It’s clear that Jonson admired Shakespeare immensely. Despite the traces of envy in things he said about him to Drummond or wrote in his notebooks, Jonson was a man of taste and intelligence, who, as an excellent writer himself, could not help but be awed by Shakespeare’s talent. Although clever and highly educated, Jonson did not often display genuine eloquence, yet here, inspired perhaps by a deepening awareness of his great rival’s accomplishment, when he speaks about him he comes close to the language of the Bard himself.
In a dedicatory ode intended to introduce to an eager and adoring public Shakespeare’s works in print, the strangely negative tone of the opening lines is usually ignored, probably because there’s no explanation for it. Why should anyone think that Jonson would or could “draw envy” to Shakespeare by mentioning his work and his reputation in print? What dark element is there that Jonson must address before he can begin to sing his hero’s praises? If he felt so strongly about Shakespeare and, despite the dangers he outlines at the start, is willing to express it in print, we can be certain that he is also expressing feelings he shared with the men and women who sponsored the true author, who protected his identity during his life, and promoted the publication of his works after his death.
That it took so long to produce the First Folio is testimony to the difficulties that this group faced. Anyone who has ever been involved with getting the rights to a body of work of an important writer so that a complete works can be published (or has followed such a situation, or read about it) will understand what difficulties must have been involved in organizing the publication of the First Folio, particularly if, as we believe, the Authorship Question was causing problems for both Oxford’s friends and his enemies, as it had been in varying degrees since the 1580s.
What are the difficulties that Jonson treats of at the beginning? He’s not exactly being transparent here, which suggests that this part was written for those who knew what he was talking about. That he begins with it suggests that he thought it was important. Or could the tone be due to his public role as chief cynic, so that he felt it necessary to stick to his trademark attitude, at least as an opener?
“To draw no envy on thy name”
What does Jonson mean when he states that he wishes to “draw no envy” on Shakespeare’s name? Envy was a word used a lot in the 16th century. Apparently a great many people were afraid of the trouble that could be caused by the malice of persons who envy others, who want what they have, something primitive societies envision as “the evil eye.” Since Jonson’s literary community was well past the primitive stage, why envy should seem so dangerous is hard to understand, unless, of course, because it was much easier to get away with dirty tricks, even murder, then than it is now. Since Shakespeare had long been dead, or at least quiet, by 1623, one would think he was beyond the reach of envy.
In any case, once past these initial snarls, Jonson finally gets down to the business of lauding the man whose book he is introducing, who in another context has claimed he loved “next idolatry” (Drummond/Dutton).
Much of what Jonson says in praise of Shakespeare is transparent and needs no interpreting. There are however two lies, untruths, false clues, “glancings,” that he felt it necessary (or was required) to weave into the fabric of his poem in order to shift attention from the true author to William of Stratford.
“Thou art a monument without a tomb”
However ambiguous elsewhere, Jonson was clear enough when he wrote: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room; Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s message throughout this verse and the next is that the book he’s introducing, the First Folio, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs. It seems the author is to have no monument, which is of course untrue of William, who seven years earlier had been buried under the floor of Trinity Church in Stratford under a slab of stone noteworthy for the unfortunate bit of doggeral verse carved into it.
The tradition of burying writers in the floor of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey began in 1599 with the burial of Edmund Spenser on a site probably chosen because Chaucer’s monument, the greatest poet of earlier times, was located nearby. Seven years later the tradition was amplified when a third writer was buried nearby, playwright Francis Beaumont. Still, it seems a bit raw to use his Ode to openly deny the Star of Poets his spot in Poet’s Corner. Why make a point of it?
Two thoughts seem appropriate here. First, following Beaumont’s funeral there may have been a movement to have Shakespeare buried in Poet’s Corner. Why not bury the great one in London’s most prestigious cemetary, where those who admired him could come to honor him without having to take the long trip to Stratford? Surely Shakespeare deserved no less.
Here’s another clue that William wasn’t the author, for had he been, there would have been no reason whatsoever to deny him a place in Poet’s Corner. Jonson’s explanation, that Shakespeare was so great that he needs no such recognition, is about as weak as it gets. It’s also worth noting that Jonson claims he has no tomb and no monument (other than the First Folio). William died in 1616. Seven years later, was the stone with its doggerel platitude not yet laid in the floor of the Trinity Church? Was the Stratford monument not yet in place? If not, then what did he mean by “thy Stratford moniment”? If they were, was he unaware of it? Or was he covering up the truth?
Jonson may simply be using a very old trick in the art of disinformation, namely conveying important information by stating it as a denial. Jonson’s biographer, Richard Dutton, in his chapter on Jonson’s “glancings,” notes that this was one of his favorite tricks. The fact that the authorities repeatedly accused Jonson of doing what he denies is not proof, but it must evoke suspicion. The fact that Jonson so consistently denies it proves nothing either; obviously he was not going to admit it. It is, however possible to construe the denials in the end as protesting too much: in effect, . . drawing attention to something in the writing by publicly insisting that it is not there.” (141).
Jonson may be telling those concerned with Shakespeare’s final resting place that if they want to honor him, they can do so by standing on a spot in the Abbey midway between the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont. Those who cared about the true author and his legacy were people with great influence who could easily have arranged for a funeral ceremony in the Abbey at night, when it was closed to the public. Whether or not Beaumont’s coffin had to be moved matters little; Jonson’s purpose was to point to the spot where Shakespeare lay, beneath the paving stones of the Chapel floor.
Chaucer’s monument was then, as it is today, an upright structure standing on the floor against the wall, but the tombs of Spenser and Beaumont were simply plaques with their names set into the floor, as are so many tombs in the Abbey and in Poet’s Corner. Unfortunately, there’s no telling today exactly where they were then, since plaques from many eras now lie edge to edge beside each other covering the entire area.
What is most probable is that he lies beneath the statue that was placed in the Abbey by the patron who acquired his name in the mid-18th century, the First Earl of Oxford by the Second Creation, whose manor of Welbeck had become the repository of books, paintings, and probably much else as the peers of that period sold or lost their valuables through gambling and as collateral for unpaid loans. The Statue and its meaning to an ever shrinking community of insiders, was created by members of the Grand Lodge of Masons to answer to a higher deity than the gaping and ignorant public.
“But though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”
As we have seen, this line of Jonson’s is what set orthodox Shakespeare studies on the wild goose chase from which they have never returned. Why did Jonson lie about Shakespeare’s erudition and how did he manage to get away with it? How did the obvious knowledge of Plautus, Terence, Euripides, Ariosto, etc., (often in the original language) that Shakespeare reveals in his many neologisms escape Jonson’s readers (those at least who expressed opinions in print) and all orthodox scholars since?
Shakespeare was circumspect about his learning. Unlike Jonson, who liked to parade his education, Shakespeare’s characters tend to reveal the erudition of their creator obliquely, sometimes by satirizing it as the confused versions that live in the minds of lesser intellects who had learning beaten into them by their grammar school teachers. Like himself, his more advanced characters often reveal their learning through metaphors and descriptive phrases that will be only partly understood without an educated awareness of their roots in Greek, Latin, French, or Italian.
Why so modest? Was he ashamed of his erudition? Not ashamed, but cautious, as behooved one whose learning so far surpassed even most of his closest associates. And why bother to use references that no one is going to understand? This was true to some extent when he was writing for the Court, but even more so for the public. And since he obviously wished to remain anonymous, he would have done his best to avoid in his published plays and poems the kinds of classical references that would have made it impossible for those who knew him personally to remain ignorant of his authorship.
Nevertheless, the very plots and characters of his plays plus a thousand tropes that made up the substance of his work revealed much too clearly, particularly to a literary milieu educated in the classics to a degree probably never seen since, the kind of education that could not possibly be ascribed to William of Stratford; not, that is, without some serious tampering with the record. So Jonson had no choice but to lie as forcefully and plainly as possible. Contemporaries may have questioned it privately, but scholarship has declined since then, and scholars of subsequent ages have taken at face value this out and out prevarication. Not that they care about the author anyway since their chief interest in Shakespeare is, and always has been, the text.
Jonson then makes up for his monstrus fib by ascribing to Shakespeare a genius that surpasses the “antiquated” Greeks, attributing to him a mystical perfection that transcends Time. He also attempts to salve the fact that he is attributing (however obliquely) the greatest works ever written up until then to an illiterate nonentity by claiming that, as their “father,” Shakespeare’s god-given “mind and manners” shine through his characters and their stories.
“Sweet swan of Avon”
These are the only words in the entire First Folio that point, however obliquely, to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon Avon. Although not true, they are not quite a lie. No doubt it was incumbent on Jonson, as Court poet and advocate for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to put something in the Ode that connected Shakespeare the poet with William of Stratford, their chosen proxy. If so, this was possibly the least obvious clue he could have dreamed up. Either that or it could be something most easily translated by those who knew the truth, to a reference to the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes.
As Jonson’s patron, Pembroke and his Court circle could, if they chose, read “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a reference to Shakespeare entertaining the Court community at Pembroke’s home, Wilton, which stands on the bank of the Avon River in Wiltshire. (There are at least nine rivers named Avon in Britain; avon means river in Welsh.) There is a strong possibility that the true author was present for at least one such production in 1603, when the young Earl and his mother, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke and former mistress of Wilton, were entertaining King James and his retinue before they made their royal way to London. The swan was thought to sing only at its death. Since Oxford would die (or rather pretend to die) within a few months of that event, the phrase was appropriate in more ways than one.
Jonson makes up to some extent for these necessary prevarications by giving us some important clues about the true author and how he worked. He compares him (and all true poets) to the hardest working of all artisans, the blacksmith, who sweats as he hammers, beating his work into shape. The term “second heat” refers to the phase in metal-working known as termpering when, having beaten the metal into its initial form, the smith allows it to cool, then reheats it for another round of beating. Jonson seems to be comparising these rounds of heating and cooling, a process that strengthens the metal, to the rounds of revision required by good writing, revisions being the “Art” that “makes” a writer, even the most innately gifted. Revisions over a period of years is a better explanation for the anomalous topical references and alterations in language in some of Shakespeare’s plays than the theory that these necessarily reveal the work of a co-author or later reviser, as those who see him as a commercial hack would have it.
“Shine forth, thou Star of Poets”
But the most important clues of all offered by Jonson as to who Shakespeare was and what he actually did, may be contained in his final lines: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage.” What does he mean by pairing rage and influence, chiding and cheering? Aren’t these pairs duplications? Don’t they mean the same thing? That Shakespeare’s works, returned in their true form in the First Folio, will both condemn what’s wrong with the present and encourage a return to something better? Is he speaking only with regard to the Stage, or perhaps in broader terms, to what the Stage represents, the power to change humanity, to change the way it thinks and acts. Isn’t “rage” too strong a word for just the pretense of emotion generated by an actor and his part? If we knew that Shakespeare meant, not just to entertain, but to move his audiences to action, what sorts of action would he be advocating? What influence? At what did his pun name manifest: I “will shake [a] spear!” Surely this is what Jonson––who himself got into trouble more than once for his satires––meant by influence, rage, and chide.
Finally, regarding the use of the word “envy,” we might note that the initials for Ned (Edward) Vere are NV. Can Jonson’s opening line be read: “To draw no NV on your name”? Is this another instance of stating a fact as a denial? Could he have meant instead to be speaking to those who knew the truth: “To draw on NV as your name . . .”?
Are we reading a too much into Jonson’s Ode, one of the most significant poems he would ever write in a long career of writing just such models of doublethink? For as the academics know quite well and have stated as an interesting feature of the time, that is, when there is no chance of its casting suspicion on the Stratford myth, that this kind of seeking for a satirical subtext was the very passion of the period, wouldn’t the true author’s followers be studying Jonson’s dedication for just such sleights of hand? Wouldn’t Jonson know that they would be expecting to see their hero acknowledged in the subtle ways he demonstrated so often in his many odes and epigrams, doing a little “sweating” himself to produce something worthy of the greatest wordsmith of them all, putting his true feelings for the man that by the time he wrote it, had been dead for almost twenty years?
Beleaguered perhaps by the rising enthusiasm for Oxford as Shakespeare, as our world of Shakespeare enthusiasts entered the 21st century, two academics have once more taken it upon themselves to provide us with William of Stratford scenarios, not so new as slightly refurbished. Curious to see how they deal with the thousand and one still unresolved anomalies that attend “the Shakespeare Problem,” (E.K. Chambers’s term for “problems of chronology”: when were the plays written?, and “problems of authenticity: who wrote them?) I began with the one from 2004, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.
After introducing us to Shakespeare’s accomplishments, how he
turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and of beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history. . . .
Greenblatt asks, “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” Alas, this is not a question he is capable of answering, for all that he has to offer is the same old dodge, tarted up with descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London, laced with facts and events that have no relevance, or very little, to how the plays got written, and so heavy with the kind of conjecture that must fill in where facts are scarce, it’s hard not to separate the wheat from the chaff, there being so very little wheat.
Those of us who read biographies to find out more about the famous persons who interest us should see immediately that, once again, this is far from what anyone would normally consider the biography of a real human being. Nor can we explain its failure to communicate Shakespeare’s life story as a natural loss of information from a long distant time, for why should we know more about Alexander the Great, who lived 2400 years ago, than we do Shakespeare, a mere 400, and at at time when letter writing was at a peak and the Stage a subject of intense public excitement and fascination? Why should we know so much more about Ben Jonson, a playwright from Shakespeare’s own time, than his far greater contemporary? And why isn’t the first question to be dealt with, now, after 400 years of silence, the reason for this strange and unexplained lack of information?
There’s no biography here, no story, no drama, no pathos, no real narrative, only a few anecdotes, many of them concocted by the Academy or its precursors to explain why a particular play was written, or what connection, if any, might be drawn to the life of someone about whom so very little was ever recorded, none of which shows any resemblance to the life of any real theatrical genius (Oscar Wilde? Leonard Bernstein? George Balanchine? George Gershwin?), that is, the only connection being the name that was purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men because they had to have something to put on the title pages of the plays when they finally began publishing them. As for the fact that the first two times it was used on a published play (after four years of anonymous publishing) it was hyphenated, well, “nothing here folks,” just another example of how nobody involved in creating the London Stage knew what the heck they were doing.
Professor of Humanities at Harvard and editor of the Norton Shakespeare, Greenblatt is considered a founder of the “new Historicism,” one of those bloody neologisms that have wreaked so much damage on the teaching, and study, and love and understanding, of English literature, ever since the universities in their wisdom began replacing reading and discussing the great works with language science (philolology, semiotics).
Whatever “the New Historicism” is supposed to convey it certainly doesn’t include much history. The realities of the period during which the plays were written, far from the ground out of which they grew, provide little more than a shifting and sketchy backdrop to the same old fairy tales: pleasant descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London; pastel acquatints; bathroom wallpaper. We might be watching one of those old travelogues from the 1930s and’40s with which Turner Classic Movies fills out their programming, “and now we say goodbye to old sixteenth-century London . . . .”
