Category Archives: Early Modern literature

Oxford and Marlowe

Was Marlowe Shakespeare?

Despite the problem of Marlowe’s well-documented assassination by government agents in 1593, Marlovians cling to this idea largely because of crossovers (direct quotes and similar phrasing) between his works and those of Shakespeare.  It’s easier for them to imagine their hero as escaping the scoundrels who were out to kill him, stowing away on a ship to the Continent, returning shortly after under cover, and somehow managing to continue to write for the Stage under the name Shakespeare without any further cost in blood, freedom or publicity, than it is to face the reality in the facts as they’ve come down to us.

First, Marlowe was a commoner.  This doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a brilliant writer, for possibly, had he lived and had time to mature, he might well have achieved a level equal to that of the author of the Shakespeare canon.  His brilliance is evident in the works that made him famous in his own right while still in his twenties.  The question raised by his social status should be, how someone from a working class community far from London was able to write late 1590s plays shown to a public audience that, however subtly, point the finger at the most powerful individuals in the nation as wicked murderers, works like Hamlet and Richard III, and continue to do this over a period of time without any apparent repercussions?

So far I see nothing from the Marlovians that deals with this most obvious of questions.  Who protected him?  Who could have protected him from, first Leicester, then Burghley, then Robert Cecil?  The high level lords who we know were his patrons both suffered, most obviously Ferdinando Lord Strange who was poisoned to death a year after Marlowe’s assassination, while Henry Percy Earl of Northumberland, who Marlowe also claimed as his patron (following his arrest in Flushing in 1591 on charges of coining) was imprisoned in the Tower for years on weak charges during Robert Cecil’s years of power.  How then could the commoner who actually wrote the damning works manage to escape when even his patrons could not?

Second, none of the Shakespeare plays reflect anything we can assign to Marlowe’s biography.   While we can easily point to the important incidents and events in the life of the Earl of Oxford as reflected in all but a few of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s nothing in any of them that fits with what we know of Marlowe’s life.  Of those works we can be certain were his, Tamburlaine, Jew of Malta, Faust and The Guise, all are based on history or on recent events known to everyone in his time.

There’s an odd prejudice at work in authorship studies that seeks to attribute everything of value to a single writer.  While literary history should send researchers looking to identify the creators of works of dubious authorship as members of a coterie, all too often they will fasten on one individual and attribute everything to him or her.  In their search for similarities, they fail to examine the sometimes obvious differences.  Yet, if Marlowe wasn’t Shakespeare, what’s the explanation for the many crossovers?

Marlowe as Shakespeare’s predecessor

Stratfordians deal with this by claiming that Shakespeare began his career by imitating Marlowe.  Since Marlowe’s name was the first to be publicized (as the author of Tamburlaine c.1587) while the name Shakespeare wouldn’t appear until 1593 (on Venus and Adonis), ergo to wit: Shakespeare must be the imitator.  Thus Shakespeare, certainly the most influential writer in all of English literature and also one of the most ideosyncratic––outpeculiarizing his most adroit imitators––is forced by the Stratford bio into the role of plagiarist of such minor writers as Anthony Munday and George Chapman.  Have they no sense of the absurd?  Most absurd is the idea that Marlowe invented blank verse, when in fact blank verse was in use by a number of writers, including the Poet Earl of Surrey, long before Marlowe.  Don’t these chaps ever read any further than their primary subject?

In the current issue of Shakespeare Matters, Richard Waugaman’s article on Marlowe offers a good example of the confusion that our lack of understanding of the period can bring even the best of scholars.  Striving to see Marlowe as the Rival Poet of the Sonnets, he interprets the crossovers between Shakespeare’s Sonnet 80 and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander as Shakespeare, i.e. Oxford, imitating Marlowe, his rival for Southampton.

This is an example of the kind of confusion that comes from examining the works of this period as though Shakespeare was the only false name ever to be used on a title page.  In fact, his are only a few of the many works of the period that need a close look with regard to their authorship.  As I’ve shown, though obviously not to everyone’s satisfaction, there were a number of works published during that period under the names of persons who could not possibly have written them, shadowy figures like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and so forth who have weak or nonexistent bios.  Long ago I called for an examination of all the works of the imagination published during that period, not such a rigorous request when we consider how few these actually were in the 1580s and ’90s.  When we begin looking at the works themselves and considering who was the most likely author of a particular work based on the time it was published, its style, and its content, the pieces will begin falling into place.

The Rival Poet

First, Marlowe cannot possibly be the Rival Poet.  Peter Moore has put all other rivals to flight with his cogent, fact-based 1996 essay on the subject.  If Shakespeare is Oxford, and the Fair Youth is Southampton, then the only possible Rival Poet is the man who squelched Oxford’s hopes of becoming Southampton’s father-in-law by stealing the Fair Youth’s heart, namely the Earl of Essex, who certainly considered himself a poet, and was, of course, so considered by his friends and supporters, one of whom was clearly the Earl of Southampton.  It should be obvious that while the naval metaphors in Sonnet 80 are meaningless in reference to Marlowe, they can easily be seen as referring to Essex’s maritime exploits in 1589 and ’91.  This is history.  We ignore it at our peril.

To see Marlowe as the Rival Poet is also to fall into the same error as those who propose George Chapman.  These intimate poems were products of a Court coterie.  They were written, not for publication but to communicate with other members of the inner circle of a high level Court coterie in a tradition passed down from the Courtly Love tradition of the early Middle Ages, and long before it in the educated coteries of ancient Greece and Rome.  In the following generation both Donne and Harington, born into Court society, were members of such a coterie while writers like Chapman, Breton and Florio, mere tutors, were limited to writing eulogies and elegies for their aristocratic masters.  A writer like Marlowe would never be admitted to such an intimate circle, no matter how good his writing or how close he might become with patrons like Lord Strange or Thomas Walsingham.

What Waugaman has actually done with his impressive and important list of comparisons of the language of Sonnet 80 with that of Hero and Leander is to offer substantial evidence that the same individual wrote both poems, and that he wrote them within a fairly short period of time while rereading, and probably translating, Ovid.  Surely that individual was Oxford and that time was the late 1580s and early ’90s, a window of time before the marriages of Oxford to Elizabeth Trentham in 1592 and his daughter to the Earl of Derby in 1595 should by all rules of common sense establish an end point to most if not all the sonnets to the Fair Youth.

Who wrote Hero and Leander?

While we can be fairly certain that Marlowe wrote the versions of the four plays that form the core of his canon, we have no such assurance about the poems that were published over his name after his death.  Hero and Leander was published in 1598 at the same time that Oxford’s plays began to be published as by William Shakespeare.  However exciting and beautiful a poem, Hero and Leander was too tainted with homosexual nuance to publish as by Shakespeare, a name that by then stood for the Privy Council approved company that performed his works.

If we take the four core works as most representative of Marlowe’s writing, we find a number of things about Hero and Leander that simply don’t fit.  While Shakespeare was obsessed with women, sex and passion, mostly male/female with some male/male, Marlowe’s core canon shows very little of either, and what he did write about, and for, his female characters (out of sheer necessity because the story required it) was pretty lame.  Hero and Leander fits quite well with Shakespeare’s other long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; in each the theme of passionate love or lust is given a different scenario, and all three fit neatly into his style of the early 1590s.  We know he knew the story well as he refers to it in a number of his plays.  Nothing else attributed to Marlowe comes close.

In the press to get Oxford published in the late 1590s, if they couldn’t use Shakespeare’s name for Hero and Leander, why not use Marlowe’s, long since tainted by the accusations of homosexual passion and atheism that were published to distract from any concerns over the means by which he was eliminated from any further contact with the public.  With no one to defend him (as Mary Sidney defended her brother when an unauthorized version of his sonnets was published in 1591), why not use it to get this work of one of Oxford’s most intensely creative periods out where it could be judged by posterity?  Over and over we see the confusion that resulted from spur of the moment decisions by Oxford and his team as they confronted issues arising from questions about his authorship that clashed with his personal drive to get them established through publication.

Two other works published over his name at around the same time also fall outside anything else Marlowe ever wrote.  The translation of Ovid’s Amores is nothing like his style as we know it from Tamburlaine, Faust, etc., and has the same problem as Hero and Leander in that it dwells on heterosexual love and desire, a subject either ignored in his plays or weakly portrayed.  Like Hero and Leander, the Amores was far too sexy to be published as by Shakespeare, and as far as the bishops were concerned, far too sexy to be published at all since they ordered both it and Hero and Leander burned that same year along with other troubling texts like the satires by Nashe and pseudo-Harvey.

As Waugaman points out, Shakespeare begins Venus and Adonis with a quote from the Amores.  At a time when the Bard was involved romantically with both a boy and a woman––the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady––it makes sense that he would turn to Ovid’s famous series that, much like Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, are a loose narration in verse depicting the course of a doomed affair.   Inevitably bits from his reading and translation find their way into the poetry he’s writing, poetry that develops the voice that we know today as Shakespeare.  Thus Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander were both written by Oxford during the brief period that he was writing sonnets to the still girlish Southampton in hopes of binding him to himself through marriage to his daughter.

The translation of Lucan published at the same time as the Amores and also attributed to the long-dead Marlowe, deserves a chapter of its own in any book on Marlowe or the authorship question.  Famous for the teasing dedication to Edward Blount by Thomas Thorpe, who would publish Shakepeare’s Sonnets ten years later with another peculiar dedication, termed by one commentator, a “dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders,” whatever else may be said of it, the style couldn’t be more different from that of Tamburlaine.

My scenario

As I’ve explained elsewhere,  the scenario that makes the most sense to me has Marlowe discovered at Cambridge by someone, perhaps Walsingham, who had family ties in Kent where Marlowe was born and raised.  As an undergraduate at Cambridge, his reputation as a poet and a scholar could have spread fast in the small world of 16th-century literature.  This took place during the period that I believe Walsingham and Oxford were recruiting writers for the propaganda push that Walsingham, with Oxford’s help, hoped would get the nation prepared to fight the Spanish.  McMillin and Maclean trace The Famous Victories of Henry V (later Henry V) to the Queen’s Men during this period, written on purpose to demonstrate to illiterate provincials how the English had succeeded in qwelling a serious threat from the Continent a century before.

Marlowe began his studies at Fisher’s Folly in 1584, just as Oxford was beginning to write for the recently formed Queen’s Men.  The periods when he was absent from Cambridge over the following years until 1587 jibe with the periods when the Folly group (later known to scholars as the University Wits) were preparing and producing new works for the London holiday season.  Thus the crossovers between Marlowe’s language and plays like The Contention between the Houses of York and Lancaster (revised for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as the Henry VI trilogy), and The True Tragedy (later revised as Richard III), plays that McMillin traces to the Queen’s Men, fit well within the period in question.

