Category Archives: Early Modern literature

Oxford’s “monstrous adversary”

While it may be understandable why the Academy would cling to the Stratford biography as yet another manifestation of the human tendency to prefer the tried and untrue to anything too radical, there is a peculiar intensity to its hatred for Oxford that provokes curiosity. Why would academics like Lawrence Stone choose him as its poster boy for what he calls “ an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites”? Why would Alan Nelson choose to believe convicted traitors like Henry Howard and Charles Arundel over one of the Queen’s favorites? It seems there’s more to this than meets the eye, nor are we going to understand what Oxford has been up against, both during his lifetime and ever since, until we know what it is.

As described in the previous blog, at the launch of the winter holiday season of 1580-’81, Oxford, then at his peak of his popularity at Court, went down on his knee before her Majesty and an assortment of the nation’s top peers and officials to ask forgiveness for having illegally attended Catholic Mass with His cousin Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel. The Queen, taken by surprise in holiday mood, had all three detained while she went on with her big annual party. Letting Oxford go free the following day, she had Howard and Arundel put under arrest with Christopher Hatton, where Howard remained for four months, Arundel then removed to the Tower where he remained a good deal longer.

We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors, from the questions Oxford gave rackmaster Norton so he could interrogate them and from their own statements in defense. The French ambassador waited several weeks before informing his king, doubtless until he could be certain about what was going to happen to himself since he had been implicated along with Howard and Arundel.

Dismissed as “libels” from the start, the statements that these two (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their own defense consisted of nothing but an attack on Oxford’s character. Clearly their strategy was not so much to prove their innocence, something it’s clear they could not do, as to portray him as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his dear friends, those whose only purpose in life was to honor and serve her gracious Majesty, yadda, yadda, yadda. According to history, no one at the time believed what they said since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under constraint, nor is there any indication that any of their assertions were ever verified by the courtiers they named as witnesses to his wickedness. Why then has the Academy chosen to believe them and not Oxford?

If we choose to believe the record, it’s obvious that Howard was guilty as charged, since Walsingham, who devoted the following three years to tracking down evidence with which to indict him, had him and another conspirator, Thomas Throgmorton, arrested in late 1584 for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as he heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, Arundel demonstrated his innocence by immediately departing for the Continent where it’s believed he authored that scathing piece of sedition, Leicester’s Commonwealth.

How is it then that at the turn of the present century English Prof. Alan Nelson had no trouble finding a university publisher for his so-called “biography” in which every incident in Oxford’s life is framed in the light of these libels? Titled Monstrous Adversary, a phrase he took from one of Arundel’s thrusts, Nelson, it seems, is so enamored of these accusations that it hardly matters that it came via two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both arrested and imprisoned, Howard with Throgmorton, who was later tried and executed for treason, while Arundel’s guilt was demonstrated by the rapidity with which he hightailed it to the Continent following news of Howard’s arrest. (Where Wikipedia’s biographer of Arundel got the notion that he and Howard were “eventually cleared” is a mystery; the history of the incident is clear.)

The “greatest wastrel of them all”

The only possible explanation is that Nelson’s way had been prepared well in advance by centuries of damning references by historians, journalists, novelists, publishers and reviewers.  Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labeled the Earl of Oxford and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford as “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Nor was this anywhere close to the beginning of this onslaught, for by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been disdained by historians whose information came to them through the Cecils, whether through their control of the State papers or their vast collections at Hatfield House (notably by Dugdale in his Baronage of England, 1675, repeated by Sidney Lee in his DNB biography of Oxford c.1890).

The sorry fact is that every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has felt it compulsory to introduce it with a pejorative, such as “the notorious Earl of Oxford,” as he was called by John Lyly’s biographer Warwick Bond. “The profligate Earl of Oxford,” “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford . . . the violent . . . dissolute . . . feckless . . . atheistic . . . arrogant . . . supercilious . . . spoiled . . . pathologically selfish . . . ill-tempered . . . disagreeable Earl of Oxford,” to list but a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read he was “a cad . . . a renegade . . . an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel” (this last because his mother’s family, the Goldings, were only gentry!).

Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his roaring twenties. Having left a record of feuds with his fellow courtiers (albeit no murders), later, when he was creating the two City stages and busy writing plays to keep the actors busy, because he kept a low profile, there’s nothing to offset the record of his youthful pecadillos. Filling the gap left by this absence of information, we have only his in-laws whose hands-on control of the record for some 50 years means that only the letters and other documents that reflect well on themselves (and badly on those that displeased them) survive, giving historians no choice if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House; and 2) if they were to attract the attention of an Establishment publisher.

Yet much of the problem remains Oxford’s own fault, for if in fact it was he who lampooned Leicester as Robert Shallow and Philip Sidney as Master Slender in Merry Wives, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, William Brooke Lord Cobham as Oldcastle/Falstaff, not forgetting William Cecil as Polonius or Robert Cecil as Richard III, this would certainly be cause enough for these men and their families to hate him, and for both his friends and his enemies to approve the need for secrecy when it came to identifying the author of the plays that, by the 1590s, had become so popular that by then all efforts to stop them were doomed to failure.

If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as the biographies of geniuses invariably attest, life with such a one is never easy. We must have compassion for Burghley when he groans to his diary: “no one can envy me this match!”

Howard’s Revenge

None of this, however, has done Oxford the kind of posthumous damage that’s attributable to the Howard-Arundel libels, the long, slow-acting revenge that lay more or less dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP, the Calendar of State Papers. until Looney’s book sent the Stratford defenders in search of something with which to ward off this new and most dngerous threat to the sacred biography. There, just waiting to explode, they found the libels. Thence cometh the storm of pejoratives, overkill for a reckless aristocrat, but well deserved for a “monstrous adversary, who would as soon drink my blood rather than wine” as Arundel put it, with the kind of rhetorical flourish that so delights a middle class historian with a bloody toff in his sights (Nelson 214).

These libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, might seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than he ought, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had good reason to hate, and may well have made some outrageous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading figure at Court is absurd. Obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any one of them confirm any one of Howard’s accusations, himself a figure of dubious reputation, already under suspicion of plotting against the state and blamed by many for involving his brother in the plot to marry him to the Queen of Scots, the plot that ended his life.

However these charges were perceived at the time, none would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years until it may be what has cost Oxford his posthumous reputation, the real reason for all those otherwise groundless pejoratives. This was the charge that he “polluted” his young pages.

A certain hysterical tone

In researching the history of the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the tone of some of the “Documents of Criticism” in Volume IV of Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage that a strangely familiar ring. At some point it came to me: the tone with which the 16th-century preachers thundered against theaters and plays had the same shrill tone we hear when today’s evangelicals, inheritors of the Devil and his lust for sinners, rant against gays, legal abortion, and Planned Parenthood, all connected in some way with that great bogey of the evangelical reformers, sex.

It seems that 19th-century academics, infected by the homophobia to which the entire English establishment had succumbed by then, caused them to fasten on Howard’s charge with the same sick excitement that the idea of sex between men was arousing in the English at large. When Delia Bacon’s theories on the Shakespeare authorship question named Oxford as one of the group led by Francis Bacon that (she theorized) had co-authored the plays, anyone pursuing what was known about Oxford could easily have found the Howard-Arundel libels in the State papers.

With the same hysterical enthusiasm that had women turning out by the thousands to stone the victims of their mania (Louis Crompton, Byron and Queer Love), Howard’s accusation, however unproven and ignored by his contemporaries, was too compelling to treat objectively. Thus, although Stone and his predecessors would appear to base their hatred of Oxford on his treatment of his in-laws and the reckless sale of his inheritance, the tone of their pejoratives can only be explained by these libels, in particular the charge that at that time had the entire 19th-century British establishment in a state of frenzy, the one that allowed them to label him with the uber-pejorative homosexual, for nothing else in the record could possibly justify the intensity of this 19th-century hatred for a long-dead nobleman.

The very term homosexual derives from this period, when the sexual inquisition sought to justify its methods by lending them a scientific tone. The term used in Oxford’s day and for centuries after, was sodomite, the basis for the uniquely English curse “sod off!” meaning “fuck off!” or the term “poor sod” for someone in trouble.

Seeking what could possibly connect the homophobia of the 19th century to the hysterical rants by 16th-century evangelical bishops against the London Stage, one factor was evident, both derived from an irrational fear of sex. It was not until other aspects of the latter half of the sixteenth century revealed a connection that the reason for this sex-revulsion appeared. This was the same general period when: 1) puritanism took hold as the ruling policy of the English Reformation, growing and spreading until it culminated in the civil war of the 17th century with its 20 years of puritan control of society, and 2) the syphilis epidemic.

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

Early in the 16th century, when Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of the Church and the nations of northern Europe moved to take control of their lands and wealth away from Rome, these grim political and economic issues came with a great nostalgia for what many imagined was the purity and simplicity of the early Christian Church. When the protestants who fled under Mary returned under Elizabeth, they formed a united front in Parliament and on the Privy Council (John Neale, Elizabeth and her Parliaments, Chapters I and II) that determined so much about the nature of the English protestant church from then on. Mary’s Catholic bishops along with the more measured tenets of the Lutherans back from Frankfurt were overwhelmed by the numbers and wealth of those returning from Strasbourg and Geneva where they had absorbed John Calvin’s beliefs and policies. So harsh, so frightening, so restrictive were these that it must beg the question how they were able to attract so many followers.

As explained in 1989 by the sociologist Stanislav Andreski, professor of comparative sociology at the Polish University in London, the answer lies in the fear of syphilis which, as the English were all too aware by the time of the exiles’ return, was spread through sexual intercourse. Having seen, or experienced, the suffering it caused, not only to the victim, but also to his wife and their children, and even, as they were surely already aware by then, to their children’s children, at a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this blow to the very root stock of the human race to be interpreted by the protestant bishops and their congregations other than as punishment for their sexuality? “In Adam’s fall, we sinnéd all.”

