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.
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.
Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?
Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same. Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.
From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out. Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.
Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability. Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines. The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.
At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London. During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through. In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies. Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience. This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.
The Lords Chamberlain and the records
Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment. It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.
Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle. There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder. Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two. And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.
All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.
As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”
Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage. These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.
Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time. When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place. Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.
By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies. Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses” in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines. For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.
The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties
Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability. Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.
The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys. Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.
The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record. Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies. For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.
Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys. There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII. The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand. That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.
Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.
Oxford and the Court Stage
This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley. Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each. Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries. One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.
The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents. On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain. A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party. Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.
Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary. At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex. All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.
Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games. For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.
That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons. One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men. This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.
The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem. Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.
Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of 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,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.
Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin. Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis. Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources. Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?
Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies. The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed. It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.
Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage
It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born. In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne. In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.
Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London. Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.
It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC). Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566. As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.
It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.) Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.
Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars
By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars. The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.
An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.
Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End. The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer). Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.
The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.” Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.
The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589
Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season. Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign. Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.
Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names. All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.
Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy. Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience. A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s. Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library. On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.
On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest. (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?) Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius. On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.
1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests. On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy. On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank). Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English. No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.
Trouble in Illyria
Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament. Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel. In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.
Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays. Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to. The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.
Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings
Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw. The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber. Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.
Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles. Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.
Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something. From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three. The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests. Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.” The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style. Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.
So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court? What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns. Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.
The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created. Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85. As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range. He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.
Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it. He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.
Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them. So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters. Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself. As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.
Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham
Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return. What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.
For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point. In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders. Who but Oxford could write such plays. Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).
Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died. For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage. In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year. The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment. After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded. From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.
Another turn of the screw
In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.
Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity. Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.
London in the 1590s
Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign. With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.
As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.
As described by Lawrence Stone in TheCrisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End. That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.
The Cecils attack the Stage
That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.
Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils, made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over. Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.
Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.
Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City. In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies. Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men. Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
So where was Oxford?
In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto. Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.
In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son. This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.
While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.
Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s. Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.
In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.
Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.
Poor Ben Jonson! What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup. Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church. Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.
Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.
But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority. It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever. Mary was dead. Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church. It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it. It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.
The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End. Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them. But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.
The printer was waiting. He stared at the blank sheet before him. This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language. It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus. Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?
How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education? Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks. They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature. Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadstsmall Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.
The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished. But this was a flat out lie. Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek. Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek. Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it. Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.
Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet. Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death. It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career. Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.
Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument. The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?
This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.
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.
Here’s another must-have for your Oxfordian book collection. From 1998-2011, Noemi Magri, Professor of English at the ITIS School in Mantua Italy, published a series of articles on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy in the British Oxfordian journal, the De Vere Society Newsletter. Now the German publisher, Verlag Uwe Laugwitz, has collected these in an affordable paperback that adds a host of details to what we learned from Richard Roe in his Shakespeare in Italy, details that leave no doubt as to Shakespeare’s, and Oxford’s, first-hand knowledge of Italy. While Roe adds to the information he provides the pleasures of accompanying him on his investigations, a sort of literary whodunit, Magri, as a professor of literature and a native Italian, provides citable material in a scholarly format that writers of articles and lectures for professional journals can turn to without reserve when addressing Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy. Her abundant end notes add detailed flesh to the bones of fact
For centuries, academics, aware of the importance of Italy and Italian works to Shakespeare, have focused, not on his knowledge of Italy, but on what they believed was his ignorance, one more instance of the disassociative thinking forced on them by the Stratford biography. Since the humble provincial could not possibly have known Italy without leaving some record of his travels, ergo to wit: Shakespeare must have been ignorant about Italy, just as he must have been ignorant of Greek, Latin, French, etc..
The gulf that separates university studies of history from studies of literature is also to blame, for as Magri clearly shows, this ignorance of Italy is all theirs, for in every instance we find that it was Shakespeare who knew what he was talking about, not his critics. Our Strat-watchers will report on any apparent response to Magri’s evidence, but the likelihood is that they will do as they’ve always done with the evidence provided by authorship scholars, simply pretend it isn’t there. After all, who cares about a truth so arcane as who created the language we speak, in which we think, with which we communicate and in which all the great works of English have been written since the Bard first put pen to parchment?
