Category Archives: Countess of Pembroke

Hide Fox and all after

In the second scene of Act 4, we find Hamlet alone in a room in the castle, where he’s discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been sent to bring him to the King, who’s just been informed of the death of Polonius. After taunting them with their servility, Hamlet agrees to go with them and, as they exit, he mutters “Hide Fox and all after.” Notes tell us what we could have guessed, that this is the name of a children’s game, the one we know today as Hide and Go Seek.  Why does Hamlet say this?   What does he mean? He isn’t saying it to his former schoolmates, nor to the audience. They won’t know what he means any more than we do. From this point on Hamlet talks in riddles a great deal of the time.

In Hide and Go Seek, the child who is “it” plays the role of a hunted animal, a fox if you will, who is sought by the dogs, the rest of the children. To evade the dogs, the fox must be silent and crafty. When one of the hunters tracks him down, the hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the fox, becomes “it.”  Since no harm comes to the fox in the children’s game, this role is more glamorous than that of a hunter, so there is competition to be “it.” To be the best dog, the one who finds the fox the quickest, then to be the best fox, the one who can outfox the dogs for the longest time––this is the motive force that drives the game.  Hamlet is a prince, born to rule. Refusing to see himself as a victim, he finds a way to cast himself as a winner––in his own mind at least––one who can outfox the dogs.

Hamlet is no longer a child, but until now he has lived a pampered existence.  Blissfully unaware of the murderous animal energies that drive the politics of Court society, he has, like Prospero, spent his life immersed in books and things of the mind.  It has taken his father’s murder to awaken him to the realities of power politics.  Unwilling to believe the ghost without some evidence of his uncle’s guilt, he sets a trap, a play, to determine the truth.  This works, yet it also puts him in serious jeopardy.

Now that Claudius knows that he knows who murdered the Old King, Hamlet, formerly just an irritation, has become a deadly threat.  Further, by killing Polonius, he has given his uncle a legitimate reason to get rid of him. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hamlet needs to get the hell out of his intellectual ivory tower and engage on the level of animal energies with all his wits about him.  Knowing how fear can paralyze action, to encourage himself he summons up a game from his childhood, so that he can act freely, with the élan of a child at play.  Thus it is to himself that he speaks when he mutters “Hide fox, and all after.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is full of clues about the author, but these have led nowhere since there’s nothing to be found in Stratford.  There was no prince in Stratford, living in an Ivory Tower.  This author felt safe in childhood, and what does he do as an adult?  How does he deal with the cruel realities of life?  He plays.  He plays the lute, and he writes plays, in which, as in children’s games, the victims rise when the curtain falls and the show is over to play again the following day in a world of make believe.  This author was someone who felt powerless in the real world of power politics, who found his strength and power in the world of the theater, the world of play.

The fox is safe as long so he remains hidden.  There is nowhere Hamlet can hide his physical self from the King and his henchmen.  But what he can hide are his intentions.  From now on, Hamlet, who is of an open disposition by nature and inclined to reveal his feelings, hides them behind a mask of foolery.  Like Hamlet, his author too hides himself behind a mask––the one we call “Shakespeare.”

Why Shakespeare hid

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was a genius.  We may not agree on who he was at this point, but surely we all agree that he was a genius.  There’s something else we know about him now, something we didn’t realize until recently: he was not only a genius at writing plays and poetry, he was also a genius at hiding.  We’ve been playing Hide Fox and All After with Shakespeare for roughly two hundred years, and still he remains elusive, dim, half––if no longer completely––hidden.  But why?

Hamlet hid his intentions because he was in mortal danger.  Is this a clue to Shakespeare’s hiding?  Was he in mortal danger?

Authors frequently hide behind pseudonyms when they publish works that might get them into trouble with the authorities.  (The list of famous writers who have done this is too long to include here.)  Is this why Shakespeare hid his identity?  Would he have been in trouble with the authorities had they known who he was?

Writers often use pseudonyms when they branch out and try something different, so that they won’t turn away faithful readers used to a different style or genre.  (Again, the list of famous writers who have done this, and are doing it today, is too long to list here.)  Could this be part of the reason Shakespeare hid his identity, so he’d be free to change style and genre whenever he felt like it?

Many writers in the past have hidden their identities because they wished to protect their class status or some professional identity.  Was this the reason, or part of it?

Writers hide from family, friends and fans behind unmarked doors and unlisted phone numbers because they need extended periods of unbroken time to get into the creative zone and stay there long enough to make something happen.  Was this why he hid?   To insure his privacy?

As so many great writers have agreed, great writers create out of their own experience, some of it potentially scandalous and embarrassing to their families, friends and lovers. Did Shakespeare hide to protect his family and friends from a posterity that might connect their private secrets with the plots of his plays?  With his villains and fools?  With the passion of his sonnets?

The early modern period was a time when poets were ashamed to put their names to the poetry they published.  In Shakespeare’s day, poetry, particularly love poetry, was regarded as a “toy,” a foolish pastime that healthy-minded adults gave up with maturity.  Is this why he hid?  Because, once past his twenties, he was ashamed to be known as a poet?

This was a time of fierce criticism of all innovations in word usage, spelling, syntax. The messy experiments of a language getting born led to ferocious condemnations of all attempts to do something new. Is this why he hid? Because he didn’t care to hear himself condemned by ignorant fools?

Another reason has been suggested in an article by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, published some time ago in The New Yorker, titled: “What is a Novelist?” In an effort to explain what motivates a serious novelist, Kundera makes the very interesting point that great writers are haunted by a demon unique to their craft, the awareness that their audience may well be posterity, that their name, unlike that of mere generals and tyrants, may last forever, and in fact, that the fame of generals and tyrants depends on writers, for no one will remember the greatest hero unless some writer preserves his deeds in words. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this when he promised the Fair Youth that so “great was his pen,” that the Youth would be remembered “when tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass are spent.” By separating himself from his name, did he wish to keep his inspiration free from the psychological burden of future fame?

Are any of these the reason? Are none of them the reason? Are all of them the reason? Why do we do anything important in life, marry, divorce, start a family, move to a different town or country, change career paths, go back to school? Isn’t it always for more than one reason?

Problems of understanding the period

To find the fox it is necessary to understand him, how he thinks, what motivates him. Those of us who reject the Stratford biography are forced to deal with several problems that complicate our search for Shakespeare, problems that we must address before we can understand him, before we can feel certain that we’ve found the man himself and not just another one of his colleagues, rivals, patrons or proxies. Most of these problems relate to the immense differences that separate our time from his.

Humans share a great deal across the boundaries of time period, nationality, class, language, skin color, etcetera. We share the need to eat, sleep, be protected from cold and heat, communicate, find work, love, companionship, and so forth, but there are also a great many differences between our time and earlier times, differences between classes and the ways in which we regard class differences, between word usages, between expectations with regard to security, privacy, opportunity, responsibility to family and community, differences between our belief systems today, our views on sexuality today, and those of Shakespeare’s time. Some of these differences bear close examination.

For instance, there were far fewer people then. There was only one real city in England, with a population of less than 200,000, while the larger towns were more like what we consider villages today, and the villages hamlets. Although a wave of restlessness and movement, fueled by economic troubles, was rising, most people still tended to stay in one place and keep to one occupation for their entire lives, resulting in much smaller communities with fewer opportunities for change or advancement. Few people outside the Court community were literate.

The high death rate meant that changes such as transfers of offices and property were brought about more by deaths than anything else, usually causing those who lived longer to have as many as three or more marriage partners. The extremely high death rate among infants caused a set of very different attitudes towards children than what we know today, which in turrn must have affected their attitudes as adults. It also caused women to have as many children as they could so that at least some would live to maturity, which had a great effect on the lives, the health, and the attitudes of women.

The high death rate also made religious tolerance next to impossible. With death an ever present factor it was simply too important to feel secure about what happens afterwards to allow any room for differences of opinion. Today most of us are existentialists who accept uncertainty as the price of living in peace with neighbors of differing beliefs, but that was not yet the case in Shakespeare’s time. Where so much was uncertain, certainty of belief was a necessity.

Apart from religion there were other things we routinely question today that were not yet matters for discussion––at least, not open discussion, including the need for strongly-defined social classes, that prestigious bloodlines should be the determining factor in choosing a leader, and that the political system should reflect a particular religion. Differences like these must be seen as absolutely necessary to our effort to understand both the fox we call Shakespeare and the background wherein we seek him.