For a frightened and vulnerable population, halfway measures would not do.  The pendulum of public concern swung, not to a rational call for caution, but all the way to the opposite extreme: a rigid puritanism that saw all pleasure as the pathway to sex and sex as the pathway to damnation. And as plays were meant to give pleasure, therefore plays must be sinful and the Stage the “sink of all sin.”

Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sinful nature of the stories, the “lascivious writhing” of the actors, and the fact that men and women sat next to each other in the audience. For the Elizabethan evangelicals the door to the theater was the entrance to Hell. In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I understand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin . . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays! (Chambers 4.197)

The almost 200 pages in small type that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate these doorways to damnation. Clearly, a writer or patron who had a reputation to protect would have wished to keep his connection to the London Stage as private as possible.

There can be no doubt that the English Reformation with its focus on purity of religion and lifestyle and, most of all, its negative attitude towards sex and all sources of pleasure, was turned in this direction by the horrors of this new disease. Possibly brought in from the New World, possibly a more virulent strain of a milder form found in North Africa, wherever it came from it spread terror throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where its effects are still to be seen in the harsh puritanism of extremist Islamic sects like the Taliban.

While earlier historians rarely acknowledge factors like weather or disease as a root cause of political evolution, the increasing relevance of sociology has shown that epidemics like the plague and influenza have had as much or more to do with social change as anything else, and although a lasting sense of shame seems to have prevented both sociologists and the medical establishment from including syphilis in their studies, there can be no doubt that it’s the major reason for both the rants of the 16th-century bishops and the century-long epidemic of homophobia in the 19th that exiled Lord Byron and destroyed Oscar Wilde.

While historians of the Reformation tend to focus on factors like the malfeasance of Catholic prelates, the corruption of the papacy, and the need of the northern European states to establish their own political authority, these fail to account for the harsh nature of the religion that it spawned, in particular the focus on sex as original sin. Nor do they attempt to explain why this harsh, unforgiving and joyless religion should have taken such a powerful and unrelenting hold on the population at large. That it was the fear of syphilis that fueled the sex-averse nature of the English Reformation explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the cruel attitudes towards women and homosexuals that continue to infect American culture. (Recall who it was who first stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, driven by what beliefs.)

The role of the scapegoat

Why the fear of sex that still haunts the Church of England should have shifted to gay men towards the end of the 18th century, culminating in the ferocious homophobia of the 19th, must have something to do with the unpleasant tendency of human societies to relieve its anxieties by turning its most vulnerable minority into a scapegoat.

Louis Crompton, one of the first of the late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its own insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were just as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, rather than move with the liberal tide, England fell victim to one of the cruelest epidemics of mass hysteria ever known in the West.

For roughly 50 years, Englishmen accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. Tortured by the guilt engendered by centuries of indoctrination in the extreme belief that they were born sinners, the English reverted to a stone age method of exorcising their communal sense of guilt and shame. Hatred of gay men became a sort of communal mental illness that infected English society from the lowliest reader of tabloids to the highest levels of the political system, as can be seen by how it was used by the Uriah Heeps of English society to destroy men of otherwise impeccable repute, driving those who did not dare to challenge it either to exile or suicide.

Jeremy Bentham, one of the few English writers who dared to write against this epidemic, (though not daring enough to publish it), describes the expression on the face of one such judge: “He had just come from the Circuit.  For an offense of the sort in question he had just been consigning two wretches to the gallows.  Delight and exultation glistened in his countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience” (Crompton 21, 30).

Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope or prison were condemned to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, his head held fast in one hole, his hands in others, forced to stand for hours in some public location bib enough to hold the largest possible number of people, police stood by while he and his friend were subjected to the violence of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands (Crompton 21).  Screaming abuse, these would pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even bricks and stones, for hours on end. Nor was this for the act itself; since that was difficult to prove (telephoto lenses had yet to be invented) so new laws had to be created so that the police could arrest men socializing at gay clubs just for “attempting to commit sodomy”!

It did not help Oxford’s case that several of these 19th-century gay bars were located on “Vere Street,” although this had nothing to do with the 17th Earl, since it got that name in the 18th century from Sir Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford by the 2nd creation, who at that time owned and developed the area just northwest of the theater district, where Oxford Street and Harley Street are still located.

“Degraded and useless beings”

The barbaric nature of this sexual inquisition is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils by burning, drowning, or stoning to death a “scapegoat,” some vulnerable member of the community whose punishment would expunge the sins of the community at large. In The Golden Bough, anthropologist James Frazer describes such a ceremony as found in an ancient Greek document:

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, . . . At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments . . . and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then . . . stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats. (Bough 509).

The word scapegoat shows how at some point back in the Stone Age this ritual got transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be mischievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the innocent creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the cruel and inhospitable wilderness.

Yet while laws have kept pace (however slowly) with the drive towards human rights, scapegoating has continued, erupting whenever humanitarian feelings weaken in the face of increasing tensions, the only difference being the chosen outcasts: witches for causing droughts and diseases; Protestants for heresy; Catholics for treason; southern black Americans for being “uppity”; Jews and gypsies for anything and everything. Even today, Sharia Law allows people of the rural Middle East to stone to death a neighbor accused of adultery. That for a good 50 years, the 19th-century English found it useful to relieve public tension by hanging, or allowing mobs to stone to death, one or more helpless men a year, driving others to exile or suicide, is but one instance in the long dark history of these orgies of violence.

So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice, so dangerous did it become even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest for fear they would end up tarred with the same brush.  Nineteenth-century journalists used catchphrases that enabled them to refer to homosexuality without naming it. The DNB, launched in 1885, continued to avoid any mention of it in the lives of their subjects; that some famous figure “never married” is as far as it would go. Men became afraid to show each other affection, in public or in private, for fear someone would “get the wrong idea.” Handshakes took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that might cause the prurient, themselves starved for affection, to “get the wrong idea.” Yet even to this day young boys continue to be sent away to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse than they would normally be at home, cared for by someone who loves them enough to protect them.

Shakespeare and history

Shakespeare, whose name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, became famous only after 1610 when his company, the King’s Men, was first allowed the use of their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars precinct. With this as their major venue, and King James as their major patron and his Queen as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared.

Thirty years later, as Court enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I (his Queen, raised in Paris, preferred the masques of Inigo Jones), for Shakespeare had become old-fashioned. Vanishing along with the theaters during the 20-year Puritan Interregnum, he was returned to favor in the 18th century by connoisseurs like Pope, Johnson, Garrick and Malone. Even so, it was not until the turn of the 19th century, when, based on Malone’s edition of 1783-90, actors like Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons began performing him as originally written, that an educated public took to him with the enthusiasm of the early Stuart period.

With Shakespeare’s genius proclaimed by poets like Coleridge and Swinburne came a resurgence of interest in his identity. Sadly, this interest collided almost immediately with the tidal wave of homophobia then engulfing the English. With Malone’s edition of the Sonnets, finally published in their original order and form with the bowdlerized “she” replaced by the original “he,” a horrified doubt struck the British Establishment: was the great Shakespeare a homosexual?

Suddenly all interest in discovering the truth about the authorship withered away as the Academy bound itself with hoops of steel to the inoffensive Stratford biography; better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite! Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, sex-hatred was on the rise again. It was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him, or to destroy him physically, as the fate of Alan Turing, the long-unsung hero of World War II, demonstrates, to the eternal shame of the 20th-century British.

Long discredited by historians who confined their researches to the collections at Hatfield House and the Calendar of State Papers, Oxford’s threat to the sacred dating scheme rendered him vulnerable to the Academy’s version of scapegoating. Henry Howard’s long buried bomb lay ticking in the archives. No matter that it was created by a traitor desperate to save himself from the hangman. No matter that it was only an accusation, one that was never proved or verified by any supposed witness. As with the men who had been pilloried a half century earlier, no proof of such a charge was needed. The accusation was enough. No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, a Queen’s good opinion, could withstand the shame of the accusation. Doubly shameful!  Triply shameful!  Here’s where it remains within the Academy to this day!

His “wounded name”

It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s the accusation that he molested his pages that has denied the Earl his true place in history.  While Stone in 1964 withholds the true basis for his denunciation, referring to him only as a violent wastrel, Nelson in 2000 lets no opportunity pass to explain every action of Oxford’s life as motivated either by his violent nature, based on his behavior in his early twenties, or the pathological sexuality Nelson conjures up out of every possible situation.

Ignoring Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy­­––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust. The presence of a “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1583––testimony to his role as master of the Children of the Chapel––is of course just more evidence of his depravity. And so forth and so on throughout the entire hagiography.

Rather than evidence of Oxford’s monstrous wickedness, isn’t this rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination? He appears to be similarly skewed at other points as well, describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for the term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary description of Anne is the tepid “comely,” which, going by the lifelike image on her great tomb, would seem a polite exaggeration.

Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, a product of the Cecils’ rage, the Howard libels, and the homophobia still rampant within the airless think tanks of the Academy and its spinoff, the Birthplace Trust, is its version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence with nouns as bricks and adjectives as rotten vegetables.

Shakespeare and sex

The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. And while there are undeniable hints of male-male passion in the plays, why should that upset us? Perhaps as with the seacoast of Bohemia, Shakespeare is telling us something, something the world may not want to know but that nevertheless is true. If we have any experience at all with the theatrical community, are we surprised that the man who created the London Stage may have been what today we would label a bi-sexual? A great propounder of the virtues of nature, of the pollination of flowers by bees, the propagation of apples by grafting, the behavior of stallions when a nearby mare is in heat, most of the relationships he so convincingly dramatizes are those that portray how nature has contrived to propagate the human race by the complex, difficult and sometimes hilarious methods required to combine the genes of a Beatrice and a Benedick so the human race can continue.