Since history provides no support at all for the Stratford biography, what Greenblatt relies on instead are centuries of academic conjecture: “All biographical studies of Shakespeare necessarily build on the assiduous, sometimes obsessive, archival research and speculation of many generations of scholars and writers.” After 400 years of consistent failure, wouldn’t you think the greatest need might be to go back to the beginning and start over? Not so. It seems “Historicism” means little more than recycling every cockamamie workaround that 400 years of dealing with the Great Anomaly (the lack of any real evidence, not only for Shakespeare, but for the broader phenomenon, the London Stage) has managed to produce, for Greenblatt has organized his attempt at a biography, not so that we can come to know the man who gave us the great plays––clearly that’s impossible, at least for someone associated with a university––but so, as he puts it, that readers can “find their way through the immense forest of critical resources”! Well who but a postdoc gives a hoot about “critical resources”? This is supposed to be a biography!
Says Greenblatt, “the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin.” (12). By abundant he means that thanks to centuries of archival digging by scholars like Malone, Halliwell-Philips, Schoenbaum and dozens of others, we know far more than we need to know or care to know about William’s exceedingly humdrum life in Stratford, while by thin he means anything that connects him to London or the Stage. Scholars have filled volumes with the Stratford records; the records that connect him to the Theater can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Says Greenblatt
After . . . sifting through most of the available traces, readers rarely feel closer to understanding how the playwright’s achievements came about. If anything, Shakespeare often seems a drabber, duller person, and the inward springs of his art seem more obscure than ever. Those springs would be difficult enough to glimpse if biographers could draw upon letters and diaries, contemporary memoires and interviews, books with revealing marginalia, notes and first drafts. Nothing of the kind survives. (13)
Survives? What evidence is there that originally there was something worth surviving? What this otherwise unexplainable absence suggests is that in fact there were never any letters, diaries, memoires, etc., that mention William as an actor or a playwright, for had there been, there would simply be NO GOOD REASON why the evidence failed to survive when so much else has survived.
Why on earth would no one have ever paid any attention to William of Stratford had he in fact been the author of these popular plays? Why so much attention to Jonson and nothing to Shakespeare? When does common sense kick in? Is it going to take another 200 years before this anomalous lack of evidence brings those who have the means to publish around to pondering for reasons why Jonson and not Shakespeare?
Greenblatt asks, “Where are [William’s] personal letters? Why have scholars ferreting for centuries failed to find the books he must have owned––or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in these books, as Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did?” How about because William couldn’t write, as evidenced by the six shaky signatures? How about because he couldn’t read? How about because he wasn’t Shakespeare?
The education problem
Says Greenblatt, “The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.” Modest education? What education? The only evidence that William could write so much as his own name (and even that not well or completely) are the six wobbly signatures on legal documents that are all that 200 years of digging has managed to unearth from the voluminous records that have been the focus of scholarly attention for the past 200 years. The only letter we know of that was ever written to William was never answered (or perhaps, never sent?).
The only possible support for the idea that he had any education at all is because, well, there was a grammar school in Stratford, and of course the great Shakespeare had to be educated, evidence or no evidence. Yes, the author had to be educated, but is the man who could not even spell his own name that author? Nor does “modest” accurately describe the kind of education revealed by everything attributed to Shakespeare, the depth of his knowledge of the Law, medicine, horticulture, astronomy, astrology, the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, of contemporary France and Italy, much of it foreign even to the most highly-educated of his contemporaries.
We are told what books Shakespeare “must have read.” Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that William had read anything. There are no books listed in his will. This and similar other difficult facts are “explained” by the academics as normal for the period. Many owners of books neglected to list them in their wills. Perhaps. But points like this simply add to an increasingly large set of facts that suggest, if they do not out and out prove, that William was illiterate, such as the fact that his entire family signed legal papers with an x, or that no member of his family had anything to say with regard to his fame as a playwright.
About his career as the author of the most popular plays in London, it seems his family and their neighbors knew nothing, for had they known there would certainly have been a record of it. The notion that his son-in-law Dr. Hall, who remarked in his diary on having treated their neighbor, the playwright Michael Drayton, might have mentioned his playwright father-in-law in notebooks that got burnt with the trash, is typical of how academics deal with the fact that Hall, who did mention his father-in-law elsewhere, never mentions his fantastic career. The three passing references to William’s presence in London that are all the record provides as evidence of a London career (nonpayment of taxes in 1595 and ’96, and a sojourn of indeterminate length in 1604 with a family of haberdashers) that these are sufficient to support his theatrical fame would, for anyone but an Oxbridge historicist, be far from sufficient. Nor is there any mention of valuable theater shares in his will.
Greenblatt’s version: nothing new
For those who haven’t read one of the orthodox Shakespeare biographies, Greenblatt faithfully follows his predecessors. Bored with family life in provincial Stratford (parents, siblings, wife and three children), Will takes off for London. Maybe hooking up with one of the London touring companies that pass through from time to time, the professional actors it seems do not hesitate to share with him the secrets of their trade, teaching him to sing, dance, fence, play an instrument, speak with a London accent, and memorize their repertory.
Or, another theory, maybe it wasn’t only boredom but trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy, that sends the youthful genius off to London, probably not for poaching rabbits as an earlier invention had it, maybe something having to do with religion, which, as Greenblatt mentions in passing, was something of a problem back then. This version has William, if not holding horses, then beginning by revising plays by an assortment of earlier (nameless) writers.
The University Wits
When it comes to the University Wits, Greenblatt willingly repeats a number of ancient falsehoods, among them that George Peele was a “reveler” who “died of the Pox,” something Peele’s biographer has proven to be a bad rap foisted on the early playwright after his death. Playing fast and loose with a subject that nobody really knows anything about, Greenblatt claims the Wits were “snobbish” towards the self-educated William, who prudently held himself aloof when he “saw that they drank for days and nights at a time and then, still half drunk, threw something together for the printer or the players.” He misses the joke in “Harvey’s” Second Letter, swallowing whole the tongue-in-cheek claim that their leading playwright, Robert Greene, died of an overdose of “pickled herring.” Is he unaware, or is he simply not interested in the fact that Pickle Herring was the name of a famous clown character, something like the Comedia’s Scaramouche? Was Greene’s death a joke? And who was Robert Greene anyway? Questions like these are to be avoided. Radioactive, they threaten the holy of holies, the Stratford biography.
Yet Greenblatt does see, as so many of his colleagues do not, how all (but one) of the Wits “quickly followed [Greene] to the grave”––even as he fails to acknowledge any connection between their disappearance in the early 1590s and the concurrent series of brutal attacks on Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, by the Privy Council under the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil. Whenever any real drama threatens the peaceful tenor of his narrative, he quickly cools it with placid adjectives. According to Greenblatt, for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, threatened by the loss of their means of livelihood in 1596, body blows like the loss of their theaters and the deaths of their patron and manager were nothing more than “disconcerting.”
William’s life in Shakespeare’s plays
Greenblatt’s attempts to locate events in William’s life in the plots of the plays are noteworthy for their utter irrelevance. His notion that William’s shotgun wedding was the source for Romeo and Juliet’s romance is little short of pathetic. His claim that the unhappy marriages in Shakespeare derive from William’s own marriage because they have “an odd, insistent ring of truth,” could be said of almost anyone. He sees Prospero’s concern for Miranda’s virtue an extension of William’s concern for his own daughters, though it’s questionable how well he could possibly have known them, having, according to Greenblatt, spent their growing and marrying years in far off London. As for William’s anger towards his son-in-law because his will shows a series of interlineations that cut him off, that hardly comports with Prospero’s intention to see Miranda happily married to the noble Ferdinand. Nor, for obvious reasons, does he extend this imagined connection with his daughters to the venomous daughters of King Lear.
Other views are equally conflicted. Marlowe was a brilliant dramatist, the inventor of blank verse and a threat to the Crown at the same time that he was a spy for the Crown, a counterfeiter, and a violent brawler. Similarly Shakespeare, Jonson’s “soul of the age, the delight, the wonder of our Stage,” was a play-patcher who cribbed his ideas from lesser writers and worked in partnership with sundry co-authors while showing “little or no interest” in the fate of his published works.
There are a fair number of out and out untruths. It seems that Stratford’s Forest of Arden, backdrop for so many scenes in Shakespeare, was in fact little more than a few patches of woods; having long since been encroached upon by the growth of small farms, so that all that remained of it by William’s time was the name. Nor was tanning John Shakspere’s trade, as Greenblatt states, because while tanning hides was tangential to wool dealing, it was a totally separate industry.
However limited by his precursors, Greenblatt is not entirely without logic when it comes to the plays themselves. He sees that Shakespeare had no reverence for the Church as an institution and that his “powerful prelates” are uniformly “disagreeable.” Suggesting that Shakespeare could not allow Falstaff to have a scene or two in Henry V because that play had to remain true to its purpose to rouse patriotic sentiment, is probably at least partly why the popular character was killed off in the second act. (Another might be because Will Kemp, doubtless the comedian who made Falstaff a household word, had left the Company by the time Henry V took its final form, and no one up to the part had yet been found to take his place.) He also grasps the purpose of the first seventeen sonnets and is aware that sonneteering was a “game of courtiers,” though he doesn’t try to explain how the humble Will managed to play the sophisticated game with such subtlety and skill.
How long, O Lord, how long?
When will someone of Greenblatt’s experience, intelligence and academic standing have the courage to admit the impossibility of proving that William of Stratford could possibly have written the Shakespeare canon? When will the Academy turn its attention to what should have been the central question from the start: What happened to the records that could tell us who did write it? There’s the story, folks. There’s the missing narrative, the drama, the history, the pathos. There’s where the truth lies, and where we’ll find it, and so much else, when we begin to look for it in the right places.
While it may be understandable why the Academy would cling to the Stratford biography as yet another manifestation of the human tendency to prefer the tried and untrue to anything too radical, there is a peculiar intensity to its hatred for Oxford that provokes curiosity. Why would academics like Lawrence Stone choose him as its poster boy for what he calls “ an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites”? Why would Alan Nelson choose to believe convicted traitors like Henry Howard and Charles Arundel over one of the Queen’s favorites? It seems there’s more to this than meets the eye, nor are we going to understand what Oxford has been up against, both during his lifetime and ever since, until we know what it is.
As described in the previous blog, at the launch of the winter holiday season of 1580-’81, Oxford, then at his peak of his popularity at Court, went down on his knee before her Majesty and an assortment of the nation’s top peers and officials to ask forgiveness for having illegally attended Catholic Mass with His cousin Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel. The Queen, taken by surprise in holiday mood, had all three detained while she went on with her big annual party. Letting Oxford go free the following day, she had Howard and Arundel put under arrest with Christopher Hatton, where Howard remained for four months, Arundel then removed to the Tower where he remained a good deal longer.
We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors, from the questions Oxford gave rackmaster Norton so he could interrogate them and from their own statements in defense. The French ambassador waited several weeks before informing his king, doubtless until he could be certain about what was going to happen to himself since he had been implicated along with Howard and Arundel.
Dismissed as “libels” from the start, the statements that these two (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their own defense consisted of nothing but an attack on Oxford’s character. Clearly their strategy was not so much to prove their innocence, something it’s clear they could not do, as to portray him as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his dear friends, those whose only purpose in life was to honor and serve her gracious Majesty, yadda, yadda, yadda. According to history, no one at the time believed what they said since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under constraint, nor is there any indication that any of their assertions were ever verified by the courtiers they named as witnesses to his wickedness. Why then has the Academy chosen to believe them and not Oxford?
If we choose to believe the record, it’s obvious that Howard was guilty as charged, since Walsingham, who devoted the following three years to tracking down evidence with which to indict him, had him and another conspirator, Thomas Throgmorton, arrested in late 1584 for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as he heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, Arundel demonstrated his innocence by immediately departing for the Continent where it’s believed he authored that scathing piece of sedition, Leicester’s Commonwealth.
How is it then that at the turn of the present century English Prof. Alan Nelson had no trouble finding a university publisher for his so-called “biography” in which every incident in Oxford’s life is framed in the light of these libels? Titled Monstrous Adversary, a phrase he took from one of Arundel’s thrusts, Nelson, it seems, is so enamored of these accusations that it hardly matters that it came via two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both arrested and imprisoned, Howard with Throgmorton, who was later tried and executed for treason, while Arundel’s guilt was demonstrated by the rapidity with which he hightailed it to the Continent following news of Howard’s arrest. (Where Wikipedia’s biographer of Arundel got the notion that he and Howard were “eventually cleared” is a mystery; the history of the incident is clear.)
The “greatest wastrel of them all”
The only possible explanation is that Nelson’s way had been prepared well in advance by centuries of damning references by historians, journalists, novelists, publishers and reviewers. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labeled the Earl of Oxford and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford as “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Nor was this anywhere close to the beginning of this onslaught, for by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been disdained by historians whose information came to them through the Cecils, whether through their control of the State papers or their vast collections at Hatfield House (notably by Dugdale in his Baronage of England, 1675, repeated by Sidney Lee in his DNB biography of Oxford c.1890).
The sorry fact is that every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has felt it compulsory to introduce it with a pejorative, such as “the notorious Earl of Oxford,” as he was called by John Lyly’s biographer Warwick Bond. “The profligate Earl of Oxford,” “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford . . . the violent . . . dissolute . . . feckless . . . atheistic . . . arrogant . . . supercilious . . . spoiled . . . pathologically selfish . . . ill-tempered . . . disagreeable Earl of Oxford,” to list but a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read he was “a cad . . . a renegade . . . an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel” (this last because his mother’s family, the Goldings, were only gentry!).
Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his roaring twenties. Having left a record of feuds with his fellow courtiers (albeit no murders), later, when he was creating the two City stages and busy writing plays to keep the actors busy, because he kept a low profile, there’s nothing to offset the record of his youthful pecadillos. Filling the gap left by this absence of information, we have only his in-laws whose hands-on control of the record for some 50 years means that only the letters and other documents that reflect well on themselves (and badly on those that displeased them) survive, giving historians no choice if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House; and 2) if they were to attract the attention of an Establishment publisher.
Yet much of the problem remains Oxford’s own fault, for if in fact it was he who lampooned Leicester as Robert Shallow and Philip Sidney as Master Slender in Merry Wives, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, William Brooke Lord Cobham as Oldcastle/Falstaff, not forgetting William Cecil as Polonius or Robert Cecil as Richard III, this would certainly be cause enough for these men and their families to hate him, and for both his friends and his enemies to approve the need for secrecy when it came to identifying the author of the plays that, by the 1590s, had become so popular that by then all efforts to stop them were doomed to failure.
If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as the biographies of geniuses invariably attest, life with such a one is never easy. We must have compassion for Burghley when he groans to his diary: “no one can envy me this match!”