There are plateaus in history, long periods where change occurs very slowly. Sooner or later these come to an end, giving way to periods of extremely rapid change, often triggered by a discovery of some sort, or a series of discoveries. This was one such period. For several hundred years following the fall of Rome, change had occurred at a relatively slow and even rate, but with the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance, change began to pick up speed.

As is the case in our own time when immense leaps in technology have shrunk, and continue to shrink, our planet while expanding our concept of the universe, the Elizabethan era saw similar leaps in technology bringing about an equally rapid, changing and expanding world view. Considering how long their world view had remained at the level it held throughout the middle ages, there is no doubt that this process was hugely disturbing to most. Awareness of these changes was spread by another factor, the expansion of literacy.

As a response to the Reformation, beginning in the 1550s and reaching a peak of expansion in the 1580s, an upsurge in the creation of grammar schools and colleges at the universities, an expansion of their teaching programs and rapid increase in their student populations, plus the addition of Renaissance humanist subjects to their curricula, created a supernova of learning. People of all ranks and both sexes were learning to read and write in far greater numbers than ever before while at the same time, the language itself was experiencing rapid change and expansion, a phenomenon that was occurring in every European nation.

That this supernova of learning was as intense as it was, and that it lasted at that level of intensity for only a short period of time, roughly fifteen years, can be seen by corelating the pertinent records with the relevant dates. Change and growth continued after this, of course, but at a far slower rate. Since Shakespeare is one of the two great creators of our modern English language that lived at this time, this supernova of language and learning must be taken into account as we seek his identity. Where does he fall on this steep bell curve of development? Reason should tell us that it must be neither too early nor too late.  Finally, because this authorship question involves the writing of poetry and poetic prose, we need to consider the place that poetry occupied in European minds at that time.

Poetry, so important to antiquity, has lost its significance today because it’s no longer needed as it was then. In Shakespeare’s day, although the need was already gone, centuries of habit continued to regard it with respect as a legacy of the aeons that we dismissively term the “oral tradition.” Before people could read and write, poetry and song were the means with which they preserved their cultures in memory, the vehicles whereby an immensely rich culture was passed from each generation to the next.

Poetry is language woven together through the use of mnemonics, tricks of sound that make things easier to remember because they stick in the mind. There are three major mnemonics: rhythm (or meter), rhyme, and alliteration. These, with the addition of song, are the means with which all peoples who do not write keep their cultures alive.  With the development of writing, people no longer had to keep everything, their history, their traditions, their stories, their wisdom, in their memories, they could simply write them down and refer to them when necessary. Nevertheless, although mnemonics, and eventually poetry itself, were no longer necessary, for the centuries preceding printing, tradition kept poetics alive, so that most ancient works of philosophy, religion, history, science, and medicine continued to be written in some form of poetry. Today we think of poetry as a vehicle for personal and emotional themes, but in ancient times, everything was written in poetry if it was to be kept in memory.

Although it wouldn’t be until our own time that schoolchildren––in America at least––would no longer be required to memorize a handful of poems, Shakespeare’s period, due to the Reformation attitudes towards art and the rapid increases in printing and education, saw the importance of poetry being seriously questioned for the first time.

Renaissance vs. Reformation

The great cultural revolution known as the European Renaissance, imported from Southern Europe, came late to England, and when it arrived it was almost immediately modified by another great cultural revolution, the Protestant Reformation, imported from Northern Europe. They reinforced each other in some respects, particularly in encouraging education, but in others they clashed, creating a tension that continues to exist in the English-speaking culture today. This tension was at high voltage during Shakespeare’s time. While the Renaissance craved art, music and poetry, the Reformation tended to frown on the arts as, at best, a waste of the Lord’s precious time, at worst, tools of the Devil.

Following the period of the most intense growth of education came a second period of rapid change, one that also lasted a fairly short period of time, roughly the two decades that spanned the 1580s and 1590s. During this period language and style developed at a breathless pace.

It began at a pathetically low level. Try reading a few pages of Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Baldassare Cortegiano’s The Courtier. Hoby’s attempt to translate this Italian masterpiece into English is so turgid, so stilted, so convoluted, that over and over, the editor finds it necessary to translate so the reader can understand what the Italian original had intended. Or try some of the jog-trot poetry of Thomas Churchyard or George Whetstone. C.S. Lewis called this the “drab era.” Although education was increasing during this period by leaps and bounds, most teaching was still done in Latin, while English remained as stark and awkward as ever.

But by 1600, two short decades later, the standard had climbed to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached either before or since, that set the bars for every writer of English to come later. This was a bell curve of change so steep it’s almost vertical. While the previous generation saw a supernova of education, the era of Marlowe, Sidney, Bacon and Shakespeare created a supernova of culture.

What caused this abrupt and rapid change? Certainly the preceding upsurge in printing and education had a great deal to do with it. But was there more to it than that?

Birth of the commercial media

This cultural supernova was fueled by an extremely important event in English history, one that, so far as I can see, has not been given its due. This momentous event was the birth of the commercial stage and the commercial press in the mid-1580s. Historians haven’t rated this in proportion to its importance in the history of the English-speaking peoples, not just their literary history, but a far more important development in the grand scheme of things, namely the history of Democracy. As the people of London began to make their will known by the plays they supported and the pamphlets they read, a new branch of government was born: the Fourth Estate, the voice of the people, the vox populi, what today we call the Media, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before the mid-1580s.

Before that, plays and books were dependent on wealthy patrons to get produced.   Following the Edwardian Reformation, when printing took off, roughly 90 percent of everything published were sermons or translations of religious tracts, with five percent how-to books or other works of self-improvement. But with the popularity of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, and of pamphlets like Robert Greene’s romances, a wealthy patron was no longer necessary––for these paid for themselves. Now theater owners and publishers could produce works based purely on their appeal to the public. From this point on, writers began to write what they believed readers and audiences would want to read, rather than what someone thought they ought to read.

This was the beginning of democracy in action, a bloodless revolution––well, relatively bloodless––and, perhaps because it was relatively bloodless, it hasn’t been seen in its true light.  So why did it occur at this particular moment in time?

Hunger for entertainment

For centuries the Church had filled all the entertainment needs of the public at large. Almost every week some Saint’s Day provided an excuse for a feast, while at least once per season there would be a full blown festival lasting for several days, offering an excuse to dress up, dance, feast, drink, play games and make elaborate processions to the local parish church. These gave the people something to look forward to throughout the days and weeks of the year. With the Protestant Reformation, most of this came to an end. Such carryings-on were seen by the early reformers as papistical pandering to pagan disorder. Yule logs were banned––may poles torn down.

For centuries certain inns in London and the larger towns had doubled as theatres when acting troupes came to town. With the loss of the Church calendar, people began to spend more time and more money in the theater inns, to the point where business entrepreneurs like James Burbage and his brother-in-law thought a building dedicated solely to plays might be able to support itself.   This they just barely managed to do until the mid-80s when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine showed that with the right play and the right performers, significant profits could be made from the enthusiasm of an audience willing to pay its penny, not once, not twice, but whenever the play was performed.

As for the commercial press, the same scenario held, though on a considerably smaller scale, since pamphlet sales were limited to the reading public, which at that time was probably roughly five to ten percent of the population. And while a pamphlet might eventually reach 500 readers, a play could reach thousands. According to Thomas Nashe, by 1592, 10,000 people had seen Henry the Sixth.

Later historians may have missed the significance of this revolution, but the Crown, the City and the Church certainly did not. Throughout this period they made continuous and frantic efforts to stop or at least control their growth, and even to banish them altogether. But as a poet once put it: “stop running water and it will rage”––once a revolution has been launched in full force, there’s no stopping it.

By the end of the ’90s, the booming commercial theater and press began to produce a small corps of professional writers. By professional we mean that they could live, or at least hope to live, on the proceeds of their writing­­––something that is difficult at any time, but was, until then, so impossible that no one bothered to try. Point being, there simply were no commercial writers at the beginning of this revolution. There were scriveners who made their living acting as secretaries to the illiterate public at large, who, for a small fee would read to them the letters they received and write letters for them, but this trade was not an art.

In the end it was a small community of university-trained secretaries and tutors to the well-to-do that would provide the budding media with professional writers, but that did not happen until the very end of the century.