As for sex with boys, it’s anyone’s guess. Mine, based on some years of studying my fellow humans, is that men do not molest children unless they themselves have been molested in childhood by a male friend or relative, often one they trusted, even loved. The nature of Oxford’s years with the honorable Sir Thomas, the unlikelihood that Smith would have risked allowing him unsupervised time with anyone he didn’t thoroughly trust, or that any of Smith’s servants would have dared to violate this trust, suggests that unlike so many men at that time, Oxford escaped this kind of damage to his emotional integrity, which, to my way of thinking, makes it most unlikely that he would have ever molested a child himself. Like so much else in this story, this too is merely conjecture, yet how are we to know the truth about anyone’s sex life? I believe we see the truth in Julius Caesar, when Brutus asks his page to sing for him, then, when the boy falls asleep, tenderly decides to let him sleep.

John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; if sex plays a part in them, it’s not obvious, as it is in those to the Dark Lady.

What then did he want from the youth? Surely it was his love; he says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and the 20th-century survivors of 19th-century homophobia, love can only mean sex. Well, certainly love is not incompatible with sex, but by no means are they the same thing. As he puts it in Sonnet 129:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Not to trust!––surely that is the point, genuine love is all about trust. As he shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, if not to the purgatory of Calvinism, it leads to the hell of jealousy, the tragic destruction of trust. Only true love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive the years. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written when his time with the Fair Youth had passed: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove”:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If we must conjecture

If, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, then we know a few things that earlier researchers may not. Thanks to Claes Schaar and his supporters, we know that the majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s. We also know that this was when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife and oldest friend dead, his followers departed, his in-laws out to deprive him of access to the Stage and Press that he spawned out of his great need to communicate with those fellows of a like mind that he could reach no other way. Living in a hostelry near the river, “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he wrote the Sonnets because he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that’s not Time’s Fool, that “bears it out, even to the edge of doom.”

Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living by then in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he had been enrolled in 1589. More or less on his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love. His own father long since dead, his relationship with the mother from whom he’d been separated since he was six years old, fraught with the tension that accompanies the relationship between many a teenaged male and his mother, young “Rosely” had no friend to sustain him, as Oxford had Rutland and Sussex. Burghley, his guardian, was obviously less interested in him than what could get from him, if not entry to the peerage by marrying him to his granddaughter, then a sizable chunk of his inheritance.

Much as Sussex was to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb, to be young, alone, and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. What’s most likely is that they first met when Burghley was urging the youth to marry Oxford’s daughter, and that Oxford, happy to assist, wrote the rather conventional first seventeen sonnets during the autumn of 1590 for Southampton’s seventeenth birthday. Known ever since as the “marriage sonnets”; the lad was touched, he responded, and they met.

A bond was formed out of their mutual need, a bond that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, at which point Southampton, having reached his majority and grown a beard, found himself capable of making his own way at Court, at which point he turned to the one to whom he would give his allegiance from then on, the Earl of Essex, the Rival Poet of Shakespeare’s sonnets. By that time, Oxford, having married again, living in the kind of comfort he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours perfecting sonnets to a youth who, now dangerously allied with Essex, seemed to be approaching that “edge of doom.”

As for the nature of the passion expressed in the Sonnets, why should we care? The rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a prurient concern over something that shouldn’t be our business, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare’s identity was destroyed by their apparent same-sex context. Poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired centuries earlier by a long-forgotten fear of disease, academics have been driven ever since to stick with the impossible Stratford biography, rendering useless all subsequent attempts to bring order to the plays, the early quartos, their dates of composition, and their connection to the history of the period and the life of their author.

If we must conjecture, what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who in his teens was accustomed to wearing makeup and dressing like a girl, was already well-versed in homosexual sex-play by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man whose role, rather than Southampton’s lover, was that of a surrogate father whose job it became to help encourage him as a lover of women, a necessity if he were to marry one and succeed in continuing his line. After all, Oxford’s own sexual needs were being satisfied at that time by the Dark Lady, then by the new wife whose every thought was bent on providing him with an heir. Its unlikely that, himself in his forties, he would have had the testosterone for much more than that.

In any case, what should matter most to the literary scholar is that it was the time spent writing these sonnets, two years or so before the Queen set him up with a wealthy young wife and Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon got him writing again for the Stage, as he wrestled with the fourteen-line format of the sonnet, that gave him the command of the language that today we recognize as Shakespeare.  And surely it’s about time that we let him take us to that better place where it’s love that conquers all­­––not sex, which leads to jealousy and the loss of trust––but the kind described by Plato, the kind that looks on tempests and is never shaken.

The present nauseating addiction to sex, if not to the thing itself, then to imagining it and to the nasty concern with what other people may be doing in private, is one of the long-lasting results of the terror instilled in human hearts back in the 16th century when they first awoke to the horrors of syphilis. The fear of desire this created, one that’s led to a fear of touch, which over time has tended to diminish in some segments of our culture, even in some poor souls to destroy, the natural ability to feel tenderness, or if felt, the ability to express it.

Beginning with Elizabeth’s reign and continuing on through the centuries of Church of England Establishment thinking, how many middle-to-upper class English boys whose souls did not utterly wither for lack of loving nurture, taken from their mothers at birth to be nursed by a professional wet nurse; ignored, beaten, and humiliated by their parents; sent to boarding schools at age six or seven where they were frightened and beaten by teachers, humiliated and sexually abused by older boys (Lawrence Stone, in his 800-page work of sociological fact about the Elizabethan era, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (1977), provides the background for this statement, most notably on pages 100-01, 106-7, 111-12, 132, 167, 171, 496, 493); how many of these boys, desperate for a little happiness, found it in the literatures of the French Pléiade and the ancient Greeks and Romans? How many have been finding it ever since in Shakespeare and the great English poets who have followed in his wake?

Regarded in this light, how is it that Oxford managed to throw off the repressions of “the drab era” to write from a place filled with so much passion and exuberance that we may see him as having rescued happiness itself from the Calvinists whose threats of eternal damnation were being thundered from every pulpit, every published sermon and religious text? It may be that along with the privileges of his social status, Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer) was granted another gift.  If, as seems most likely, he was raised from birth to four by a company of ex-nuns, that it was their love, the murmured sound of their voices in the kitchen, their shared laughter at the table, the warmth of their shared embrace, that provided a subliminal memory, one that sustained him through all the tempests and soul-destroying politics of the years ahead, the deeply-held knowledge that there actually was such a thing as unconditional love.

Viewed in this light, his works can be seen as a constant effort to find again in the laughter and tears of his audiences, something of that nourishing love. Though the source lay beyond the reach of memory, was it not this that gave him his life’s purpose, to bring joy and spiritual awakening to those he admired, retribution to those he hated, and a living to the actors and musicians he loved for their power to move him emotionally and who loved him for his determination to use everything at his disposal to provide them with a living and a sense of their true importance?

Advertisements

Trolls and tribulations

This has been a tough week for a lot of Americans, myself included. Hit with rough words, not once but twice, my sense of myself as purveyor of truths relevant to the Shakespeare authorship question has taken a beating at two levels, first of veracity (factual reliability), and second of artistry (style). The first came from an anti-Oxfordian troll of the sort that tends to haunt social media, but who managed to find his way onto my blog where he snarled at the idea that Oxford got his Shakespearean education from his childhood with the once-famous scholar and statesman Sir Thomas Smith. The second came from an editor who took it upon himself to alter (without my permission) the opening sentence of a recently-published essay on the Cecils’ attempt to destroy the London Stage in the 1590s, because, as he put it, “you are generally wordy” and not inclined to self-edit what he sees as my “sensational word choices” and “long-windedness.” Ouch!

Regarding the troll

Most trollery just get trashed. The advantage of a blog over Facebook groups and other online platforms is that a blogger can reject what’s irrelevant or just plain nasty before it goes public. As a genuine scholar I welcome honest criticism that provides the necessary vetting of fact and conjecture, but when criticism devolves to mudslinging, all possibilty for reasonable discourse is lost. Worthwhile intellectual forums all require a modicum of courtesy; without it anything of value gets lost in the “shock and awe” of battle. What Benedick called “paper bullets of the brain” may not shed blood, but they do tend to kill sweet Reason.

Nevertheless, the issue of what to keep and what to reject gets most critical when, as in this case, Mr. Troll is so well-versed in the history of the issue that the points he raised must be taken into consideration. Cleverly he has perceived that I (stupidly) had based my evidence for Oxford’s Shakespearean education too heavily on two points: Mary Dewar’s 1964 biography of Smith in which she states that Oxford came to Smith during the winter of 1554; and second, the label Smith gave in his notebooks to a room in his home at Ankerwycke, “My Lord’s chambre,” where he lived from 1552 to 1558.  Assuming that the latter must refer to Oxford, a lord from birth, since it did not appear that Smith had the sort of connection to any other lord at that time that would merit his having a room named for him, left me open to Mr. Troll’s intelligent suggestion that it could have refered to Bishop John Taylor, a colleague of Smith’s at Edward’s Court, who, as Dewar noted, came to Smith at the same time as the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom. Taylor had died not long after, perhaps, as M. de Troll suggests, in the very “chambre” so named.

That Bishops were honored as Lords, is undeniable, as is the fact that Taylor died not long after arriving at Smith’s. As for the fact that by then the protestant Taylor had lost his post as Bishop and been “deprived” of his office by the catholic Queen Mary, that may not be relevant since the English were always inclined to continue calling their colleagues and friends by their titles, even after they lost them to the interminable political reversals of that dangerous period. As for the troll’s claim that Taylor was “beloved” by Smith, that may be, as it may also be that Smith simply felt indebted to his old tutor for certain estates that Taylor had passed along to him during Taylor’s brief time as Dean of Lincoln (ODNB). Any satisfactory elucidation of these points seeming too far out of reach, “My Lord’s chambre” must now move from reliable evidence for Oxford as the Lord in question to the level of probability. Such is the nature of our inquiry, based as it is on such small bits of evidence, always vulnerable to new insights and information.  But how much better it would have been had the discussion taken place in an atmosphere of collegial discourse.