Magri covers just about everything in Shakespeare that requires personal knowledge of Italy, its language, its geography, its history, its customs and its laws. Major articles deal with his awareness of Italian paintings by Titian and Giulio Romano and the part these play in Venus and Adonis, Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew. She provides the history behind The Merchant of Venice, his knowledge of Portia’s Belmont, of the precise distances and modes of transportation involved in getting from one place to another, and his knowledge of Italian law as demonstrated in the trial scene. That he knew more about the geography of Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast than his critics she shows in articles on Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale.
She clears up the eternal confusion over his seeming ignorance of the geographic locations of Verona and Milan in her article on Two Gents, providing a great deal of useful background on the two cities. She makes the point that Oxford, after visiting the German scholar Johannes Sturm, would have entered Italy via the St. Gotthard Pass rather than, as previously conjectured, by the Brenner Pass, since the St. Gotthard Pass was “the route usually taken by travellers coming down the Rhine valley into Italy” (111-2). Stopping briefly outside Milan (he would only have encountered problems with the Inquisition had he lingered inside the City), he would have learned all he needed for the adventures of his two gentlemen. [At the time of Oxford’s visit, Milan was experiencing an horrific outbreak of the plague.] These are but hints of the important information to be found in every article in this book, and in the end notes.
Evidence from Orazio Cuoco
One of the most important additions to our store of precise knowledge about Oxford is the evidence Magri provides of the Venetian Inquisition’s examination of Orazio Cuoco recorded in 1577, a few days after his return from the 11 months he lived with Oxford in England. Magri provides a verbatim transcript of the original manuscript, located in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (201), in which the questions and answers are in Italian, the rest in Latin. Facing this on the opposite page is her word-for-word translation.
As she reveals, the sole issue concerning the Holy See was whether or not Cuoco had been suborned by Oxford into giving up or ignoring his religion. Clearly they were satisfied that he had not. When asked “What made you go with him” to England, the record states that Cuoco replied, “He heard me sing in the choir in Santa Maria Formosa and he asked me if I wanted to go to England with him.” When asked if he had asked anyone for advice on whether to go or not, he replied, “I asked my father and my mother and both advised me to go.” Since both his parents died of the plague while Orazio was gone, it seems that Oxford (unwittingly) may have saved the youth from a similar fate. Beyond that the primary concern of Orazio’s inquisitor appears to have been whether or not he ate meat on fast days; he did not, or at least, so he said.
Of most interest to Oxfordians in Cuoco’s statement is the evidence it gives of Oxford’s religious tolerance and his interest in Greek. According to Orazio, while Oxford himself ate either meat or fish, on fast days he provided his household only with fish, and he also had “an attendant and a manservant who were Catholics.” To more particular questioning on religious matters, he answered that he never was required (or desired) to hear “sermons of heretics” (Protestants), and that he was allowed to attend Mass “in the house of the Ambassadors of France and Portugal” (207, 209). When asked if Oxford ever tried to convert him, he answered “No Sir. He let everyone live as they wanted.” When asked “Who associated with the Earl in this town (Venice)” he replied, “No one here from this town. He used to go to Mass at the Church of the Greeks, and he was a person who spoke the Latin and Italian languages well.” Well-acquainted with the church in question, Magri describes it as “the most important Greek Orthodox church in Europe” and “a center of Greek and Renaissance learning.” Inaugurated in 1573, Oxford would have seen it “in all its splendor.” Nearby was “one of the first printing presses” in Venice, one that printed books in Greek (214).