As for the actors, until the 1580s most performers had a trade that kept them going between holidays. Once the stage went commercial, and there was work year-round, talented actors simply gave up their “day gigs.”  But the situation was different for the writers who would provide the material that actors and theater owners relied upon. Until the professional writers began to appear in the early 17th century––Jonson, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher––who was doing the writing on which the actors and theater owners––and audiences––relied for their entertainment? The answer is, we really don’t know.

This is a mystery of much greater proportions that just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Who wrote these early pamphlets and plays? Who kick-started this literary revolution? If we go solely by the records, Shakespeare played no part in the production of these first commercial plays from the 1580s. There must have been several hundred plays written by the beginning of the nineties for the various boy companies, the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men. Apart from the occasional one-timer like Udall or Wilson, for all of these we have authors for no more than 17 plays and for these, only four authors: 4 plays from Christopher Marlowe, 9 from John Lyly, 1 from Thomas Kyd, and 3 from Robert Greene [Orlando, James IV, Friar Bacon, ]––and two of the four authors, Kyd and Greene, are no more than conjectures. Since pamphlets required names on the title page, we have a few of these, but for genuinely literary pamphlets, only two names stick out, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

Groups or coteries

First: no lasting revolution was ever engineered by a single individual. Revolutions are always created by groups. They may center around a single inspiring leader, but it requires a group to accomplish any set of common goals or to create an accepted standard. By the same token, great artists, who are almost always revolutionaries of a sort, do not create out of a vacuum. Invariably they have colleagues and rivals, if not equal in genius, then close enough to stimulate them to reach for greater heights.

Second: nothing is so powerful in stimulating human action as competition, whether for food, power, or recognition, even if the recognition is only from a handful of others of like mind.

Third: writers and performers need audiences. And no artist finds a better, more stimulating, audience than that provided by his or her peers. That we see no evidence of any connection between the artists who stand out from this period: Shakespeare, Philip and Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, etc., does not mean, as the academics seem so strangely willing to accept, that they had no connection with each other. Of course they did. Birds of a feather flock together. Just because we don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What does a bear do in the woods? Do we need an affadavit?

So here’s another dog that didn’t bark in the night, another anomaly in the orbit of the visible planets.

And the fact that there is no evidence of what common sense demands––should tell us something else––namely that such a connection was hidden––that concern with each other or time spent together was not something to spread about or refer to in print. What behaviors are acceptable in public and what are acceptable only within the privacy of the family or private coterie is something that every child learns very early, if not at his mother’s and father’s knee, then at the knee of his tutor or her governess.

This can hardly be considered a “conspiracy,” as least not as the Stratfordians derisively term it. Is it a conspiracy when a man and a woman who are married to other partners have lunch together in some out of the way bistro, and then simply don’t tell anyone about it?   Or when politicians from opposing parties get together in private to discuss a sensitive issue and neglect to inform the newspapers?

Very little of what was done and said in those days wound up in the records if the letters that survived with the legend “burn this” inscribed at the bottom are any indication. There’s no reason why writers who were members of different and sometimes opposing coteries would leave any record of their connections with each other, or why those who worked for them would reveal relationships that their employers preferred to remain hidden. There were no paparazzi in those days. Not only was there no yellow journalism in those days, there was no journalism period.

There was not just one fox in this game of hide and go seek, but several. Why? Because this was a revolution and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Were they aware that they were creating a revolution? Maybe, maybe not. But what they were surely aware of was that as soon as the fox was caught the game would be over. This was not a conspiracy, it was a game! At least, that’s what it was at first.

Merry-making

To banish his fears of the horrors of an adult reality, Hamlet strives to return in his mind to a childhood world of play. In the effort to understand Hamlet’s creator, one of the prime factors that has been missed by the so-called experts is this quality of playfulness, or, to use an old English term, “merry-making.” In English we call dramas “plays.” Sixteenth-century audiences called actors “players,” reflecting the source of modern theater in the games and rituals of “merry-making,” the English term for the age-old response of the human animal to the changes in the seasons.

At particular moments during the year, the English of all classes and callings donned costumes and masks and stepped out of their humdrum workaday world into a holiday world of fantasy ritual. These moments occurred most significantly on May Day, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and on several occasions during the winter holidays from November 30th, All Hallow’s Eve, to January 6th, Twelfth Night, then to Shrovetide in early February, also known as Fat Tuesday or, on the Continent, Carneval, the last big blowout before the beginning of Lent. This was part and parcel of the Church calendar as it had been pursued around the year from time immemorial.

But, though they were loosely connected to Christian holidays, these festivals were not Christian in origin. They had grown over the centuries out of pagan festivals, which themselves had grown during even earlier ages out of grim Stone Age rituals––rituals whose significance had been forgotten long before the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s early plays reflect their origins in these rituals. Authorship scholars are proving that the sexual greenwood adventures of May Day, as reflected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the traditional wedding chivaree, as in Taming of the Shrew, were, in fact, written for two such occasions. The teasing and tormenting of authorities or obnoxious neighbors through satires, burning of effigies, breaking of windows, chanting of naughty jingles, which, combined with a hearty consumption of ale, could lead to real trouble, were sublimated and refined by Shakespeare into the vicarious tormenting of stage characters like Malvolio and Falstaff.  Thus were the crude animal energies that were so feared by the reformers sublimated into a the genteel theater event of the present.

In other words, for the first decade of this revolution, the 1580s, this uprush of expression through plays and pamphlets was done, most of it, in the age-old holiday spirit of merrymaking. Quashed by the evangelical reformers, now it was spilling over the ancient time boundaries that until then had kept it contained within the traditional holiday periods, much to the horror of the Church that had created the problem in the first place.

In any case, these folks whose identities we are tracking did what they did in a spirit of good clean fun, or fun at least. Brilliant minds met to create moments of exhilarating hilarity, the tensions and fears of the regime blown away in gusts of laughter, first among themselves at Court gatherings, then spreading to the public theaters and bookstalls. That we can still hear that laughter echoing in the scenes with Falstaff, Nym and Pistol, with Hal and Poins teasing Francis the drawer, is due to Shakespeare’s comic genius. And when Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, saying “dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” we are hearing Shakespeare confront a rising tide of humorless Calvinists that half a century later would shut down his brilliant, funny, witty theater, leaving it cold and shuttered for two long decades. He must have seen what was coming, having given the last word of the play to the puritanical Malvolio: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

These young Court writers were not out to change the world, not at first. Like kids in school, they were just out to have a good time and were not about to let anyone stop them. There’s your conspiracy––a gang of gifted mischief-makers out to torment the self-righteous, a conspiracy among the real Marias, Sir Tobys, Fabians and Festes, between the real Oberon and Puck, between the real Prospero and Ariel, the real Mistresses Page and Ford, the real Hal and Poins.

So who were they?

None of them are unknown to us. All are known to us today, at least for their reputations if not for their actual works. Most of them were courtiers. Courtiers were the only people in Elizabethan society with the leisure to play such games, games that, like cards, dice, dancing and singing madrigals, could only be played by a group. They were also the only ones with an awareness of what was being done by their counterparts at the Italian courts, by Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Tasso.

How did they do it? By using proxies on their title pages.

How are we to tell who was a proxy and who was a real writer?

Because the real writers have genuine writer’s biographies, their works match their life experiences, and we know them today, not just for their works but also by their proven presence in society where they were acknowledged for their writing.  The proxies show only that they lived and died; they show no evidence of a writer’s life; and their purported works do not match their life experience as projected by their biographies. This is not the case only with Shakespeare, but with all but two of the major writers during this two.decade period.

To understand how the creation of the Fourth Estate in Elizabethan times by the emergence of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press attracted the energies of six or seven tremendously gifted individuals who created lift-off for an industry that by the 17th century saw professional writers emerging from the population at large, it’s important to make the point that this was done at the beginning in the spirit of a game, of play, of a new kind of “mumming and disguising,” of new and more respectable forms of “merry-making” to take the place of the old May games that, along with the Church calendar, were being driven into disrepute by the Reformation.

In my view, which is of course, subject to change with the arrival of new facts and insights, there were six major figures in this revolution that came from the Court community: these being Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his cousin german, Francis Bacon (we don’t call him Sir because he wasn’t a knight yet, during this early revolutionary period), Philip Sidney (for most of this period, Philip was not a knight yet either), his sister Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (she was a countess during this revolutionary period), and Sir Walter Raleigh. In addition to the Court writers, there was a commoner who belongs in this top category, Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury.