The troll cannot deny that Smith was Oxford’s tutor. That’s a proven fact which can’t be denied, much as he might want to.  However, having realized the importance that the nature of the environment surrounding Ankerwycke holds as the source of the imagery that, as shown by Caroline Spurgeon, dominates the Shakespeare canon, Mr. T. attempts to show that it was such a terrible place to live that no one in his right mind would have placed the young Oxford heir there. Based on a letter in which Smith complains about the damp that came with the summer rains, Troll’s effort to dismiss Ankerwycke is pathetic. Had it been as terrible as he claims, Sir Thomas would never have purchased it from the Crown nor taken the trouble to build a 21-room mansion there, nor would he, when he moved to Hill Hall, have passed it on to his brother, whose decendents continued to inhabit the site until they sold it in the mid-17th century. The beauties of that area are still to be seen by the many visitors who visit it each year. The only things missing today are the manor itself and the great royal Forest of Windsor that then lay on the other side of the river to the west. To the south the great wetlands known as the Runnymede Water Meadow still offers nesting ground and a waystation for flocks of migratory birds, including the very ones mentioned by Shakespeare.

As for the editor

As for the editor who spoiled my opening sentence, clearly he differs from myself in his opinion of what constitutes good writing. Perhaps he learned to write where the prevailing paradigm was always to keep it short and to the point, newspaper style. Like the piano teacher who failed to teach me to play because learning to play songs meant less to her than how I held my fingers; he may have been graded on how well he denied himself anything colorful or complex. Perhaps he began on a newspaper, where the prevailing style was aimed at a sixth grade readership. Perhaps he began as a technical writer where color of any sort (description, humor, sarcasm) would be out of place. Maybe that’s where he learned that “wordy” or “long-winded” writing is, ipso facto, bad writing.

I do not now nor have I ever had “a style”! To me, style arises out of what a writer needs to express to a particular audience at a particular moment in time, which means that how he or she writes will be molded by what is to be expressed and for whom. Having worked for years as a copywriter for publishers and ad agencies, I know this all too well. What I prefer of course is to write in the manner of those writers whose works I enjoy reading, people who write with color, with witty asides and the kind of cultural references that only those who have done a lot of reading will catch. This kind of writing makes me feel like my own lifetime of reading hasn’t been wasted; that I belong to an important and exalted elite. I may fail at writing like this, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Regarding long “wordy” sentences

Long sentences have a place in good writing. Is Francis Bacon long-winded? Is Marcel Proust “wordy”? And even if they are, do we care? Sometimes there is just too much to be said on a particular point that to cut it up into separate sentences would damage the integrity, the wholeness, of the thought. Sometimes a particular thought is so important that the writer would actually prefer, should the reader lose his way, that he be forced to return to the beginning of the sentence and read it over again! With well-chosen modifiers and clauses a great deal of information can be packed into a single sentence that if parcelled out into separate sentences would take up half a printed page.

I am fond of 19th-century novels. Written back when there was no competition from radio, television or text messaging, Austen, Galsworthy, Dickens, Henry James, Hardy, Tolstoi, can still bring the reader more completely into another time and place, and keep her in the company of interesting characters for days, even weeks on end. For those who did not live where there were concerts and plays, nothing was too long, no amount of description too tedious, no narrative too elaborate, as the shelves filled with collections in old bookstores attest, but some of these old books can still provide a richness of vicarious experience that few modern novels possess. Hemingway’s terse style, born of his indoctrination as a war reporter, came to replace Scott Fitzgerald’s richer and more colorful style. Description was cut down to a single adjective or two. Evocative phrasing was somehow not sufficiently masculine. Tough guys don’t need modifiers; “Just the facts, m’am.” Finally, not even the facts matter, just the attitude, grim, tired, bored, and very, very dull; interesting plots are replaced by sex, lots of it, all from the male perspective of course. Replaced by sex and violence, plots and characters have become vapid stereotypes.

Ornaments and lights

Maybe I’ve been too influenced by my subject. While I can’t claim to live up to his Shakespearean standard, it’s obvious that, in his time, Oxford had much the same problem with his peers as I had with this editor, for when he began writing, the accepted style was just as restrictive though in different ways. Labelled by C.S. Lewis “the drab era,” the prevailing paradigm at the time that he came to London required stilted, colorless prose, and poetry that could not move beyond the Petrarchan model whereby disdainful dames refused lovers who responded with stultifying morbidity on the likelihood of immiment death. It was a style in keeping with the prevailing religious adherence to Calvinism, with its fear of the Devil and his ability to drag the unwary sinner down to the fiery furnace should he give way for an unguarded moment to the human need for pleasure and happiness.

Nurtured by Smith on the great works of Greek and Roman literature, Oxford’s native creativity could not help but burst these bonds, and that it cost him the approval of his peers, and most particularly of his Calvinist in-laws and their coterie, is evident in the disclaimers that accompany the poetry that first began to be published with his arrival in London. As Oxford puts it in his introduction to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier:

I shall not write about the great neatness and excellence with which [Clerke] has depicted the ornaments of the virtues in personages of the highest rank. I shall not repeat how he has described the notable viciousness, silly character, uncouth and boorish manners, or unhandsome appearance that exist in those who are incapable of being courtiers. He has represented whatever exists in human conversation, intercourse and society that is either decorous and polite, or unsightly and debased, with such a quality that you seem to see it before your eyes.

The man who wrote about such important matters (even though he was no mean stylist) has been enhanced by this new light of eloquence. For now the Latin courtier has once more shown his face at our court (as if returned from that city of Rome wherein the pursuit of eloquence thrived), having an excellent appearance, equipped with consummate endowments, and wonderful dignity. This is the achievement of friend Clerke, accomplished with unbelievable genius and singular eloquence. For he has revived that dormant sweetness of speech he possesses; for these most worthy matters he has recalled the ornaments and lights he had set aside. Therefore he is to be lauded and heaped with all the greater praise, that he has made such things, great as they are, yet more so by adding these lights and ornaments.

For who has expressed the significance of his words more fully? Or shone a more elegant light on the dignity of his sentences? If more serious matters come up in the discourse, he renders them in words more ample and grave, but if everyday and witty, he uses clever and witty ones. Since, therefore, he employs a pure and elegant vocabulary, writes his sentences with good style, prudence, and clarity, and employs an overall manner of eloquence marked by dignity, an excellent work must needs flow and derive from these things. It strikes me as such, with the result that, when I read this Latin Courtier, I seem to be hearing Crassus, Antony and Hortensius conversing of these things.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by blogging. No longer constrained to pack the most pertinent information into the first few paragraphs in case the newspaper editor has to cut off paragraphs at the end, no longer forced to keep to a certain length because the magazine must keep its editorial material from exceeding the amount allowed by the space devoted to advertising, perhaps I ramble. But if so there are obviously some who see no harm in it, for after eight years of blogging I still get somewhere between one or two hundred hits a day. Somebody out there likes me, or at least likes the way I write.

“She who must not be named”

At this tense moment in America’s struggle to get a Commander in Chief by the means afforded by our democracy, because the better candidate is a woman, the issue of American misogeny has arisen in ways that it hasn’t since women finally got the right to vote in 1920. If not, then why has this intelligent, supremely-qualified candidate for office been labelled so “untrustworthy” that even her supporters feel they have to accept what appears to be the judgement of the majority? Has history and our own experience not taught us the abiding lesson that to be female is to be, ipso facto, less important, less intelligent, less worthy of high office or acclaim than even the most dangerously unqualified male?

And why else does an editor of a certain scholarly journal feel he has the right to edit my writing without my permission, to justify it by calling me “wordy” and “longwinded” as though somehow, despite his lack of experience, he is qualified to edit and dismiss me in ways he would not dare to had I a name like John or George, for indeed, all he knows of me is my given name, which apparently reeks of unworthiness.

And why else does the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship fail to acknowledge the creator of their scholarly journal, The Oxfordian, which having lasted the longest of any similar journal, and which, during its first ten years, published some of the most important articles ever published by any authorship journal, and which also, during that time, published some of its board members’ articles for the first time?  And why does the only reference on the SOF website to the history of The Oxfordian have nothing but this to say?

The Oxfordian, published since 1998, is “the best American academic journal covering the authorship question,” according to William Niederkorn, formerly of the New York Times . . . . In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (2013), Stratfordian scholar Prof. Stuart Hampton-Reeves adds that under Michael Egan’s editorship  (2009-2014), The Oxfordian “deserves credit . . . for insisting on a higher standard of academic rigour.

A higher standard than what? Who was it that actually set the standard for scholarship that from 1998 to 2009 had The Oxfordian accepted by the Modern Language Association of America and shelved at the Library of Congress?

 

A little history is a useful thing

I’m back

It’s been almost four months since I’ve blogged or added anything to this site. Why? Because I’ve been in the final throes of finishing the book I’ve been working on for the past eight years, and have literally had no time, or room in this tired old bean, for anything else. Of course it’s not totally finished––polishing, fact-checking, eliminating redundancies, are yet to be done––but thankfully the heavy lifting is over and the bloody albatross cast free, to be trussed and roasted more or less at leisure, hopefully for your eventual reading pleasure. While beating my brains to custard, I’ve been grateful that readers have continued to read and even to comment. Many thanks for that.

Back in 1987, when Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William first gave rise to the question of “Shakespeare’s” identity in my not yet quite so old and tired thinking, I was left with two questions that he had not addressed: first, the Earl of Oxford’s learning: by what means did he acquire the vast Renaissance education that the Academy has been at such pains to deny for four centuries? Second: is it really possible that he was the only writer of that interesting time who managed to create whole canons by publishing under the name of an illiterate nonentity?