Magri vs. Nelson
In comparing the truth about Cuoco’s deposition to the version in Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, Magri reveals Nelson’s egregiously sloppy scholarship. For some reason the good professor had a hard time getting right the spelling of Cuoco’s name, spelling it either Coquo or Cocco (and Cogno in an earlier article on the internet), all meaningless; Cuoco means Cook in English. Although Magri had sent him the right spelling, Nelson continued to misspell it. Where Nelson reports that Cuoco claimed that Oxford was a “great lover of music,” it’s clear from Magri’s word-for-word translation that the youth never said any such thing. Where Nelson claims that “he attended churches,” Cuoco actually spoke of only the one church. Where Nelson reports that the Service at the Greek Church was in Latin, Magri corrects: “The Mass (not the service) was, and still is, said in Greek” (215). Magri was particularly peeved by Nelson’s description of the Greek Church as “notorious for attracting religious dissidents, a statement she labels “false, arbitrary and defamatory.” The church was “a cultural center,” its location in Venice “a meeting place for literary men” (215).
These are only a few of the six pages worth of mistranslations and arbitrary inventions that Nelson has foisted off on his readers as genuine scholarship, some of them obviously based on his need to represent Oxford in as dim a light as possible. For those who desire to stick to the truth, anything Nelson has to say on Oxford’s time in Italy must be rejected in favor of Magri’s version. His insinuation that Oxford’s motive in taking Orazio to England was sexual is replaced by something far more likely: that having heard him sing in the church choir, Oxford, in his capacity of prime provider of entertainment to the English Court, hoped to dazzle the Queen and the Court with Orazio’s singing . Indeed, when asked, “Did you ever speak with the Queen?”Orazio responded, “I sang in her presence” (210).
Although Roe is unparalleled in his role as tour guide to Oxford’s travels in Italy, for those who dream of the day that rigorously-researched authorship articles and books will be accepted by mainstream academic publishers, it’s Magri’s standing as a PhD and a native whose deep roots in Italian culture and history will best provide the kind of support required for scholarly exegesis. Unfortunately, both books lack an index. For those who forsee the need to use her evidence as support for your own work, I suggest you keep a record of important points and pages numbers as you go. You’ll be glad you did. (British Oxfordian Richard Malim has put together an index of Roe’s book.)
Don’t let too much time pass before getting this book. Libraries don’t buy paperbacks (when they do they have to pay to have them properly bound so they can shelve them), and hard experience has taught me the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow nature of the publishing business. As long as we remain a fringe discipline, we need to do what we can to keep the most important books available. Orders can be made through Magri’s editor, Gary Goldstein, at his website The Elizbethan Review, or through amazon.com. If the latter, don’t forget to add your own review or at least, click yes on the good ones.
Can we please stop calling him Lord Oxford?!
I have only one criticism of Magri’s excellent book, or any other in which he’s referred to as “Lord Oxford.” Once or twice is understandable as it helps to identify him, but more than that is not only a bore, it’s actually detrimental to our cause. Sure it’s a fact that “lordship” was his inheritance and that his contemporaries called him “Lord Oxford,” but his contemporaries were referring to him in his social role, not to his role as a playwright and a poet, which is what makes him important to us and, hopefully, to the entire world someday, once we can get past that dratted word Lord! It would have been appropriate to call him Maestro, but that was impossible for the very reason that a lord back then couldn’t be a maestro, or anything but a lord.
For all the good it did him, for all the freedom, the time, and the credit with money-lenders that his rank provided, making it possible for him to write, produce and publish what would have been utterly impossible had he been born a commoner, it also did him and generations of readers a serious harm in the very area governed by his name, for it is largely due to his rank that his identity had to be hidden behind a pseudonym borrowed (for a hefty consideration) from the son of a provincial wool dealer. It’s the very thing that for four centuries has made it so difficult to identify him as the author of the greatest works in English literature.
His given name, “de Vere,” is appropriate for his childhood, but as a constant term it lacks the power and strength of Oxford. It’s also mispronounced: in a letter to Burghley the Countess of Southampton spelled it “de Vayer,” which, no matter how it was spelled, is surely how it was pronounced by himself and those who knew him personally. (Consider how much Shakespeare liked the word “fair,” or that vert in French, meaning green, is pronounced vair unless the following word begins with a vowel, or, most telling, ver in Latin, which means truth and is pronounced veyr, as shown by the pronunciation of Latin words like veritas. ) As it’s invariably pronounced today, de Veer, it has no such associations.