Just as the history of the Trojan War requires the story of the combatants, their personalities, their goals and ambitions, and their relationships with each other, to understand this revolution of language, we must know the stories of the revolutionaries and of their relationships. Just listing them won’t be enough. The proof is in the story. But we can’t examine their stories, we can’t put them together in a single story, or in a single blog. What we can do in this time, is identify them, affirm that obviously they knew each other’s work, affirm that they must have known each other personally, and that by their works they drove each other to reach for the heights. It was simply too small a community for any other scenario to be possible.

Who were the proxies then, the so-called writers who lent or sold the use of their names so the Court writers could publish anonymously? Whose biographies lack the necessary factors that we must see in a writer’s biography to give it credence?  The men who, I believe, rented their names to the Court writers purely for cash or other forms of remuneration were: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, William Shakespeare, and John Webster.

Other men for reasons of friendship lent their names for one or two publications: among these were: George Gascoigne, George Pettie, Barnabe Riche, and Thomas Lodge. There may be others, but of these we can be fairly certain, for all of them show similar problems with their biographies and with the fact that the nature of the works that they are supposed to have written does not match the nature of their lives as revealed in their biographies.

Scholars tend to be a serious lot. For centuries they’ve managed to ignore the obvious clues that the death of Robert Greene was a joke. Of these clues, the most glaring is that he was said to have died of a “surfeit,” or overdose, of “pickle-herring.” “Pickle-herring” at that time was a traditional name for a clown or comedian, similar to Harlequin or Punch. So the reader is being told, of course, that Greene’s supposed death was due to an overdose of foolery. You’d think that this would have alerted scholars to the game-playing nature of his work, but so far as I know, for over 400 years it has failed to alert a single one.

Much is yet to be puzzled out, much reading of early works is left to do, many word studies created that may now give us some real results since we have better questions to propose, much time spent in thought, yet I believe that it’s fair to state that the most important of these writers was responsible for, in chronological order: the Gascoigne plays, the Pettie canon, the Lyly novels, the Robert Greene canon, and the Shakespeare canon. The second most important was responsible for most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon. And a third is responsible for the John Webster canon and perhaps a handful of plays attributed to other, later writers. That they are grouped this way can be shown, I believe, first, by noting similarities of approach, basic habits of expression, and unchanging personal concerns that transcend all changes in style and genre. And second, through their dates. For instance, it is of utmost significance that the appearance of Shakespeare follows so closely on the demise of Robert Greene and, for another, that Nashe follows almost immediately on the final works of Edmund Spenser.

Finally, the point must be made, that while three of these writers published under other names than their own, the works of the other two were published under their own names. Philip Sidney himself wrote everything, with a few very minor exceptions, that was published under his name, while Marlowe’s plays are all his own. It should also be noted that both of these writers died young, before they were published, while those who published under proxies all lived fairly long lives and all published long before they died. Where Raleigh fits into this picture is hard to tell at this point. Perhaps the few poems that we believe to be his, his marvelous reports and tracts on naval matters, and the history of the world that he wrote towards the end of his life are, in fact, all he ever wrote. Hopefully what poetry was his will become more clear as we investigate his cronies. These are the main players, the authors of most of the important works of the imagination during this earliest period. Others there were without doubt, with possibly equal talent, who chose, for personal reasons, not to develop it in later life. But these six had a passion for writing that could not be silenced, even if for their own good.

What then can I state without equivocation?

First, that the English Literary Renaissance was launched by, not one, not two, but at least six individuals, five courtiers and one commoner, five men and one woman; that they knew each other and inspired each other; and that a number of important and not so important works attributed to other writers are, in fact, the works of three or four members of this group. Second, that their impulse to write and publish grew, at least at the beginning, out of the game-playing spirit of holiday merry-making, and that the hiding of their identities grew out of the same tradition, that of holiday mumming and disguising and that the game turned deadly roughly halfway through this period when “Maxwell’s silver hammer” fell down on Marlowe’s head. From then on the mumming became serious and the disguising a necessity.

Finally, we will not know the full truth about Shakespeare until we’ve unraveled the truth about all the writers of this period, both those who did the writing, and those who took, or have been given, the credit for it. This is the story of, not just one individual, however great, but a group. And it’s a darned good story, and well worth the telling.

[The above is a slightly modified version of a lecture given at the Globe Theater in 2006 for the first of what has become the annual Shakespeare Authorship Trust lecture series.]

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Bacon and the Wits

I’ve been asked to elaborate on my belief that Bacon was Spenser and Nashe and how that fits with the University Wits.  Since I don’t have any more “hard data” than anyone else, the best I can do is what I’ve been doing from the beginning, seeking the scenario, the narrative, the motivation, that makes sense of what we’ve got.  Making sense of it means reading all these texts, which has been the project of many years, and since so very few readers will have had the time or the inclination to do this reading for themselves, all I can do is present my conclusions and hope that they make human sense.

Although it must have been clear for some time, probably centuries, to the intellectual community that William of Stratford could not possibly have been the author of the Shakespeare canon, Delia Bacon is credited with having opened the authorship question to the public at large in the middle of the 19th century.  Although her 1587 book is next to impossible to read today, it raised a hailstorm of excitement at the time, out of which came the first name to replace the illiterate William, the highly educated and brilliant Francis Bacon.

The Group Theory

But Bacon was not Delia’s choice.  She believed that the works were written by a group that was led, not by Bacon, but by Sir Walter Raleigh.  Bacon was involved, as were the earls of Oxford and Derby and others.  It’s interesting that through the fog of time, Delia perceived, if dimly, almost exactly the same group that makes up the leading candidates today.  How they were supposed to have worked together isn’t clear to me without reading her book.  (I’ve groped my way through many a tiresome text in pursuit of this story, but this book is too much even for me.)  The Group Theory is generally disregarded now, but Delia was right in that the English Literary Renaissance was the result of the work of a group, just not in the way she proposed.

A revolution in style is often made by a group of artists who come along at about the same time.  We see this with the Impressionists in France,  six originally, with others joining later, or at a distance, who all, though they shared the characteristics of plein air and warm colors, had very different styles.  It was true of the artists in 13th and 14th century Florence, of the Kit Kat Club of Swift and Pope, of the Austin High School Gang of jazz players in the 1930s, the Bebop generation of the 1950s,  and the “British Invasion” of the 1960s.  There are six names who have been considered candidates for Shakespeare’s laurel crown for some time, and from what I can see, though only one is Shakespeare, all of them are part of his story, in one way or another.

Members of such groups may work together for a time, but their main role is to act as competitors, critics, and most important, an audience for each other.  It is very difficult to write for an unknown audience.  A genius needs an audience that is close enough to his level to make it worth his while to keep reaching.  Oxford came to such a community when he was twelve, the young translators at Cecil House.  Francis Bacon came to such a community in 1578 when, as an 18-year-old, he returned from France and found himself at the center of Oxford’s coterie.

This is how I see it

Just as one of Shakespeare’s protagonists might switch clothes with his or her servant to avoid trouble, Oxford began borrowing the names of friends and servants to get his work published.  Print publishing was in its infancy, and the teenaged Oxford, full of youthful energy, jumped on it as a means of reaching a wider audience than the handful of poets and translators at Cecil House and Elizabeth’s Court much as young artists today are using the internet to find their audiences in ways that were unavailable to their predecessors.

Getting works of the imagination published at that time in English history meant confronting, not just one, but two powerful forces that were set against it.  The age-old tradition of keeping what was written by the Court and for the Court within the Court was reinforced by the Protestant Reformation, which saw anything pleasing or sexy as the work of the Devil.  Where the young translators at Cecil House had neither the funds to publish (very expensive then), nor the reckless courage to defy convention, Oxford had both.  Peers had unlimited credit, even underage peers.  He also outranked everyone else at Cecil House, even Cecil himself, and rank was important then to a degree we can only imagine from our experience with film stars, which can’t come close to the power of an ancient name.  For these reasons, even as Oxford assumed leadership in the movement towards Renaissance freedom, he did so through intermediaries.

As he finished his studies and moved to take his place at Court, he continued to publish his own and other men’s work.  Determined to get for himself and his friends an English literary establishment like the Court-based Pleiade in Paris , we see in the dedicatory letter to Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte his effort to enroll writers and translators of works of the imagination––poetry, stories and plays––to publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Thus begins the frequently repeated pretence, that a friend had the work published while the innocent author was out of the country.