When Marlowe and actor Edward Alleyn defected from the Oxford/Burbage/Queen’s Men group in 1587 to produce Tamburlaine with Lord Strange’s company at the Rose, they were admonished by Greene (Oxford) and Nashe (Bacon) in Menaphon (1589), with Marlowe warned by Greene in Groatsworth to be careful (1592).   But Marlowe, on a roll, and urged on perhaps by patrons eager to curtail the Cecils’ rising power, was not deterred.  He continued to write one provocative play after another until the death of Walsingham in 1590 opened the door to Robert Cecil’s takeover of his office as Principal Secretary.  Absorbing Walsingham’s corps of spies and operatives into his own service, Cecil used some of them to rid the London Stage of Marlowe, and others to blacken his reputation so that no one cared that he was dead or how he got that way.  Now it was Robert Cecil who was on a roll.

It’s hard not to see Robert Cecil as the force behind the poisoning of Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange the following year, and the arrest, torture and execution of the influential Catholic poet Robert Southwell the year after that.  For personal reasons as well as political and religious, Cecil hated and feared the English Renaissance writing establishment and set out to destroy it as soon as he got his hands on Walsingham’s office.  These executions mark a turning point in the history of the English Literary Renaissance.  From then on the battle between the idealists and freethinkers and the ideologues and power politicos was deadly serious, threatening not only works of art, but their authors’ lives as well.

Once we begin to see this period in its true light, we will understand a good deal about Shakespeare and his fellow pseudonymous writers that at this time remains mysterious and confusing.

In short

The only possible scenario for the writing of Hero and Leander that fits the history of the period has the Cambridge undergraduate Christopher Marlowe studying playwriting with Oxford at Fisher’s Folly for periods of a few weeks to months from 1584 to 1587.  During this period the brilliant neophyte adopts with genius aptitude Oxford’s style as we know it from The Contention and The True Tragedy.  By making it his own in the superhit Tamburlaine, the Star Wars of its time, Marlowe forces his former tutor to come up with something new.  For a year or two in the early ’90s Oxford enjoyed parodying what was by then known as Marlowe’s style in the mouths of comic characters like Pistol or the suitors in Taming of the Shrew, something that helps to date at least one version of these plays, as it’s unlikely he would have found pleasure in satirizing his former rivals after their suspicious deaths in 1593 and ’94.

Following the publication of Hero and Leander in 1598 (or perhaps ’99), there must have arisen the suspicion that the poem was Shakespeare’s due to its similarity to the other two narrative poems for which he was famous.  This would explain Touchstone’s obscure reference to Marlowe in Act V of As You Like It (that repository of asides on the previous decade of literary history): “Dead shepherd now I find thy saw of might, whoever loved that loved not at first sight,” if not to establish for those who mattered that the overly sexual Hero and Leander was Marlowe’s, not his.  Why on earth would he bother to credit the least important, and least likely character in the play  if not for such a reason?  And why would the editors of the First Folio have left it in, if not for the same reason?

The origins of Hamlet

By 1559, the dawn of the Elizabethan era, nine-year-old Edward de Vere had probably already absorbed much of the philosophy of the English Reformation from one who had helped to create it, his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  He would have learned very early that Wittenberg in Germany was the ultimate Reformation university, the place where it all began.  He would have learned about Amleth, the Danish prince who went mad, or pretended to go mad, from his tutor’s copy of the Gesta Danorum  (Danish Histories), by Saxo Grammaticus, lodged on the shelves of Smith’s library at Hill Hall in Essex, just north of the forest of Waltham.

Smith may have introduced the future Great Lord Chamberlain to this bit of Danish history as an example of leadership gone awry, or the boy himself may have stumbled across the well-known tale in in his pursuit of some understanding of the class he was born into but with which he had never yet spent much time.  During what appears to have been a solitary childhood in the country near the Forest of Windsor, Oxford would have entertained himself as best he could with the books in his tutor’s library.  Through these he was introduced to the heroes and villains of English history, many of whom played a part in his own family history.  Besides these there were as well the heroes and villains of Roman history and, beyond them, the Greek and Trojan gods and warriors of Homer and Euripides, all available in his tutor’s library.  He spent hours with these heroes, brought to life by his imagination and his tutor’s recitation in Greek and Latin.

This life of solitary study came to an abrupt end with the death of his father when he was twelve.  Transferred to Cecil House in London, he was soon immersed in the hurly-burly of life at the center of a Renaissance Court.  Befriended by the young translators from the legal colleges that surrounded Cecil House, he fell quickly into the role of patron, and began using his education with Smith to do his share of translating and to create works of poetry and drama to entertain his friends, most of them older than himself by some six to ten years.  Following the rubrics of noble behavior as prescribed by Smith and ancient tradition, while promoting his friends, he kept his own authorship more or less a secret.

At some point during the nine years that Oxford spent as a ward of the Crown it would have come clear to him that his estates were being used, and abused, by the Queen’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester.  Because it was accepted policy that the Crown had the use of an underage peer’s estates, there wasn’t much he could do about it except wait until he turned twenty-one.  By then, with his mother and stepfather both dead and Leicester at the height of his power at Court, it seemed best to ignore this offense as water under the bridge, or at least pretend to do so.  Patronized by Leicester’s bitter enemy, the Earl of Sussex, Oxford rose rapidly at Court, due partly to his lordly largesse, which was getting him into financial trouble, and also no doubt to his wit and his talent for entertaining.

Then, just as he turned thirty, the bottom fell out.  Forced by his conscience and perhaps a sudden fear of potential consequences, he turned on his Catholic friends in the Howard circle, revealing before the members of the Queen’s Presence Chamber during the winter holidays of 1580/81 that he had been involved with them in some rather dangerous plotting against the regime.  The Queen forgave him (a mark of his popularity).  Then, when one of her maids gave birth to his child in her chamber in March 15, she went totally berserk, had the offenders, baby included, thrown in the Tower, where she left Oxford for two months, then banished him from Court.  Adding insult to injury, she found it expedient to sooth the offended members of the ruined maid’s family by raising their prospects at Court and turning a blind eye to their vicious attacks on milord and his men.

Oxford in the early 1580s

Released from the Tower in June, Oxford retreated to Fisher’s Folly, his manor just outside the City Wall in Bishopsgate, where, burning with rage and humiliation, he refused to continue to write for the Court.  Rejected by those who fawned on him during his days of glory, barred from most of the pastimes that had filled his life until then, and unable to travel about freely due to the danger of running into his lover’s relatives, he turned to the Stage to plead his case before the audience he trusted most, the lawyers and students of the Inns of Court.

A decade of creating Court entertainments, plus a year abroad observing the vital theater traditions of Italy, had honed his writing to the level of a skilled professional, far beyond what anyone else in England was capable of at that time, most still mired in the dull style of the “drab era.”  No longer bound to amuse the Queen with yet another witty comedy for the little boys, or another variation on the Petrarchan sonnet or Italian madrigal, he was finally free to write as he pleased.  The result was a barrage of serious plays for the adult actors.  Filled with the energy of an arrow finally loosed from a long-held bow, some of these were destined to evolve into masterpieces.

A good test to decide which of the Shakespeare plays originated at this time of intense creativity is whether and how it deals with the subject of treason.  Divorced from Court society, Oxford was in no position to defend himself in any other way against the charges being spread about by his cousin Henry Howard that he was a blackguard and a traitor.  As a form of special pleading, they were also a way for him to work through his questions about himself.  Was he a hero or a villain?  When he looked at his behavior from the point of view  of his patrons, he saw someone stupidly heading for disaster while from Howard’s point of view he was, if not a traitor to the Queen, then certainly a traitor to his friends.  Was he stupid or wicked?––neither was pleasant to consider.

Bored, used to writing, he turned to pen and ink, or rather to the secretaries who took his dictation.  Characters from his early reading returned to save him from his artistic and moral dilemma.  Historic figures like Richard II, Bolingbroke, Brutus, Coriolanus, and Amleth, recalled from his years with Smith, were brought back to life with his busy pen.  Also present was the brilliant mathematician and astrologer, Jerome Cardan, whose book about the death of his son, translated by his friend Thomas Bedingfield, Oxford had published in 1573.   Out of this mix came, more or less in chronological order, “The Play of Sir Thomas More,” The Spanish Tragedy, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Richard II, and Hamlet (among others).

He had been comparing himself to Richard II for some time, largely due to Richard’s reputation as a spendthrift.  The recent close call with treason awakened him to a further resemblance, the ease with which he had fallen into bad company.  That it was Oxford’s own predecessor, Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford, who was the villain of Richard’s story, the seducer who destroyed the nation by taking the King’s focus off his duties as monarch and onto his own villanous self, added weight.  Had he inherited some terrible weakness from this Earl?  Had it come to him though the fourteenth Earl––another lunatic spendthrift?  But how was a man to live up to his duties as a nobleman without spending money?

Oxford’s Coriolanus

Oxford now saw how Plutarch’s military hero could have ended up as a traitor.  (Smith had Plutarch in his library, in three languages!).  Furious at being treated dismissively by the Roman Senate (in Oxford’s case, the Queen and Burghley) the Roman general’s attraction to his enemy caused him to change sides.  In Oxford’s case, this was the already legendary military hero, Don John of Austria, who not all that long ago (1571) had achieved the victory of the age over the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto and for whom Oxford, writing in the early ’80s, still felt a young man’s admiration (Don John died in 1578).

Since Don John (thought by some to be the original of the many Don Juans of literature, due to his famed capacities as a lover) was the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the brother of Philip II of Spain, the English tended to downplay his abilities since, to them, he was a dangerous enemy.  In fact, it would have come to light right about the time that Oxford wrote the first version of Coriolanus that the Don had been involved in a conspiracy to conquer England and marry the Queen (reflecting his notion perhaps that no woman was capable of resisting him).

Oxford’s play ends with Coriolanus falling on his own sword, perhaps a demonstration of how ashamed he was of his flirtation with treason (though not ashamed enough to do it himself).  That it was written closer to 1583 than earlier can be seen by his effort to make amends with his in-laws, portraying Burghley as the upright Menenius, Anne Cecil as Virgilia––perhaps our best look at who she was, to Oxford anyway––and less admirably, her mother Mildred as the overbearing Volumnia.  ( It’s possible that Volumnia was actually based on Mildred’s even more overbearing sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, whom Oxford may already have come to know as an unfriendly neighbor of the little theater in Blackfriars.)  Based on its style, the version that we have of Coriolanus is probably an update from the early 1590s.  Apparently it wasn’t something he considered worth revising during his final period.