None of this, however, has done Oxford the kind of posthumous damage that’s attributable to the Howard-Arundel libels, the long, slow-acting revenge that lay more or less dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP, the Calendar of State Papers. until Looney’s book sent the Stratford defenders in search of something with which to ward off this new and most dngerous threat to the sacred biography. There, just waiting to explode, they found the libels. Thence cometh the storm of pejoratives, overkill for a reckless aristocrat, but well deserved for a “monstrous adversary, who would as soon drink my blood rather than wine” as Arundel put it, with the kind of rhetorical flourish that so delights a middle class historian with a bloody toff in his sights (Nelson 214).
These libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, might seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than he ought, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had good reason to hate, and may well have made some outrageous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading figure at Court is absurd. Obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any one of them confirm any one of Howard’s accusations, himself a figure of dubious reputation, already under suspicion of plotting against the state and blamed by many for involving his brother in the plot to marry him to the Queen of Scots, the plot that ended his life.
However these charges were perceived at the time, none would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years until it may be what has cost Oxford his posthumous reputation, the real reason for all those otherwise groundless pejoratives. This was the charge that he “polluted” his young pages.
A certain hysterical tone
In researching the history of the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the tone of some of the “Documents of Criticism” in Volume IV of Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage that a strangely familiar ring. At some point it came to me: the tone with which the 16th-century preachers thundered against theaters and plays had the same shrill tone we hear when today’s evangelicals, inheritors of the Devil and his lust for sinners, rant against gays, legal abortion, and Planned Parenthood, all connected in some way with that great bogey of the evangelical reformers, sex.
It seems that 19th-century academics, infected by the homophobia to which the entire English establishment had succumbed by then, caused them to fasten on Howard’s charge with the same sick excitement that the idea of sex between men was arousing in the English at large. When Delia Bacon’s theories on the Shakespeare authorship question named Oxford as one of the group led by Francis Bacon that (she theorized) had co-authored the plays, anyone pursuing what was known about Oxford could easily have found the Howard-Arundel libels in the State papers.
With the same hysterical enthusiasm that had women turning out by the thousands to stone the victims of their mania (Louis Crompton, Byron and Queer Love), Howard’s accusation, however unproven and ignored by his contemporaries, was too compelling to treat objectively. Thus, although Stone and his predecessors would appear to base their hatred of Oxford on his treatment of his in-laws and the reckless sale of his inheritance, the tone of their pejoratives can only be explained by these libels, in particular the charge that at that time had the entire 19th-century British establishment in a state of frenzy, the one that allowed them to label him with the uber-pejorative homosexual, for nothing else in the record could possibly justify the intensity of this 19th-century hatred for a long-dead nobleman.
The very term homosexual derives from this period, when the sexual inquisition sought to justify its methods by lending them a scientific tone. The term used in Oxford’s day and for centuries after, was sodomite, the basis for the uniquely English curse “sod off!” meaning “fuck off!” or the term “poor sod” for someone in trouble.
Seeking what could possibly connect the homophobia of the 19th century to the hysterical rants by 16th-century evangelical bishops against the London Stage, one factor was evident, both derived from an irrational fear of sex. It was not until other aspects of the latter half of the sixteenth century revealed a connection that the reason for this sex-revulsion appeared. This was the same general period when: 1) puritanism took hold as the ruling policy of the English Reformation, growing and spreading until it culminated in the civil war of the 17th century with its 20 years of puritan control of society, and 2) the syphilis epidemic.
Calvin, syphilis, and original sin
Early in the 16th century, when Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of the Church and the nations of northern Europe moved to take control of their lands and wealth away from Rome, these grim political and economic issues came with a great nostalgia for what many imagined was the purity and simplicity of the early Christian Church. When the protestants who fled under Mary returned under Elizabeth, they formed a united front in Parliament and on the Privy Council (John Neale, Elizabeth and her Parliaments, Chapters I and II) that determined so much about the nature of the English protestant church from then on. Mary’s Catholic bishops along with the more measured tenets of the Lutherans back from Frankfurt were overwhelmed by the numbers and wealth of those returning from Strasbourg and Geneva where they had absorbed John Calvin’s beliefs and policies. So harsh, so frightening, so restrictive were these that it must beg the question how they were able to attract so many followers.
As explained in 1989 by the sociologist Stanislav Andreski, professor of comparative sociology at the Polish University in London, the answer lies in the fear of syphilis which, as the English were all too aware by the time of the exiles’ return, was spread through sexual intercourse. Having seen, or experienced, the suffering it caused, not only to the victim, but also to his wife and their children, and even, as they were surely already aware by then, to their children’s children, at a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this blow to the very root stock of the human race to be interpreted by the protestant bishops and their congregations other than as punishment for their sexuality? “In Adam’s fall, we sinnéd all.”
For a frightened and vulnerable population, halfway measures would not do. The pendulum of public concern swung, not to a rational call for caution, but all the way to the opposite extreme: a rigid puritanism that saw all pleasure as the pathway to sex and sex as the pathway to damnation. And as plays were meant to give pleasure, therefore plays must be sinful and the Stage the “sink of all sin.”
Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sinful nature of the stories, the “lascivious writhing” of the actors, and the fact that men and women sat next to each other in the audience. For the Elizabethan evangelicals the door to the theater was the entrance to Hell. In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:
the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I understand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin . . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays! (Chambers 4.197)
The almost 200 pages in small type that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate these doorways to damnation. Clearly, a writer or patron who had a reputation to protect would have wished to keep his connection to the London Stage as private as possible.
There can be no doubt that the English Reformation with its focus on purity of religion and lifestyle and, most of all, its negative attitude towards sex and all sources of pleasure, was turned in this direction by the horrors of this new disease. Possibly brought in from the New World, possibly a more virulent strain of a milder form found in North Africa, wherever it came from it spread terror throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where its effects are still to be seen in the harsh puritanism of extremist Islamic sects like the Taliban.
While earlier historians rarely acknowledge factors like weather or disease as a root cause of political evolution, the increasing relevance of sociology has shown that epidemics like the plague and influenza have had as much or more to do with social change as anything else, and although a lasting sense of shame seems to have prevented both sociologists and the medical establishment from including syphilis in their studies, there can be no doubt that it’s the major reason for both the rants of the 16th-century bishops and the century-long epidemic of homophobia in the 19th that exiled Lord Byron and destroyed Oscar Wilde.
While historians of the Reformation tend to focus on factors like the malfeasance of Catholic prelates, the corruption of the papacy, and the need of the northern European states to establish their own political authority, these fail to account for the harsh nature of the religion that it spawned, in particular the focus on sex as original sin. Nor do they attempt to explain why this harsh, unforgiving and joyless religion should have taken such a powerful and unrelenting hold on the population at large. That it was the fear of syphilis that fueled the sex-averse nature of the English Reformation explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the cruel attitudes towards women and homosexuals that continue to infect American culture. (Recall who it was who first stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, driven by what beliefs.)
The role of the scapegoat
Why the fear of sex that still haunts the Church of England should have shifted to gay men towards the end of the 18th century, culminating in the ferocious homophobia of the 19th, must have something to do with the unpleasant tendency of human societies to relieve its anxieties by turning its most vulnerable minority into a scapegoat.
Louis Crompton, one of the first of the late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its own insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were just as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, rather than move with the liberal tide, England fell victim to one of the cruelest epidemics of mass hysteria ever known in the West.
For roughly 50 years, Englishmen accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. Tortured by the guilt engendered by centuries of indoctrination in the extreme belief that they were born sinners, the English reverted to a stone age method of exorcising their communal sense of guilt and shame. Hatred of gay men became a sort of communal mental illness that infected English society from the lowliest reader of tabloids to the highest levels of the political system, as can be seen by how it was used by the Uriah Heeps of English society to destroy men of otherwise impeccable repute, driving those who did not dare to challenge it either to exile or suicide.
Jeremy Bentham, one of the few English writers who dared to write against this epidemic, (though not daring enough to publish it), describes the expression on the face of one such judge: “He had just come from the Circuit. For an offense of the sort in question he had just been consigning two wretches to the gallows. Delight and exultation glistened in his countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience” (Crompton 21, 30).
Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope or prison were condemned to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, his head held fast in one hole, his hands in others, forced to stand for hours in some public location bib enough to hold the largest possible number of people, police stood by while he and his friend were subjected to the violence of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands (Crompton 21). Screaming abuse, these would pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even bricks and stones, for hours on end. Nor was this for the act itself; since that was difficult to prove (telephoto lenses had yet to be invented) so new laws had to be created so that the police could arrest men socializing at gay clubs just for “attempting to commit sodomy”!
It did not help Oxford’s case that several of these 19th-century gay bars were located on “Vere Street,” although this had nothing to do with the 17th Earl, since it got that name in the 18th century from Sir Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford by the 2nd creation, who at that time owned and developed the area just northwest of the theater district, where Oxford Street and Harley Street are still located.
“Degraded and useless beings”
The barbaric nature of this sexual inquisition is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils by burning, drowning, or stoning to death a “scapegoat,” some vulnerable member of the community whose punishment would expunge the sins of the community at large. In The Golden Bough, anthropologist James Frazer describes such a ceremony as found in an ancient Greek document:
Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, . . . At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments . . . and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then . . . stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats. (Bough 509).
The word scapegoat shows how at some point back in the Stone Age this ritual got transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be mischievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the innocent creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the cruel and inhospitable wilderness.
Yet while laws have kept pace (however slowly) with the drive towards human rights, scapegoating has continued, erupting whenever humanitarian feelings weaken in the face of increasing tensions, the only difference being the chosen outcasts: witches for causing droughts and diseases; Protestants for heresy; Catholics for treason; southern black Americans for being “uppity”; Jews and gypsies for anything and everything. Even today, Sharia Law allows people of the rural Middle East to stone to death a neighbor accused of adultery. That for a good 50 years, the 19th-century English found it useful to relieve public tension by hanging, or allowing mobs to stone to death, one or more helpless men a year, driving others to exile or suicide, is but one instance in the long dark history of these orgies of violence.
So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice, so dangerous did it become even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest for fear they would end up tarred with the same brush. Nineteenth-century journalists used catchphrases that enabled them to refer to homosexuality without naming it. The DNB, launched in 1885, continued to avoid any mention of it in the lives of their subjects; that some famous figure “never married” is as far as it would go. Men became afraid to show each other affection, in public or in private, for fear someone would “get the wrong idea.” Handshakes took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that might cause the prurient, themselves starved for affection, to “get the wrong idea.” Yet even to this day young boys continue to be sent away to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse than they would normally be at home, cared for by someone who loves them enough to protect them.
Shakespeare and history
Shakespeare, whose name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, became famous only after 1610 when his company, the King’s Men, was first allowed the use of their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars precinct. With this as their major venue, and King James as their major patron and his Queen as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared.
Thirty years later, as Court enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I (his Queen, raised in Paris, preferred the masques of Inigo Jones), for Shakespeare had become old-fashioned. Vanishing along with the theaters during the 20-year Puritan Interregnum, he was returned to favor in the 18th century by connoisseurs like Pope, Johnson, Garrick and Malone. Even so, it was not until the turn of the 19th century, when, based on Malone’s edition of 1783-90, actors like Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons began performing him as originally written, that an educated public took to him with the enthusiasm of the early Stuart period.
With Shakespeare’s genius proclaimed by poets like Coleridge and Swinburne came a resurgence of interest in his identity. Sadly, this interest collided almost immediately with the tidal wave of homophobia then engulfing the English. With Malone’s edition of the Sonnets, finally published in their original order and form with the bowdlerized “she” replaced by the original “he,” a horrified doubt struck the British Establishment: was the great Shakespeare a homosexual?
Suddenly all interest in discovering the truth about the authorship withered away as the Academy bound itself with hoops of steel to the inoffensive Stratford biography; better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite! Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, sex-hatred was on the rise again. It was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him, or to destroy him physically, as the fate of Alan Turing, the long-unsung hero of World War II, demonstrates, to the eternal shame of the 20th-century British.
Long discredited by historians who confined their researches to the collections at Hatfield House and the Calendar of State Papers, Oxford’s threat to the sacred dating scheme rendered him vulnerable to the Academy’s version of scapegoating. Henry Howard’s long buried bomb lay ticking in the archives. No matter that it was created by a traitor desperate to save himself from the hangman. No matter that it was only an accusation, one that was never proved or verified by any supposed witness. As with the men who had been pilloried a half century earlier, no proof of such a charge was needed. The accusation was enough. No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, a Queen’s good opinion, could withstand the shame of the accusation. Doubly shameful! Triply shameful! Here’s where it remains within the Academy to this day!
His “wounded name”
It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s the accusation that he molested his pages that has denied the Earl his true place in history. While Stone in 1964 withholds the true basis for his denunciation, referring to him only as a violent wastrel, Nelson in 2000 lets no opportunity pass to explain every action of Oxford’s life as motivated either by his violent nature, based on his behavior in his early twenties, or the pathological sexuality Nelson conjures up out of every possible situation.
Ignoring Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust. The presence of a “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1583––testimony to his role as master of the Children of the Chapel––is of course just more evidence of his depravity. And so forth and so on throughout the entire hagiography.
Rather than evidence of Oxford’s monstrous wickedness, isn’t this rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination? He appears to be similarly skewed at other points as well, describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for the term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary description of Anne is the tepid “comely,” which, going by the lifelike image on her great tomb, would seem a polite exaggeration.
Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, a product of the Cecils’ rage, the Howard libels, and the homophobia still rampant within the airless think tanks of the Academy and its spinoff, the Birthplace Trust, is its version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence with nouns as bricks and adjectives as rotten vegetables.
Shakespeare and sex
The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. And while there are undeniable hints of male-male passion in the plays, why should that upset us? Perhaps as with the seacoast of Bohemia, Shakespeare is telling us something, something the world may not want to know but that nevertheless is true. If we have any experience at all with the theatrical community, are we surprised that the man who created the London Stage may have been what today we would label a bi-sexual? A great propounder of the virtues of nature, of the pollination of flowers by bees, the propagation of apples by grafting, the behavior of stallions when a nearby mare is in heat, most of the relationships he so convincingly dramatizes are those that portray how nature has contrived to propagate the human race by the complex, difficult and sometimes hilarious methods required to combine the genes of a Beatrice and a Benedick so the human race can continue.
As for sex with boys, it’s anyone’s guess. Mine, based on some years of studying my fellow humans, is that men do not molest children unless they themselves have been molested in childhood by a male friend or relative, often one they trusted, even loved. The nature of Oxford’s years with the honorable Sir Thomas, the unlikelihood that Smith would have risked allowing him unsupervised time with anyone he didn’t thoroughly trust, or that any of Smith’s servants would have dared to violate this trust, suggests that unlike so many men at that time, Oxford escaped this kind of damage to his emotional integrity, which, to my way of thinking, makes it most unlikely that he would have ever molested a child himself. Like so much else in this story, this too is merely conjecture, yet how are we to know the truth about anyone’s sex life? I believe we see the truth in Julius Caesar, when Brutus asks his page to sing for him, then, when the boy falls asleep, tenderly decides to let him sleep.