Let’s call him Oxford. It’s short, it’s easy, and by now everyone knows who is meant by it. Apart from the town and the university, there’s no other Oxford with which he can be confused. The earls of the second creation are more easily identified by their birth name of Harley. Lord Byron, who certainly identified himself with his role as poet far more than with his rank, called himself Byron, as did all his friends, associates, readers, enemies and admirers. There may be some who pursue this study because they have a thing for English lords, just like there are some who pursue it for the purpose of writing soap opera romances and screenplays, but let’s hope that there are at least some among us whose primary interest remains in seeing him established in history as the author of the Shakespeare canon.
By calling him Lord Oxford (and, the ultimate of damning him at the outset––introducing him as “the seventeenth blah blah blah”)––we are buying into the very mindset that has been keeping us from getting him accepted as Shakespeare, as immediately it places him, not with the writers of his era, but with the aristocrats! As an introduction, all that need be done is to call him Edward de Vere (pronounced de Vayer), Earl of Oxford (dropping the totally unnecessary four-syllable phrase, “the seventeenth”), and from then on call him plain Oxford.
In his role as playwright, author of Venus and Adonis, Hamlet, and the other works that are the only reason we want to know anything about him, Oxford’s socio-political rank has about as much importance as the fact that his hair was auburn, that he was married twice, and that in later life he probably walked with a limp. These are facts that belong to his biography, and however interesting, and however much they may bear on the attitude and subject matter of his works, they have nothing whatsoever to do with where he fits with Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley in the pantheon of English literary greats. Their social status has nothing to do with their greatness. Neither should his.
That events in Oxford’s life so closely match the plots of Shakespeare’s plays is a chain of evidence that those who deny his authorship can only ignore, as the connections are so obvious that denial is impossible. It seems that everything he wrote, everything that’s lasted at least, grew out of a current social or political situation with which his audience was concerned, plus some event in history, literature or folk tale, plus some circumstance in his own life. By investing the protagonist with his own emotions, brought about by something in his personal life, whether earlier or ongoing, he invested the play with life.
Some of the evidence for this comes from additions he made to his source material, like Arthur in King John, the little prince who fears that Hubert, his tutor, will betray him, and who then dies in an attempt to escape, perhaps a reflection of his situation when Smith left him with Fowle at Cambridge for five months when he was eight years old, probably with no indication of where he’d be sent if Smith got what he was after, a place on Elizabeth’s Council.
Next he’s Romeo, the 15-year- old who yearns for 13-year-old Juliet, but is denied access to her by social barriers, as so many young people were then by the differences in their parents’ religions, and as Oxford at 15 was from Mary Browne, daughter of one of the most conservative members of Elizabeth’s Court, shortly before she was forced to marry the somewhat mad 2nd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s County Paris. Then comes Palamon whose friendship with Arcite is stressed by their common desire for Emilia, as is Euphues with Philautus and Oxford with Rutland over their relationship with Ann Cecil .
Into his late teens and early twenties he’s Hal, the prince who spends too much time hanging out in bad company and playing pranks as he waits for something important to do. Having finally gotten his Grand Tour in Italy in 1575, he’s those cads, Bertram and Proteus, cruel to the good girl who loves him while chasing trollops around Europe. Arriving home to a pile of debts and angry creditors, he’s Timon, who, naive at first, goes ballistic when he realizes he’s been taken for a ride by sycophants he had thought were his friends, and who now refuse to help him in his time of need. Then, following his 1580 confession of having plotted treasonably with Howard and Arundel, he’s both Coriolanus, furious with his community and himself, and Brutus, who committed regicide for what he believed was the good of his people.
