West End audience

Outraged at his banishment from Court and by the way he and his men were being threatened by his lover’s relatives as Elizabeth sat by and did nothing, Oxford wrote nothing for the Court for the two years that he was ostracized (1581-’83), turning instead to his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.”  For them he could unfurl the full power of his rhetoric on the kind of issues that would never have passed the Court censors.  The West End (more accurately the city of Westminster) was where the legal colleges, the Inns of Court, were located.  Further west, between the Strand and the Thames, stood the great City mansions where the most prestigious courtiers and government officials lived.

For Oxford and his patrons, this was the most important audience in London, particularly during the relatively infrequent moments when Parliament gathered to vote on a subsidy for the Queen.  Once we can begin to focus on details, it will be helpful to use these times as moments when he was most intent on reaching this audience with plays relevant to current issues, for it was then that the most influential men in England gathered together at one time and in one place.  Plays that deal with national issues, like treason (Julius Caesar), colonization (The Tempest), or the Law (Merchant of Venice) are most likely to have been first written for this audience, and the only possible stage where they would have produced these plays was at the little stage in the chorister’s school at Blackfriars.   The big public theaters were located in suburbs far from Westminster, while the Blackfriars stage was a mere hop and a skip to the west along Fleet Street, or, if coming by water from one of the mansions on the Strand, just footsteps from the elegant old Blackfriars watergate.

Happy finally to be writing for adult actors (no more little eyeases!) I believe that it was for this audience that he produced the first version of  Timon of Athens, the first version of Troilus and Cressida (written before he discovered that Ann Vavasor was not the Cressida he had so unkindly assumed), of Romeo and Juliet (after discovering that she still loved him), of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus (written to explain his urge to desert England and fight for Spain), and of The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet (written out of anguish at the death of his patron, the Earl of Sussex, and suspicion that he’d been poisoned by his enemy, the Earl of Leicester).  The only one of these that we have today in anywhere near the original version is The Spanish Tragedy (attributed to Thomas Kyd); all the others were rewritten for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men during Oxford’s final Shakespeare period (1593-1608).

The public plays

Last, and in many ways least, at least so far as his personal interest was concerned, there was the public audience that, through their far greater numbers would make his works “popular” as neither the Court nor the Inns of Court ever could, something that gave a great deal of power to the company that produced them.  When Oxford first began producing plays at Court in the late 1560s and early ’70s, the various children’s companies that performed them were allowed to supplement their sparce Court stipends by performing the plays they’d rehearsed for the Court a few times at the little theater at Paul’s Cathedral school for choristers.  These early comedies migrated rapidly to both the public and private theaters.  Because their subjects were popular and easily understood and no deep knowledge of history or philosophy was required to enjoy them, they pleased the public, and because any satires of known Court personalities would be lost on a public audience, there was no reason for the Privy Council to get in the way.

By 1583, with the creation of the Crown company known as the Queen’s Men, Oxford found himself writing for the provincial audiences that, as McMillin and Maclean show, were the new company’s primary focus.  It’s possible to see in these early plays, most of them termed as “apocryphal,” his attempts to deal with local or at least popular issues as in Arden of Faversham, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, The Birth of Merlin, James IV and Edmond Ironside.  Responding to Walsingham’s desire to teach the provincials something about their history, he also wrote the early versions of what, as Shakespeare, he would turn into the great history plays: The Famous Victiories turning into Henry V, the Contention between York and Lancaster into the Henry VI series, and so forth.

Early in James’s reign, towards the end of the Shakespeare period, perhaps in exchange for stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, Oxford consented as his share of the bargain to provide updated versions of what early Court plays remained for the now royally established King’s Men, versions that would make them one of the most successful commercial enterprises of the Stuart period.  It seems he was embarrassed about this.  Feeling called upon to explain to his community why he was turning plays that they regarded as theirs into public works,  he produced at a great welcoming get-together for King James at Wilton or Salisbury the summer of  1603 a new version of As You Like It in which, as Touchstone, he explains his need to marry the provincial and unpoetic public audience he personalizes as Audrey (audire, Latin for to listen).  A man must marry and a playwright must have an audience.

Of course many plays migrated across these boundaries and although not everyone could see a play at Court nor could a poor apprentice afford one of the expensive indoor private theaters, members of the first two audiences could always see a play at one of the public theaters should they wish, and probably did quite often––all but the Queen, that is. It’s so unlikely as to be impossible that she ever ventured outside her Court confines for any purpose; every venture from one arena to another was in the nature of a state occasion.  Her dignity could not be impeached by being seen in anything less, and her person had to be protected from the lunatics and drunks that were constantly threatening to do her in.  In Tudor and Stuart times, the theater came to the monarch, not the monarch to the theater.

This of course was a boon for Oxford and his patrons, for they could trust that some of the material would never reach her ears.  We know what happened a few times when that occurred.  She would never come to them, and no one in his or her right mind would tell her things that might stir her anger enough to allow the theater’s many and determined enemies to “pluck it down.”  It also made it easy for him to hide from her how much of what came from his literary circle came directly from him.  Those darn secretaries, always publishing things behind his back!