John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; if sex plays a part in them, it’s not obvious, as it is in those to the Dark Lady.
What then did he want from the youth? Surely it was his love; he says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and the 20th-century survivors of 19th-century homophobia, love can only mean sex. Well, certainly love is not incompatible with sex, but by no means are they the same thing. As he puts it in Sonnet 129:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Not to trust!––surely that is the point, genuine love is all about trust. As he shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, if not to the purgatory of Calvinism, it leads to the hell of jealousy, the tragic destruction of trust. Only true love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive the years. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written when his time with the Fair Youth had passed: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove”:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If we must conjecture
If, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, then we know a few things that earlier researchers may not. Thanks to Claes Schaar and his supporters, we know that the majority of theSonnets were written in the early 1590s. We also know that this was when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife and oldest friend dead, his followers departed, his in-laws out to deprive him of access to the Stage and Press that he spawned out of his great need to communicate with those fellows of a like mind that he could reach no other way. Living in a hostelry near the river, “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he wrote the Sonnets because he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that’s not Time’s Fool, that “bears it out, even to the edge of doom.”
Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living by then in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he had been enrolled in 1589. More or less on his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love. His own father long since dead, his relationship with the mother from whom he’d been separated since he was six years old, fraught with the tension that accompanies the relationship between many a teenaged male and his mother, young “Rosely” had no friend to sustain him, as Oxford had Rutland and Sussex. Burghley, his guardian, was obviously less interested in him than what could get from him, if not entry to the peerage by marrying him to his granddaughter, then a sizable chunk of his inheritance.
Much as Sussex was to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb, to be young, alone, and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. What’s most likely is that they first met when Burghley was urging the youth to marry Oxford’s daughter, and that Oxford, happy to assist, wrote the rather conventional first seventeen sonnets during the autumn of 1590 for Southampton’s seventeenth birthday. Known ever since as the “marriage sonnets”; the lad was touched, he responded, and they met.
A bond was formed out of their mutual need, a bond that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, at which point Southampton, having reached his majority and grown a beard, found himself capable of making his own way at Court, at which point he turned to the one to whom he would give his allegiance from then on, the Earl of Essex, the Rival Poet of Shakespeare’s sonnets. By that time, Oxford, having married again, living in the kind of comfort he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours perfecting sonnets to a youth who, now dangerously allied with Essex, seemed to be approaching that “edge of doom.”
As for the nature of the passion expressed in the Sonnets, why should we care? The rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a prurient concern over something that shouldn’t be our business, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare’s identity was destroyed by their apparent same-sex context. Poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired centuries earlier by a long-forgotten fear of disease, academics have been driven ever since to stick with the impossible Stratford biography, rendering useless all subsequent attempts to bring order to the plays, the early quartos, their dates of composition, and their connection to the history of the period and the life of their author.
If we must conjecture, what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who in his teens was accustomed to wearing makeup and dressing like a girl, was already well-versed in homosexual sex-play by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man whose role, rather than Southampton’s lover, was that of a surrogate father whose job it became to help encourage him as a lover of women, a necessity if he were to marry one and succeed in continuing his line. After all, Oxford’s own sexual needs were being satisfied at that time by the Dark Lady, then by the new wife whose every thought was bent on providing him with an heir. Its unlikely that, himself in his forties, he would have had the testosterone for much more than that.
In any case, what should matter most to the literary scholar is that it was the time spent writing these sonnets, two years or so before the Queen set him up with a wealthy young wife and Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon got him writing again for the Stage, as he wrestled with the fourteen-line format of the sonnet, that gave him the command of the language that today we recognize as Shakespeare. And surely it’s about time that we let him take us to that better place where it’s love that conquers all––not sex, which leads to jealousy and the loss of trust––but the kind described by Plato, the kind that looks on tempests and is never shaken.
The present nauseating addiction to sex, if not to the thing itself, then to imagining it and to the nasty concern with what other people may be doing in private, is one of the long-lasting results of the terror instilled in human hearts back in the 16th century when they first awoke to the horrors of syphilis. The fear of desire this created, one that’s led to a fear of touch, which over time has tended to diminish in some segments of our culture, even in some poor souls to destroy, the natural ability to feel tenderness, or if felt, the ability to express it.
Beginning with Elizabeth’s reign and continuing on through the centuries of Church of England Establishment thinking, how many middle-to-upper class English boys whose souls did not utterly wither for lack of loving nurture, taken from their mothers at birth to be nursed by a professional wet nurse; ignored, beaten, and humiliated by their parents; sent to boarding schools at age six or seven where they were frightened and beaten by teachers, humiliated and sexually abused by older boys (Lawrence Stone, in his 800-page work of sociological fact about the Elizabethan era, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (1977), provides the background for this statement, most notably on pages 100-01, 106-7, 111-12, 132, 167, 171, 496, 493); how many of these boys, desperate for a little happiness, found it in the literatures of the French Pléiade and the ancient Greeks and Romans? How many have been finding it ever since in Shakespeare and the great English poets who have followed in his wake?
Regarded in this light, how is it that Oxford managed to throw off the repressions of “the drab era” to write from a place filled with so much passion and exuberance that we may see him as having rescued happiness itself from the Calvinists whose threats of eternal damnation were being thundered from every pulpit, every published sermon and religious text? It may be that along with the privileges of his social status, Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer) was granted another gift. If, as seems most likely, he was raised from birth to four by a company of ex-nuns, that it was their love, the murmured sound of their voices in the kitchen, their shared laughter at the table, the warmth of their shared embrace, that provided a subliminal memory, one that sustained him through all the tempests and soul-destroying politics of the years ahead, the deeply-held knowledge that there actually was such a thing as unconditional love.
Viewed in this light, his works can be seen as a constant effort to find again in the laughter and tears of his audiences, something of that nourishing love. Though the source lay beyond the reach of memory, was it not this that gave him his life’s purpose, to bring joy and spiritual awakening to those he admired, retribution to those he hated, and a living to the actors and musicians he loved for their power to move him emotionally and who loved him for his determination to use everything at his disposal to provide them with a living and a sense of their true importance?
One of the ongoing word battles between authorship scholars and academics turns on the spelling of the name Shakespeare. It’s a rather odd name, actually, when compared with most English names from that period. Attempts to link it to medieval nicknames like Breakspear or Longspear have mostly failed to catch on with either side (perhaps merely shaking a spear just doesn’t seem sufficiently impressive to rate a cognomen). Then why when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided, finally, to put the Stratford playwright’s name on the plays, was it not spelled like it was in his “hometown” of Stratford?
It may be that no one pays much attention to the spelling issue since English spelling in William’s time was all over the place, particularly when it came to proper names. So the fact that it’s been spelled in as many as 83 different ways in Warwickshire, according to E.K. Chambers (Facts and Problems: 2.371-4), hasn’t raised many eyebrows. Still, even in Renaissance England 83 different spellings might suggest a particular uniqueness about this name and its origin. And since Warwickshire is centrally located within the geographic area known as “the Norman diaspora,” it’s more likely than not that the name originated in northern France, from whence it came over with the Norman Conquest along with William’s ancestor, a laborer named Jacques-Pierre (a frequent given name for French Catholics since both James and Peter invoke the apostolic founder of the Roman Church). This would explain why, in Warwickshire, before the 1590s, the name was invariably spelled so that it would be pronounced with a short a, Shaks-peer or Shax-pyeer, or Shagspyeer.
In a recent article in the online authorship journal Brief Chronicles, journalist and independent scholar Richard Whalen, editor of a series of Shakespeare plays richly annotated with Oxfordian data, examines the question of why generations of Stratford scribes spelled William’s surname Shakspere when it was spelled Shakespeare on the title pages of the plays, an issue that academics generally deal with, as they do with so much else, by simply ignoring it. Those who have dealt with it assume that the two spellings are variations of the same name, meaning that both represent the same individual and therefore the illiterate William of Stratford and the genius who wrote Hamlet must, ipso facto, be one and the same.
One Stratfordian who has given the spelling issue his attention is David Kathman, a securities analyst cum Shakespeare scholar, who explains how he arrived at this conclusion on his website: The Shakespeare Authorship Question (which he “dedicates” to the delicate sarcasm that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare”). Whalen finds, not surprisingly, that Kathman’s methodology is skewed. While sounding impressive, it seems that it’s yet another case of we used to call GIGO, Garbage In––Garbage Out. Data itself is neutral; if a question is asked in the right way, it provides an appropriate answer, solid, reliable; like the house of the third little pig, it’s made of bricks. Like that of the first little pig, Kathman’s house is made of straw, and Whalen goes far to blow it away. Readers interested in following Whalen’s arguments (and Kathman’s) in full can read them online where they present them better than I can here.
Why Shakespeare, not Shakspere?
For purposes of comparison, Kathman chooses to separate the various spellings of the name into two groups defined by whether or not the letter k is followed by an e. This is an obvious division since the spelling used by the London printers on the plays of Shakespeare, always includes an e after the k, while in all the earlier Stratford spellings there is no e in the first syllable. While Kathman terms those with the e “literary” and those without the e, “non-literary,” a more precise designation would be those derived from London (with e) and those from Stratford (without e); this because the London spelling has been exactly the same ever 1598 when it first appeared on the title pages of the second editions of Richard III and Richard II, while every version found in the Stratford archives up to that point, however extravagant the spelling, shows the s (or x or g) followed immediately by the k. These variations, suggest that the Warwickshire scribes may have been attempting to reflect how the name was spoken. Here we have another aspect of the spelling issue, one not discussed by either Kathman or Whalen.
The cloud of misunderstanding that surrounds the crazy spelling of that early period does offer today’s scholars a bit of silver lining: it can help to ascertain how words were pronounced. Spelling tends to follow pronunciation––where it doesn’t, which is often the case with English, it’s usually because some bit of an earlier pronunciation has remained stuck in it, like flies in amber. For instance, we can be certain that the Earl of Oxford and his friends did not pronounce his name Veer, as it’s pronounced today, but Vayer, as it was spelled in 1590 by Sir Thomas Stanhope in a letter to Lord Burghley (Akrigg Southampton 32). As a homonym of Vair, the way the French pronounced the name, and as they also pronounce vert, meaning green, (the French don’t pronounce a final consonant unless it’s followed by a word that begins with a vowel), it’s a name that would carry meaning to all speakers of French and also Latin, for the Latin root word ver, meaning truth, virtue, and the springtime of the year, is also pronounced vair.
Why did the London printers add the e?
Like all vowels, e has a great deal to do with how a word is pronounced, and since the process known as “the great vowel shift,” was almost finished by the time in question, it seems that our present rule was already observed, that is, that an e at the end of a syllable means that the preceding vowel is pronounced long rather than short; thus establishing whether a writer means to say mat or mate (met or mete, mit or mite, mut or mute). Attempts to ascertain the meaning of a word can be confusing where a 16th-century writer has forgotten (or scribbled) the e, leaving the pronunciation to context. But scribes would certainly have known how the terminal e on a syllable affected an earlier vowel, as would the compositors who set the type for the Shakespeare plays, and as, without the slightest doubt, would the actors and patrons of the Company whose decision was, finally, after four years of publishing the plays anonymously, to add William Shakespeare to the title pages of Richard III in a form that required that it be pronounced with a long a, not the short a of Shakspere. In fact, perhaps to make it as clear as possible that this was the desired pronunciation, someone decided that the first time it appeared in print, the e would be separated from the s with a hyphen!
Why then did it matter to the actors, their patrons, and the playwright himself, that as it was published in 1598 on the plays––and in the Meres Palladis Tamia that was published at about the same time––the name be pronounced with a long a? Why must it be pronounced Shake instead of Shak? The only possible reason for the change in spelling, and for the otherwise inexplicable hyphen, is that it turns the otherwise sober name of a real individual into a pun: “William Shake-spear,” like “Doll Tear-sheet.” What then could be the reason why the actors who owned the play, and who we must suppose first saw it into print in October 1597, turned William of Stratford’s name into a pun that so perfectly describes the true author as one who shakes a spear (his pen) at fools and villains, and who fills the stage with the great warriors of the English past.
A more obvious pun name in a Shakespeare play generally denotes a clown or a fool. Of the two servants in Two Gents,Launce is given to pointless responses while Speed is slow; in Henry IV, while Mistress Quickly describes how, as proprietress of the Inn, she is required to address the needs of Falstaff and his pals, the name of her associate, Doll Tear-sheet, suggests how differently she addresses their needs. Malvolio can be read as “ill will to E.O.” with Benvolio suggesting the opposite. Even Fall-staff, derived from the medieval general Sir John Fastolfe, can be read as a pun rich with implications for the middle-aged Oxford and his Lord Great Chamberlain’s staff of office.
By tweaking William’s surname so that from the anglicized Jacques-Pierre of his hometown it can be read as a pun on Spear-shaker, they are replacing what would otherwise have been taken for granted as the real name of a real person––which it was, of course, but one that also suggests that the author is nothing but a provincial clown, a mere “spear-carrier,” the timeless theatrical term for one who has no lines and who appears onstage only to give the appearance of a crowd, as William of Stratford is listed with the Court payments office as an actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later a share-holder, when in fact his true role was only to provide the Company with a name for the published plays. With the kind of equivocation that was so richly distributed throughout the works of both Shakespeare and his editor, Ben Jonson––who termed this sort of meaningful wordplay in his own plays “glancings”––the Company was able to launch the authorial name that within a few months would be the key to their astonishing financial success under James I.
“So it’s a pun, so what?” So everything! That the name that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men chose to put on these plays is a pun should be a factor of major importance to those interested in advancing the truth about the authorship!
Unfortunately, that Shakespeare is a pun is something that, for Oxfordians as well as academics, tends to be ignored as a rather silly distraction, a foolish fetish of the otherwise pure-souled and high-minded Grand Master of English Literature. Shakespeare’s penchant for puns and other wordplay is ignored, or treated as a side issue, not only by the buttoned-up bean-counters, but also by the authorship advocates, partly because they continue to be so locked in combat with the academics that they can’t see beyond the walls of their bunkers, but also perhaps because puns have been objects of scorn for so long that to attribute importance to any pun, even to this one, crucial though it may be, is to invite yet more disdain than the poor questioner is willing to bear.
This might be more easily understood were English literary history to be considered. Following the grim and humorless decades of Puritan dominance of the English culture during the middle decades of the 17th century, as Shakespeare’s beloved theaters were shuttered and torn down and a scorched earth policy directed towards every threatened outbreak of old-fashioned “merry-making,” the English seem to have lost any desire for Shakespeare’s (and Chaucer’s and Skelton’s) enthusiastic wordplay. As the 18th-century “Augustans” sneered at Shakespeare for his bawdry, most famously, in the Introduction to his edition of the plays, the venerable Samuel Johnson took aim at Shakespeare’s addiction to what he called quibbles:
A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller, he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
Society has never returned to the level of appreciation that Shakespeare and his fellows had for puns, relegated today to tabloid headlines (and Cole Porter lyrics), but then society may never again have had so many pressing reasons for resorting to the frisky thrusts of Shakespearean wordplay. Since Oxford was largely acceptable to both the Court and the public in his role as theater patron, a traditional role for men of his class, he and his actors and patrons managed to keep hidden the fact that much of what they performed was not the work of his secretaries––Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Anthony Munday––whose names ended up on the published versions, but their Master’s creations.