In his hotheaded thirties he’s valiant Hotspur and witty Mercutio, both dangerously quick to take offense. He’s both Benedick (Mercutio overtaken by love) and Claudio, another Bertram-like cad. As Oberon, he’s “King of Shadows,” the shaman in charge of the ancient holiday rituals that not all that long ago used to take place on May Day and Midsummer’s Eve in the sacred groves of the great Royal forest. In his mid-thirties he’s Hamlet, Prince of Thoughts. His world turned upside down by the cold realities of medieval power politics, he makes the Court Stage his personal Star Chamber. Heart-broken over the death of his mentor and patron, the Earl of Sussex, he accuses Elizabeth of being Gertrude, Leicester of being Claudius, and Burghley of being Polonius, whom he kills in effigy for spying on him. Deeply in debt, he writes The Merchant of Venice, in which he dramatizes the argument that the Chancery Court of Equity be given precedence over the Court of Common Pleas, where he was being screwed.
With the ’90s comes the attack on the Stage by Robert Cecil and the assassinations of Marlowe and Lord Strange. Forced to call a (temporary) halt to his play-making and publishing, his credit cut off by Lord Burghley, he spends his days writing sonnets to his new patron, the young son of Mary Browne. When Southampton turns from him to join up with the Earl of Essex, the sonnets become mournful, but in the process, a new and more powerful style develops. As Mark Antony, once again he loses the world for the love of a beautiful woman, one with curly black hair and dark eyes who represents all that he loves and misses about Italy and the Mediterranean culture. The intense feelings that he suffers over these relationships get poured into sonnets, where they develop a new, more powerful, and more modern style.
When troubles with the Cecils continue to increase with the appointment of Robert Cecil as Secretary of State, followed by the deaths of his patron Hunsdon and the manager of his company, James Burbage, along with the loss of both of Burbage’s theaters, he fight back by revising his Henry IV plays to include a nasty caricature of Robert Cecil’s inlaws, a character eventually named Falstaff, a play on the name Shakespeare. Now in his forties, weary of the struggle, for the marriage of his oldest daughter he revises The Tempest. With her as Miranda and himself as Prospero, king of the magical isle, banished from his true place at Court by wicked schemers, with the help of his Ariel he befuddles them with “rough magic,” which, he assures his royal audience, he intends to give up now that his daughter is safely married (though sadly not to the one he wanted).
Finally in his fifties, driven mad by the mistreatment of his two oldest daughters, he’s Lear, who, like Timon so long before, runs naked and raving into the wilderness. But then, cheered by the advent of King James, whose young favorites, the Pembrokes, have taken him under their wings, like the vanquished hero in the old mummer plays, he leaps back to life as Duke Vincenzio, escaping the burden of his inherited responsibilities by retiring to a safe haven in the forest where he’s the courtier Touchstone who having fled the wicked Court to live freely in the forest with other Court escapees, grieves that he must spend his days courting that “unpoetic slut,” the public audience.
All these are metaphors for Oxford’s life. As for being the real Shakespeare, those who knew, knew they had to keep the secret; those who didn’t know, didn’t need to know. Who would have wanted to exchange so many wonderful fictions for the sad reality, a lonely man, crazed with longing and remorse?
The authorship question is not whether Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, etc. wrote the Shakespeare canon, it’s what each of them actually wrote! Oxford wrote all the works we know as Shakespeare, plus Lyly’s novels, Greene’s tales, and a lot of earlier works published under the names of his secretaries and friends. Bacon wrote most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon, while Raleigh wrote that part of the Spenser canon that’s not by Bacon. Sidney’s canon is valuable because it was never published as anyone’s but his (although it’s likely his sister made some changes and additions so it could be made public). Marlowe’s plays are all his own, but not the translations published after his death, the true authors Oxford, Bacon or Raleigh (or Buckhurst), who made use of Marlowe’s vacant name and persona to get them published. Mary Sidney used her coachman’s name, John Webster; everything published as by Webster is by Mary Sidney. These are the great artists who, against all odds, created the English Literary Renaissance.
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 crisis that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put an author’s name on their plays is best summarized with a timeline:
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.
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.
Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history. Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot. At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.
He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months. As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place. As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died. Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.
Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper. That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously. In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials. For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.
Bound to the Cecils by marriage
The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family. If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage. His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage. Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers. He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates. Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.