The masterpiece amongst these treason plays is Julius Caesar.  We have no earlier versions of Julius Caesar as we have of some of the plays from this period, but I feel certain (for a number of reasons) that the first version was written during this time when issues of treason were uppermost in his mind.  His personal identification would have been with Brutus––”the noblest Roman of them all”––without whose participation the conspiracy against Caesar must have collapsed.  Thus we see Oxford’s Brutus as one who conspires, not out personal ambition, but to defend the Republic  (England) against Caesar’s (Leicester’s) thirst for power.

Other characters are easily identified as his Catholic friends.  His Cassius, who had “a lean and hungry look; he reads too much; such men are dangerous,” is an obvious description of Henry Howard.  Lean certainly, hungry (for income and to have his family honor reinstated), and learnéd (he was the only nobleman in his time to be a fixture at one of the universities), Howard was even more dangerous to those he called brother or friend than he was to his enemies.  For the rest of it, Brutus’s fate is one that Oxford could easily imagine for himself, had he stuck with his cousin’s plot.

So who was Caesar in Oxford’s fantasy?  

The most likely target of conspiracies in her time was certainly the Queen; it’s also certain that the audience––the budding politicians at the Inns of Court––would see her as the potential target of a papist conspiracy.  However, I believe that the truth, known only at the very center of the inner circle of Court politics, was that the conspiracy at which the play hints was not about getting rid of the Queen, but about the planned assassination of the Earl of Leicester.

Henry Howard had good reason to hate the Earl of Leicester, whose father, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had done nothing to save Howard’s father, the poet Earl of Surrey, when Protector Somerset was railroading him to the block.  Also, as Howard and many others saw it, Leicester had assisted in the sting operation that in 1572 brought Howard’s older brother, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to the block, first by encouraging him to seek marriage to the Queen of Scots, then blowing the whistle on him to the Queen.  People like Howard liked to believe that Leicester had the Queen bewitched, so that if he were removed, the scales would fall from her eyes and she would begin to see things their way.

That Leicester was the target of the conspiracy revealed by Oxford makes more sense at this angle than any intended harm to the Queen, something that no one in England (but a few rabid papists) would tolerate, while few would mourn the loss of Leicester––or so we’re told by generations of historians following the Cecilian paper trail.  Killing Elizabeth would have meant removing a properly anointed monarch from a long-established position, while the death of Caesar was meant to prevent the creation of such a position, a situation much more comparable to the removal of Leicester, who many believed was looking to make himself king by marrying her.

There were at least two other plays from this period of the early 1580s that would be revised often enough over the years that they would rise to the level of masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, written (I believe) as a valentine to Ann Vavasor, once he realized that she still cared for him, and Hamlet Prince of Denmark.

Hamlet

There’s no need to go into the literature on Hamlet––no need and certainly nowhere near enough time or space.  That it’s the most revealing of all the plays of its author’s persona is widely accepted (however ignored by the advocates of the Stratford biography, for by no means can William’s background be stretched to connect with either characters or plot).  That this must be the so-called Ur-Hamlet, so called because 1589, when Nashe mentioned the play in Robert Greene’s Menaphon, is simply too early for most historians to credit it to Shakespeare, though some have done so anyway, so compelling is the evidence.

The Spanish Tragedy

In a reverse attribution of the sort that we see so often due to the late dating required by the Stratford biography, a number of important scholars have noted the similarities between Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy (later ascribed to Thomas Kyd) which suggests to them that Shakespeare was influenced by the Kyd play.

What’s far more likely is that The Spanish Tragedy was something of a dry run for Hamlet.  In a return to the style of Titus Andronicus, Oxford released his fury at the Court in this Senecan style bloodbath.  That Spanish Tragedy is earlier than even the earliest version of Hamlet seems evident in the fact that although the essential relationship in both plays is the bond between father and son, their roles are reversed.  Where in Hamlet it is the son who must avenge the father, in Spanish Tragedy it is the father who must avenge the son.  Thus Spanish Tragedy should date to sometime before the death of Sussex, Oxford’s patron and surrogate father,  in June of 1583.

Review: Peter Moore’s Lame Storyteller

This year the world of Oxfordian scholarship benefits by the publication of books by two of its most important scholars, Peter Moore and Richard Roe, both gone whence no traveller returns.  Roe’s long awaited Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy will be out sometime later this year, but Moore’s Lame Storyteller is available right now and I urge everyone who cares about the Authorship Question to get it while you can!  Get it, read it, and talk about it!  Whether your interest is to acquire a deeper understanding of some of the more knotty issues or to argue effectively with Stratfordians, Peter Moore is your man, for no one has ever put the argument more succinctly.  For instance: “The conventional biographies of the Bard that keep appearing, some of them written by professors, are best classified as fiction” (333).  You can’t say it better than that.

Or how about the

overly zealous professors of the school called the New Criticism (now obsolete), a powerful force in academia in the early and mid-twentieth century.  The New Criticism insists that a poem stands alone and must be examined without regard to any background––historical, cultural, or linguistic.  There is something to be said for this approach, if it is not carried to excess.  There is no reason why a Literature professor needs to to study the Battle of Balaclava in order to appreciate Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but we would surely be astonished if the professor heatedly insisted that there had been no such battle. (320)

Unlike most Shakespeareans (and Oxfordians) Moore’s arguments are largely based on history, proving, to me at least, that this is absolutely the most fruitful way to deal with the authorship question.  As a collection of self-contained articles, this is a book you can dip into whenever you’ve got a few minutes and that will never fail to leave you with something important to think about.  It offers solid nutrients for newcomers to the authorship question with heaping spoonfuls of Beluga for the generals.

At a certain point in the early 1990s, Moore realized that he was never going to get his Oxfordian research published in a mainstream journal, so he began submitting articles on points that reinforce the Oxfordian argument, but without mentioning Oxford.  He got a number of these published in Notes & Queries, The English Historical Review, and Cahiers Élizabéthians, among others.  The editor has divided these essays, putting those about Shakespeare (without reference to Oxford) together in the first half of the book, those about Oxford in the last half.

Alan Nelson’s stunning gullibility

Readers who were outraged by Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary will find solace here.  Lengthy and detailed, cool and deft, Moore gets to the heart of Nelson’s problem.  Following some (well-deserved) praise for the Berkeley prof for his generosity in providing us with so much important material in his book and on his website, plus an acknowlegement of his credentials: “readers should recognize an obvious professional” in his field (English Lit)––Moore strikes at the core of his weakness: “Unfortunately, Nelson cannot do history” (288).

This of course is nothing new.  We’re stuck with any number of English professors who, when it comes to the historical imperative, can’t tell chalk from cheese.  Just a little more training, just a little more respect for the broad view, just a little more help from the History Department, and the impossibility of a Stratfordian Shakespeare would surely have been apparent long since.  But sadly History Departments are as wary of literature as English Departments are of history.

Following closely through Nelson’s depiction of six episodes in Oxford’s life, Moore shows how the professor purposely (the better word might be uncontrollably) chooses the worst possible interpretation of the facts, sometimes to a ludicrous degree.  For starters he notes how Nelson takes seriously the reports that

Oxford copulated with a female spirit, saw the ghost of his mother and stepfather, and often conjured up Satan for conversations.  Nelson then explains in detail where, when and above all, how Oxford carried out these ungodly deeds.  Unfortunately Nelson neglects to inform his readers that Howard and Arundel listed these items among the outrageous lies regularly told by Oxford.  In other words, although neither Howard nor Arundel expected their contemporaries to believe that Oxford actually committed such acts, they failed to anticipate the stunning gullibility of Nelson. (289-90)

Moore follows this with Nelson’s notion that the poet Nathaniel Baxter would have had the insane gall in 1606 to “honor” Oxford’s daughter, by then the Countess of Montgomery, with a poem in which Baxter’s term “hopping Helena” refers to Oxford’s having acquired syphilis while in Italy (290-91), then hurrying back to England so he could infect her mother and her subsequent siblings.   The absurdity of this should be clear, but not to Nelson, whose hammer-like hatred of Oxford makes every fact look like a big fat nail.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Again and again, Nelson sides with Oxford’s enemies, however vile.  Dismissing both of Oxford’s most obvious efforts to get a military command as his own fault, Nelson ignores the influence of the Queen’s primary military leader, the Earl of Leicester.  Since Oxford must always be in the wrong, ipso facto, whoever opposes him must be nothing less than the soul of honorable duty.  That Leicester was Oxford’s rival for Elizabeth’s affections during the years that the elder Earl’s hopes of marrying her were at their height, is, of course, irrelevant.  History is clear on the subject of Leicester’s failings as a military leader, but hey, why bother with history?  Boring!

This is most obvious in Nelson’s frequent references to the efforts by Henry Howard, Charles Arundel, and Francis Southwell to destroy Oxford’s reputation in 1580-81.  To Nelson, that their testimonies were obviously driven by the need to save their own skins is simply beside the point, as is the fact that both were later found guilty of the very plotting that history clearly shows drove Oxford to accuse them.  Nelson would rather see it as Oxford’s “willingness to to betray his erstwhile friends” due to his “hatred and resentment of the whole Howard clan” (258).  Rather than use the hindsight of history to give a balanced view of what happened that December day in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, Nelson takes everything the plotters said as gospel, blandly relying on them as reliable sources throughout the rest of his book, even taking its title from a statement by Arundel, a rascal who fled the country shortly after to escape further charges of treason.

Although we are grateful for the documents and information Nelson provides, that mustn’t blind us to the fact that his purpose is not to do history, but only to reinforce his premise that Oxford was simply too wicked to be Shakespeare.  As Moore complains, with Nelson “the question of credibility never arises . . . .  The critical testimony of Francis Southwell does not appear, even in a footnote” (300).  That Southwell’s testimony is crucial to the truth, well, so what?  Nobody will notice, certainly not Nelson’s colleagues, who, equally lacking in historical fundamentals, are unlikely (unable?) to require anything more rigorous.   But Moore makes up for Nelson’s fault, providing us with the missing documentation, as well as the kind of historical perspective that lets us see clearly what Oxford’s accusers were up against.

Moore ends this section with what should be the most pertinent point of all, namely that, despite Oxford’s obvious failings: throwing away his family fortune, failing to “shoulder his share of local and national responsibilities,” and “fathering a child out of wedlock,” somehow he managed to retain both the Queen’s favor throughout her long lifetime and that of King James as well.  As Moore puts it:

How did the Queen react to Howard and Arundel’s accustaions that Oxford tried to murder her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, her vice Chamberlain and favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Worcester and all his household; Lord Windsor and all his household; as well as a string of other prominent courtiers, including Sir Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney, not to mention the accusations of buggery, atheism, sedition, disrespect to her own person, etc.? . . . . she refused to take action. . . . (299)

That both monarchs should have continued to support the monster––James referring to him at one point as “great Oxford”––might suggest something fundamental about the Earl’s character and how he was seen by at least some rather important members of his community.  But not, of course, by Nelson.