The worm turns
His enemies, of course, were not fooled by this, so when, as time went by, and their efforts to rid themselves (and the world) of his precious London Stage came dangerously close to success in the mid-’90s, Oxford turned, like a cornered animal––a wild boar?––lashing out with the venomous play that succeeded in winning them their right to perform, but that also forced the Company to put a name on the plays.
With the production of Richard III during the Queen’s ninth Parliament in 1597-’98, Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tarred and feathered in effigy their bitterest and most dangerous enemy, the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Oxford’s brother-in-law. As portrayed by the 30-year-old Richard Burbage, dressed in the garb and affecting Cecil’s manner of speech and body language, the news that the Crown’s own company had dared to portray the most powerful official in England as history’s most wicked king silently swept the nation as the MPs returned to their constituencies with the play in their pockets and their fingers on their lips. Apparently young Burbage had given a stellar performance; for the rest of his life it would be known as his most famous role.
Following their attack on Robert Cecil, there must have arisen a great popular demand, lost to history but certainly not lost to common sense, that the name of the play’s author be revealed. Forced to respond, doubtless out of fear that the truth would escape before they had time to counter it, the Company yielded to necessity. Using the name that their manager had had ready and waiting for a good two years, the Company quickly brought out a second edition with the name William Shake-speare on the title page. Those blind to the pun continued to regard the author as someone unknown previously but obviously worthy of respect, while those who did see the pun understood that the name of the true author was not something that was going to be revealed anytime soon.
Thus, what may have been rushed into print as a quick fix to the furore aroused by Richard III, the author’s pen name was cast in stone, never to be altered for the duration of either Oxford’s or William’s life, or the life of the Company that continued to flourish for decades after their deaths, or in fact, for the following four centuries until the early 20th century when the Academy took up its defense out of some sort of misplaced knee-jerk professionalism, which today they mostly leave to outsiders, to the hirelings of the Birthplace Trust, and the trolls who beset cyberspace.
The Company’s production of Richard III was something from which Cecil, whose reputation, never very rosy with those who knew him at firsthand, never recovered. The Queen, who undoubtedly had been imperfectly acquainted (by Cecil) with the situation before it erupted during Parliament, was the only one at that time who could have put a stop to this contest between her playwright and her Secretary of State. She was not about to see her Secretary of State further demeaned, but neither was she about to give up her holiday “solace.”
Exactly how she did this may not be possible to cite, but it’s not impossible to guess, for Cecil, who once in total power under James became so adept at destroying those who caused him grief seems to have left Oxford, and his company, alone from that point on. And while it’s unlikely that they continued to perform Richard III until after Cecil’s death in 1612, the published play would continue to appear in one edition after another every few years, whenever Master Secretary got another title or high office.
By the time of his death, Cecil held all the major offices of State, more than ever had been held or ever would be held at one time by any other official in English history. And, as Secretary of State with total control over the State records, he had plenty of time and opportunity to eliminate all references to Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, as creator of the London Stage and English periodical press, and in fact as anything but the ungrateful son-in-law of the great Lord Burghley.
Among the things that block our path to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, the most difficult to overcome has been the damning portrait of Oxford created by Lord Henry Howard and his cousin Charles Arundel in their desperate effort to evade the hangman. At the launch of the 1580-’81 winter holiday season, Oxford, at his peak as Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, had gone down on his knee before her and a panoply of England’s nobility and officialdom, to ask forgiveness for having gotten involved in their plot to overthrow the Crown. Taken by surprise, it seems the Queen had all three detained. Letting Oxford go the following day, she had Howard placed under house arrest with Christopher Hatton for four months, and Arundel in the Tower, where it seems he remained a good deal longer.
We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors; from questions Oxford gave Thomas Norton so he could question the accused pair; their statements in defense, commonly referred to as “libels”; and a mention here and there as a news item in other letters. The French ambassador waited some two or three weeks before writing about it to his King, doubtless because Oxford had implicated him as well, so he may have been waiting until he could be certain what was going to happen to himself. (Nothing, as it turned out, since it was Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, who was most guilty of conspiring).
The statements that Howard, Arundel (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their defense were labelled “libels” right from the start, since they consisted of little more than an all-out attack on Oxford’s character. Their strategy, it would seem, was less to attempt to prove their innocence than to portray their accusor as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his innocent friends whose every living thought was for the Queen’s welfare, yadda, yadda, yadda. The first question at this point should not be what if anything in these libels was the truth, it’s why the Academy has chosen to believe these traitors and not the historical record.
According to history, neither the Queen nor any of the officials involved believed Howard and Arundel since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under lock and key. According to history, Henry Howard was certainly guilty as charged, since Walsingham, having devoted the following three years to tracking down sufficient evidence to indict him, had him arrested on November 4, 1583, along with Francis Throgmorton, for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as Charles Arundel heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, he fled to the Continent, where he published the libel known as Leicester’s Commonwealth. (He’s also thought to be the author of an earlier libel against the Queen and her ministers, Le Innocence de la Tres Illustre Royne.)
So how is it that at the turn of the 21st century English Prof. Alan Nelson of UC Berkeley had no trouble in finding a publisher for his so-called “biography” of the Earl of Oxford, in which he casts every incident in Oxford’s life in the mold provided by these two miscreants? Titling it Monstrous Adversary, a phrase from one of Arundel’s libels, Nelson, it seems, is so bemused by his anti-Oxford animus that he doesn’t realize that he’s chosen to follow two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of treason!
“The evil that men do lives after them . . .”
Nelson, however, is only the most recent of a long stream of academics who have played fast and loose with Oxford’s reputation. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labelled him and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites,” and Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Yet by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been in disrepute. Never mind that he was Elizabeth’s Lord Great Chamberlain; that he was one of her enduring favorites; that dozens of important books were dedicated to him; that he was patron to top acting companies over the course of 30 years; that he published one of the most important works of the European Renaissace, Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier; that he was praised by a string of respectable contemporary commentators; that many of these praises came from foreigners whom he met on his trip to Italy, famous scholars like Johan Sturm and princes like Henri III of France. Nothing to his discredit was ever recorded from his visits to foreign shores.
Yet every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention him in passing has felt it compulsory to connect his name with a pejorative, as in “the notorious Earl of Oxford.” “Profligate,” “obnoxious,” “violent,” “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable,” are only a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace in 1912, he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read in 1960 he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse in 1964 he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel.”
Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his early days at Court, leaving a record of fights and feuds with his fellow courtiers (no murders, though he was badly wounded in one brawl). After returning from Italy, having gone undercover to create the London Stage and the commercial press, because he did (almost) nothing that got recorded, there was (almost) nothing in the record to counter the effect of his early antics. Then of course there were his in-laws, the Cecils, whose control of the record for some 50 years meant that only those letters and other documents that reflected well on themselves (or badly on others) were retained, a paper trail that historians ever since have been forced to follow if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House, and 2) if they were to get published.
Even so, much of the problem is Oxford’s own fault, for it seems he was a past master at making enemies. If, as we believe, it was he who lampooned Leceister as Robert Shallow in Merry Wives, Philip Sidney as Master Slender, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Lord Cobham (and his son) as Falstaff, William Cecil as Polonious in Hamlet, or Robert Cecil as Richard III, there was even more cause to hate him (and for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to hide his identity). If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as history and their biographies attest, dealing with a genius is never easy.
But nothing has caused him the kind of damage that Howard and Arundel did with their libels, a long, slow-acting revenge, one that lay dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP (Calendar of State Papers) until Looney proposed him as the most qualified candidate yet for the tarnished Shakespeare crown, forcing the Academy to assemble a counterattack to protect the sacred biography and dating system, and prevent the loss of centuries of accumulated suppositions based on the life of William of Stratford.
As for Henry Howard
By the time Oxford went down on his knee to the Queen and company, Howard was already known as a dangerous intriguer. Incarcerated in 1571 during the investigation into the Duke of Norfolks’s treasonable plan to marry the Queen of Scots, for which the unfortunate Duke was beheaded, Howard, though later released, was never freed from the suspicion that it was he who had gotten his brother involved. In 1595, Anne Bacon warned her son Anthony, “Beware in any wise of the Lord H! He is a dangerous intelligencing man . . . and lieth in wait. . . . The Duke had been alive but by his practising and double undoing” (Dumaurier Lads 109-10). In fact, that Oxford had welcomed them into his coterie was probably an act of altruism.
What would continue to save Howard from permanent incarceration was probably the fact that he was so closely related to so many peers and highly-placed officials. During this early period his intrigues were aimed at assisting the continental catholics in their efforts to get a catholic on the throne so they could return to England and he and his relatives could return to the Howards’ former commanding position at Court. Years later, after his conniving had paid off with high office and titles under King James, he continued to foster intrigues, though the plight of his fellow catholics had become less important to him by then than weaseling his way as deeply as possible into the upper tier of Court officialdom.
“The end crowns all”
Howard’s final turn on the stage of history came in the second decade of the 17th century when his niece Frances (Fanny) Howard created the major scandal of James’s reign. Having encouraged her in her efforts to seduce Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, when Carr’s secretary, Sir Thomas Overbury, got in the way, Lord Harry persuaded the King to get rid of Overbury by sending him on an extended embassy to Russia. When the foolish secretary refused, the King had him incarcerated in the Tower. (Overbury was being difficult because he was in love with Carr. The entire upper tier of the Court at that time was gay, the King was gay, Carr, his official favorite, was mostly gay, Carr’s secretary, Overbury, was gay, and Howard, by then Earl of Northampton, was gay.)
When at a crucial moment in this gruesome tale the unhappy Overbury died in prison, supposedly of an overdose of poisoned tarts, someone squealed, and the wheels of the Law began to turn, inexorably moving ever closer to Fanny, now Countess of Somerset, and her hapless husband. Having been given a royal wedding by the King the following December, the couple were eventually indicted two years later, and though spared execution, they spent the rest of their lives either in the Tower or under permanent house arrest in the country.
As David Lindley shows in his excellent book on the subject, The Trials of Frances Howard(1993/96), it’s clear that the ultimate decision was reached through a plea bargain that saved the lives, if not the reputations, of those involved. Largely because of her mother’s involvement in the scheme (the reprehensible Catherine Knyvett), she and Fanny’s father, Lord Treasurer Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk, were disgraced as well. At least one benefit to literature came from this scandal, Carr’s fall opened his office of Lord Chamberlain to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, giving him, and his brother the Earl of Montgomery, control of the London Stage for the next two decades.
Although the documents generated by this long drawn-out court case prove that Howard was guilty of masterminding this bedroom coup through his power over his niece (as seen by the disgustingly salacious nature of his letters, read aloud in court for all to hear), that it was he, not Fanny, who sent the poisoned tarts was never pursued because Howard had taken the truth with him when, ever so conveniently, he died before the questioning began. As for poor Fanny, it may be that she would have been better off had she gone through with the trial. Having fallen from her status as her nation’s bejeweled princess to its most reviled and detested criminal, called every dirty name in the book, locked away in the country, she died utterly without friends including the husband who blamed her for his disgrace. (The only thing ever written in her defense, then or later, IMHO, was John Webster’s The White Devil.)
Back to the “great treason”
Shortly after Oxford’s revelation in December of 1580, Walsingham began to focus on the household of the French Ambassador, Mauvissiere. With clues painstakingly gathered by means of spies in the ambassador’s household, it took three years of patient fishing before he got the evidence he needed to arrest Francis Throgmorton, Mary Queen of Scot’s contact, and Henry Howard, Throgmorton’s accomplice. Throgmorton withstood a racking, but when threatened with a second, came across with the information that Walsingham so desperately needed if he was to convince the Queen that there was a real danger that had to be faced, and overseas agents to be paid for.
From Throgmorton Walsingham learned that the plot in question was the creation of the great French grandee, the Duc de Guise, who, in concert with the Pope and the King of Spain, was planning an all-out attack on the English mainland. According to Throgmorton, the French army was to invade England from Scotland at the same time that the Spanish navy struck at its southern coast. As the two armies marched towards London they would gather with them the hordes of English catholics that, in their imaginations, were eager to replace Elizabeth and her ministers with the Queen of Scots and those they were promising to give a place at Court. (Hutchinson 1o5).
In tracing the links that finally led the Queen’s Secretary of State to Howard and Throgmorton and “the great treason,” neither of Walsingham’s biographers, Conyers Read (1925) nor Robert Hutchinson (2007) mention Oxford, but it should be obvious that it was Oxford’s public “confession” that led Walsingham first to Mauvissiere’s household, then to Howard and Arundel’s involvement, then to the Spanish Ambassador, who was given his walking papers in 1584. England would not have another Spanish ambassador until 1607, when James signed a treaty with Spain.
That “monstrous adversary”
In examining the libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, most would seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than was wise, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had reason to hate, and may well have made some outragous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading courtier is absurd: obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any Court figure ever confirm any of Howard’s accusations.
However serious these charges may have seemed at the time, none of them would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years to come until it may be what has cost Oxford his reputation for so long, if not (as we hope) forever. This is the charge that he had “polluted” some of his young pages.
Oxford the homosexual
Among the pejoratives attached to Oxford’s name over the centuries, homosexual has been by far the most damaging, not because there’s any more substantiation for it than for any of the other charges, or that it was seen then as anything but yet another slander, or that it was true, but because of how a puritanized English society came to see it later, when homosexuality had become the foulest of crimes as well as a sin, and all that it took to condemn a man as a homosexual was for someone to accuse him.
Throughout the preceding centuries, sex between men (oficially a crime only since 1535), was almost totally ignored in Elizabeth’s time. In fact it could be said that there were no homosexuals then because the word homosexual, along with the concept that men who have sex with other men are a race apart, would not appear until the late 18th century (Bruce R. Smith, 1990). Until then the term used was sodomite, which simply referred to anal sex, whether male-male or male-female, forbidden since biblical times, less perhaps for any moral reason than because it violated the ancient nostrum: “be fruitful and multiply.” (Primitive cultures are apt to allow male-male sex as a means of regulating population size since too many births could overwhelm the food supply.)
Until the 18th century, men who preferred to have sex with each other were no more scorned than men who spent too much time and energy having sex with women. It was the kind of sex that was the issue, not the kind of partner. During the reign of Elizabeth the only men on the record as indicted for sodomy were accused of abusing boys, but this was less because it was a disgusting violation of morals than because it was a cruel misuse of power, similar to beating a boy to death for misbehavior or not doing his homework. Sex between adult males was not an issue then, or at least, not what it would become later. As Jeremy Bentham noted during the most rabid period of English homophobia, if sex between men was in fact a crime (which he doubted) it was the only one that caused no one any harm.