In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad. Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities. Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.
Birth of the London Stage
Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season. Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater. Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End. These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.
Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London. The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.
In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor. Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End. This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage. Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.
Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack. It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.
The Cecils attack the Stage and Press
Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter. Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.
Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work. By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records. Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.
Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue. With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare. Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.
Cecil ups the ante
Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season. Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.
The actors strike back
Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard IIIin which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.
Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard. Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes. Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.
With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.
Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story. The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.
When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language. Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.
Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks. Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories. Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire. Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.
The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages. Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect. Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature. Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.
In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him. Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.” He continues:
They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes. Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . . His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . . He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature. He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)
Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.
In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness. One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone. He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain. We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances. Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art. When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control. (xiv-xv)
All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them. “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today. There also seem to be many similarities in syntax. Fennell continues:
Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers. On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)
Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing. As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .” We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.
As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare. As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.
Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life. Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.
Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events. Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says
If there be nothing new, but that which is Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d, Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss The second burthen of a former child! O, that record could with a backward look, Even of five hundred courses of the sun, Show me your image in some antique book, Since mind at first in character was done! That I might see what the old world could say To this composed wonder of your frame; Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they, Or whether revolution be the same. O! sure I am, the wits of former days To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus. Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music. Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.
One of the moments in Oxford’s life that has remained a bone of contention is his death. According to the public record, he died on June 24th, 1604, having just turned 54. But like so many things in his life, this scenario is dubious at best. Although I had suspicions from the first, primarily due to the mythical significance of June 24th, it was the 2004 article by authorship scholar Christopher Paul: “A Monument without a Tomb: The Mystery of Oxford’s Death,” (published in The Oxfordian), that led to the following scenario. (Though he provides many of the facts that support it, Paul does not advocate for this scenario.)
In my view, what is far more likely is that Oxford did not die in 1604, that he continued to live in seclusion for another four or five years. As an earl, there is no way he could have escaped the pressures of his social position in any other way. His forbears were able to end their worldly affairs and retire to a monastery when they felt that their lives were drawing to a close, as did the first Earl of Oxford. Thus, for the centuries that Catholicism was the national religion, peers had the means by which they could be free to spend their final days in peaceful prayer and preparation for the afterlife, having passed on their possessions and titles to those they wished to have them, an option that ceased with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. (And obviously an issue that concerned Shakespeare, as witness King Lear.)
Measure for Measure
It’s a matter of record that Measure for Measure was performed at Court on December 26, 1604, six months (almost to the day) after Oxford’s supposed death. The performance took place on the night before the marriage of his daughter Susan to the Earl of Montgomery. The lead in that play is the mature Duke Vincentio, “the old fantastical duke of dark corners” as Lucio calls him, who disappears into a monastery early in the play, leaving his estate in the hands of lesser folk who wonder at one point if he might be dead.
If Oxford meant this to be understood by his Court audience as a reference to his situation at the time, was he merely fantasizing that he actually had the kind of power he assigns to the Duke? Could it be that at that time in history, with the Stage as his platform and the entire population of the city, plus visitors and every three years 500 parliamentarians, as his audience, that he did have that kind of power? Could such a powerful constituency have been so utterly silent? Consider the total silence of the powerful members of three other sizable communities at that time: the Catholics, the Freemasons, and the homosexual underground.
Oxford was the highest ranking peer in his time. At a time when the tradition was that an earl of his rank would be given a lavish and very public funeral, Oxford had no funeral at all. Surely here’s another one of those Oxfordian dogs that didn’t bark in the night. We can be certain about this as we have descriptions of the funerals of others like Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham. His own wishes would have had nothing to do with the matter, nor or whether he was Shakespeare, nor even to the issue of cost, it was due purely to the position he held in society simply by virtue of his name and title. Were he actually dead, someone would have seen to it that a respectable funeral took place, most notably his in-laws, the Trenthams, not to mention the King, who was on a royal spending spree, and whose favorite at the time, the young Philip Herbert (brother of the third Earl of Pembroke whose domain was all of southwestern England) would soon be marrying Oxford’s daughter Susan.