The Shakespeare Clinic

Another ongoing argument that gets Moore’s attention is the Claremont College word study by Elliot and Valenza that Ward Elliot keeps claiming proves Oxford could not have written the Shakespeare canon (282-87).  After a very helpful breakdown of the various tests involved––noting that Oxford actually matched Shakespeare on some of them––Moore explains in brief and simple terms, first: why these tests can’t be taken seriously as proving anything, and second: how, if read properly, they actually do more to point towards Oxford than away from him.

The most absurd tests are probably the three involving punctuation wherein E&V show their stunning ignorance of the history of publishing!  Elliot’s claim that “Shakespeare loved compound words” would be more truthful had he said that it was his typesetters who loved them.  But there’s no need to go into detail here; the article is available on the Elizabethan Review website where those who are focussed on this issue will find the kind of detail and clarity that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Misdating the plays

In “The Abysm of Time,” Moore delves into the dating question, swiftly making the most salient points.  Noting that the present scheme comes from the venerable E.K. Chambers (1930), he informs us that”virtually every post-1930 student of the dating issue agrees that Chambers’s dates are too late.”  Having listed an impressive array of dissenters, Moore offers the “astonishing” fact that although “nearly every authority who discusses the subject agrees that Chambers’ dates are too late, . . . yet those dates still stand. . . .  in short, Chambers dead is stronger than his successors alive” (156-7).   Why did the otherwise rigorous Chambers squeeze the plays into this unlikely timeframe and why do his successors, even those who see where he went wrong, continue to follow the same faulty scheme?  Because, however unlikely, they must conform to the narrow window of time allowed by the Stratford biography.  Chambers himself admits that he was forced to fit: “ this order of the plays into the time allowed by the the span of Shakespeare’s dramatic career” (I.253, qtd by Moore, 158).

Moore notes the four general errors made by Chambers in his construction of Shakespeare’s chronology (as summarized by E.A.G. Honigmann), 1) that he relied on Meres; 2) that he interpreted Henslowe’s “ne” as “new”; 3) that he treated flimsy earliest possible dates as firm evidence; and 4) that he assumed that Shakespeare improved other men’s plays.  Moore includes the interesting fact that Chambers himself was well aware that he was wrong on three of them (159).  When the timeframe is adjusted for these errors, the plays lose their current moorings, invariably drifting back into the 1580s where they part company with William, who, born in 1564, was far too young to have had anything to do with their creation.

Moore follows this with notes on another set of problems created by the late dating, the early plays that to anyone unencumbered by the Stratford bio, seem obviously to be early versions of Shakespeare’s history plays, among them The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York which later became 2 and 3 Henry VI;  The Troublesome Raigne that became King John; and Taming of a Shrew that became Taming of the Shrew.

Much Latin and more Greek

In 1994, Moore published a brief article in the SOS Newsletter that boils down the age-old argument over Shakespeare’s education into a single easily understood point.  Focussing on the two most important studies on the subject, T.W. Baldwin’s 2-volume tome on the English grammar school education and Sister Miriam Joseph’s detailed examination of his knowledge of rhetoric and logic, these

show that Shakespeare mastered Latin rhetoric and logic so fully that he could unobtrusively weave it throughout his English plays and poems.  More to the point, he did this with such art that it went unnoticed for over three centuries.  In other words, Shakepeare assimilated the educational equivalent of two years of university study, however and wherever he received it. . . . (218)

Considering the nonsense that has been written by certain modern Holofernes out to disprove Shakespeare’s education by showing where his Latin and his grasp of legal terms weren’t up to modern professional standards, I particularly appreciate Moore’s intelligent comment:

. . . all of us start forgetting the day we leave school––which of us could pass today the final exams of our first year in college?  Excellent though his memory may have been, I cannot see Shakespeare’s brain as a trap from which nothing ever escaped. (218)

Only a writer with the kind of education that we now know was given Oxford, one who acquired it through no effort or cost to himself, could have treated it as cavalierly as did Shakespeare, tossing off a half-remembered quote from Ovid or Homer as unself-consciously as a wealthy teenager in dirty jeans throws himself into his grandmother’s original Aubusson-upholstered Louis XIV armchair.

The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised

Moore’s title refers to Shakespeare’s view of himself as shown in the Sonnets.  That lame, poor and despised were not terms easily applied to William of Stratford has caused centuries of Shakespeare scholars to dismiss the Sonnets as romantic fantasies, once again ignoring history, this time the history of the sonnet.  A centuries-old vehicle for telling the truth, that is, the truth about a poet’s romantic feelings, for by tradition most poets hid the identity of their beloved and sometimes their own identities as well for  what should be obvious reasons.  If taken as history would suggest, the Sonnets were clearly written by someone suffering from feelings of low self-esteem, a picture that fits Oxford as he was in the early ’90s when it’s clear most of them were written.

His wife dead, no heir to his title, estranged from his daughters and his inlaws, in bad with the Garter Assembly, at rock bottom financially, Oxford could well have seen himself as poor and despised at this time. And as for lame, one of the better arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare, however subtle, is the athleticism of his early years.  Winning twice at the tilts, fencing, playing tennis, bowling, his dancing was such that the Queen once tried to use it to impress her foreign envoys––all of which suggests a physically active nature that fits the dramatic force of Shakespeare’s writing.  Carolyn Spurgeon makes action the keystone of his style, as most clearly revealed by his use of action verbs.

So the wound Oxford received from one of Knyvett’s retainers in 1582, though perhaps not so deep as a well, was probably enough to slow down what till then had been a very active lifestyle.  And although a lame leg would have been no deterrent to a man on horseback, perhaps it was during his short period in Holland as a commander of cavalry that he realized the full extent of his disability, for how was he to lead troops if ever he happened to lose his horse?  With walking, running, dancing no longer the safety valve they once had been, here was one more thing driving him to replace his dreams of military leadership with the desk, the pen, and the living stories of the Hotspurs of the past.

“Whose name one silent letter bounds”

An example of the riches offered by Moore is his condensed roundup of comments by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that point towards a hidden figure central to the early stages of the Elizabethan literary revolution:

A fair number of contemporary writers commented on Shakespeare, but only one did so in a way that implied he actually knew the man, that one being Ben Jonson.  Others spoke of him respectfully, but often strangely, in a way that would make sense if he were a nobleman who lost caste by association with the public stage.  What else are we to make of: “And though the stage doth stain pure gentle blood, yet generous [i.e., aristocractic] ye are in mind and mood”?

Edmund Spenser: “Pleasant Willy” in Tears of the Muses and Action in Colin Clout; Ben Jonson: revision of Sejanus and Epigram 77: “To one that desired me not to name him”; Thomas Edwards: the “center poet” in the prologue to Cephaus and Procris; Sir John Davies: Orchestra; and John Marston: a great writer “whose silent name/one letter bounds” in Sourge of Villanie; all mention some important writer who had to be referred to by a pseudonym or who could not be named at all.  (332)

Etcetera

Among the many issues he discusses, Moore offers important information on recent scholarship on the six signatures; interesting thoughts on Thomas Edwards and the identity of “Adon deafly masking thro” (224); important insights into the truth about the Peyton letter (239); and examples of what the term “ever-living” meant back then (241).  For those whose chief interest is the series of poems Moore calls “the ultimate fusion of intense emotion and poetical skill,” that “ought to form the centerpiece of any biography of their author” (18)––the editors provide four chapters from Moore’s as yet unpublished book on the Sonnets.

Moore provides important information about some of Oxford’s family situations, attributing the breakup of his marriage to the interference of his wife’s parents, including a close look at Ldy Burghley’s dictatorial interference with his household while he and Anne were staying at Wivenhoe early in their marriage (250).  Elsewhere he adds to our knowledge of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth Vere by going into detail not available elsewhere on the behavior of her insanely jealous husband, the Earl of Derby (252-8).

Personally

I feel it proper to note that, for me, Moore’s writing has been a godsend, strengthening my nerve on a number of issues that without the support of his viewpoint would have me out a limb, all by myself, shaking and quaking.  First, there’s his emphasis on history.  Second, the way his historically-based viewpoint led him to identify the Earl of Essex as the the Rival Poet of the Sonnets (simply put: Who else could it have been?).  Third, the importance of Shakespeare’s education (214).  Although he did not know of my work on Smith (or else did not choose to acknowledge it), everything he says about what Shakespeare knew is pertinent, notably his knowledge of Christian theology, in particular the Book of Common Prayer (47).  In several of his articles, Moore pushes the Shakespeare timeline back to the mid-1580s, not unique to either of us, but a cornerstone of my scenario.  He notes how both Anne Cecil and her daughter Elizabeth were tormented by slanderous rumor (253, 54, 57), a theme I see as central to the lives of all women at that time, including the nature and behavior of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, and Ann Vavasor.

This is not to say that we agree on everything.  Moore’s effectiveness as an anti-Stratfordian lies largely in his native conservatism; he simply can’t play fast and loose with the facts as the Stratfordians are so wont to do.  When confronted with a gaping anomaly, rather than ignore it as they do, or attempt to fill it, as I do, he simply notes it, leaving it where he finds it.  This means that he never questions the authorship or death of Robert Greene, which leaves him unable to get any further with Groatsworth than the idea that it was written by Henry Chettle.  He never questions the identity of Spenser, Nashe, or John Webster.  He doesn’t see that the Privy Council theater patrons of the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men had reasons for the cover-up that were just as strong as Oxford’s personal need to secure his children’s futures.  But these are minor issues when compared with the importance of his work as a whole.

I can’t possibly do more here than touch on a few of the points that mean the most to me, but what I can say to those who truly care about this issue is buy this book! When you buy Oxfordian scholarship of this calibre, you not only inform and entertain yourself, you suggest to the living authorship scholars (of which I am still one) that our work is valued, and that it’s worthwhile to keep at it.

Thanks are due to editor, Gary Goldstein, former editor of The Elizabethan Review, whose excellent introduction provides a background to Moore’s life and work, and to his diligent Oxfordian publisher, Uwe Laugwitz of Germany.  A nice, sturdily bound paperback (stitched rather than just glued), this is a well-produced book and one that should hold up through years of use.  My only suggestion would be that if it should ever require a second edition, an index would be most helpful.