That tone of hysteria
In reading whatever I could find from and about the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the documents in Volume IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage: “Documents of Criticism,” that had a certain tone with which I was strangely familiar. After awhile it came to me: it was the same hysterical tone we hear today in condemnations of homosexuality by evangelical preachers and politicians. And it was the same tone used in the mid-to-late 16th century by preachers and city officials with regard to the bawdiness of plays and their reasons for banning them from London.
It was not until I saw a connection between other aspects of that period that the reason for this began to appear. This was the same general period when: 1) Calvinism took hold as the ruling aspect of the Elizabethan Reformation, spreading until it led to the Civil War and twenty years of Cromwellian puritanism in the 17th century, and 2) it saw the spread of the “great pox,” what we now call syphilis. This was no coincidence! This was cause and effect!
The ultimate in STDs, horrific in its effects if left untreated and without any truly effective cure (until the invention of the microscope and the discovery of penicillin), since it was first reported in Naples in 1495, syphilis had been spreading among the more sexually-active members of the population long enough that its horrific effects on partners and their children was known and feared by the time Calvinism began taking root, gradually spreading to affect the attitudes and tone of what was on its way to becoming the Church of England. To John Calvin and his followers, all sex was sin, and, as products of Original Sin, all humans were headed for the permanent and unremitting torments of hell unless they banned sex from their lives and thoughts (excepting only what was absolutely necessary to maintain the human race).
Of course there was a connection between the spread of this grim religion, with its emphasis on the evils of sex, the horrors of hell, and the hellish horrors of this incurable disease. This explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women, and homosexuals that continue to haunt the still essentially puritanical nature of the dominant American culture (remember who first stepped off the Mayflower with what religion in 1620). Why the original fear of sex should have shifted to gay men towards the latter half of the 18th century, culminating in the homophobia of the latter half of the following century, must have something to do with the tendency of humans to let the majority off the hook by turning some hapless minority into scapegoats.
Louis Crompton, one of the first of late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its particularly insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were almost as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic Church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, England gave it a pass, entering instead upon the cruelest period of homophobia ever known in the West.
Most readers know what happened to Oscar Wilde, the wittiest, most successful playwright of his day, who, accused by his boyfriend’s father of a sodomitical lifestyle, was robbed of his name, his career, his family, his liberty, and really his very life. Few however are aware today of the extremes of cruelty to which this anti-sex hysteria drove, not just the handful of lawyers, jurors, and journalists who saw to Wilde’s destruction, but the nation that followed it with slavering excitement in the news media. For roughly 50 years, men accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. The excitement felt by people who believed that God hated sex (as they contemplated with sick enthusiasm thoughts of men having sex with each other) had become a psychological disease. There was a political aspect to this as well. Since some of the most capable politicians and businessmen were gay, this pogrom helped to eliminate them as competitors for positions of authority and power. (Still to this day a politician who craves to rise knows that he’ll do better with a wife and children by his side.)
Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope were subjected to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, their head held fast in one hole, their hands in another, forced to stand for hours in the most public of locations, they would be subjected to the hysteria of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands, who, screaming abuse, were allowed to pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even stones and bricks, for hours on end. Those who survived were often maimed for life. Some, like Byron, seeing themselves in danger of arrest, fled to live abroad in permanent exile. Others, fearing discovery, committed suicide. Nor was this for any actual act; since that of course was difficult to discover (since photography had not yet been invented) new laws were created that enabled the police to arrest and arraign men for “attempting to commit sodomy”!
The barbaric nature of this punishment is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils, burning, drowning, or stoning to death a member of the community as a scapegoat. Frazer in The Golden Bough describes these rituals as he found them described in ancient Greek documents:
Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, . . . At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments . . . and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then . . . stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats.
The word scapegoat shows how over time this ritual had been transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be michievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the poor creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the inhospitable wilderness.
Yet use of a human scapegoat has never been completely eradicated or shifted to a domestic animal, for it continues to errupt again wherever tensions get intense enough and humanitarian controls have weakened, the only difference being the nature of the chosen outcasts, whether witches for causing droughts, plagues, and the deaths or diseases of neighbors or domestic animals; catholics by protestants or protestants by catholics for heresy; communists and terrorists for anarchy; southern American blacks for speaking out in their own defence, and Jews and gypsies for almost anything. And still today in rural areas of the middle east, the law allows men and women accused of committing adultery to be stoned to death by their neighbors. That 19th-century England found it useful to relieve public tension by giving mobs the opportunity to exorcise their frustrations by stoning one or two helpless men, sometimes to death, every year for a good half-century, is but one instance in the long history of these orgies of public violence.
“The love that dares not speak its name”
So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice in the 19th century, so dangerous was it even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest it for fear they too would get sucked into providing the Establishment with yet another scapegoat. So shameful had male-male sex become that it was shameful even to mention it. The DNB, launched in 1885, avoided any mention of the part sex played in the lives of their subjects; that someone “never married” was as far as it would go. Men became afraid to show each other affection, or even to touch each other in public. The handshake took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that could be construed by a prurient public, themselves starved for affection, from “getting the wrong idea.” Boys were starved of love, sent off by age six or seven to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they were far more vulnerable to molestation than they would have been at home.
Crompton attributes this to religion, which is certainly partly true, though it does not explain why France and the rest of Europe did not exhibit the same reaction (they chose instead to persecute women for witchcraft). Bentham, seeking an explanation, notes that it seems to have had something to do with protestantism, but he doesn’t go far enough. Protestantism yes, but one form in particular––Calvinism.
Calvin, syphilis, and original sin
As a reaction against the corruption of the Church of Rome, Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of its supposedly celibate prelates, but that was only one aspect of a far more complicated campaign to gain for the northern states control of its lands and wealth, along with a great nostalgia for the simplicity and purity (they imagined) of the early Christian Church. During the reign of Mary Tudor, when so many of the protestants who had overseen the Reformation under her brother Edward fled to Germany and Switzerland, when they returned under Elizabeth, they formed a party that influenced the nature of the English Protestant Church. Embracing the severities and rigors prescribed by John Calvin, governor of Geneva, they formed a block in the Parliament and on Elizabeth’s Privy Council passionately devoted to the kind of reforms promoted by Calvin.
So harsh was the Calvinism promoted by the returned exiles, that it begs the question why were so many attracted to his message? The answer surely lies in the increasing awareness of the effects of “the Great Pox,” syphilis. One of the most insidious diseases ever to wreak its horrors on the human race, by Elizabeth’s advent the English had had plenty of time to understand all too well that it was spread through sexual intercourse, and to recognize the horrific effects this could have on its victims and their mates and subsequent children. At a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this to be interpreted in any way other than as His punishment for their sexuality?
“The cause of plagues is sin and the cause of sin are plays.”
When Oxford, Sussex, and James Burbage set about to create public stages in London, they found themselves up against a wall of repression. The ruling parties in London disliked the advent of the public theaters in 1576 for different reasons: the officials were afraid of contagion from the plague and other diseases, while the preachers were afraid of God’s wrath, afraid that people who had enjoyed themselves at the theater might forget for the moment that having sex would lead them to the fiery furnace. (There was also the likelihood that too many would rather be at the theater than at church).
Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sexy nature of the plots, the suggestive postures of the actors, and the fact that men and women could sit next to each other in the audience. In their view, the door to the theater was the pathway to perdition. In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the Church’s outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:
the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin . . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays! (Chambers 4.197)
The almost 200 pages that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate the theaters and the sneering disregard of officials for actors and anyone involved in producing plays. Clearly, anyone who had something to lose would have wished to keep his (or her) involvement with the public stage as quiet as possible.
Shakespeare and history
Shakespeare’s name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, but it only became famous after 1610 when his company, by then known as the King’s Men, was allowed to use their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars complex. With King James as their patron and Queen Anne as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared. However, as time went by, enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I. His wife, Queen Henrietta, raised in Paris, preferred the lavish masques then popular in France. It was largely her overspending that led to the Civil War that closed all the theaters for twenty years, after which new audiences under Charles II saw Shakespeare as old hat.
Shakespeare’s reputation continued to diminish until the 18th century when a new respect was cultivated by the next wave of brilliant poets and scholars: Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Edmond Malone. But it was not until the turn of the 19th century that a new set of actors brought a new style of acting to the public stage and the public took to “the Bard” in numbers not seen since the early 17th century. Awakened by poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Shakespeare’s genius, as his name approached the level of national icon, interest in his identity ground to a halt when Sir Edmond Malone published the Sonnets as originally written.
With the bowdlerized pronoun returned to the original “he,” horror struck the Establishment: the great Shakespeare was a homosexual! With homophobia on the increase, all interest in uncovering the truth about the authorship withered away and the Academy bound the Stratford biography to itself with hoops of steel. Better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite!
Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, other forms of repression continued. Still in effect were any number of anti-gay laws; it was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him. Sex-hatred was on the rise again, to peak in the 1950s. (Consider what was done to Alan Turing, the hero of British Intelligence who helped bring World War II to an end). Already in bad with the historians, Oxford’s threat to the sacred Stratford dating scheme set him up as ripe for posthumous scapegoating.
Shakespeare scholars, aware for at least a century of Oxford’s involvement in the early years of the London Stage as a patron and a playwright (“best for comedy”), not only did not dare to promote him, they were constrained to revile him! That’s where academics like Stone and Nelson acquired that hysterical tone in their comments on Oxford! The same tone heard in the sermons by the bishops lambasting the plays and actors in 16th century London! It’s the language of sex-hatred! The language of the Calvinist Reformation: sex as “filth”! Sex as “pollution”! No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, could hold out against the horrors of being called a homosexual!
“A wounded name”
It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s his accusation that Oxford forced himself on his pages that continues to deny the Earl of Oxford his true place in history! While to Stone he was only a violent wastrel, Nelson has swallowed Howard and Arundel’s charge of pederasty hook, line and stinker! Letting no opportunity pass to stick on more tar and feathers, he ignores Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust. The “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1582––testimony to his role as patron to the Children of the Chapel––more evidence of his sexual depravity.
Truly we must ask ourselves, is this evidence of Oxford’s diseased behavior? Or isn’t it rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination? He seems a little skewed in this regard in other areas, for instance describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for such a term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary reference I’ve ever seen to Anne’s looks was “comely,” and that, going by her lifelike image on Burghley’s great tomb, an exaggeration.
Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, the product of the Cecils’ outrage, the Howard libels, and the rabid homophobia still in effect, is the academic version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence, if only with words. That’s why he’s been bombarded ever since, not with the rocks and dead animals that killed and maimed the poor “inverts” pilloried in 19th-century London, but with every bad adjective any English-speaking academic could conjure up. No matter that there’s no other record of these crimes, or that no one else (except for Arundel) ever came forward to back up Howard in these, or any other of his charges, all the homophobic needs to unleash his fury is an accusation.
Shakespeare and sex
The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. As the poet John Masefield wrote: “sex ran in him like a river.” And while there are hints here and there of male-male passion in the plays, most of the attractions he so convincingly dramatizes are between men and women. John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was Love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the Sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; sex plays no obvious part in them as it does in those written to and for the Dark Lady. What did he want from the youth? Surely what he wanted was his love. He says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and survivors of 19th century homophobia, love means sex. If it doesn’t show, that’s just because the writer was being cagey. Parse every sentence, search every etymology, there must be sex in it somewhere!
Love is not incompatible with sex, but sex changes it. Shakespeare says it himself in Sonnet 129, sex is “savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . . .” “Not to trust”––surely that is the point, true love is all about trust. Separated by years, by reputation, only love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written after time has passed:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Where the Poet’s relationship with the Youth is harmed it’s because there has been a breach of trust, which he forgives on the youth’s part in some sonnets and, for which he asks for forgiveness on his own in others. If there is sex in this then it’s regarded in a very different light than we regard it today. As Shakespeare shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, sex in a relationship makes men vulnerable to jealousy, a destruction of trust that can lead to emotional agony, and to tragedy.
Maybe now that the English-speaking culture is attempting to eradicate the evils done during that long-ongoing spasm of sex-hatred, we can relax and see the Earl of Oxford in a clearer light. The least we can do is to take him at face value, and not be picking through his verse in search of a reality that may be ours but that almost certainly was not his. The Sonnets were written before the centuries of homophobia changed forever how the English, poets and academics alike, thought about sex. The imagery of the Sonnets, that so many have struggled to prove did or did not indicate sexual relations, cannot be taken as evidence, for we do not know, nor will we ever know, what exactly the poet had in mind when he wrote them.
Oxford and Southampton
But if, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, we do know a few things that the academics do not. The majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife dead, his in-laws out to deprive him of his access to the Stage and the Press. Living in a hostelry down by the river, in “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that can’t be faked. Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he was enrolled at that time. On his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love, not the sexual kind, but the unconditional love of a mentor, a father figure. His own father was long since dead, he did not get along with his mother, and his guardian, Lord Burghley, was obviously mostly interested in what he could get from Southampton, if not entry to the peerage by marriage to his granddaughter, then a goodly chunk of his inheritance as a fine for having refused her.
Much as Sussex had been to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb and to be young, alone and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. It’s likely they first met when Burghley was urging the teenager to marry Oxford’s daughter, and Oxford, willing to assist, wrote the first seventeen sonnets for his seventeenth birthday in 1590, the so-called marriage sonnets. They met, and formed a bond out of their mutual need, one that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, by which time Southampton had reached his majority, grown a beard, and was capable of making his own way at Court.
No longer in need of a father, by 1594 the Fair Youth had turned to the one to whom he would (disastrously) pledge his allegience for the next seven years. By then Oxford, married again, living in the kind of luxury he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours writing sonnets, a good thing since he was no fan of the Earl of Essex, Southampton’s New Best Friend.
As for the nature of the passion expressed in the sonnets, why should we care? Homophobia had not yet made men overly cautious about the terms they used to express their feelings for each other, the rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a rather misplaced, prurient concern over something that shouldn’t really matter, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare first became acquainted with their same-sex context, a period poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired so long before by Calvin’s fear of syphilis.
Frankly what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who it seems was using makeup and dressing as a girl in his teens, was already well-versed in homosexual sexplay by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man, a surrogate father, helping this youth to accept his role as a lover of women, a necessity if he was to marry and continue his line, the Sonnets make a lot more sense, all of them, including those written for the Dark Lady which do address their sexual relationship in no uncertain terms, then as a wouldbe lover consumed with lust.
In any case, what’s important about these libels to history is not whether or not Oxford was a monster, but the fact that it was his “confession” in December of 1580 that put Walsingham on the track that enabled him to prepare for the attack of the Spanish Armada. What’s important to literary history is not whether or not he had sex with Southampton, it’s that the time spent writing these sonnets, probably on a daily basis during a period when he had little else to do, gave him the command of the language he needed for the plays he would soon be writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, plays that would make his cover the most famous name in literary history.