Particularly annoying was the silence of the gifted Sir Philip Sidney, who wouldn’t publish.  As the Queen’s official favorite, his uncle the Earl of Leicester did not like the Earl of Oxford.  A man with old-fashioned tastes and ideas, Leicester would have been seriously displeased had his heir violated Court protocol by publishing his own poetry, even under another name.  While Oxford had the courage of his rank and his peer’s credit, the Sidneys were relatively poor, their father was only a knight, their mother was Leicester’s sister, and the family was steeped in the religion of sin and damnation.  It took a mighty shock to unchain Philip Sidney’s muse.

Enter Francis

Then in 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon returned from two years at the French Court.  Bacon’s genius was just what Oxford had been looking for.  Although he had no more money or rank than Sidney, and had been raised in a similarly puritanical household, eleven years his junior, separated for the first time in his life from his beloved older brother, Francis became (I believe) utterly devoted to Oxford.  Having been inspired by the French, he was equally dedicated to seeing England reach the same literary levels achieved in Renaissance France and Italy. This was the bond that kept the two working together as long as they lived.

Within weeks Bacon had prepared his own contribution to Oxford’s publishing effort, signing it Immerito––“without merit,” a reference to the fact that he had not been given a post at Court worthy of a man of his natural gifts, the son of the Queen’s recently deceased Lord Keeper.  Recalling the simple shepherds of Greek romance, The Shepheard’s Calender is in many ways a call to Court poets like Sidney, Dyer, Buckhurst, and Raleigh to set aside their political differences and see each other as fellow poets.  Calling himself E.K., Oxford filled out what would otherwise have been a very small book with an extended gloss, a useful insight into his prose style of the late 1570s.

Denied the serious job he craved, Bacon joined Oxford in entertaining the Court.  But where Oxford and Sidney drew inspiration chiefly from the Greeks, Romans, French and Italians, Bacon, seeking a style that was his own and had no hint of imitation, turned to the early English writers, Chaucer and Skelton.  He probably began writing the first installments of The Faerie Queene shortly after publishing Shepherd’s Calender. He continued to write new installments of FQ for a decade, finally publishing the earlier ones in 1590 as by Edmund Spenser.  The stylistic quirks that show how FQ matches with Bacon’s style are fairly clear once one looks for them.

There can be no possibility that Spenser himself was the author of FQ, or of anything published under his name.  Although making connections at this point seems impossible, it’s clear that FQ is filled with allusions to Court figures and gossip.  Located in the wilds of southern Ireland as a functionary of its English occupier, Lord Grey, Spenser could not possibly have had the kind of personal connection to the English Court he would have needed to write FQ.  And even if he had he would not have dared to play fast and loose with the personal idiosyncrasies of courtiers of rank and power, a role for which Francis Bacon was uniquely suited, having grown up at Court.  What seems to be the case is that Raleigh, who owned land in southern Ireland and so maintained an ongoing physical presence there, set up the Spenser cover for Bacon, paying Spenser for its use and using it himself to get some of his own poetry published.

The 1570s saw the rise of a style that’s come to be known as Euphuism, after the protagonist in the novel published by Oxford in late 1578 that he attributed to his secretary, John Lyly.  An embellished account of his own adventures during his year in Italy, the novel was also a polemic delivered in response to the puritanical dicta on style and learning pronounced by Roger Ascham in his book The Scholemaster.  Published a decade earlier, dedicated to Cecil just as he was embarking on the final years of Oxford’s education, it was vicious in its denunciation of Italy as the sink of all sin.  Oxford’s point in Euphues, admittedly not all that serious, was that men learn how to live correctly, not from reading behavior guides but by experiencing life for themselves.

The 1580s were all about keeping the nation Protestant within, and defending it without against the might of the Catholic Church as wielded by Philip II of Spain.  In 1572, Cecil, by then Lord Burghley, had passed his office of Secretary of State on to Oxford’s old tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, while he took over the office of the recently deceased Lord Treasurer.  A year later Burghley got Sir Francis Walsingham appointed as Elizabeth’s Second Secretary.  When Smith died in 1577, Walsingham took his place, gradually increasing the power of the office as the need to prepare for war with Spain increased.  Although Walsingham had begun as Burghley’s protégé, as he increased in power, Burghley became uneasy.  Having had little experience of life outside England, Burghley continued to hope, and to encourage the Queen to hope, that peace could be maintained by shifts and promises, while Walsingham, having lived and studied overseas, saw that the crisis was building and knew that it was sure to come and that the nation had to be prepared.

Despite the weak reputation bequeathed him by the Cecils through their control of history, Walsingham was in fact a man of superb intellect, broad education, and refined tastes.  Where Burghley had always handled his own propaganda efforts in secrecy, Walsingham, burdened by the thousand things required of a Secretary of State, particularly one faced with a violent confrontation with the Spanish Empire, created an office of Public Relations to deal with everything that required expert writing and translation, an office he kept secret because so much of what it did had to be done in secret.  With Raleigh’s help, he got the banished Earl of Oxford reinstated at Court, created the first official Crown acting company, the Queen’s Men, and gave Oxford the mandate to write plays they could perform in and near the port towns where the Armada was most likely to strike.  Oxford’s response included The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, Edmond Ironside, and The Troublesome Raigne of King John, all of which portray England as a proud nation with a long history of defeating Continental invaders.

Fisher’s Folly

Having been banished from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Oxford quit writing the comedies for the boy companies that the Queen had come to depend on for her holiday “solace.”  Upon his return to Court in 1583, either he refused to pick up where he left off in ’81, or Walsingham needed him to focus on providing material for the Queen’s Men.  Based largely on the similarity of the style of the Lyly plays to the style of The Faerie Queene, I believe Walsingham enrolled Francis to work with Lyly to keep the Queen entertained.  Those who find the Lyly plays interesting might try comparing them to the style and content of FQ.  This was period when pastoralism was a favored theme for masques, when Sidney was writing his Arcadia, Bacon was writing Faerie Queene, and Oxford was publishing pastoral tales under a variety of noms de plume.

The University Wits

Meanwhile Walsingham helped Oxford fund a staff at Fisher’s Folly that could assist with keeping these projects in motion.  There’s plenty of evidence that John Lyly and Anthony Munday were already part of Oxford’s team.  And there’s a fair amount of proxy data that suggests that George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Watson were members of this playwriting team to which Stephen Gosson belonged at one time, and which he later vilified as “the sink of all sin.”  Although whatever evidence that these last were connected with Oxford has been scrubbed from the books, it’s a matter of record that these were all members of what the academics have nicknamed the University Wits.

I suggest that among those hired at this time was the young Christopher Marlowe.  A prodigy who had already proven himself at Cambridge, it was to learn how to write for the Queen’s Men that Marlowe missed his studies during the theater seasons of 1584 through 1586.  Having graduated in 1587, Marlowe and his NBF (New Best Friend) Edward Alleyn, decamped for the new Rose Theater on Bankside where manager Henslowe was more than willing to produce Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, a rabble-rouser that it’s most unlikely that the Oxford-Burbage-Walsingham team would have allowed to be staged as it was written.  That it was a super-hit gave solid promise that the London Stage had a viable future as a way for writers and actors to make a living.  It was also a step towards disaster, for the newborn London Stage as well as Marlowe himself.

While still banished in 1581, ’82 and early ’83, Oxford, freed from having to entertain the Court, had turned to entertaining, informing and proselitizing the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the legal community of the West End, with plays probably performed by Burbage’s adult team, most likely at the little stage at the chorister’s school he had helped to create upon his return from Italy.  Angry at the Queen and the Court, this is when The Spanish Tragedy and early versions of Timon, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Romeo and Juliet first reached a (limited) London audience.  If these were ever performed at Court, it could only have been in versions revised to suit the Queen.

Astrophil and Stella

During Oxford’s banishment, Philip Sidney was suffering an exile of his own.  Due to Leicester’s affair with Lettice Knowles, Countess of Essex, and their subsequent marriage and her pregnancy, Sidney found himself, not only out of favor with the Queen for his attitude towards her possible marriage to the Duc d’Alençon, but snubbed by those whose interest in him had been based solely on his relationship to Leicester while Leicester seemed likely to marry the Queen.  Unused to such treatment, Philip fled both the Court and his herd of supporters to hide away with his sister Mary at Wilton.  During an idyllic summer with her and her new baby, little William, something happened to Philip that gave rise to over 100 love sonnets about his relationship with a mysterious Stella that not only raised his standing at Court as a poet, but helped to diminish his reputation as sexually cold.  Eventually he married Walsingham’s daughter, and having followed Leicester to the lowlands war, was mortally wounded in 1586 at the Battle of Zutphen.