Oxford and the Media

It’s always enlightening to examine the conditions that made possible great and lasting enterprises like democracy, the Olympic games, or the internet.  Today the so-called Fourth Estate of government, aka the Media, a vast enterprise encompassing many areas in both print and broadcast, takes as its standard the vox populi, “the voice of the people,” and as its sacred duty informing the millions about the world they live in and what goes on in the higher echelons of power.  Without the Media there would be no democracy, for it takes an informed people to properly govern themselves.

But back when it all began, neither of these, print nor broadcast, had any such purpose in mind.  Both began as little more than spinoffs from the first burst of Renaissance enthusiasm that was taking place at the Court of Queen Elizabeth (1560s to 80s) that was manifesting as entertainment: privately as translations of classical poetry and tales from Latin, French, and Italian, along with some original works masquerading as translations, passed from hand to hand in fair-copied manuscripts, and for the entire Court community, plays for holidays and events like important weddings and visits from foreign dignitaries.

In the late 1570s, several things occured that instigated a leap from the intimacy of the Court to the greatly expanded public arena, first among them the year spent in Italy by the Renaissance-minded Earl of Oxford.  By observing the bold and exciting public theater known as comedia dell’arte and in Venice, the Aldine Press that was driving the high end of the Italian Renaissance through elegant translations of the ancient classics, Oxford learned things that he brought back with him to England.

By 1575 he may have grown bored with the limitations imposed on anyone who entertained the Court.  Having grown up within the confines of what his Reformation tutor thought appropriate, then within what a Court run by an irritable and oversentitive female thought appropriate, the rowdy no-holds-barred enthusiasm of the Italian public audience, the freedom of their exchanges with the actors, offered new vistas for his developing talents.  Besides their tools, pen and paper for writers, brushes and canvas for painters, etc., all artists need an audience to write for, or create for, and all professional artists need one that goes beyond their friends and family members.  By twenty-five, our earl had reached the limits of what he could do to entertain his Court audience.  Bored, he was ready for new fields to conquer.

Within months of his return there were two commercial theaters going in London, and within two years was published the book that would revolutionize print, the novelistic Euphues, the story of a young nobleman’s romantic adventures in Italy published as by his secretary, John Lyly, and written in what the Italians called an alto stilo, a high style.  These were not the first of their kind, but they were the first to remain commercially viable, the theaters suffering if anything from being too popular while the novel would go into 20 editions before the turn of the century. Obviously there was more to the business of creating a successful theater and publishing a successful book than just the building or the printing––methods that Oxford was privy to during his year in Italy.

As the records show, as the 80s approached the ’90s more theaters got built and more books written and published, to a level that meant that two self-sustaining industries were born, what we call the Stage and the Press, both up to then having been little more than the playthings of amateurs. For this to happen a number of other situations had to be factored in, a public hungry for entertainment, politically powerful patrons who saw the advantage of a public forum, and a crew of writers who could create the kind of entertainment that drew them in.  The first was ready and waiting for Oxford’s plan; the second miraculously appeared when needed; while the third describes the crew he assembled at Fisher’s Folly, the one historians refer to as the University Wits.

Nor was it long before this newborn Fourth Estate moved from simple entertainment to the function for which it was destined, public discourse of important issues, with the not surprising result that the authorities quickly launched what would be a never ending battle to control it.  This is a matter of history.  What has escaped history is the extent to which the plays and books that masqueraded as nothing but entertainment during the 1580s and ’90s and beyond were meant to influence public discourse.  Every play, every tale, was chosen with an eye to how it related to some current event or personality.  The writers knew that’s what the audience wanted and what they expected, so they gave it to them, partly because they wanted to, and partly because it’s what sold.

The writers, actors, patrons, and printers during these years walked a fine line between simple story-telling and too openly revealing the editorials they wished to convey to audiences eager to hear and discuss them.  (It they didn’t, if they were too obvious, they suffered the fate of Christopher Marlowe, Ld Strange, and the producers of The Isle of Dogs.)  Book censors, distracted by the Italian names, beast fables, and unknown or unimportant authors, were also distracted by title pages and front material purposely framed to keep them from looking too closely at the text itself.  Plays were easier since speeches and scenes that were inappropriate at Court or other venues could simply be changed or dropped.  When the author and actors ran into trouble in 1580 from the newly appointed censor, Edmund Tilney, with regard to The Play of Sir Thomas More, they may have lost a good play, but they learned how to avoid such trouble from then on.

This is the story that has yet to be told, how the first steps towards functional democracy were taken by one of the most brilliant artists who ever lived, how those steps led to the birth of the modern Media, and how they were then erased by his enemies, along with his reputation.  As Hamlet prophesied, the rest has been “silence.”

The Real Authorship Question

The Authorship Question is a lot bigger than just who wrote the Shakespeare canon.  Bigger, wider, broader, and deeper.  The problem isn’t just who wrote the works of Shakespeare, it’s more like who wrote everything that qualifies as fiction during the English Literary Renaissance?  We have half a dozen genuine candidates for the role of Shakespeare, what about them?  They can’t all have been Shakespeare.

Forget about the group theory, that is, any idea that a group of writers worked together on the plays the way they do today on screenplays.  That’s nonsense.  No great and unique work of literature every got written that way.  That’s just as idiotic as the idea that Marlowe came back from the dead or that a 16th-century woman wrote Shakespeare.  Let’s be serious.

And what about the other writers who have biographies just as weak as William’s?  What about Robert Greene, whose later works sound so much like early Shakespeare, yet who has almost nothing in the way of a biography?  Why should we know so much about Ben Jonson and nothing about Greene, whose career was only a little shorter than Jonson’s?  What about Edmund Spenser who somehow managed to escape Marlowe’s fate despite his transparently anti-establishment beast fables?  Or Thomas Nashe, who simply vanished after the Isle of Dogs disaster, unlike his co-authors who both wound up in jail?

What about John Lyly, who despite the popularity of his plays and Euphues novels, never published or produced another thing for the last 18 years of his life?  Or Francis Bacon, who published nothing for the first 36 years of his life?  What about the playwright John Webster, who has absolutely nothing in his documented biography to suggest that he was anything but the son of a coachmaker?  What about George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, Thomas Kyd, and all the other authors with dodgy or nonexistent writer’s bios?  And this is only the merest glance at the true size and scope of a question in which Shakespeare’s role is only one small factor, however large it’s loomed over time.

Since it seems the English Lit folks won’t, or can’t, make sense of this, it’s time to have a go at it from the History side.  Fitting together personalities, biographies, dates and locations, I’ve pieced together a broad overview that explains this mess, one that fills in the gaping anomalies and creates a scenario that accounts for almost all the problems that the authorship scholars denote, be they Oxfordians, Stratfordians, Baconians, or Marlovians.

But first it’s necessary to understand why it happened the way it did.

The nature of the Reformation

It always boils down to terminology, to words.  Much as they avoided the truth about the 20 years of war that tore the English society apart in the 17th century by calling it, or part of it, The Interregum, English historians have sugar-coated what should be called the English Revolution by calling it the Reformation. Yes, it was the English version of the Reform movement that was sweeping northern Europe at that time, but it was also, perhaps even more so, a political revolution.  And although it didn’t reach the chaotic depths of the French or Russian Revolutions in later centuries, for those who were most at risk, it was just as devastating.

Hundreds of English families were torn apart, sons fled to the continent, parents imprisoned, their properties confiscated.  Hundreds were burnt at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, for the crime of wishing to pursue the religion of their fathers, or of attempting to create a new one with only minor differences from that chosen by the State, or for assisting friends and family members who were in trouble.

Church properties were given away, churches and other religious buildings were torn down, their stone used to build houses for the reformers and their friends.  Law were passed, taking away the rights and prerogatives of those who refused to join the revolution, penalizing them with heavy fines, rewarding those who turned them in to authorities, thus opening the way for blackguards to destroy their neighbors and take their properties through false accusations.  Where is there a difference here between what happened during the Elizabethan era and what happened in France and Russia and is still happening in places like Somalia, Burma, and East Timor?

What happens to important writers during times like these?  Consider the atmosphere in 1775 when the members of the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the witticisms that accompanied the signing of what many believed would be their death warrant.  Others who believed in the new nation refused to sign out of fear of British vengeance, of what it would do to their families were they to fail.  Consider the fates of writer Alexander Solzenitzen and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov during the Stalin years, of playwright Vaclav Hamel during the Russian attack on the Czech Republic, of Chinese writers under Chairman Mao.  Consider the fates of Rousseau, Ovid, Cicero, the list goes on.  Why would England during its great revolution be any different?

Revolutions make changes in many other arenas than politics or religion.  Consider how the French called each other “Citizen” during the Revolution, how the Russians called each other “Comrade”; how Stalin banned all art but the monumental worker style, or the Nazis burned the paintings of the “decadent” German expressionists, allowing only a cheap calendar style based on German folk sentiment; how they allowed only works by “Aryan” composers to be played at concerts.

When Oxford began writing, the atmosphere wasn’t all that different from the attitudes of the German “reformers” of the 1930s and ’40s towards anything but sentimental folk art.  Fear of self-expression is evident in the works of Reformation pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham.  The standards during Oxford’s youth were different, but they were equally low––C.S. Lewis calls it the “drab era.”  That Oxford used his status to create an opening for Renaissance ideals and ideas, not only for himself, but for other younger writers in whom he saw talent, is demonstrated in the prefaces he wrote for Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan.  He knew from early on that he would have to dissociate himself and his name from the works he published.  He simply had no choice.  And thank God he did, or the English we speak today would be a different language.

Oxford used an age-old trick, publishing his and others’ works (chiefly Bacon’s though perhaps others as well) as though by someone who was not in any position to know the persons they were satirizing or the issues they were addressing.  Those in a similar position who came after him used the same tactic, Bacon until the late 1590s and Mary Sidney until 1621.  There may have been others as well.  This continued for a relatively brief period, beginning with the earliest publications in the 1560s, and ending at about the time the First Folio was published.

Which is not to say that no one ever used this ruse again, or that no one during the period ever published under their own names.  However, once the pattern is revealed, it becomes clear that those writers who wrote creative, original fiction, poetry, plays, pamphlets, novellas, and who stood to suffer if their identities were known, used pseudonyms or the names of persons they paid to act as proxies.  Those who refused to conform, either to a style that the government would accept or to the use of phony names, were doomed to suffer, as witness Christopher Marlowe and to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson.

This, then, is the reason for the mares nest that is the literary history of the English Literary Renaissance, and nothing that the adherents of the Stratford story have to say will make a particle of sense until they begin to accept this as the background to the creation and publication of the works of Shakespeare, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and a dozen others with similar problems.