It’s taken 30 years to find satisfactory answers to these questions, and many of the pages on this blog, added since its beginning in 2008, address specific aspects of one or the other. But handfuls of clusters of connected puzzle pieces, floating in isolation, do not suffice when what is needed is a narrative, one that explains how such things could have happened, and why they happened as they did.

The question of Shakespeare’s identity is actually only the first of so many questions that have yet to be answered that a full century after Looney’s book we still find ourselves teetering on the brink of a dark, chaotic landscape. Is this merely the normal detritus of history as left by the passage of time? Or has there been a determined effort of some sort to prevent the truth from emerging? On page 123 of TMW Ogburn lists several areas in which a paper trail would disappear at a certain point, sometimes to reappear once the period in question is past. Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of similar anomalies, too many to ascribe to any sort of natural entropy. Yes, there can be no doubt, there has been a great deal of finagling throughout the history of Shakespeare scholarship, beginning with its very inception. The important question is why, and by whom. And although we don’t yet know the full answer to “by whom,” we do now finally have a sufficiently trustworthy answer to “why?”

Despite these breaks in the record, what I like to call “literary forensics” provides us with tools that, much like DNA and infra-red photography, work apart from what standard history deigns to allow. This approach allows us to broaden our examination of those areas where primary data is missing and so to project with some security what it might contain were it intact. Although history pretends to eschew conjecture, restricting itself to deal only with what facts remain, Science knows that where hard facts are not available, conjecture, which it dignifies with the term hypothesis, is not only acceptable, it is a necessity, for without it physics would never have arrived at Probability, Relativity, or a thousand other stepping-stones to our present understanding of the universe.

Thus by acquiring enough “proxy data” to project the most likely nature of the missing content, we can create bridges of conjecture solid enough to connect those areas where established facts provide secure footage, and thus, finally, to a narrative that makes sense. Once established, such a narrative, I do believe, will be the final nail in the Stratford coffin. This of course takes a great deal of time, but where history is concerned, time is not an issue. In fact, however much be lost, Time tends to clear away the inevitable fog of political maneuvering to which History, despite its solemn demeanor of dispassionate rectitude, is uniquely vulnerable. And so let it be with the Authorship Question.

Much has come clear during this process, some of it only over the past twelve months. In reading around the question I’ve tapped into what appears to be a new wave of younger historians of the Tudor and Jacobean periods who seem to be chipping away at some of the darker areas that broach on the AQ. While Oxford remains the violent pet wastrel of historians like Lawrence Stone and Alan Nelson, it would seem that further study, plus a few blasts of refreshing common sense, are blowing the dust off the period when the works in question were being produced. Knowing more about Oxford’s surroundings at the time, the issues and personalities with which he had to deal, we can project with some confidence the reasons why he wrote particular works, thus bringing a new measure of exciting enlightenment, not only to the studies of Early Modern Literature, but to the history of the entire period, which at present lies stifled in layers of ancient political dust.

The present book began as the answer to the first question, where did Oxford get his learning, but in peeling away layer after layer of the truth about the period, his education was so obviously bound up with the politics of the period––and the continuing politics of the Academy––that the story simply had to be carried through to the end––that same End that, as Shakespeare has it, “crowns all.”

Despite all efforts to keep to the barest and most select minimum of evidence per point, trusting to the interested reader to follow up with the titles mentioned and the ample materials available now on the internet, the darned book has become so long that it looks like it will have to be divided into two, first: Educating Shakespeare; second: Shakespeare and the London Stage. (As for my other original question––were there others who used the same tactics to get published?––that must wait for a third excursion into the labyrinth of 16th-century literary politics.)

Will there be a publisher willing to publish such a lengthy report, and, not least, to provide it to those who care about such things, in hardback? Not that paperback or Kindle are out of the question, but for readers like myself, who need a hardback edition of any book that requires space for marginal notes, I simply can’t see it solely in “perfect bound” paperback. Since I desperately need to give some attention to my pocketbook after so many years of scraping by, I’m even thinking of bypassing book publishing altogether, selling it through Amazon a bit at a time. In so doing I would only be following in the footsteps of those heroic creators of the English commercial Press, pamphleteers Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

What thinkst thou, Dear Readers? I’m all ears.

Unravelling the Mystery: The Professor and the un-Countess

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

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

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

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

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

The almost Countess and the not really Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

The evangelicals vs the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

Cecil’s triumph

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

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

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

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

Hunsdon and Field

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

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

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

Shakespeare ignored by the Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Shakespeare die on the 24th of June?

Highly unlikely!  We’ve just passed one of the two major turning points of the ancient festal year, June 24th, Midsummer’s Day.  The modern world pays little attention to this annual event, but that was not the case in Shakespeare’s day, as we see from the title of one of his most festal plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As with several of the ancient festal holidays, the solemn, or sacred, aspect of this annually-recurring moment (the summer solstice) was traditionally preceded by a day, or in this case a night, of merry-making.  How likely is it that the death of the greatest literary artist ever produced by the West occurred on this of all days?

Just as the ancients assigned its opposite, the 24th of December, to the eve of the birth of Christ, they assigned June 24th to the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist.  Whatever may have been the true role played by John in the advent of the Christian Messiah (something that has caused a good deal of controversy and will probably never be settled), there’s no doubt that he was a hugely important figure in his time and for centuries afterwards.  Da Vinci for instance is thought to have been a member of an underground society dedicated to his worship, which has been connected by modern mythologists with the Greek god Dionysos, whose power was dramatized by Euripides in 405 BC in The Bachae.  The Templars, whose beliefs, acquired from Arab mystics during the Crusades, survived annihilation in the 13th century to resurface four centuries later as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, held John as their patron saint.  The first English Masonic Grand Lodge was formed on June 24, 1717.  Rosicrucians trace their English roots to Francis Bacon, whose candidacy as Shakespeare owed a good deal to the hints they found in Shakespeare’s works of similar beliefs. In particular Sonnet 125 reflects the language and images of a Masonic ceremony.

One of the problems with both the Stratford myth and the attempts by Oxfordians to displace it is that everyone seems to forget that with Shakespeare we’re dealing with a genius!  The Stratfordians have tied him down, like Gulliver, to a level equal to their own: a hack who sold his craft for money, a plagiarizer of lesser writers who began by revising the works of earlier unknowns. Oxfordians, not much better, remain tied to their argument with the Stratfordians, unable to let go of what bits and pieces were bequeathed us by the Cecils and the historians who clung to the paper trail they so artfully manipulated, so that, using our native common sense together with a broader historical background, one that surpasses what the Cecils could control, allows us to see him for who he really was.  The fact that that he, and only he, could possibly have done what the orthodox have assigned to dozens of other writers, innovators, patrons, publishers, theater builders and managers, many of them nothing more than figments of their own seriously limited imaginations.

As one of the greatest dramatists of all time, as well as greatest of historians and philosophers, Death stalked almost everything Shakespeare wrote, just as it stalked everyone in his audiences, from courtiers to printers’ devils.  All of his tragedies and many of his dramas deal in one way or another with death, with its role in life, and––most subtly due to the religious constraints of his time––with what comes after.  As for his own death, the deaths of geniuses are almost as significant as their lives.  Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah by coming to Jerusalem when he did?   Lord Byron, whose life so closely parallels that of Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer), certainly orchestrated his own death as a call to arms to the intelligensia of Europe to free Greece, ancient parent of the English culture, from centuries of Turkish tyranny.

The evidence

None of this would matter had there been sufficient evidence that de Vere actually died on the date that history assigns him.  That he happened to die on a day central to the worship of John the Baptist, aka Dionysos, god of merry-making, whose festal date was the occasion for most of the ancient Greek dramas that we see as fundamental to our theater today; this would simply be a coincidence, however astonishing.  But evidence is lacking!  What there is is only what could easily have been patched together by family members and patrons in high places, out to give him a few years of peace and privacy, safe from those who wanted to kill both him and his great work, so that he could finish what we know as the Shakespeare canon, foundation of the language we speak and all the great works of literature that have followed.

These two pieces of the Shakespeare puzzle: the anomaly of his death and the nature of the date he supposedly died, taken together, were a trumpet call to examine the possibility that, like Byron, knowing his mortality was nigh, he chose to die in his own way and in his own time.  Added along the way have been other puzzle pieces, the strange behavior of Robert Cecil as soon as the word went out that Oxford was dead, arresting Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) on June 25th so that he could examine his papers in case he was holding some of the plays; the plot of Measure for Measure, performed the night of Oxford’s daughter’s marriage to the Earl of Montgomery (one of the patrons who had secured his safety), in which Duke Vincentio, the “duke of dark corners,” retires from his official duties in exactly the same way we’re suggesting that Shakespeare retired from his, in the only way he could; and finally the fact that one of his ancestors, an Earl of Oxford, had “died to the world” in a way that was no longer available to de Vere, by joining a monastery.  And there are a number of other, if lesser, puzzle pieces that fit with this scenario that otherwise have no place and must be left aside.

Why do I call him Shakespeare and not de Vere?  Because Shakespeare is not just a pseudonym, purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from William of Stratford so that the plays could be published.  Shakespeare the playwright is a being with his own history, an entity as real as Dionysos was to the Greeks or John the Baptist to da Vinci, or Jesus to Christians today.  Half human (de Vere), half fiction, Shakespeare (the Poet) had, and still has, a life of his own.  He is an immortal that, if anything, was for his creator more like one of the personalities that manifests in people with multiple personality disorder.  When de Vere took up his pen, the “spear” that he “shook” in defense of merry-making and platonic love, he was, while engaged in the pursuit of the dramatic truth that he shared with his admired forbears, Euripides, Plautus, and Terence, another, and better, being.