No certain burial place
There are different scenarios for Oxford’s burial site, depending on what authority you choose to follow, but the upshot is that there is no absolutely certain place where his body resides or ever resided, either temporarily or permanently. The only possible reason for this lack of information is that his burial site, or more likely, sites, could not be made an issue because at the time that the records were being made regarding his demise, he was still alive, thus there was no body to bury. When he did finally die some four or five years later, since he was supposed to have been already dead for some time, it was necessary that his passing and subsequent burial be kept as private as possible.
Although we do not know when or where he was buried, nor did most of his contemporaries, who would have known would surely have been those members of his family with whom he had maintained relations over the years. One such would have been the Goldings, his mother’s family, while the most likely place for a peer of his stature to be buried would have been Westminster Abbey.
Percival Golding was Oxford’s cousin, the son of his uncle Arthur Golding, to whom was attributed the authorship of Shakespeare’s favorite source, the translation into English verse of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In a formal statement written in 1619, Percival Golding states flatly that Oxford was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The death of the summer lord
Right from the beginning it struck me as a little too coincidental that Oxford was buried on St. John’s Day, the classic moment for the death of the summer lord, whose sacrificial death marks the end of the rising half of the festival year, a bit of folk history he would have known from the same ancient Greek sources that gave Sir James Frazer the material for his masterwork, The Golden Bough.
If Oxford was Shakespeare, his death would surely have been immensely meaningful to those patrons and audiences who made the King’s Men one of the most lucrative businesses of the early 17th century. To 17th-century Londoners, Shakespeare’s death should have meant what the deaths of impresarios like Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Hammerstein, or George Gershwin meant to 20th-century New Yorkers. That there was no fanfare over William’s death says more than anything can about his actual relationship to the works that bore his name. Bringing this within range of many other pieces of the Shakespeare and Oxford puzzles, it seems worth suggesting that Oxford was using what means were at his disposal to get the time he needed to put a final polish on those plays he considered his legacy, his “alms for oblivion,” and in a place where the Cecils could not get at him.
The great reckoning with Robert Cecil
Oxford’s behavior during the 1590s suggests that this retreat to the Forest was the final maneuver in his life-long battle with the power-hungry Cecils, to whom Fate had bound him by ties of blood; a fight for the freedom to do what he believed was his right as one greater than they, in rank, in wisdom, in humanity, in inherited office (Lord Great Chamberlain), and not least, in sheer will. He had to fulfill his sacred calling, which was to tell the truth as he saw it. He says as much through Jaques when he asks Duke Senior (King James) to “invest me in my motley . . . and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world . . . ,” meaning, no doubt, the Court, which was corrupt and becoming more so every day.
With Walsingham’s death in 1590, the Cecils had taken (rather retaken) control of the office of Secretary of State: William the paperwork , Robert the legwork. The attack on the London Stage began immediately; Lyly was fired, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men were dissolved, Marlowe was assassinated (or more likely, transported), Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange was murdered.
In 1594 Sussex’s two vice-chamberlains stepped forward to rescue the Stage from the chaos into which it had been thrown by these events. Reorganizing the actors into two companies with themselves as patrons, no doubt also with strict rules regarding what they were allowed to perform, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law Lord Admiral Charles Howard, created the system that would be followed for the next three decades.
On January 26, 1595, William Stanley having inherited the title from his now dead older brother, Lord Strange (by then fifth earl of Derby), marries Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere, thus acquiring for the Cecils a close family tie to the earldom of Derby and, through her son, the royal blood of the Derby earls, something they were frustrated of in their alliance with Oxford, who had produced no heir, and who, apart from his impressive lineage, had no claim on the throne (which, considering what happened to Lord Strange, was just as well for Milord).