The smoking canon

We hear all the time from both sides that we have no firm proof of Oxford’s hand in Shakespeare’s plays, no “smoking guns.”  The fact is that we have dozens, scores, hundreds of perfectly acceptable facts, the kind that in a less controversial inquiry would never be questioned.  Some are more obvious than others, but when they’re all connected they provide a perfectly understandable picture of Oxford’s creation, not only of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, but of the London Stage and the English periodical press that bore them.   The problem is not finding answers, we have the answers, it’s getting the media to pay attention.  Hey, this guy created you!  Aren’t you curious?

Lacking direct evidence, we turn, as does every historian working earlier than printing, with proximity, timing, identification, anomalous absence or a combination of these.  Here are a few of our “smoking guns”:

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s metaphors reflect all the special interests of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, with whom he lived and studied from age four to twelve.  The Law, Greek and Latin literature, English history, horticulture, distilling, medicine, astrology/astronomy, falconry, have all been noted by scholars as areas in which Shakespeare showed an unusual level of knowledge.

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s primary sources reflect titles in Oxford’s tutor’s library list.  Even some of the more arcane sources are to be found there.

Proximity and identification: Half of Shakespeare’s plays take place in the towns in Italy that Oxford visited in 1575, a personal experience reflected in the numerous references to things that only someone who had been to those towns at that time could possibly have known.  (Oxfordian scholars have provided all the evidence for this that anyone could ever require; hopefully some day some of it will be available in hardback).

Proximity and timing: The London commercial Stage, the venue in which Shakespeare’s genius took form, was created within months of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576. It came to life in two locations, the small private indoor theater for the wealthy in the Liberty of Blackfriars, which Oxford must have known from his documented involvement in Court entertainments in the 1560s and early ’70s; and at Burbage’s big public theater, located on land still largely controlled by his companion from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland.

Proximity and timing: The innovative round wooden theater built by Burbage in Norton Folgate in 1576 was based on a design by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (as shown by mainstream scholar Frances Yates).  During Oxford’s childhood with Smith he was privy to a Latin edition of this ancient work that he could easily have researched again on his return from Italy.  In a visit to Siena he may even have seen such a round wooden theater in action, built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio as a dry run for his great marble indoor Teatro Olimpico, built a few years later on the same Vitruvian principles of sound amplification.  The Italians were immersed at the time in creating the most beautifully resonant wooden stringed instruments ever made.

Identification: Shakespeare’s plays reflect events in Oxford’s life, most notably seven that focus on a situation that reflects the breakup with his wife that took place on his return from Italy in 1576.  Pericles, Cymbeline, All’s Well, Much Ado, A Winter’s Tale, and Othello, all involve a villain who breaks up a marriage or engagement by suggesting to a highly suggestible man that his wife has been unfaithful.  There’s even a hint of this scenario in Measure for Measure (Angelo’s cruelty towards Mariana) and in Hamlet (his otherwise mysterious harassment of Ophelia).  In Oxford’s life this villain was his cousin, Ld Henry Howard.

Identification and anomalous absence: Several early history plays that are commonly regarded as sources for Shakespeare’s history plays, feature Oxford’s antecedents in speaking roles: The True Tragedy of Richard the Second features the 9th Earl, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth features the 11th, and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third features the 13th; all of them playing, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles they actually played in history. While rewriting these plays in the 1590s As Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III, the author kept the characters based on the ancestors of other well-born patrons of the London Stage like the Stanleys (Ld Strange’s Men, Derby’s Men), the Pembrokes (Pembroke’s Men), and Howards (Ld Admiral’s Men).  He eliminated all the speaking roles for the ancestors of only one of these patrons, the Earl of Oxford.

Proximity: After returning from Italy in 1576, Oxford left his former residences in the West End and Central London, moving north and east to Bishopsgate where he renovated a manor walking distance from all four of the commercial theaters then in operation in London, to the south, the two City theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes, to the north in Norton Folgate, Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre and the smaller Curtain.

Proximity and timing: By 1580, when Oxford set up housekeeping at Fisher’s Folly in the theater district of Shoreditch, he happened to be located one door from where 14-year-old Edward Alleyn lived and worked at his parent’s Inn, the Pye (later known as the Dolphin).  Later, as the lead in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Alleyn would become the first superstar of the London Stage.

Proximity, timing, and identification: In the 1580s, during his early years at Fisher’s Folly, Oxford’s secretaries included the authors of poetry, plays and novellas Anthony Munday (author of Zelauto, dedicated to Oxford), John Lyly (author of plays for Paul’s Boys), Thomas Watson (author of Hekatompathia, A Passionate Century of Love), and George Peele (author of The Arraignment of Paris) all known by historians as members of what they term the “University Wits.”  Other members of this group can be connected to the Fisher’s Folly group though less obviously, among them Thomas Lodge (author of Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It), Robert Greene (author of Pandosto, the source for The Winter’s Tale), Thomas Kyd (whose Spanish Tragedy has a close relation to Hamlet) and Christopher Marlowe, whose plays contain a number of shared tropes with Shakespeare.

Proximity and identification: All the other candidates for Shakespeare that one hears bruited about were individuals closely connected to Oxford in some way.  Francis Bacon was his cousin and his neighbor during his teen years; the Earl of Derby was his son-in-law; Mary Sidney was his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law; Emilia Bassano was his neighbor in her childhood and was raised and educated by his sister-in-law.  With Oxford as Shakespeare, all of these, most notably including Marlowe, can be even more closely connected.

Identification: The one identification that most mainstream scholars is that Ld Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet. They fail to mention that he was also Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, which suggests that his daughter, Oxford’s wife, was the model for Ophelia, that Queen Elizabeth was the model for Gertrude, and the Earl of Leicester was the model for the murderous Claudius.  Would you eager that everyone know that you had written something accusing one of the most powerful men in England of murdering a rival, or the Queen of complicity?  And these are only one example of other identifications of important Court figures that can easily be made if Oxford is seen as the author.

Timing and identification: The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they urge the “Fair Youth” to marry.  That the Fair Youth was the young Earl of Southampton has been agreed upon by enough scholars to accept it as fact.  These seventeen sonnets have been dated (by scholars unknown to each other) to the early 1590s at a time when the teenaged Southampton was being pressured by his guardian, Ld Burghley, to marry Oxford’s daughter.

Identification: Emilia Bassano, whose profile perfectly fits that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, grew up near Fisher’s Folly.  In her teens she lived with and was educated by the Countess of Kent, Oxford’s sister-in-law.  In her late teens and early twenties she was the mistress of Ld Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who founded The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company that grew rich on Shakespeare’s plays.  That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could also be seen as the company of the Lord Great Chamberlain is the kind of double meaning that Shakespeare was so fond of.  There are a number of contemporary documents in which the Lord Great Chamberlain is referred to simply as “the Lord Chamberlain.

All the world of London knew Oxford as the Lord Great Chamberlain, a title he was born to, one that represented 17 generations of support for the English Crown.  They knew he’d been the Queen’s ward, that he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, that he’d had the temerity to break off with his wife, Burghley’s daughter, and that he’d gotten one of the Queen’s maids of honor with child for which he’d been banished from the Court for three years.  All of London knew this about him.  So let’s consider how the Queen, Burghley, and the many other Court figures he portrayed, many in a less than kindly light, some as out and out villains, might have felt about all of London knowing that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain himself who, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra put it, had thus “boyed” them on stage for all the world to hiss or laugh at.

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

“Awfully decent of him”: Sobran reviews Shapiro

As defenses of the Stratford biography continue to arrive in bookstores in a mainstream effort to stem the tide of authorship inquiry, hyped by other academics and other left-brainers in online reviews, I can’t help but think I should join the debate.  I could get a review copy and add my two cents––so why don’t I?  For one thing, since I’m still mostly preaching to the choir here, I think it’s more useful to promote the Oxfordians who who can get their reviews published in mainstream journals.  I hardly have time to read the books stacked and waiting, books with the kind of information that’s truly useful, as more Stratfordian groupthink is not.

But basically, it’s just a matter of “been there done that.”  I’ve argued in private and in print with Ward Elliott and in public with Alan Nelson.  I went at it with the coneheads on SHAKSPER.  I watched Beauclerk debate Louis Marder and Stritmatter debate Terry Ross and have read David Kathman at length.  I finally realized that these folks aren’t being stubborn in the face of reality.  It’s not that they won’t see it, it’s that they can’t.

Most academics are herd animals, they follow the leader, usually the head of the English Department at their university.  If she tells them that William’s the man, it never occurs to them that she might be wrong (and if it does, he’s better off elsewhere, for there he’ll never prosper).  For over a century believing in William has been the English Lit ticket to preferment, to tenure, to getting published, to getting the juicy stuff, what there is of it.  It took 200 years before they would even allow the plays to be performed at Cambridge or Oxford, longer before they began teaching him.  They scoffed at the idea that there was anything of value in Shakespeare, like some scoff today at classes in film or popular music.

Academics are good with details, with focussing in on a small area and putting it in order, one reason why we have so much good material to work with.  But they’re no good at putting the bits together.  It seems never to occur to them to check how or if these chunks of scholarship fit together.  Not only can’t they see the forest for the trees, they don’t even know there’s a forest.  They’re good thinkers or they wouldn’t have gotten where they are, but they can’t think outside the box they were handed along with their diplomas.  Most of them have been inside the left-brain academic box since they were six years old and so they don’t even know there’s a great multi-dimensional world outside it.

Authorship scholars have a fully functioning right brain, which warns them when gaps appear in the record; academics don’t.  They can follow a trail of published facts, but if it takes them off into some empty wilderness it seems never to occur to them that something might be wrong.  Unable to imagine that anyone who knows the facts could be so blind, we accuse them of bad faith, but the truth is that, they simply can’t see the big picture.  Like the vain glamour girls in the days before contact lenses who refused to wear glasses, everything farther away than fifteen inches is a blur.  They refuse to talk about anything but the little facts they can see up close, not the big ones that are so obvious to anyone who bothers to dig a little deeper .

It never seems to strike them how very peculiar it is that we know so much about Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and so little (that makes sense) about their far more important contemporary.   We can track Marlowe from a childhood at the Canterbury School to teen years at Cambridge to his twenties at the Rose Theater and Tamburlaine to his death in Deptford.  We can track Jonson from the Westminster school to the lowlands army to acting, then writing, for the London companies, then to his long association with the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men and the Pembrokes.   In both of these the events of their lives, their known associations, and the plays they created all fit together like pieces of a puzzle to produce a believable scenario.  How is it that the academics  don’t see the difference between these two genuine stories and the Stratford fairy tale?