Enter Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe

At some point in the early ’80s, Oxford began publishing tales in the Greek romance style that he had written earlier to entertain the Queen and her ladies.  Some of these he published as by George Pettie, a fellow student at Oxford, some as by Thomas Lodge, one of the crew hired by Walsingham to assist him at Fisher’s Folly, some as by Barnabe Riche, another friend, but most were attributed to the ephemeral “Robert Greene.”  All but Greene are known to history, two of them writers in their own right, but Greene has never been located––although there was a man by that name who held a copyhold agreement to work a piece of Oxford’s land in Essex whose name suggests that he was a member of a local family that was once very close to Oxford’s father.

The Robert Greene of the title pages was the first and most prolific of the handful of pamphleteers who launched the first successful English commercial periodical press.  For a full decade, every year or two Oxford would publish a tale with a plot aimed at a female readership, laced with excellent poems.  Some bore the name of one of his associates, most bore the name Robert Greene.  In this way he became the originator of what one day would be the extremely influential and lucrative (though not for him) British periodical press.

Late in 1588, a new voice entered the pamphlet arena.  Using the pseudonym Martin Mar-prelate, the satirist used the new medium to harrass the bishops who were in the process of turning the Protestant Reformation into the present-day Church of England.  After a few pathetic attempts by the bishops to respond to the devastating Martin, Archbishop Whitgift, Bacon’s former master at Trinity College Cambridge, turned to Walsingham’s team for help.  Oxford’s response was a little on the tepid side, but Bacon, dazzled by Mar-prelate’s bold effrontery, found the voice he’d been seeking.  Using the name of a Cambridge sizar that provided a rather good pun for this new self, he gnashed his literary teeth, first at Mar-prelate, then, in pamphlet after pamphlet, at anyone and everything that gave him cause.

Railing was an art form then, something along the lines of today’s standup comedy; a wit who was good at it could count on being invited as a guest to expensive dinners.  Bacon, as Nashe, was good at it, at least in print; no one has ever been better.  If the world could realize who actually wrote Piers Penniless or Jack Wilton, these would soon become required reading for students of English literature.

Furious with Marlowe and Alleyn for deserting the Folly coterie, Oxford and Bacon did what they could by blasting them in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, but Marlowe, lashed to Phaeton’s cart, was not to be deterred.  His Latin motto, found on his portrait in 1955, translates as “that which nourishes me destroys me.” Following Walsingham’s death in 1590, with Cecil at his heels, he ignored the warning in Robert Greene’s farewell pamphlet, that unless he gave up his “atheism,” “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” Having eluded the Crown during an attempted sting in Flushing in 1591, Marlowe was finally nailed in May of 1593 during a deadly “visit” from three of Walsingham’s former operatives.

Meanwhile Mary Sidney, having mourned her brother for two years, arrived in London in the autumn of 1588, shortly after Leicester’s death, eager to do what she could for her family now that both Philip and their uncle were gone.  Mary has never been properly recognized for her immense ability as a poet.  Her translations of the Psalms are among the best poetry from this period.  They are also a clue to the dark nature of the puritanical protestantism in which she and her brothers were raised, and from which both of them, each in his and her own way, used their writing to fight free.

I also believe that it was Mary who, as Countess of Pembroke, was responsible for organizing the acting company known as Pembroke’s Men that stepped into the breach briefly during the theatrical disasters of the early ’90s.  I am also totally certain that everything written as by John Webster was Mary’s work, written and published throughout the latter half of the 1590s and through the first two decades of the 17th century.  While Webster the coachmaker’s son has next to nothing to offer in the way of a biography, the plays that bear his name reflect Mary’s own story in ways that once revealed, cannot be denied.  The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are the great masterpieces of Jacobean literature.  I only hope that someday they will be properly attributed to the genius who wrote them.

Mary is also the individual most responsible for making the first move to remove the barrier to publishing the poetry and tales written by courtiers.   By publishing her brother’s sonnets in 1591, she opened the door, first to Sir John Harington, who published his translation of Orlando Furioso that same year, to Bacon who followed suit in 1596 by putting his own name on the first edition of his famous Essays.  Some continued to hide behind pseudonyms and initials for another century or so, but the fortress of tradition was cracked.  Only time, and the crumbling of aristocratic isolation, would bring it down for good.

With the 1591 publication of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Oxford, in dire straits, having lost his ability to raise the funds needed to keep his theater enterprise going, now found himself in danger of losing what may have been even more precious to him, his place in the sun as England’s top courtier poet, for Sidney, whose stock was already sky high due to his heroic death in battle, was being touted as the new Chaucer.  His sonnets were selling like hotcakes.  Determined to protect his status, Oxford worked with Richard Field, who ran the print shop next door to the little Blackfriars Theater, to publish Venus and Adonis in a beautifully-designed edition.  Forced to seek a new cover name, having put paid to Robert Greene some months earlier, he used the name of a friend of his printer.  Unable to pay for it himself, we hear his gratitude to a new patron, the young Earl of Southampton, in the dedicatory note signed William Shakespeare.  This was located on the reverse side of the title page, an indication to those aware of such traditions, that since it wasn’t on the title page, it did not represent the author.

Bacon shifts gears

In the early 90s, after Oxford got rid of Greene, he and Bacon went a few rounds in a phony paper duel in which Bacon railed as Nashe and Oxford pretended to be Gabriel Harvey.  When Oxford found it necessary to rid the world of the fictional Robert Greene, he realized that Greene’s absurd deathbed mea culpa, Greene’s Groatsworth, was not going to be sufficiently convincing, so he faked a third party commentary on Greene which he attributed to Gabriel Harvey.  The infamous Second Letter, in which Harvey supposedly reveals the disgusting facts about Greene’s terrible lifestyle and pathetic death is sheer foolery, as we’re informed by the statement that Greene died of “a surfeit of pickled herring,” a clue that the whole thing was a joke.  Bacon, looking for an excuse to continue to rail in print, pretends to defend Greene by attacking the Harveys.  When scholars, seeking the horrendous insult in works by Greene, finally discovered it, there was nothing about it that could possibly cause such a reaction.

Harvey had been friendly with both Bacon and Oxford when the Shepheard’s Calender was published back in 1578.  Referred to as Colin Clout’s “especial good friend Hobbinol”; he was also the addressee of E. K.’s dedicatory letter, which urged him to promote the new poet’s work “with your mighty Rhetoric and other your rare gifts of learning.” But something happened between then and a year later when Bacon published some of Harvey’s personal letters to him in Three Witty and Familiar Letters, which caused Harvey a great deal of trouble.  His effort to respond in a light vein to this damning maneuver is particularly touching.  In my view, it was the last thing published under his name that he actually wrote himself.

I do not believe that a single pamphlet from the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet duel was actually written by Gabriel Harvey; they were all by Oxford, who, bereft of his credit, was dying of boredom.  For one thing, in the early 1590s Gabriel Harvey was in no position to take on these two powerful Court figures.  He had lost his position at the university, and his stipend, and so was in dire financial straits, with the added burden of having to fight with the widow of his recently deceased brother John for control of his brother’s estate.  It’s possible Harvey got some work in London, but at some point he retired to his home town where he continued to correspond with serious scholars, never commenting, in writing at least, on the rude way his name had been bandied about.

Bacon goes legit

In 1596, the Queen finally gave Bacon a job as her personal counsel. 1596 was a terrible year for Elizabeth, during which she lost the last remaining member of her family, Lord Hunsdon, and was more or less forced to yield to the Cecils’ demands to make them the supreme power on the Privy Council.  Perhaps in seeking a balance to the weight of the Cecils, Essex turning out to be unreliable, she had no one left to turn to but Bacon.  There was no salary, but for Francis, who it appears genuinely adored the Queen, it may be that finally having her ear was all he needed.

The effect this had on him was amazing.  Finally given the position he craved for so long, with Walsingham and Hunsdon gone and Oxford and his projects in trouble, it seems he was ready to quit his role as Court entertainer and satirist and to devote his talents to supporting the Queen and the Earl of Essex.  According to his biographer, his handwriting totally changed at this time.  Within a few months he published everything he’d ever written as Spenser, and after one final blast as Nashe in 1599 (probably for the sake of his printer, since it was the printer who made money, not the author), he seems never to have written another word as either Spenser or Nashe.