Following his daughter’s marriage to Derby, it seems that Oxford did what he could to retire from Court, as is suggested by Roland White’s note later that year to Robert Sidney, governor of Flushing, which states: “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead.” Two years earlier Oxford had returned to pressing the Queen regarding her promise to give him the stewardship of Waltham Forest, a perquisite that had always been within the purview of his ancestors and that he felt was his by right. For whatever reason, she continued to fob him off with one excuse after another. Perhaps she was afraid that he would disappear into the woods like Orlando, Timon, or all the principals in As You Like It.
In June of 1596 Essex takes off for Cadiz, foolishly leaving the door open for Robert Cecil to get cozy enough with Elizabeth that she finally appoints him Secretary of State, thus giving him and his father powers equal to, or perhaps even greater than, her own. This power was increased two weeks later with the death of the senior member of the Privy Council, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, patron of Shakespeare’s company. It was hugely increased again a week after that when the Queen appointed Cecil’s father-in-law to fill Hunsdon’s place. Thus by mid-August of 1596, Essex arrived home to find that the Cecils now held the top three governmental posts in the nation.
They used their now almost total power that November by seeing to it that the great new theater Burbage had built in the Blackfriars district was closed by edict of the Privy Council. Perhaps they used it again when halfway through the winter theater season that year, James Burbage died, leaving his sons (and their playwright) with no theater with which to entertain the Parliament the following autumn. They used it again that June to close all the theaters over the Isle of Dogs scandal, sending the actors on the road. That the Company fought back by producing for the Parliament a version of Richard III in which Richard Burbage achieved fame by portraying the evil king––probably in the costume and attitudes of the recently appointed Secretary of State––is as close to historic fact as its possible to get.
It was during this showdown that the reading audience was introduced for the first time to the previously totally unknown William Shakespeare as the author of the most popular plays in London. The following Christmas the Company tore down the old Shoreditch stage and rebuilt it on Bankside as The Globe, but by then Cecil was too busy with his showdown with Essex to bother with Oxford or the Stage. With his reputation permanently damaged by the play and by its publication in two editions, one right after the other, in which lines were added that could only point to him, Cecil could do little but maintain a holding pattern until Essex, at the end of his emotional tether, destroyed himself, taking with him a large portion of the younger courtiers who would otherwise have provided a counterweight to his subsequent grab for more and more power.
Oxford and his papers are saved
Following the Queen’s death in 1603, Oxford found King James a kinder sovereign than he probably had reason to expect. Most likely persuaded by the Pembroke brothers, James gave him the stewardship of the Forest, perhaps in exchange for his agreement to continue to write for the Court. In any case, while supposedly dead he had nine plays ready for the marriage of his daughter to the younger Pembroke the following Christmas. Safely tucked away in a modest dwelling near the ancient Havering Palace, favorite residence of Edward the Confessor, he lived as he pleased, protected from Cecil, who had no jurisdiction in the Forest, an idyll he portrays in As You Like It, one of the plays he revised during this period, in which he left a number of clues to the events of his life.
When did he die? Events suggest 1609. In a website titled 1609, the late great authorship scholar Robert Brazil details a number of events and publications that, although none can be relied upon as hard evidence, suggest this was when the great impresario finally moved on to that better world that so many of his characters mention in passing. Brazil, never one to move too far from hard evidence, would never state, so far as I know, the reason for choosing 1609 to highlight in this manner. Perhaps he left it for the rest of us to consider.
In my view, this was when the movement to get Oxford’s works published as a collection first began, a project that would take another decade and a half, and (I believe) was also the beginning of the movement to get him buried in Westminster Abbey, where (I believe) he lies today beneath the huge screen, created in 1741 to honor Shakespeare, that divides Poet’s Corner in half.
So what if anything actually happened on June 24, 1604? Only one thing we know for sure, which is that Robert Cecil, by then Viscount Cranborne, had the Earl of Southampton arrested on the trumped-up charge that he was suspected of plotting against the King (the excuse for all Cecil’s attacks on his personal enemies), so he could have his papers examined. Southampton was released with no explanation for the arrest either then or later (by historians). Obviously Cecil didn’t find what he was looking for. As for what might have occurred on the day in question, June 24, 1604, or more likely the night before, Midsummer’s Eve, we can only dream.