Nevertheless, although I can’t take the time myself, it’s still a delight to hear our side of the debate articulated by someone with the skills of Joe Sobran as in his recent review of Shapiro’s Contested Will.*  There’s no point in throwing facts at defenders of the Stratford faith, they bounce right off.  Why not take it easy on them, as Joe does with Shapiro.  After all, as should be clear, their time is coming to an end.  And we have much to thank them for.

*Many thanks to Sam Robrin for supplying the link to Sobran’s review.

Shakespeare for snobs?

I pay attention to the blogs that mention the authorship question.  Those that rail against or make fun of it have two points they make consistently (and only two, repeating, like parrots, what they’ve heard from others), that Oxford died before “some of Shakespeare’s plays were written,” and that we’re snobs to think that only a nobleman could have the education.  Well, the first isn’t true, if they’d bother to do some easy research (like read this blog), and the second is true, as they would know if any of them knew anything at all about 16th-century England or the facts, the genuine facts, about William of Stratford.

Shakespeare is so much a part of our lives, only those who spend a lot of time reading or hearing his words realize how often the words and phrases in newspaper headlines, television interviews, and ordinary conversation are his. Reach for a phrase to express the highest thought, and it will usually be his.   He was the great flower of the English Renaissance, and our language and thinking is still permeated with the perfume of his poetic thought. Steeped in the aphorisms of the Greeks and Romans, he turned them into English, beautiful English, the kind only a poet can craft, and made them accessible to those who speak English for as long as English is spoken.

This kind of immersion in the literature of ancient wisdom and the beauties of poetry and rhetoric can’t be picked up in books along the way, even today.   It arises out of high level dinner table conversation with adults steeped in the subject, out of continual application to books that are ready to hand, by stimulating conversation with others who know and love poetry, by hearing beautiful prose and poetry read aloud, and it has to begin early.   In Shakespeare’s case it began with the removal of little Edward de Vere to the home of the great Greek scholar and statesman, Sir Thomas Smith, in 1554, with whom he would study Greek and Latin literature and history and English history for 8 years.

Smith didn’t care for music, so it wasn’t until de Vere came to live with William Cecil in London and was involved in Court activities that he heard live music by professional musicians on a regular basis and acquired training in and keyboard and stringed instruments himself.   Since later he was acclaimed as having enough musical skill to be considered a professional, it may be that Shakepeare’s poetry was the product of one who was at heart a musician, who, as a child was not yet able to make music with instruments, so made it instead replacing the sounds of music with the sound of words, through rhymes, alliteration, and meter.

In his dedication to Shakespeare’s Collected Works, Ben Jonson compared Shakespeare to a smith who must sweat to work the metal at white heat, hammering it into shape.   Those who take the craft of writing seriously know that it takes hours of thought to create prose that’s pleasing to both mind and ear, and although great poetry is sometimes born all of a piece (as was Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening or Coleridge’s Kubla Khan), it can only come from a mind continually steeped in poetic thought.

If there’s one thing that unites the Stratfordians who call us snobs (besides their ignorance), it’s their prejudice against aristocrats.   If it turned out that Shakespeare was a black African, would they call us anti-white?   Do they have some image of Bertie Wooster in mind, helpless without Jeeves?   What about the great aristocrats?  Henry V?  Or Oxford’s own ancestor, the 13th Earl, patron of the arts, the indefatigable warrior who survived an ignominious defeat, the execution of his heir, and imprisonment for ten years to defeat Richard III in battle, handing over the English throne to the Tudors?   What about Lord Byron, the immensely popular poet who sacrificed his life for the cause of Greek freedom?   What about Alexander the Great, son of King Philip of Macedon, who brought Greek civilization to half the world?  What about the painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?  What about Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha?

Oxford was only half aristocrat, anyway.  Although it’s true that his father was the direct descendant of a Norman aristocrat dubbed Earl by William the Conqueror, his mother was simple entry, while Smith, his surrogate father, was the son of a local farmer.   As an artist, Oxford was, in many ways, an outcast from his own tribe who preferred the company of other artists to members of his own class.   There are more reasons than one why his identity as Shakespeare was hidden, but surely the major reason was the way he portayed his aristocratic friends and relatives as characters in his plays, some with cruel satire.  He could satirize them because he knew them! And because they knew it, they would not, could not, allow his identity to be revealed.  Did this “torture” him, as some Oxfordians have held?  It may have caused him moments of frustration, but given the choice between continuing to write, or not, he chose to continue writing.

There was another potentially great poet, one from Oxford’s own class (though on a lower level) who, seeing what it meant to get a reputation as a poet, did choose to stop writing, or at least, to stop using his own name: Thomas Sackville, Ld Buckhurst.  His was the first voice that had anything like the sound that would later transform the language.  He wrote several of the scenes in the first modern play, Gorboduc, produced at Court in 1561, a year before de Vere came to London.  Had Sackville continued, it might have been he who won the glories reserved for Shakespeare (the Poet), but Sackville retired from the poetry arena early, explaining in a poem, Sackville’s Old Age, that such toys were not for him.  Did this have anything to do with Elizabeth’s willingness to promote him, lavishing him with promotions and perquisites that ended by raising him, as the Earl of Dorset, to Oxford’s level, allowing (some might say forcing) Oxford to slide into bankruptcy, giving him almost nothing he ever asked for?

Did the Lord Chamberlain’s Men choose to hide their playwright’s identity behind someone else’s name have anything to do with the fact that only months earlier the only other playwright close to his level, Christopher Marlowe, had been assassinated by government agents?

What do you think?

The Authorship: the Big Picture

What are we to think about Shakespeare?  Is he who he said he was, who Ben Jonson and the academics say he was, or was he someone else?  Have we been diddled by Jonson all these centuries, and if so, why?  And does it really matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but then what does?  Does it matter who won Olympic gold this year, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court?  How many people care about these things?  What percentage of the population gives a damn about almost any question you can think of, including who killed Jack Kennedy?

It’s said that when George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there”––actually another authorship question since some think that a journalist made it up, but no matter who actually said it, it’s a good answer and it works for Shakespeare too.  For Shakespeare looms as large in the history of English letters as Everest looms on the Himalayan horizon.  Why do we want to know  the answer to the question of who actually created the language we speak?   Because it’s there.

Why “the big picture”?

If we knew who wrote the works we wouldn’t need anything but a little background along the edges, but not knowing, not knowing for sure, we must go to the background, for the truth leaves clues wherever it occurs.  As I got deeper into the story it began to expand, from the works themselves to the life of the supposed author to the lives of other English authors and their works, both those with writer’s biographies and those without, to the lives of the patrons and of the Queen they served, their politics, alliances, relationships and beliefs.

It spread to the story of the Continental poets and playwrights, to the history of the Reformation and beyond that of the European Renaissance.  From the works it spread to their sources (which, it turned out, were often in languages other than English), to the kind of education available to the writers, to the ancient and Continental works that inspired them,  and on to the realities of literature itself, how it gets created and by what kind of artist.  And finally to questions of freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise.  A big picture indeed.

Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary.  Not only will the big picture bring illumination to the history of the period, it may help to bring understanding to something that’s in danger of being lost, the important and true purposes of Art, the nature of artists––as different from other human creatures as are butterflies from bees.

To put it as simply as possible, Shakespeare’s identity got hidden because he was so closely involved with the history of his time and with its movers and shakers, those in a position to hide the things they wanted hidden, that his identity became one of those things.

Deconstructing Sonnet 107

My friend Hank Whittemore, with whom I differ on several key points, has asked about my take on the problematic Sonnet 107.

Over the four centuries that English speakers have been discussing Shakespeare, there have been many battles over the Sonnets, who they were written for, when they were written, and whether or not they were about something real or were just a literary exercise.  Although beautiful and important, I’ve tended to steer clear of discussing them partly because they’re so short on facts that nothing can be proven and, largely for that reason, because they’ve given rise to so many bizarre interpretations.

Then in 1999 I found myself preparing for an SOS Society conference where the Sonnets were a focal point, so I devoted several weeks to reading everything I could find on the subject going back to the 19th century. (An article I wrote later expanding on that lecture, The Story of the Sonnets, provides a good deal more detail for those who are interested.  There’s also a  Sonnets bibliography with comments on the books I found of most interest.)

Traditions of sonnet cycles

Some years ago I got into a fight with the usual coneheads on Hardy Cook’s listserv,  who eagerly pounced on my statement that the best writing comes from experience,  from enduring the emotions and insights that come from Life itself.  Isn’t this what Keats means with “truth is beauty, beauty truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know”?  Keats was speaking to fellow artists and philosophers, of course––who else bothers about the relationship between Truth and Beauty?  Certainly not the coneheads that were dominating SHAKSPER.

Believing that most if not all the plays (the good ones) were written out of Oxford’s own experiences and emotions, of course I believe that the Sonnets were as well; that is, they were written at a time when he was going through experiences like those described in the Sonnets. That others in like case over the centuries have found solace in Shakespeare’s Sonnets attests to their power, a power that comes from how accurately, and with a thousand subtle details, they describe experiences common to many readers, which is, of course, why they’ve remained in print for centuries, and why we need to look to common experiences for reasons why he wrote them.

It was Petrarch who introduced sonnets to the West.  My guess is that like other sweets: stringed instruments, perfume, sugar, and Courtly Love, they originated in Persia (Iran), migrating to Italy via the cultural transfer from the Middle East to Venice in the 14th century.  Traditionally a sonnet cycle is a narrative of sorts, describing day by day, hour by hour, verse by verse, the progress of a passion from its dizzying enception to its final spasm.  We call these sonnets love poems in English, but the term the Elizabethans preferred was passion.

Love is too limiting a term for an experience that contains so many feelings, some anything but sweet––loneliness, loss, jealousy, envy, hurt feelings, remorse, disgust, even hate.  Poems written after the things they describe are over differ from those written as they happen.  Sonnet cycles, when they are genuine, are like raw footage, unedited, pungent, detailed, revealing themes through a process of repetition and insight  that’s closer to life itself than the reflection of life we call memoirs.

It’s part of the tradition of the sonnet cycle that the poet doesn’t reveal the true identity of the beloved.  An offshoot of the Courtly Love tradition, Petrarchan sonnets echo the yearning of a chivalrous knight for the beautiful but chaste wife of his lord.  Bound to him by oaths of fealty, this Courtly Love trope adds a further bond between lord and vassal, whose sacred passion for the lady can never fade because it’s never fulfilled; (the role the Virgin Queen demanded from her favorites).  Such poems are proofs of that love (“oblations, poor but free”), but only the lady herself is to know who is meant by “Stella,” or “Diana,” or “Phillis,” or “Caelica.”  For the Poet to let slip anything that reveals the source of his passion is to betray his Muse, another kind of romantic pose, but still one of great artistic authority by Oxford’s time.