This is the epiphany, the satori, the ecstasy that draws all artists.  Scorning the banal cruelties and mediocrities of ordinary life, this is the “zone” (or “vein” as the Elizabethans termed it) that, when an artists achieves it, however briefly, makes worthwhile all the suffering they cause, not only to themselves, but to those who love and protect them.  Anyone who has ever been patron or handmaiden to a gifted artist will understand what I’m talking about.  As the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson wrote in Eros Turannos:

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
   That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
   Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
   Where down the blind are driven.

Reviewed: Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

Diana Price has come out with a new edition of her 2001 Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography.  Having missed the first edition, here was my opportunity to get what must be one of the most important books on the Authorship Question ever published.  For those who haven’t yet read it, particularly those who enjoy fencing with Stratfordians (which I don’t), I urge you to get it, read it, and keep it handy, for it is certainly the definitive text on why William of Stratford cannot possibly be the author of the Shakespeare canon.

Because she does not attempt to answer the second half of The Question––If not William then Who?––she avoids the rancour that inevitably attends any effort to promote a particular candidate.  In this she joins august anti-Stratfordians like George Greenwood and Mark Twain, who made no attempt to pick a winner, perhaps also setting a pattern for important studies that have come along since, most notably Richard Roe’s book on Shakespeare’s Italy, and more recently Stritmatter and Kositsky’s on The Tempest.  By refusing to allow the authorship itself to intrude, the reader’s native common sense is free to function on a particular part of the argument, thus eliminating the dismissive sound byte, as does Roe with the frequently heard dismissal that Shakespeare had his facts wrong about Italy; or Stritmatter with that other constant, that “some plays are too late for Oxford.”

By eliminating the emotionally touchy issues that surround the various candidates, Price allows nothing to take precedence over the stone cold irrefutable fact that William could not possibly have written the Shakespeare canon, or anything else. “Why not William?” must always be answered before readers will be ready to hear who actually wrote the works that bear his name.  Nobody has nailed this primary issue like Price.  Detailed on every point, her scholarship––cool, orderly, thorough, exhaustively supported with solid citations––sets a high mark for the rest of us.  From the lack of any evidence of an education, to his disappearance from London just as the plays that bore his name were hitting their peak of popularity, to the death that went totally unremarked by what had become the vast audience for his plays, she leaves no tern unstoned.

Ah, would that were the end of it!  So long as she wields this end of the stick she can’t be faulted, but unfortunately she must needs turn an utterly convincing localized effort into a self-contradictory theory of everything, ending up in the same weeds where her Stratfordian opponents continue their endless circling.  It would seem that in every respect except the authorship itself, Price is no less a Stratfordian than the academics she scorns, accepting every single darn thing they’ve come up with in centuries of making bricks without straw.  For Price, both Shake-scene and Poet-Ape represent William, a Frankenstein’s monster patched together from every ambiguous figure lurking within the epigrams of his own time and the conjurations dreamed up by centuries of confused theorists.

Dates don’t lie

There’s no real harm in this (to anyone but Price herself), since most of what can’t be disproven can’t be proven either.  However, her notion that William was a hard-nosed financial wizard who bought his way into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then used and abused the connection to make hay for himself by brokering old plays and costumes, is a genuine threat to the truth.  This theory, to which she devotes many pages, is demonstrably without any basis whatsoever in fact.  It’s true that William was as tough-minded as any other businessman when it came to his dealings in Stratford, but there’s nothing to suggest that, until he was adopted by the Company at some point in or shortly before 1595, he had so much as a shilling to invest in anything.

One of the few facts about the life of William of Stratford, repeated in every account from Nicholas Rowe on down to Sam Schoenbaum, is that Shakspere Sr., who throughout William’s early childhood shows up in the record as a successful local entrepreneur, had fallen on serious hard times by the time his son was twelve.  By the 1580s, selling land and dodging creditors had become a way of life for the Shakspere family (Schoenbaum A Documentary Life, 36-40).  Reasons for this loss of standing have caused considerable conjecture over the centuries, suggesting to some that they were Catholic recusants, to others radical dissidents.

Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the Shaksperes were in financial trouble until suddenly, at some point in or shortly after 1596, there was enough money that William was able to buy the second biggest house in town and invest in its renovation.  By then he was in his thirties, so had he been the financial wizard of Price’s imagination, his name would have begun to appear in records of local business transactions well before 1596. That this upsurge in solvency is directly connected to the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in June of 1594 is proven by numerous records, both then and later.  Dates don’t lie.

Price’s notion flies in the face, not only of this well-documented fact of his family’s indebtedness, but also what is known of the structure of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  As noted by everyone who has studied what evidence there is of Shakespeare’s company––most recently Andrew Gurr in The Shakespeare Company (2004)––funding came from the sharers, that is, the six to eight highly-skilled actors who played the leading roles created by Shakespeare (the playwright).  This may be questionable: one of the missing elements in the story as its been told until now is the part played in the Company’s evolution by its wealthy Privy Council patrons.  But this lack of patronage can hardly be resolved by casting the impoverished William as the missing patron.  True, his name does appear in the record on several occasions as a member of this core group of sharers, but even if, let us say, he did supply his share (£100) to rebuild the Globe when it burned down in 1613, the other half of the equation is missing, for time has produced nothing that supports the Company’s claim that he was an actor.

While others have pointed to the fact that, unlike every other member of this core group, all of whom have proven track records as actors with other leading companies before they were recruited by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the name William Shakespeare is not to be found in any theatrical record until 1595, nor has it ever been connected with any other acting company, nor by any contemporary with any particular Shakespearean roles, as is true of most of the genuine actor-sharers.  The one or two references to him as an actor at the time, made in passing, can all be seen as reflecting the role the Company chose to explain his presence, for proving that he was not an actor was just as impossible as proving that he was not a playwright.

In fact Price herself explains in detail why William could not possibly have been the actor the Company would have us believe (32-5).  Noting how during periods when they would have needed all their actors in London, she shows how Schoenbaum locates him in Stratford.  During the winter season of 1597-98, while the Company was performing for the Court from late December through February, records in Stratford have him stockpiling grain and purchasing stone for New Place (Schoenbaum 178).  Since it was a two to three-day trip each way from Stratford to London and back, perhaps longer on icy winter roads, that he could have dashed back and forth is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Shortly after the immensely important occasion of King James’s initial procession through London in March 1604 (for which all the sharers, now the King’s Men, were provided with red and gold livery), it appears that William was in Stratford selling malt (a component of ale) to a local apothecary (34), something that required his attention through June, a period when the Company was busy reopening the Globe after the plague closure of the previous year, and during which several Shakespeare plays were performed at Court for the Company’s all-important new patron, King James.  So unavailable was William for this last, as its playwright anyway, that the clerk that noted the plays that would eventually bear his name, spelled it Shaxberd.

William did not pay––he got paid.

William’s fortune did not come to him from any enterprise he’d undertaken before signing on with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  To make money it’s necessary to have money, something it’s clear that neither he nor anyone in his family had until he was taken on by the actors.  Yes, he was a hard-nosed businessman, and never more so than when he was squeezing them in exchange for remaining silent about the authorship!  From his first notice in the Revels warrant in 1595 until his death in 1616 (and probably until the death of his wife shortly before the First Folio was published seven years later), from first to last, all records of his investments can easily be seen as the Company’s investment in his silence.  Had he been the investor she imagines, had he been the sharer he was made out to be, he would have left shares in his will, as did the real sharers, the actors.

Since no books have survived to reveal how Hemmings, the Company’s manager, handled the flow of funds from at first, just the box office, then after the creation of the Globe, the added portion taken by the house, we have no way of knowing how he managed William’s portion, but that it was not handled in the same way that the money was distributed to the real actors is clear from the absence of any shares in William’s will and no record of any sale of his shares, as there is with the others.  Dealing with William, as with all supernumeraries whose work assisted the production of their plays, fell to Hemmings.  The Mountjoy family, with whom William resided during a brief period in the early 17th century, lived right around the corner from Hemmings. As costumers, the Mountjoys were the sort with whom Hemmings dealt on a daily basis, along with stagehands, scriveners, carpenters, and so forth.

Having divested him of his role as playwright and actor, Price would like to be able to provide him with role with the Company that readers can trust, but because, like the Stratfordians she disdains, she doesn’t know enough about the period to perceive behind the fudging and side-stepping that characterizes all the connections between the Company and the Crown, the deeply political nature of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and their driving need to find a cover that allowed them to get their plays published.  Nor, like most Oxfordians as well as Stratford defenders, does she understand the uses of a name that can be read as a serious name by the public and a pun name by the cognescenti.  William was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (probably in fact by Hemmings, whose hometown was Droitwich, a few miles northwest of Stratford) for the use of his name––and for nothing more!  Everything else, the suggestion that he was a sharer and an actor, was window dressing.  As he provided the necessary cover for their playwright, the terms “sharer” and “actor” were covers for his real purpose.

Lost in a sea of weeds

It’s not possible to cover all the odd postitions taken by Price in her effort to provide a theory of everything, but one more will at least give a sense of where she tends to go awry.  For instance she accepts Warren Austin’s assertion that Greene’s Groatsworth was written, not by Robert Greene, but by Henry Chettle.  Only those who have poked around in the primordial ooze where issues pertaining to the creation of the English periodical press remain seemingly forever bedded, will grasp the strangeness of this choice.

While the three names that dominate this branch of the larger authorship question––Greene, Nashe and Harvey––display anomalies similar to those that have led to questioning William of Stratford, works published as by Robert Greene are not only coherent in subject matter and style up to and including Groatsworth, as the dominant name in English literature throughout the decade preceding the advent of Shakespeare, his name on some 36 works of combined prose and poetry (the five plays were attributed to him posthumously), why on earth pass off this final bit of his canon (meant to be seen as final anyway) as the work of someone as inconsequential as Henry Chettle?