Howard and Shakespeare
As for Howard, Oxford had his revenge, though sadly not seen by anyone but that rather small percentage of his audience who knew that he was the author. There’s no doubt that at some point he came to realize that Howard was responsible for the rumor that broke up his marriage. Proof of this are the villains in two of the plays that bear the Shakespeare name, and several others that came earlier. That Howard was the model for Iago is beyond dispute. That he was also the model for Iachimo and Lady Macbeth is almost as convincing.
One of the strongest arguments for Oxford as author of the canon is the fact, obvious to those who know both the plays and Oxford’s biography, that six of Shakespeare’s plays involve the story of the breakup of his marriage, either as the main plot: Othello, The Winter’s Tale, All’s Well, and Cymbeline, and, as backstory: Pericles and Hamlet. When the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays have been completely integrated into the history of the English Court during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we’ll have a fuller understanding of both––and not until then.
Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?
Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same. Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.
From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out. Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.
Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability. Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines. The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.
At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London. During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through. In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies. Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience. This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.
The Lords Chamberlain and the records
Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment. It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.
Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle. There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder. Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two. And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.
All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.
As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”
Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage. These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.
Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time. When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place. Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.
By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies. Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses” in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines. For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.
The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties
Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability. Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.
The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys. Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.
The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record. Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies. For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.
Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys. There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII. The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand. That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.
Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.
Oxford and the Court Stage
This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley. Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each. Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries. One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.
The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents. On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain. A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party. Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.
Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary. At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex. All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.
Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games. For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.
That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons. One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men. This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.
The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem. Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.
Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.
Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin. Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis. Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources. Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?
Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies. The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed. It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.
Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage
It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born. In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne. In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.
Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London. Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.
It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC). Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566. As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.
It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.) Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.
Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars
By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars. The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.
An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.
Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End. The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer). Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.
The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.” Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.
The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589
Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season. Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign. Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.
Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names. All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.
Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy. Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience. A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s. Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library. On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.
On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest. (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?) Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius. On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.
1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests. On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy. On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank). Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English. No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.
Trouble in Illyria
Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament. Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel. In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.
Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays. Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to. The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.
Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings
Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw. The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber. Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.
Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles. Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.
Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something. From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three. The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests. Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.” The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style. Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.
So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court? What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns. Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.
The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created. Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85. As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range. He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.
Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it. He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.
Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them. So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters. Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself. As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.
Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham
Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return. What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.
For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point. In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders. Who but Oxford could write such plays. Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).
Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died. For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage. In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year. The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment. After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded. From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.
Another turn of the screw
In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.
Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity. Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.
London in the 1590s
Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign. With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.
As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.
As described by Lawrence Stone in TheCrisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End. That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.
The Cecils attack the Stage
That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.
Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils, made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over. Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.
Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.
Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City. In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies. Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men. Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
So where was Oxford?
In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto. Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.
In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son. This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.
While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.
Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s. Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.
In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.
Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.
Hamlet has always been seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, his most fully realized character. In calling him “the secular Christ,” Yale professor Harold Bloom makes the most extravagant comparison that a Christian culture can offer. In fact, it may be that more has actually been written (in English) about this fictional being than has been written about the Savior.
Those who’ve looked into it have found it impossible to locate anything in the life of William of Stratford that corresponds in any way to Hamlet’s life and situation. He would have had to get all of it from books, but all the literary sources tracked by Bullough and others were in Latin or French in his time, most in volumes that, even had he the Latin promised by T.W. Baldwin would have required connections to private libraries that academics can only assume, since there’s no hint in William’s real biography (as opposed to the fictional versions conjured up by academics) of any such connections. The one possible reference to William’s personal life, the son named Hamnet that died at age 11, was obviously named after his friend, Hamnet Saddler, while the character in the play is just as obviously based on the life of a Danish prince named Amleth, whose story, far from popular, lay buried in a Latin history of Denmark written in the 12th century.
This and other primary souces for Hamlet Prince of Denmark are found in Oxford’s tutor’s library: the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, not translated into English until 1608; the Roman history of Titus Livius, Latin, not translated into English until 1600; Valerius Maximus (used in schools), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (both Latin rhetoricians). Others connect with Oxford’s years at Cecil House: Beowulf, probably translated from Old English into Latin and/or English by Laurence Nowell for the benefit of his students at Cecil House c.1563; Seneca’s plays, the Agamemnon and Troas, translated by members of the Cecil House coterie in the mid-1560s and published by Thomas Newton in 1581. The plot of the play within the play, “the mousetrap,” based on the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was still a matter for Court gossip in 1575 when Oxford was traveling from one Italian Court to another. Della Rovere having been Castiglione’s patron for many years, in his youth he formed one of the group whose conversation makes up the major portion of Castiglione’s book, The Courtier, also in Smith’s library in the original Italian (translated into miserable “drab era” English by William Cecil’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby while Oxford was at Cecil House.
While most of Shakespeare’s protagonists can be matched more or less easily to some phase of Oxford’s biography, the version of Hamlet as we have it from the First Folio (1623) seems to be a sort of overview of his entire life, a figure made up of his most personal view of himself, with a plot compounded of the central experiences of his life, the loss of his Earldom through the early death of his father; the loss of the Court Stage through the death of his patron; his troubled marriage; the enemies who were out to shut him up. It is a tragedy much like the one that overtakes Oedipus, the unfolding of a dire situation into which he was born and from which he cannot excape. But unlike Oedipus, whose tragedy turns on his ignorance of the past, Hamlet’s much-vaunted indecision seems more a stoic determination to see how things will play out. Having confirmed what he has guessed by Claudius’s response to the enactment of the murder of Gonzaga, he senses that any further intervention on his part will only make things worse: “Let Hercules himself do what he may; the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”
Like Hamlet, Oxford was born into a troubled dynasty. It’s clear that his father, the sixteenth earl, though termed “the good earl,” was not up to the task of sustaining a feudal domain that was so obviously doomed by the political and economic forces assailing it. Like Hamlet, Oxford was more interested in literature and science (returning to Wittenberg) than life at Court. Like Hamlet, he was romantically and sexually involved with the daughter of the monarch’s primary court official, Polonius/Burghley. Like Hamlet, he was jealous of her relationship with her father. Like Hamlet, he used the Stage to explain himself to the Court while claiming to entertain it. A thousand years of history had put the Earl of Oxford in the position he was in, one from which his only escape was to create two brand new arenas where he had free rein, the Stage and the Press.
In Hamlet Oxford dramatized his attitude towards William Cecil Lord Burghley, his father-in-law: “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”; his attitude towards his wife, Burghley’s daughter (Ophelia): “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny”; his bitterness over the Queen’s business-as-usual attitude while the Earl of Sussex was dying: “a beast, that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer”); his disdain for the Earl of Leicester (Claudius): “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; his astonishment at his brother-in-law’s (Robert Cecil’s) hatred: “What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever”; his disgust at how his unscrupulous friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), are conspiring to destroy him: “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Only the end differs, but when he first wrote it of course he had no idea how it would end. Nor do we, 400 years later.
One would think that identifying Polonius as Burghley would lead, automatically, to the identity of his daughter, and from her to the identity of her lover/husband, i.e., Hamlet, but one would be wrong, for to the so-called literary critic, history is just another form of literary fiction, something to be trimmed or amplified as needed to fit their theories, leaving the truth to the historians of wars and political coups who, equally culpable, pay no attention to literature. For who but the Earl of Oxford, England’s Lord Great Chamberlain by seventeen generations of inheritance, would have dared to describe the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”––and lived to write again?
Screwing with history
Hamlet is a prime example of how the Lestradian stupidity of the officials in charge of interpreting Shakespeare has skewed the history of an entire era. While Nashe’s 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon gives clear evidence of a version of Hamlet from before that date, this must needs be seen as an “Ur-Hamlet,” written of course by one of their anonymous pre-Shakespearean ghost-writers who provided the lazy Bard with so much of his material. And because no proper niche can be found for Hamlet in current events of the 1590s––where the Stratford biography has forced all dates of composition––nothing can provide anything either personal or popular that might have inspired the playwright to write the play, so the commonplace is that Shakespeare, despite his obvious connection to the Crown’s own company for forty years, never bothered his artistic head with what was going on around him. Thus is historic accuracy set aside, a thing of small importance.
Moving even further from the particular to the general, this has led to a general agreement among the Lestrades of the 20th century English Departments that there is no such thing as a compulsion among, not just Shakespeare, but all the world’s greatest writers of fiction to base their creations on aspects of their own lives. That this won’t work with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henri Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, etc., makes no difference. One must never allow dull reality to get in the way of theory.
Recall George Orwell’s interpretation of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in his 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four? Recall Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who scoffs at Alice’s inability to believe in the impossible, while she herself has managed to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Recall as well that her creator, Lewis Carroll, that is Charles Dodgson (his real name), was a math professor at Oxford, whence cameth most, perhaps all, of the characters Alice encountered in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Recall Alice’s ultimate response, which we should all take to heart, when she cries out at the end of Looking Glass, “Who cares for you, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
The play’s the thing
History records that throughout his twenties Oxford was riding high at Court. “The glass of fashion,” he was promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, rapidly assuming the role of Queen’s favorite: (Gilbert Talbot wrote his father May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other.”) He was the essence of Renaissance nonchalance, of sprezzatura. He refused the Queen’s order to dance for the French envoys. He called Sir Philip Sidney a puppy. He turned the tables on his Catholic friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, for attempting to suck him into dangerous treason plots as they had the Duke of Norfolk. But this ascent came to an abrupt halt when his lover, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, gave birth to his illegitimate son in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, sending the jealous monarch into a prolonged tantrum. Playing the humiliated goddess for all it was worth, the infuriating revelation that her charms were not sufficient to keep her favorites in line meant the Queen must needs turn her erring Actaeon into a villain and sic the hounds upon him.
After two months in the Tower, commiserating with the ghosts of the kings who had preceded him, some perhaps in the very same room in which he found himself; after months of house arrest and an edict banishing him from Court for an indeterminate period, the notion that once back at Fisher’s Folly Oxford would simply sit on his hands for two years while the Queen got over her hissy fit is so unlikely, well, who but the White Queens of the university English Departments could possibly swallow such a notion?
Feeling abused and unappreciated, bored with writing comedies for children to perform for the unappreciative witch on the throne, he threw himself into creating plays for Burbage’s adult team, the kind of plays he would never have dared to produce at Court. Some versions were created primarily for this team to perform for the public at Burbage’s big open air stage in Shoreditch (Romeo and Juliet); some were aimed at provincial audiences (King John, The Spanish Tragedy); most were aimed at the West End audience, the gentlemen of the inns of Court, performed by Burbage’s men on the little stage he and Lord Hunsdon had created in the Blackfriars complex shortly after his return from Italy in 1576.
Hamlet: the backstory
Having been appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1572, the Earl of Sussex had named as his vice-chamberlains Henry Hunsdon, later (1594) the patron of Shakespeare’s Company, and his son-in-law Lord Charles Howard, later (also 1594) the patron of Marlowe’s Company. Sussex was determined to replace Leicester, whom he detested, as leading member of the Privy Council, which meant, among other things, taking the Court Stage under his own jurisdiction, where by long tradition it belonged. The Revels account for the early 1570s suggests that this was when Oxford, backed by Sussex, began providing plays for the various children’s companies to perform during the winter holidays.
A decade later, during the period that Oxford was banished from Court (1581-83) the Earl of Sussex began to weaken from what has since been diagnosed as consumption. As Sussex faded, Walsingham, by then Secretary of State, moved to take control of the Stage before Leicester or one of his clients could take it back. In all of England there was only one playwright who Walsingham could be certain could charm the provincial audiences into backing the Crown against the Spanish Church. For this he had to have Oxford back at Court. History relates that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who persuaded the Queen to allow Oxford to return, though what is more likely is that Raleigh was acting more in Walsingham’s interest than in Oxford’s. If I’m right about the kind of plays he was producing at the Blackfriar’s Theater during his banishment, members of the Privy Council, including Oxford’s father-in-law, may have preferred, as the saying goes, to have the rascal inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.
Since 1572, when the Pope first issued the bull that guaranteed God’s forgiveness to whoever would rid Christendom of that Whore of Babylon, the heretical Queen of England, Walsingham was preparing for the inevitable attack by the Spanish Armada. Having spent years on the Continent, he was deeply aware (to an extent that Her Majesty and Burghley were not, neither having spent any time abroad), of the inevitability of a military attack. Having had a sophisticated humanist education at Padua, where the Roman theater had never completely died, Walsingham was also aware, as had been Sussex, of the power of the stage to win hearts and minds to a cause, in this case, patriotism over religion––for the coastal towns where the Spanish were certain to strike first, were still largely wedded to the Old Faith.
“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue”
Oxford had every reason to detest the Earl of Leicester. Not only was he a rival for the Queen’s favor, it was Leicester to whom she had given the use of his estates while he was underage; Leicester who had rudely cheated his mother of her portion of his father’s will while he was still too young and powerless to defend her. While his banishment from Court extended from months to years and his enemies were elevated in importance and allowed to attack him in the streets without reproof, Leicester, who had not only impregnated one of the Queen’s ladies but had married her in secret, was returned to favor while he had still to go about incognito in fear for his life.
From July to the end of October 1582, while he was still under banishment from Court, his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), 27-year-old Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), aka Lord Willoughby, was in Denmark to bring the Order of the Garter to the Protestant King, returning to England by November. Then again, in 1585, with the renewal of hostilities in the lowlands, Bertie was sent as special ambassador back to Denmark in October to urge the Danish king to contribute aid to the Dutch in their fight against Spain. This took some time. As the DNB puts it: “He filled his spare time with visits to Tycho Brahe’s observatory to examine the new comet the astronomer had just discovered, evidence of an enduring scientific interest.”
Having finally succeeded in getting a promise of troops, Bertie arrived at Amsterdam in March 1586, where Sidney got him a command, ultimately taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces when Leicester departed in December 1587. Oxford and Bertie were friendly enough that Oxford spent time with him and his sister in June 1582 (Nelson 281), and though no letters have turned up, it makes sense that, with Oxford’s interest in the stars, his brother-in-law would have discussed with him what he saw in Denmark after his first four-month visit in 1582, and would have written to him of more recent developments during the five months in 1585 that he waited around at the Danish Court for the King to respond to his request.
This then is the backstory to the first version of Hamlet. Out of the death of Sussex; the unseemly return to favor of the Earl of Leicester whom he and many others suspected (probably unfairly) of having Sussex poisoned; Saxo’s report on the mad prince Amleth of Danish history; the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had certainly been poisoned; his own dilemma with his wife and her family; the interest raised by Thomas Digges’s publication in the mid-1570s of evidence that the universe, rather than bounded by the ancient Ptolemaic nutshell, was actually an infinity of space filled with stars; plus reports from the Danish Court on Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Oxford created the first version of Hamlet, the one mentioned in passing by Nashe in such a way that suggests its popularity as early as 1589.