If, as history has it, Spenser actually arrived in person in London in December of 1598, fleeing the rage of the Irish, it must have caused something of an embarrassing situation.  If, as history has it, he then died a few weeks later, it was probably lucky for all concerned.  Following an elaborate funeral provided by Essex, he (or something like him) was buried in Poet’s Corner, and that was that.  By then Bacon was up to his ears in Court politics, where he continued to assist Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men whenever and wherever he could.  The surfacing of the Northumberland Manuscript in 1867 strongly suggests that he was heavily involved in getting Richard II and Richard III published during Oxford’s showdown with Cecil in 1597.

The Earl of Derby

One of the candidates whose name has been linked to Shakespeare since early on is William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby.  His older brother, Ferdinando Stanley, had been deeply involved in the London Stage as patron of various companies––most recently of the Lord Strange’s Men, the crew that produced Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in 1587––until his murder in 1594 passed the earldom to his brother William.  William’s marriage to Oxford’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, in January 1595, was (in my view) the occasion for a version of The Tempest in which Prospero bequeaths the magical isle to his daughter Miranda and the shipwrecked Ferdinand, just as it appears Oxford, weary of his role as Court jester, was attempting (or pretending) to bequeath the Court Stage to his daughter and her husband, so he could retire to the Forest of Waltham.

Efforts to cast William Stanley as Shakespeare appear to grow from records that show his involvement in the Court Stage in the late 1590s, in particular his patronage of the new Children’s Company that, through his efforts, got the use of the Burbage’s Blackfriars Theater in 1600.

That William Stanley did nothing to prevent rumors that he was the real Shakespeare, seems likely from the otherwise meaningless scene in As You Like It where Touchstone, in the repartee over his marriage to Audrey, the personification of the public audience that Oxford was now forced to entertain, having greeted William, Audrey’s other suitor (and only one of two in the entire named William) with “Cover thy head, cover thy head; nay, prithee, be covered,” after some even more obscure wordplay, continues: “You do love this maid [the public audience]?”

WIL:   I do, sir.
TOU:  . . .  Art thou learned?
WIL:   No, sir.
TOU:  Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that  drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.
WIL:   Which he, sir?
TOU:  He, sir, that must marry this woman [entertain the public].  Therefore, you     clown, abandon––which is in the vulgar leave––the society––which in the   boorish is company––of this female––which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female [the London Stage], or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit I  kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado, or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction; I will o’errun thee with policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart!

The audience for which this was written was the same audience for which Oxford had prepared the 1595 version of The Tempest, one aware of all the family connections and political issues addressed, so they would have had no problem understanding the meaning of this exchange, nor would William Stanley himself, who doubtless was present when As You Like It was performed for the Court while King James dallied at Wilton in August of 1603.  What then was the general opinion of the Court with regard to Stanley?  George Carey, who in 1603 was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, called him a “niddicock” [a nincompoop] in a letter written to his wife following Ferdinando’s murder.

A recent addition to the list of candidates is Emilia Bassano Lanier (or Lanyer), the first woman to publish a book of her original poetry under her own name. (Mary Sidney’s translations of the psalms remained unpublished in print in her lifetime.)  Although she was certainly not the author of the Shakespeare canon, Emilia played a most important role in the Shakespeare story as the most likely candidate for the Dark Lady of his Sonnets, and the figure of Cleopatra in his last great romantic tragedy.

The final figure in this coterie of writers who has been bruited as Shakespeare is Sir Walter Raleigh.  Raleigh’s excellent style as seen in his Ocean to Cynthia poems, his letters and his History of the World, plus the fact that, despite his need, and the Queen’s genuine fondness for him, like all the other Court poets, he was never given a truly important Court position, would be sufficient to accept him as a member of this group, but too little has been done to identify enough of his poetry to go any further.  It seems likely that the Amoretti sonnets and the Epithamalion attributed to Spenser in 1596 were Raleigh’s, written during his wooing of Bess Throckmorten in the early 1590s.  They certainly sound nothing like the other works attributed to Spenser.

These then are the members of the group who gave the world the English Literary Renaissance:  Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, the Sidneys, and probably Sir Walter Raleigh.  Born with Oxford, it matured and developed with help from the others, and died with the deaths of Mary Sidney in 1621 and Bacon in 1626.  Both Mary and Francis (born within months of each other), in my opinion, spent their final years assisting her sons, the Earls of Pembroke, and their good friend Ben Jonson  in his task of preparing Oxford’s collected works for print in 1623.

Of this group, only Philip Sidney never used a pseudonym.  (Marlowe’s name was put on several works after his death that do not sound like his plays.)  All the others published their works under a variety of names, Oxford using a good dozen at least before settling on Shakespeare; Bacon using at least three, Mary using at least one, and Raleigh, who can tell?  Of this group of current candidates, only Derby had nothing to do with creating a canon, though he did have something to do with the Court and London Stage.

Although I can’t put all the evidence for each of the standins used by Oxford and Bacon in a blog, I will do my best to do this at some point in the future.   This kind of proof is text-heavy and painstaking, and it is not always something that is going to capture everyone’s interest.  Right now it seems more important to present a scenario that makes sense.  Without the cream and yeast of a believable narrative, facts are like a bowl of flour as compared to a digestible loaf of bread.

A personal note

Many thanks to those who made a Christmas donation when I passed the hat a few weeks ago.  With the help of Rick, Francis, Kelly, Heike, Lynn and Kathleen, I now have $360 to help get the books and other materials I need through Amazon.com. Many thanks, dear readers. It’s your interest that keeps me going, but a little coin of the realm never hurts.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . ?

And so we come to the end of the second full year of this blog.  Many thanks to those of you who’ve continued to pursue it thus far.  For the past six months you’ve actually been more attentive than I have, having been preoccupied with moving and other personal situations.  I’m gratified to see how, even without much input from me, many continue to read the blogs and pages that have accumulated over the past two years.  Much remains to be investigated, and much that’s been investigated remains to be told, so we’re far from done.

Actually my silence over the past two months has had more to do with time taken to research areas that I’ve spent less time on in the past, primarily the 1590s, which is, after all, when the name Shakespeare actually began to appear in print.  They aren’t nearly as much fun to put together as the 1580s, when our heroes––Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon and Mary Sidney––bursting with youthful zest, launched the London Stage and commercial press.  Nevertheless, the ’90s are the crux, the very heart, of the Gordian knot that is the story of the English Literary Renaissance.

Many sorrowful strands make up this knot, each twisted into and overlapping the others: Oxford in his forties, down on his luck, looking to the young Earl of Southampton to put him back in business; Mary Pembroke defining and publishing her dead brother’s work; Marlowe’s assassination and Lord Strange’s murder; Bacon gnashing his teeth at the Establishment that kept refusing to hire him; the great Queen aging and lonely, while above, tracing its astonishing trajectory and casting its shadow on everything else, the amazing story of the young Earl of Essex continues to unfold as his supporters and enemies alike hold their breath, waiting to see how it will end.  It’s taking time to work through this material, and will take even more to condense it into a few sufficiently cogent blogs and pages.

Meanwhile I’ve managed to get a few pages up on other topics.  There’s now some background on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the English Renaissance.  In anticipation of more detail on Fisher’s Folly, there’s a paragraph on each of the names that make up most lists of the University Wits and also a brief summary of the major events and personalities of the 1580s.  Added to the list of lectures and articles from former years I’ve added Southampton’s Hair.  Written originally to deal with the idea put forth by some Oxfordians that the Earl of Southampton was heralded with unusual vigor at Court, something that now seems less certain (most of it based on Peele’s “Honour of the Garter,” which when examined seems not all that exceptional).  In any case, it touches on an area of some interest to those readers focussed on Southampton.

And for those who might wish to make it easier to continue my research I’ve come up with a way that you can help.  Should you wish to do so, I do thank you with all my heart.

Finally, for our memories of those “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,”  we paid a heavy price this year.  Remembering Robert Brazil, Richard Roe, Verily Anderson and Elliott Stone, let’s hope that wherever they are, they’re learning things still hidden from the rest of us, and that in that grand and glorious library in the hereafter, young and healthy once again, that they run into each other from time to time and remind each other of the good old days here below.

And for those of us yet remaining, a most happy and healthful 2011.

Stephanie

Was Shakespeare a woman?

From time to time I’ve stated my opposition to the idea that Shakespeare could have been a standin for a woman.  In response to a request from a reader (Howard Schumann), I’ll go into a little more detail.