And because, as a narrative in verse, a sonnet cycle is meant to follow such a passion as it unfolds, I believe that, following Oxford’s death, those published his sonnets saw to it that (for the most part) they were published in the order he intended.  Whoever had control of Oxford’s literary estate would have had great respect for it as literature.  Notions that when he died he was careless about leaving his papers where just anyone, including family members who cared more about their image than they did literature, might have gotten hold of them, shows a lack of understanding of how great artists feel about their work.  Having promised that he was going to leave a portrait of the Fair Youth for posterity to admire, he would certainly not have played fast and loose with their vehicle.  Whoever got his papers also got strict instructions on what to do with them.  This is simply common sense.

Oxford may have given up on Southampton himself (all passions must come to some kind of end), but he would never have given up on the poems that his love for him brought forth.  As he says in his farewell Sonnet, #126, Nature who has been so kind to Southampton, allowing him to keep his good looks well into his maturity, will have to cash him in sooner or later: “She may detain, but still not keep her treasure;/ Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,/ And her quietus is to render thee.”  In time the Fair Youth will cease to be both a youth and fair, but, as their author well knows, if properly published, the love poems he inspired will never lose either their beauty or their truth.

A great deal has been made of the fact that Shakespeare’s muse was a boy, not a lady.  To the shame-based society that the Reformation made of the English, that’s been an awful shocker.  However, if we pay attention to the poems it seems clear that the Poet’s desire is less sexual than emotional, the desire of a man for a son (Oxford was without an heir when he began writing them), and most important to an artist, for a muse whose charisma is potent enough to inspire his art.  Unfulfilled desire is the force that keeps it going.  It’s the number one Rule of Romance: fulfill the desire and the magic ends.  The question here being, desire for what?  My answer: a son-in-law whom he could love as though he were his own and, not least, a theater patron with solid credit.

Dating the sonnets

Back in 1999, I spent a good deal of time back seeking genuine scholarship on the dating of the Sonnets. I finally found it in a book titled Elizabethan Sonnet Themes and the Dating of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (AMS 1962, 1973). The author, Claes Schaar (writing for a Danish press, and so less constrained by hometown anxieties over identities), sticks strictly to the protocols of literary dating.  Basing his conclusions on the work of two scholars, one a German (pub 1884), the other an American (pub 1916) who apparently had no knowledge of his German predecessor (190).  Since these groundbreakers there have been others, all with similar results.

Ignoring the Stratford biography or any consideration of who the principles might have been, by comparing the language to that of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the only works by Shakespeare whose dates are solid, they place most or all of the Sonnets somewhere in the early 1590s: “. . . the vast majority of the sonnets we have examined seem thus to have been written between 1591-92 and 1594-95” (Shaar 185).  Their findings are corroborated by other scholars replicating their efforts, one being G.P.V. Akrigg, Southampton’s biographer, who gives an impressive list of scholars who agree that their language also places them close to the Folio versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, which have been dated, by topical references and by language similarities to the two dated narrative poems, in the early 1590s (203).

Sonnet 107

All of this is by way of introducing Sonnet 107, which, although not considered one of his greatest, has probably caused the most discussion since it alone seems bent on revealing everything that he was so careful to hide in the other 125.  Not only does it go out of its way to identify the Fair Youth as the Earl of Southampton and to locate him, and by extension the surrounding sonnets, to 1603 when he was released from the Tower by King James, it’s also written in a different style.

As Schaar explains, most of the sonnets were written close in time, one after another.  Schaar et al see two bursts: 1591-92, and 1594-95.   These dates fit perfectly with what we know of Southampton, who really was a boy, that is, a teenager, in the early 1590s.  This scenario fits the first 17, the so-called marriage or procreation sonnets, with a known event, Burghley’s effort to get Southampton married to Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere.  In fact, the entire cycle fits perfectly with the biographies of Oxford (the Poet), Southampton (the Fair Youth), Essex (the Rival Poet) and Emilia Bassano (the Dark Lady).

All but a very few of the sonnets, including those that come just before and just after 107, are end-stopped throughout, that is, the expression of each thought is compressed into a phrase that pauses at the end of a line.  There are a very few (I counted four) in which enjambment  carries the thought  over from the first to the second line, though the basic iambic rhythm remains.  This style is one of the things that places the Sonnets early in Shakespeare’s career, as later he became much more relaxed about meter and enjambment.

But in 107 the opening expression ranges across not just two, or even three, but the entire first four lines!  Most unusually, the iambic rhythm is gone from those lines!  It’s a good strong poem, but located as it is surrounded by sonnets of a diffrent style, it sounds like someone else wrote it.  Frankly, it sounds like John Donne.  I’m not saying he wrote it, but that’s who it sounds like. So there are two big things that make this poem stand out in contrast to the rest of the sonnets, a violation of the tradition of secrecy, and also of a pattern adhered to throughout the entire rest of the cycle.

Cherchez le editor

My guess is that whoever published the poems inserted 107 for the very reason that it’s assumed such importance today, because it identifies the Fair Youth and it also locates the cycle at a particular point in time.  Since the author took obvious pains not to identify persons or events, this would have to have been done by the editor who prepared them for publication, and who probably was in harmony with the publisher.

I can’t say for certain who might have been Oxford’s literary executor, but a very good candidate would be William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who, by 1603, when Oxford was approaching the end of his life, was better-situated than anyone else to protect the poet’s valuable papers from those who might be anxious to see them disappear.  And who better to prepare them for the press than Pembroke’s own mother, Mary Sidney, who was probably already preparing another elegant edition of her brother’s works.  This scenario also helps to identify the Sonnets’ dedicatee, the mysterious “Master W.H.”

Why would the Pembrokes wish to make clear what Shakespeare had left ambiguous?

I can’t answer that, but I can point to something similar that occured in 1598 with the third edition of Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, edited and published by Mary, in which she included his sonnet cycle of the 1580s, Astrophil and Stella. She also included, for the first time, a sonnet that hadn’t been in any previous edition or in any of the manuscript versions that predated their publication in print back in 1591.  This sonnet, numbered 37, is the one that identifies Stella as Penelope Devereux.

It’s often assumed that #37 was left out of the cycle at first because it identified Stella, though that doesn’t explain why it then became necessary to make the identification.  True, by 1598 Penelope, though married, was openly living with her lover, Sir Charles Blount, Ld Mountjoy, so by then she had little reputation left to lose.  Even so, why stir the pot?  Could it be to direct suspicion away from Mary, who was suffering from the ususal rumors that followed women of celebrity, in her case that she and Philip had been lovers, that Stella was Mary, and that her brother was her son’s true father (Aubrey, Brief Lives, 140)?

That Mary (and her sons) might want to direct suspicion away from herself as the object of what could be seen as a shameful incestuous passion on Philip’s part would be altogether understandable, or that Penelope Devereux, already into her scandalous relationship with Mountjoy, would be willing to let her name be used to protect Mary  (Sidney makes it clear that the lust was all on his side, that Stella remained pure) is not only the stuff of romance, it’s the stuff of real life, that is, the real lives of romantic poets, who tend to take big emotional risks, much as astronauts, firemen and bullfighters take physical risks.

There was a close bond between the Devereux siblings and the Sidneys.  Philip and Mary were the children of Mary Dudley, sister of the Earl of Leicester.  Throughout the years while Leicester was hoping to marry Queen Elizabeth, Philip played the role of his uncle’s heir.  When Leicester finally gave up and married Lettice Knollys, widow of the 2nd Earl of Essex and mother of Robert and Penelope, Philip was forced to pass on the role of his uncle’s heir to Robert Devereux,Leicester’s new stepson.  As Philip lay dying of wounds in 1586 (suffered under his uncle’s command), he honored this rather mystical bond by ceremoniously handing on his sword to Essex, a bond that Essex then honored by marrying Philip’s widow.  (It was this sort of chivalrous behavior that made his friends love Essex.)  This bond between Essex and the saintly Philip then extended to their sisters, Mary Sidney and Penelope Devereux.

Why Oxford wrote the Sonnets

There was nothing improper about the way it started.  A marriage deal was in the works to unite his daughter and Burghley’s ward, the young Earl of Southampton, so the first 17 sonnets were written in the kind of passionate terms that fathers of marriagable daughters did back then.  (See Burghley’s wooing of the saintly Philip in letters to Sir Henry Sidney.)  Not every father could put such sentiments into verse, but as with all such social conventions, those who could certainly would.  So that’s all that was at stake with the first group, known as the marriage or procreation sonnets, in which he simply urges the youth to marry, coyly playing on his teenage narcissism.  That there were 17 in the first group suggests that they were nicely copied and bound as a gift for Southampton on his 17th birthday, Oct. 6, 1590.

With the 18th sonnet the tone changes abruptly.  What was fatherly affection fast becomes something much more personal and intimate.  So what happened?

When Oxford met Southampton, probably after the gift of the sonnets brought them together, he was at what may have been the lowest point in his life.  Now in his 40s, suddenly feeling “beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” the boy must have represented all the things that he felt he’d lost or never had: his own vanishing youth, the son and heir he never had, the beloved friend he lost “in death’s dark night” when Rutland died in 1587, and not least, the angel he so desperately needed to continue to stage plays.

To the 17-year-old youth, Oxford may have seemed what he too had lost or maybe never had, a loving father, and one besides with the kind of access to backstage at the theater that teenagers dream of.  Teenagers need love and will respond to it wherever they find it.  Had this occured when Oxford was not at such loose ends the moment might have passed, but things being what they were, it threw him for a loop, as they say, and as was his habit, he turned for solace to pen and ink.

My guess is that at some point, for Oxford the passion became less about Southampton and more about the poetry.  My God, this was it!  This was what he’d been striving for!  This was what Sidney meant so long ago when he began his own sonnet cycle by quoting his Muse: “Fool, look in thy heart and write!”  The exhilaration, the loneliness, the jealousy, the empty hours, all were grist for his poet’s mill.  The original emotion became less important than how to express it.

The passion passed, as all things must, but like a beautiful shell on a beach after a great wave rushes back to sea, it left something precious in its wake, the language of Shakespeare.  For it was in the crucible of his love for Southampton and the combined happiness and pain it brought him, that he found the voice he’d been seeking through all the years of translating and listening and experimenting, the language we speak today, the language of modern English.

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A different take on Sonnet 107 can be found in an article by Eric Miller, a poet and independent scholar from California, published in The Oxfordian, vol 9, 2005.

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