Returned finally to Court in June 1583, a week before Sussex’s death, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, contemplete life at Court without his major patron, Milord’s temper on his return was pretty much identical to Hamlet’s as the scene opens at the Danish Court, and that he too continued to dress, and act, as though in mourning. The “inky cloak” that shows Hamlet’s grief over the death of his father, mirrors Oxford’s refusal to show an interest in the holiday festivities that until his banishment had been his primary function at Court.
Just as Hamlet, while preferring to continue his studies at Wittenberg (the reading and translating in which Oxford had been immersed since his return from France and Italy), having yielded to his mother’s wish that he remain at Court, remains disaffected until, inspired by the actors, he creates a play that puts him at risk of assassination. Returned to Court by the efforts of Raleigh and Walsingham, having tasted the freedom of writing what he pleased, Oxford had no intention of churning out the kind of comedies that pleased the Queen. Enrolled by Walsingham in creating history plays that would help to turn the mood of the coastal towns away from religion and towards patriotism, he writes The Troublesome Raigne of King John, launching a series in which, encouraged by Walsingham, Smith’s close friend during their days together in the Secretary’s office, he finally gets to engage with genuine policy issues.
The version of Hamlet that we know from the First Folio is not, of course, the version that Nashe referred to in 1589 in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon with the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches,” or even the one Thomas Lodge referred to in 1596, referring to the ghost that cried at the theatre, “like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Nor even the one published in 1603, which suggests its publisher, Nicholas Ling, had waited until the Queen was gone.
The one we know is the one published the following year 1604, when the original models for all the principals but Laertes were no longer capable of being wounded. The Hamlet we know was revised from the perspective of later life, in full knowledge of the curve of events, and how “the end crowns all.” If the original “antique Roman” was Rutland, the name Horatio suggests that Hamlet’s plea to tell the truth about his “wounded name, things standing thus unknown,” was directed to his cousin Sir Horatio Vere, who in 1604 was achieving distinction on the battlefields of Europe. But not Sir Horatio, nor any other member of Oxford’s family or audience, had the audacity to broach the subject openly in print, then or for generations after. As Shakespeare put it, “the rest is silence.”
Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history. Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot. At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.
He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months. As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place. As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died. Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.
Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper. That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously. In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials. For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.
Bound to the Cecils by marriage
The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family. If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage. His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage. Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers. He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates. Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.
In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad. Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities. Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.
Birth of the London Stage
Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season. Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater. Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End. These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.
Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London. The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.
In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor. Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End. This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage. Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.
Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack. It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.
The Cecils attack the Stage and Press
Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter. Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.
Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work. By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records. Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.
Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue. With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare. Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.
Cecil ups the ante
Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season. Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.
The actors strike back
Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard IIIin which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.
Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard. Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes. Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.
With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.
Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story. The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.
When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language. Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.
One of the moments in Oxford’s life that has remained a bone of contention is his death. According to the public record, he died on June 24th, 1604, having just turned 54. But like so many things in his life, this scenario is dubious at best. Although I had suspicions from the first, primarily due to the mythical significance of June 24th, it was the 2004 article by authorship scholar Christopher Paul: “A Monument without a Tomb: The Mystery of Oxford’s Death,” (published in The Oxfordian), that led to the following scenario. (Though he provides many of the facts that support it, Paul does not advocate for this scenario.)
In my view, what is far more likely is that Oxford did not die in 1604, that he continued to live in seclusion for another four or five years. As an earl, there is no way he could have escaped the pressures of his social position in any other way. His forbears were able to end their worldly affairs and retire to a monastery when they felt that their lives were drawing to a close, as did the first Earl of Oxford. Thus, for the centuries that Catholicism was the national religion, peers had the means by which they could be free to spend their final days in peaceful prayer and preparation for the afterlife, having passed on their possessions and titles to those they wished to have them, an option that ceased with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. (And obviously an issue that concerned Shakespeare, as witness King Lear.)
Measure for Measure
It’s a matter of record that Measure for Measure was performed at Court on December 26, 1604, six months (almost to the day) after Oxford’s supposed death. The performance took place on the night before the marriage of his daughter Susan to the Earl of Montgomery. The lead in that play is the mature Duke Vincentio, “the old fantastical duke of dark corners” as Lucio calls him, who disappears into a monastery early in the play, leaving his estate in the hands of lesser folk who wonder at one point if he might be dead.
If Oxford meant this to be understood by his Court audience as a reference to his situation at the time, was he merely fantasizing that he actually had the kind of power he assigns to the Duke? Could it be that at that time in history, with the Stage as his platform and the entire population of the city, plus visitors and every three years 500 parliamentarians, as his audience, that he did have that kind of power? Could such a powerful constituency have been so utterly silent? Consider the total silence of the powerful members of three other sizable communities at that time: the Catholics, the Freemasons, and the homosexual underground.
Oxford was the highest ranking peer in his time. At a time when the tradition was that an earl of his rank would be given a lavish and very public funeral, Oxford had no funeral at all. Surely here’s another one of those Oxfordian dogs that didn’t bark in the night. We can be certain about this as we have descriptions of the funerals of others like Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham. His own wishes would have had nothing to do with the matter, nor or whether he was Shakespeare, nor even to the issue of cost, it was due purely to the position he held in society simply by virtue of his name and title. Were he actually dead, someone would have seen to it that a respectable funeral took place, most notably his in-laws, the Trenthams, not to mention the King, who was on a royal spending spree, and whose favorite at the time, the young Philip Herbert (brother of the third Earl of Pembroke whose domain was all of southwestern England) would soon be marrying Oxford’s daughter Susan.
No certain burial place
There are different scenarios for Oxford’s burial site, depending on what authority you choose to follow, but the upshot is that there is no absolutely certain place where his body resides or ever resided, either temporarily or permanently. The only possible reason for this lack of information is that his burial site, or more likely, sites, could not be made an issue because at the time that the records were being made regarding his demise, he was still alive, thus there was no body to bury. When he did finally die some four or five years later, since he was supposed to have been already dead for some time, it was necessary that his passing and subsequent burial be kept as private as possible.
Although we do not know when or where he was buried, nor did most of his contemporaries, who would have known would surely have been those members of his family with whom he had maintained relations over the years. One such would have been the Goldings, his mother’s family, while the most likely place for a peer of his stature to be buried would have been Westminster Abbey.
Percival Golding was Oxford’s cousin, the son of his uncle Arthur Golding, to whom was attributed the authorship of Shakespeare’s favorite source, the translation into English verse of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In a formal statement written in 1619, Percival Golding states flatly that Oxford was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The death of the summer lord
Right from the beginning it struck me as a little too coincidental that Oxford was buried on St. John’s Day, the classic moment for the death of the summer lord, whose sacrificial death marks the end of the rising half of the festival year, a bit of folk history he would have known from the same ancient Greek sources that gave Sir James Frazer the material for his masterwork, The Golden Bough.
If Oxford was Shakespeare, his death would surely have been immensely meaningful to those patrons and audiences who made the King’s Men one of the most lucrative businesses of the early 17th century. To 17th-century Londoners, Shakespeare’s death should have meant what the deaths of impresarios like Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Hammerstein, or George Gershwin meant to 20th-century New Yorkers. That there was no fanfare over William’s death says more than anything can about his actual relationship to the works that bore his name. Bringing this within range of many other pieces of the Shakespeare and Oxford puzzles, it seems worth suggesting that Oxford was using what means were at his disposal to get the time he needed to put a final polish on those plays he considered his legacy, his “alms for oblivion,” and in a place where the Cecils could not get at him.
The great reckoning with Robert Cecil
Oxford’s behavior during the 1590s suggests that this retreat to the Forest was the final maneuver in his life-long battle with the power-hungry Cecils, to whom Fate had bound him by ties of blood; a fight for the freedom to do what he believed was his right as one greater than they, in rank, in wisdom, in humanity, in inherited office (Lord Great Chamberlain), and not least, in sheer will. He had to fulfill his sacred calling, which was to tell the truth as he saw it. He says as much through Jaques when he asks Duke Senior (King James) to “invest me in my motley . . . and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world . . . ,” meaning, no doubt, the Court, which was corrupt and becoming more so every day.
With Walsingham’s death in 1590, the Cecils had taken (rather retaken) control of the office of Secretary of State: William the paperwork , Robert the legwork. The attack on the London Stage began immediately; Lyly was fired, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men were dissolved, Marlowe was assassinated (or more likely, transported), Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange was murdered.
In 1594 Sussex’s two vice-chamberlains stepped forward to rescue the Stage from the chaos into which it had been thrown by these events. Reorganizing the actors into two companies with themselves as patrons, no doubt also with strict rules regarding what they were allowed to perform, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law Lord Admiral Charles Howard, created the system that would be followed for the next three decades.
On January 26, 1595, William Stanley having inherited the title from his now dead older brother, Lord Strange (by then fifth earl of Derby), marries Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere, thus acquiring for the Cecils a close family tie to the earldom of Derby and, through her son, the royal blood of the Derby earls, something they were frustrated of in their alliance with Oxford, who had produced no heir, and who, apart from his impressive lineage, had no claim on the throne (which, considering what happened to Lord Strange, was just as well for Milord).
Following his daughter’s marriage to Derby, it seems that Oxford did what he could to retire from Court, as is suggested by Roland White’s note later that year to Robert Sidney, governor of Flushing, which states: “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead.” Two years earlier Oxford had returned to pressing the Queen regarding her promise to give him the stewardship of Waltham Forest, a perquisite that had always been within the purview of his ancestors and that he felt was his by right. For whatever reason, she continued to fob him off with one excuse after another. Perhaps she was afraid that he would disappear into the woods like Orlando, Timon, or all the principals in As You Like It.
In June of 1596 Essex takes off for Cadiz, foolishly leaving the door open for Robert Cecil to get cozy enough with Elizabeth that she finally appoints him Secretary of State, thus giving him and his father powers equal to, or perhaps even greater than, her own. This power was increased two weeks later with the death of the senior member of the Privy Council, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, patron of Shakespeare’s company. It was hugely increased again a week after that when the Queen appointed Cecil’s father-in-law to fill Hunsdon’s place. Thus by mid-August of 1596, Essex arrived home to find that the Cecils now held the top three governmental posts in the nation.
They used their now almost total power that November by seeing to it that the great new theater Burbage had built in the Blackfriars district was closed by edict of the Privy Council. Perhaps they used it again when halfway through the winter theater season that year, James Burbage died, leaving his sons (and their playwright) with no theater with which to entertain the Parliament the following autumn. They used it again that June to close all the theaters over the Isle of Dogs scandal, sending the actors on the road. That the Company fought back by producing for the Parliament a version of Richard III in which Richard Burbage achieved fame by portraying the evil king––probably in the costume and attitudes of the recently appointed Secretary of State––is as close to historic fact as its possible to get.
It was during this showdown that the reading audience was introduced for the first time to the previously totally unknown William Shakespeare as the author of the most popular plays in London. The following Christmas the Company tore down the old Shoreditch stage and rebuilt it on Bankside as The Globe, but by then Cecil was too busy with his showdown with Essex to bother with Oxford or the Stage. With his reputation permanently damaged by the play and by its publication in two editions, one right after the other, in which lines were added that could only point to him, Cecil could do little but maintain a holding pattern until Essex, at the end of his emotional tether, destroyed himself, taking with him a large portion of the younger courtiers who would otherwise have provided a counterweight to his subsequent grab for more and more power.
Oxford and his papers are saved
Following the Queen’s death in 1603, Oxford found King James a kinder sovereign than he probably had reason to expect. Most likely persuaded by the Pembroke brothers, James gave him the stewardship of the Forest, perhaps in exchange for his agreement to continue to write for the Court. In any case, while supposedly dead he had nine plays ready for the marriage of his daughter to the younger Pembroke the following Christmas. Safely tucked away in a modest dwelling near the ancient Havering Palace, favorite residence of Edward the Confessor, he lived as he pleased, protected from Cecil, who had no jurisdiction in the Forest, an idyll he portrays in As You Like It, one of the plays he revised during this period, in which he left a number of clues to the events of his life.
When did he die? Events suggest 1609. In a website titled 1609, the late great authorship scholar Robert Brazil details a number of events and publications that, although none can be relied upon as hard evidence, suggest this was when the great impresario finally moved on to that better world that so many of his characters mention in passing. Brazil, never one to move too far from hard evidence, would never state, so far as I know, the reason for choosing 1609 to highlight in this manner. Perhaps he left it for the rest of us to consider.
In my view, this was when the movement to get Oxford’s works published as a collection first began, a project that would take another decade and a half, and (I believe) was also the beginning of the movement to get him buried in Westminster Abbey, where (I believe) he lies today beneath the huge screen, created in 1741 to honor Shakespeare, that divides Poet’s Corner in half.
So what if anything actually happened on June 24, 1604? Only one thing we know for sure, which is that Robert Cecil, by then Viscount Cranborne, had the Earl of Southampton arrested on the trumped-up charge that he was suspected of plotting against the King (the excuse for all Cecil’s attacks on his personal enemies), so he could have his papers examined. Southampton was released with no explanation for the arrest either then or later (by historians). Obviously Cecil didn’t find what he was looking for. As for what might have occurred on the day in question, June 24, 1604, or more likely the night before, Midsummer’s Eve, we can only dream.
What did he look like? Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media. None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography. Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)
Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike. Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first. In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”
For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio. Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline. Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re presented.
At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue. Shakespeare was famous in his own time. Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits. We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton. We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous. Why not the Bard himself?
“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006
Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six! Then why the show?
What determines an expert? The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions? Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion? They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”
Why then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit? Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?
The only four that matter
For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath. This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it. It seems that from its first
appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving. Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations: Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.
The problem with the Chandos has always been its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..
Why not? Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford. Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William. Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin. For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur. That the Chandos is the source of the Droeshout face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.
The Welbeck and the Ashbourne
The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image. This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).
As merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties. It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time. Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.
Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking. It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the show, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that, unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.
The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.
Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford! A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10). Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.
In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms. Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s. In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.
Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them. Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face. Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.
The Vertue engraving
It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford. Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention. Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close. Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others. Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping. And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils! Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.
Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled. Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye. It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving. I was convinced! These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.
Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.), Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.
If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”
I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.
The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor. They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey. The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton. The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them. These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window. Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont. None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century. In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried. There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.
I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .” When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616. We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries. I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.
Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?
Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at length. In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne. The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury. The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.
Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes. Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid. (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).
I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it. Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression. Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply no likeness.
A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master. Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed to sign them then, at least not with their own names). Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices. No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.
The evolution of Shakespeare’s image
In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return. Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others. Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter. Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout. We’ll call this image #1.
In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout. In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).
By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).
This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.
Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust. Constantly described as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger. Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!
Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.
Unable to do more here than touch on a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages: Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertueprovides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.
NB: This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them. At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation). (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.) Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.