The author of Chettle’s ODNB bio refers to his “shadowy career both as printer and as author: again and again he is associated with a work but is not credited with any part of it when it comes to print.”  She lists 13 of Henslowe’s stringers that, according to Henslowe, worked with Chettle on plays, six of which were published, not one of them bearing his name.  “A further thirteen plays in Henslowe’s diary are attributed to Chettle alone.  Only one . . . was ever printed . . . ; again, Chettle is not identified as the play’s author.”

If we accept the DNB’s assessment of his career, since there is no proof that Chettle actually wrote anything, then Austin’s claim that his language in all his works matches that of Groatsworth and other works by Greene is hardly worth the proverbial tinker’s damn.  Prices’s efforts to explain why a lowly typographer’s apprentice would leap into the pamphlet fray by pretending to be the dying Greene goes nowhere, of course, where could it go?  The word studies that convinced Austin that Greene’s language in Groatsworth matches Chettle’s in Kind Heart’s Dreame, the pamphlet in which he refuted (unpublished) rumors that he wrote Groatsworth, raise questions about all the other pamphlets that sound like Greene but were signed with other names, such as B.R., R.B., Gabriel Harvey and “the renowned Cavaliero Pasquil.”

Maybe Austin was right; maybe whoever wrote Kind Heart’s Dreame also wrote Groatsworth, and almost everything else that was published in pamphlet form at that time, but in the morass of confusion that the true authors of these early pamphlets have left us, the truth about Chettle is not something that Price, or anyone who has written on the subject, has come close to resolving.  Nor will they until they begin to ask the same questions about these writers that have led us to the truth about Shakespeare.

To be or not to be the author

Price takes her argument against William up to the door of the Court, which is where she leaves it.  She makes a case for why the true author had to be a courtier, but will not suggest which one.  Ignorant of the politics of the period, she can give no solid reason why this unnamed courtier should be so reluctant to be named as a poet or a playwright, nor why the cover-up should have continued so long past his death.  Time has shown that nobody today really buys the notion that this long enduring cover-up was due solely to the “stigma of print,” nor should they.  There were plenty of other reasons, personal as well as political why the true author, his family, his actors, his patrons, his in-laws, his monarchs Elizabeth and James, could not and would not ever allow his name to be connected with his works––deadly serious reasons, that no one writing about this today, ignorant of the history of that period, knows or apparently cares to pursue.

The problem for Price, as it is for all who have found it expedient to set the question of the true author aside, is that minus the genius who created the London Stage with his magical works, there is no story.  Efforts to create one without him inevitably fall apart like dough made with all flour and no fat.  As Yeats might have put it, “the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Price has supplied the “rough beast, his hour come round at last,” but who needs him?  Who wants him?  Where is the heartbeat, the thrill, the glory of great achievement in the face of devastating opposition?  Even if there were any truth to her scenario, of what use is it?  Without the author, his story, his relationship to the Stage, the Court, the Inns of Court, the Crown, the commercial periodical press, you end up with a three-legged table.  With the most important leg missing, the table may fit in with your decorating scheme, but if asked to support anything greater than itself, over it goes.

History requires a leading figure, a protagonist.  What would the history of the American Civil War be without the personalities of Lincoln and Lee, John Brown and Stonewall Jackson––a mere string of dates and names of battle locations.  We care about the Civil War because of the stories that came out of it, stories of life and death, of great courage in the face of great danger. What is the life and death issue here?  Where is the hero?  Where is the story?  William is in the way. Price has removed him.  That’s all she’s done, and it’s enough.

Calling all historians!

Long ago, in the timeless realm we call Literature, a certain fox, we’ll call him Reynard, dragged a stinky red herring across the trail of a certain Court poet, sending the yelping hounds who were after his identity up a false trail, where they’ve been barking up one wrong tree after another ever since.  That red herring was the name William Shakespeare.  Dragged across the poet’s paper trail––the published plays that in performance, twenty years earlier, had launched the London Stage, it did what it was meant to do, it gave the author and his company the freedom they needed to keep on producing the plays that gave the actors a living and their world a good cry, a much needed belly laugh, and those inclined to philosophy something to think about.

This red herring was successful in protecting the true author from the rage of the puritans who ran the nation, uptight ideologues, hungry for social power, who feared and hated the forces unleashed by the London Stage, forces that we know today as the English Literary Renaissance.  Unable to control it they sought to kill it.  This protective maneuver on the part of the Company, probably born of exigency, a dodge put into effect during a moment of desperation, perhaps not intended to last as long as it has, has in fact lasted for centuries.

Despite the evidence that’s been provided over the past 200 years, it seems we are still stuck in a scenario where the hounds continue to chase each other around in circles, only now there’s a herd of authorship scholars who follow after them, their shouts unheard in the clamor.  Isn’t it about time we put an end to this absurd waste of energy?

I say leave the hounds to their sport, stop confronting the ersatz gurus of the Birthplace Trust on their territory, something that does nothing but distract us from the real field of inquiry.  Leave the English Departments to their publications and pronunciamentos, and take the issue to where it should have been from the begining, to the political history of the period when Shakespeare was writing.  When you haven’t enough data on a topic of interest, you turn to what we call “proxy data,” material that surrounds the issue, that doesn’t touch on it directly, but that if put in place, shows the shape and nature of what’s missing.  If you can’t find enough material to work from the inside out, work from the outside in.  It’s time to turn away from the failures of the university English Department, and walk across the hall to the History Department.

We have the plays; what does it matter who wrote them?

It matters!! Only a culture that has allowed its literature to become divorced from its history could tolerate such a remarkably stupid credo.  Divorced from history, from the ground out of which it grew, literature loses its relevance.  Divorced from literature, the stories that bring a particular time and place to life, history loses the pulse of life.  Bereft of the human drama that gives it meaning, history is little more than a laundry list of dates and names.  Divorced from each other, both lose their purpose, their true meaning.

This divorce was actually taking place during the time that Shakespeare (we’ll have to call him that), was writing and his Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, was producing his plays.  Ancient studies were being divided: religion into superstition on the one hand, the early Church fathers on the other; alchemy into philosophy on the one, the science of chemistry on the other; astrology into folk psychology and medicine on the one, the science of astronomy on the other.  Similarly history was being divided into story on the one hand, historiography on the other.  This division of inherited materials into literature over here and history over there was eventually enshrined in the university curriculum, and from there into the secondary schools where it continues to discourage young people from developing an interest in either Literature or History.

The storehouse of Sin

In England the division was amplified by the passions of the Reformation which saw the division as a conflict between God and the Devil, with God on the side of History, and the Devil on the side of literature. History was truth, while Literature, which they called Poetry, they saw as a tissue of lies, deadly lies that entrapped men’s souls and led them down the primrose path to the fiery furnace. The respected Shakespeare scholar, Prof. Lily B. Campbell, is one of the rare English profs who could see the forest for the trees.  As she wrote in Chapter X of her Shakespeare’s Histories (1945): “History versus Poetry in Renaissance England”:

In order to understand the place of history in the English Renaissance we must turn to the attacks made upon poetry . . . first by the adherents of the Reformation and later by the Puritans . . . . These attacks on poetry are not today so well known as are the defenses of poetry and particularly the great defense offered by Sidney. Nevertheless, the defenses of poetry cannot be fully comprehended unless we remind ourselves that defense is always organized to resist attack. (85)

One of the earliest attacks came in 1569, shortly after the plays in question began to escape the Court for which they were written to entertain the public at the London theater inns.  As James Sanford wrote in his translation of Cornelius Aggripa’s 1530 Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences:

Poetry, as Quintilian writeth, is another part of grammar, not a little proud . . . that in times past the theaters and amphitheaters, the goodliest buildings of men, were erected not by philosophers, not by lawyers, . . but with exceeding great expense by the fables of poets, an art that was devised to no other end but to please the ears of foolish men with wanton rhythms, with measures, and weightiness of syllables, and with a vain jarring of words, . . . to deceive men’s minds with the delectation of fables . . . . Wherefore it [the Stage] doth deserve to be called the principal author of lies, and the maintainer of perverse opinions.

In November 1577, Bishop Thomas White preached against the Stage from the pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin,. . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays.

In 1579, former playwright Stephen Gosson wrote in The School of Abuse, a pamphlet that the Church saw to it got published in the thousands and distributed all over London:

Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts? sauces?] to vanquish the taste nor painters in shadows [paintings] to allure the eye, than Poets in Theaters to wound the conscience.   There set, they abroche strange consorts of melody to tickle the ear, costly apparell to flatter the sight, effeminate gesture to ravish the senses, and wanton speech to whet desire to inordinate lust. . . . Let us but shut up our ears to Poets, Pipers and Players, pull our feet back from resort to Theaters and turn away our eyes from beholding of vanity, the greatest storm of abuse will be overblown and a fair path trodden to amendment of life. Were not we so foolish to taste every drug and buy every trifle, Players would shut in [up] their shops and carry their trash to some other country.

Writers of fiction fought back.  First Thomas Lodge in 1578 against Gosson’s diatribe: “Who then doth not wonder at poetry? Who thinketh not that it procedeth from above?”  As Nashe snarled at Sanford in Piers Penniless (1593):

As there be those that rail at all men, so there be those that rail at all Arts, as Cornelius Agrippa [in his] De vanitate scientiarum, and a treatise that I have seen in dispraise of learning, where he [Sanford] saith, it is the corrupter of the simple, the schoolmaster of sin, the storehouse of treachery, the reviver of vices, and mother of cowardice, alledging many examples, how there was never man egregiously evil but he was a scholar; that when the use of letters was first invented, the Golden World ceased, Facinusque inuasit mortales: how study doth effeminate a man, dim his sight, weaken his brain, and engender a thousand diseases.