One can’t argue that “Shakespeare is such an obviously masculine voice,” because many women have written believably as men.  The best evidence for this is Mary Shelley, who once beat two very masculine writers in a three-way contest to tell the best horror story––her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron––when she created the still popular Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in 1816.  So it’s not because a woman can’t write believably in a male voice or create believable male characters.  They can, and do, every day.

Shakespeare has given us interesting women, but they are all seen from a male point of view.  It’s a thoughtful view, but it is still an outsider’s view.  Had Shakespeare been a female, she would have revealed more deeply the inner workings of a woman’s mind. Her women would have been as witty as her men, and been given as memorable speeches,  One would think that in her 38 plays she would have featured at least one major female protagonist or told at least one woman’s story.  Apart from giving them good lines, true of most of his characters, Shakespeare did none of these.

Good lines and understandable motivations are true of most of his leading female characters, but even plays that derive all or most of their thrust from a woman’s predicament, plays like As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well, or Measure for Measure, show little more than one side of their characters, however attractive (or repellent) that side.  And some behave in most unnatural ways, like Lady Anne who allows herself to be won over by her husband’s murderer, Richard III, in a matter of minutes, or Kate, whose anti-feminist speech at the end of Shrew continues to make problems for modern directors.  In contrast to the finely tuned portrait of Hamlet, a masterpiece of character development, Ophelia got short shrift from her creator.  Possibly the result of several revisions, or even posthumous editing (though some tempting hints remain in her mad speech), Ophelia is an almost impossible role for the young, still inexperienced actress who’s required to give it a coherence that’s not in the text, something that would not be true had she been created by a woman who had teenage griefs of her own to draw on.

Shakespeare’s stories

The question of story goes a little deeper.  There have always been stories that speak most clearly to one or the other sex.  We see this in fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk for boys, Cinderella for girls, and in folk tales like the Iron John stories for men, as noted by poet Robert Bly, and for women, stories like Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady or the Thousand and One Nights of Sheherazade.  Had Shakespeare been a woman, one would think that at least one play would be told from a woman’s point of view as Chaucer did with his “Tale of the Wife of Bath” and Christopher Morley did with Kitty Foyle.

But although the Bard created a few strong, multi-dimensional female characters like Juliet, Kate, Rosalind, Beatrice and Cleopatra, all but Rosalind are paired with an even stronger male character, and like most female characters created by men, in terms of the story being told, most are largely adjuncts to their lovers’ stories.  The exceptions, Rosalind, Imogen (from Cymbeline), Julia (from Two Gents), Helena (from All’s Well), and Viola (from Twelfth Night), are basically all variations of the same persona, and while it is how they deal with their predicament that drives the action in either the main or the subplot, they do most of it pretending to be men.

All of Shakespeare’s plays are in fact gender specific, the gender being that of a 16th-century male aristocrat.  Ah, you say, although 16th-century London was a male-dominated society, since women can write like men, a talented woman could have faked a male voice.  But Shakespeare’s first audience was the Elizabethan Court audience , which was dominated by women; the Queen of course, plus her corps of female attendants, set the tone for all the entertaining done at Court.  In fact, most, perhaps all, of Shakespeare’s comedies were written originally for this audience, which helps to explain why so many of them have girls or women as important characters.  The tragedies were written for the masculine West End audience known as “the gentlemen” of the Inns of Court.

Shakespeare’s male bias is quite evident in his two long narrative poems.  Though both are focussed on a woman’s predicament, both are clearly written from a male viewpoint.  Unless our female Shakespeare was a lesbian it’s hard to see a woman describing the goddess Venus in so enticing a state of sexual arousal.  It’s also hard to see a female writer suggesting that, following her rape by Tarquin, Lucrece’s only decent option was suicide.  Even today, when roughly one out of five, four, possibly even three women suffer rape at least once during their lives, if all since Shakespeare had taken the course suggested by his “graver” effort, the human race would have vanished long since.

The Jacobean playwrights

Ignoring the skewed dating of the plays preferred by academics and listening only to his voice, it’s clear that Shakespeare was an Elizabethan first, last, and always.  Nor was the revising that he did for his Jacobean audiences after 1603 a great deal different in tone from the nature of his earlier work.  By 1603, the (53-year-old) leopard did not, could not, change his spots.  But, Shakespeare––and Ben Jonson––aside, the rest of the Jacobean stage was much different from what it had been in Elizabeth’s time, and interestingly one of the ways that it differed most obviously was in this very area, for a number of Jacobean plays look at life from a woman’s point of view.

The subject deserves the kind of detailed treatment that I can’t give at this point, not having given it sufficient study.  Suffice it to say that the trend is most obvious in John Webster’s two masterpieces, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), both so obviously written by a woman that when I first read them back in 2002 I was astonished that no one, so far as I could see, had ever noticed it before.  Having been inundated with male literary notions of women for most of my life, the realization that this, whatever the name on the title page, was the work of another woman hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  That that woman had to be Mary Sidney became evident as soon as I began comparing the plots and characters of the two plays to incidents and situations in her own life.

The style of these plays, and other works attributed to Webster, are so idiosyncratically Mary Sidney’s that there’s simply no possibility that she could also have written Shakespeare.  No one in his or her right mind could suggest that the same person wrote both canons.  I do hear the Webster style in a play attributed to John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize, one that, as George Swan shows, was written as a satire on Oxford.  I also think it’s likely that Mary did some editing of Shakespeare’s plays before her sons got them published, but like most accomplished writers she would have been a sensitive editor and so refrained from tampering with what, by then, the rascally author being long departed, she must have realized were masterpieces of English literature.

Throughout 2003 I devoted all lectures and articles to showing why these works had to be, not only by a woman, but specifically by Mary.  Coming to know her as I have, I feel certain that she would be furious to think that she was being “accused” of writing the works of Shakespeare, and not the ones she actually did write.  Her credentials as a writer have probably been well-covered by those who promote her as a candidate for Shakespeare, but even with only the few things that she published under her own name to go by, it should be obvious that her very unique style is so unlike his that such an identification is, or should be, moot at the outset.

Where Shakespeare is copious in his poetry, she’s spare, reflecting the puritannical nature of her upbringing.  In fact her verse can be so condensed that it’s hard to grasp her meaning.  Shakespeare’s style in his plays is a magnficent blend of the styles admired by his tutor with, probably, street talk from his early years.  Mary (Webster) on the other hand, speaks in a kind of London slang that must reflect the kind of talk she heard around her, both at Court and in the streets surrounding her London establishments, a style that had changed considerably, as styles tend to do, since Oxford began writing.  It’s almost as though she purposely set out to write in as opposite a style to his as she could,  a motivation that could have sprung from the long-standing literary antagonism between her brother and the Earl of Oxford.

Mary Sidney played a hugely important role in the creation and development of the Elizabethan/Jacobean Stage, one I’ll go into detail about in a separate essay, but it was not to write the plays of Shakespeare.  Much like Francis Bacon, her friend and near contemporary (he was her elder by only nine months), she played a dangerous game, contributing for 30 years to the underground English Literary Renaissance, using her prestige to remain well under the radar of official repression.  Her sons carried on the work she began in the 1590s, culminating in the publication of her own work as John Webster (possibly her coachmaker’s son) and of Oxford’s work under the name Shakespeare.  The two families, though at odds under Elizabeth, came together in 1604 with the wedding of her son Philip Herbert, EArl of Montgomery, to Oxford’s daughter Susan Vere.

Mary was probably not the only woman writing plays during the Jacobean period.  The Yorkshire Tragedy, c.1608, is in a woman’s voice, though not in Mary’s style.  In 1611, Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the Dark Lady of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published the first book length poem in English by a woman, its introduction giving her the added distinction of the first Englishwoman to publish a feminist tract.  Elizabeth Carey, another member of the Court community, is known for the first play written by a woman (published under her own name) in 1613.  In 1621, Mary’s niece, Mary Wroth, published the first English novel by a woman.  These may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Much needs to be done to sort out who wrote what during this period (1612-1640) not only by women but by male courtiers as well.  Protected by the theater-loving Queen Anne, the great patron of the period, Lady Lucy Bedford, and by Mary’s oldest son, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, after 1615 when he took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, female courtiers had opportunities to write and publish that they did not have under Elizabeth nor would in later times, though almost always, of course, under a masculine name.  Who were they?  Hopefully time will tell.