To no avail––the Crown had departed from the Reformation’s humanist creators, following the Church into the art-hating tenets of Calvinism.  Campbell quotes “the most direct attack upon poetry as lying” with which she was familiar, the translation by Sir Edward Hoby of a French diatribe titled Politic Discourses upon Truth and Lying (1586) which he dedicated to his uncle William Cecil, patron and overlord of the English press. Campbell comments:

the description of poetry as poison mixed with honey, the emphasis upon pleasure derived from poetry as suspect, the reiteration of Plato’s contention [in The Republic] that passion and vice are replenished by poetry, are all familiar, but it must be noted that all other charges are made subordinate to the main thesis of the chapter that poetry is lying. (92)

As Sidney, whose response to Gosson in 1580 was finally published in 1590, put it: “Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.  So. . . the historian, affirming many things, can . . . hardly escape from many lies.”

Campbell notes that Hoby’s Chapter 36 is dedicated to the consideration “of backbiters, mockers, and evil speakers, and why the comedians, stage players and jugglers have been rejected,” and that plays “infecteth more the spirits and wrappeth them in passions then drunkenness itself.” She quotes:

And for as much as comedies are compounded of fictions, fables, and lies, they have of divers been rejected. As touching plays, they are full of filthy words, which would not become . . . lacqueys and courtesans and have sundry inventions which infect the spirit and replenish it with unchaste, whorish, cosening, deceitful, wanton and michievous passions . . . . And for that besides all these inconveniences, comedians, and stage players do often times envy and gnaw at the honor of another, and to please the vulgar people, set before them sundry lies and teach much dissoluteness and deceit, by this means turning upside down all discipline and good manners [so that] many cities well governed would never at any time entertain them. (92-3)

Thus wrote Burghley’s nephew in 1586, when the London Stage was in its ninth year, teetering on the verge of disaster.  Written while the nation was suffering the increasing severity of Burghley’s war on Catholic recusants and puritan dissidents, six years after his brutal execution of St. Edmund Campion and nine before the equally brutal execution, by his son Robert Cecil, of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, we should consider that perhaps it was less the poets’ “filthy” language that inspired this outburst on the part of his nephew than how they did “often times envy and gnaw at the honor” of the Cecils.

Though Burghley may have tolerated the Stage back in the 1560s when Philip II blamed him for the satires that were defaming his Spanish Majesty, it’s clear that by 1586, he was in the mood to trim both the London Stage and the commercial Press; perhaps cut them to the ground; perhaps uproot them entirely.  It’s Polonius, accepted by all as a portrait of Burghley, who critiques the dedication of Hamlet’s poem to Ophelia: “To the beautified Ophelia”; “That’s an ill phrase,” says Polonius, “a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase.”  We can be sure that this exchange has far more meaning than today’s so-called critics would give it.

Seen from the perspective of English history, the Renaissance, when it finally arrived, had to find its way past the Reformation fears of Satan.  This is the major reason for the form that it took in England, and for most of the literary anomalies that academics have failed to explain, including, first and foremost, the mystery surrounding the identity of the playwright who is easily found, had the slightest attention been paid to the evidence of history, deep within the Court community.  Had there been any genuine attention paid to the history of the period, it would also be clear long since that Shakespeare was not alone in this, but that most of the literature produced during this first early Spring of England’s Literary Renaissance was produced by men and women who took almost exactly the same route he did, hiding their identities behind a flock of standins, supernumeraries, and initials.

Forget the English Departments

We need to approach the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare, of which his true identity is but one, others pertaining to the identities of the authors who wrote under the names Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Thomas North, Arthur Brooke, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and a dozen others.  History will show where these are located in time, and who besides the authors were involved, the powerful and wealthy patrons who made these efforts possible, the publishers and printers who took risks in publishing them, all easily located once the background of dates, current events, known personalities and conflicts are in place. With the stage set by history, we’ll have a picture that no one can argue with.

But to do that we need the help of historians.  Those readers who seek an end to the questioning, the beginning of certainty, join in the quest for history majors, free thinkers who can see beyond the limits proscribed by the Stratford biography, probably located in London, certainly in England, individuals with access to the archives where documents never explored by authorship scholars remain to be examined.  We need patrons with the wherewithall to provide funding for such a project, who can keep it moving until the university History departments––yielding to the thrill of establishing the great Shakespeare at the Court of Queen Elizabeth––open their doors to the authorship question.

Urge schools to combine literature with history.

By bringing a piece of the story of our lives to life with not just the events of the time, but the way the writers and artists who lived it then saw it, by accenting the story part of history, by connecting stories to the events that gave them birth, we’ll be putting the Humanities back on the road to importance.  We’ll be turning fear into understanding, existential despair into acceptance and love, something has been the goal of literature ever since Plato set out to tell the world the truth about Socrates.

It’s time we told the truth about Shakespeare to those who are ready to hear it, and quit trying to tell it to those who are committed to ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

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.

Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, had Pindar in Greek on his 1566 library list.

Shakespeare’s hardy audience

To understand a person, or a peopleFamily
it helps to know what childhood was like for them and how family relationships were formed.  According to Lawrence Stone, author of The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), 16th-century English family relationships tended to be weak, that is, weak in real relationships, bound by genuine love and affection.  The social group of most importance was the extended family, the community.  Personal relationships were submerged in this wider group to an extent we see today only in a few isolated communities like the Amish or the Hasidim.  That these communities were often spread over a wide area, particularly on the higher levels, and considering the difficulties of travel then, that relatives might go years without seeing each other in person adds to the picture of a collection of emotionally cool relationships, connected by blood and self interest but little else.

If the Elizabethans were a hardy lot, withstanding the plague, malaria, wars, duels, the little Ice Age, and a diet that, except in summer, consisted of beef, bread and beer, it may be because the harsh treatment they recieved in infancy and childhood eliminated the weakest at the outset.  The death rate among infants and children was so high that it was not unusual for a woman to have anywhere from eight to twelve children in hopes that two or three might live to maturity.  If now and then this meant that so many lived that the parents went bankrupt raising, educating, and marrying them properly, it may have seemed less of a risk to dynastic-minded 16th-century parents than the disaster of leaving no progeny at all.

Birth was a dangerous passage for both mother and baby, due to the ever present threat of childbed fever, hemmorage, or both weakened by her poor diet and restrictive clothing.  Once past that hurdle the infant had another series of trials to overcome before there could be any assurance of its survival.  Immediately after birth it was placed with a wet nurse, often a poor woman who took in more than one baby.  It would be she who would see to its care for the first year or two (81).  Standard procedure was to keep the infant “swaddled,” that is, tightly wrapped in strips of fabric and bound to a board so it could not move its arms or legs (161).  The board could be laid flat or hung up on a peg, where the poor creature remained until its nurse had time to feed or wash it.

Once weaned  and potty-trained, it was returned to its parental home where it was consigned to a nursery along with its siblings or perhaps a cousin or two in the care of a nanny, most likely an unpaid member from a lower rung of the extended family rather than, as would be true in later centuries, a hired nurse or governess.  Here the child had little more than a passing acquaintance with its parents, whose busy lives prevented them from anything more than an occasional visit during which the children were expected to perform as before a panel of judges.

At seven or eight they were considered too old for the nursery, and so would be placed outside the home, the boys with a tutor, or a family that provided a tutor, the girls with a family who used her like a little servant (167).  While boys received some education, education for girls depended on the nature of the surrogate family.  Both boys and girls so placed were expected to serve the household in some capacity, whatever their rank.  The purpose of this placement was to enlarge the all important network of relationships with families higher on the social scale.  This was meant to guarantee both children and parents some degree of social advancement.

This is not to say that these surrogate families were necessarily cruel, in fact, they might have been kinder than the child’s own parents, who, according to Stone, apparently thought it proper to present the sternest possible surface towards their offspring.  Children were trained to give their parents almost idolatrous respect, addressing them with a ritual greeting, kneeling before them to ask their blessing (171).  Nor was this something that parents were in any way ashamed of, since displays of affection were thought to give children the dangerous idea that they could do as they pleased.  To this end they were flogged, sometimes brutally, on a regular basis, by governesses, parents, and schoolmasters, that the sins they were born with be driven out of them before they got too old for correction (163).  The famous book, The Scholemaster, by Roger Ascham, was written following a discussion over a goup of boys who had recently run away from an over-zealous schoolmaster.

In families of property, the oldest boy, the one who would inherit the family titles and estates, got the most attention, with some going to the second oldest, in case the oldest should die.  This hierarchy was impressed on the others, who were taught to give their oldest brother the same kind of respect they gave their parents, resulting in relationships fraught with jealousy and envy (156).  If, as often happened, the father died before the heir reached maturity, he (or where there were no sons, she) became the property of the Court of Wards, to be sold to the highest bidder, who had full use of his estates until he came of age, by which time he or she often found themselves married, will they nill they, to their guardian’s son or daughter (182).

Although Stone ignores the possible connection between these behaviors and the policies and beliefs of the Reformation, we can’t help but wonder if the notion of original sin didn’t have a great deal to do with their harsh treatment of their children.  Born in sin, it seems as though it was up to the little sinner whether or not he or she had the chutzpah to survive to adulthood.  The beatings and constant lectures sound like one more outcome of the soul-deadening regime imported from Geneva.  As much evidence shows, these processes left the nation’s children vulnerable to mistreatment of the worse sort, suggesting a society plagued by the kind of asocial griefs and horrors later dramatized by John Webster and John Ford.

When we contrast this with the childhood we envision for the Earl of Oxford, surrounded at birth and for the following four years by a community of adoring females, followed by eight years with a man who, if perhaps no more demonstrative than anyone else in his time, was clearly humane in his dealings with students and his own family, we have some ground for understanding the source of the joie de vivre, the sheer joy of living, that shines through his lighter works, and can better understand how gratefully audiences turned to his early comedies after the depressingly grim efforts of his immediate predecessors.