Category Archives: Elizabethan era

Why Queen Elizabeth remained a virgin

In studying the Elizabethan period a few things have come clear that were not before, among them the peculiar nature of the Reformation focus on Sin, or to be more precise, on sins related to sex. In fact, in Reformation tracts the word sin alone may be taken as a synonym for sex, for none of the other cardinal sins. Greed, for example, which expanded exponentially at that time, while labelled sinful, while deplored by writers of government policy and lashed from the pulpit, was not, as was sex, the inevitable route to the fiery furnace. And not just illicit sex, but all sex. According to Calvin, any pleasure from sex, even between husband and wife, was considered Lust, making those who found pleasure in it, even in just thinking about it, ripe for damnation.

This is truly bizarre. How on earth did these reformers expect to persuade humans that desire, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is something that humans, or any earthly creatures, can do without? Not only is sexual climax one of the greatest (and easiest) pleasures offered by nature––one that, because it alone brings life into existence, should be considered sacred, and was considered sacred from the Stone Age well into the medieval period––how did the religious reformers of the 16th century manage to persuade so many that it was something to be feared and hated?

More to the point, what led them to this bizarre, even dangerous, position––dangerous considering that without sex, or more particularly, without desire, there would eventually be no more Protestants? The Catholic Church was less enthusiastic about sex than its pagan forbears, but did agree that procreation at least was sacred, though only when it took place within the bonds of holy matrimony. Perhaps because the Church understood that “no sex meant no little Catholics,” what it regarded as sin were chiefly sexual practices that prevent procreation: masturbation, homosexuality, coitus interruptus, and most forms of birth control.

Though it reached its peak during the Reformation, the seeds of this anti-sex campaign had been sown long before by the Hebrew bible in which Adam and Eve “fall” into sin when, having eaten the apple, they realize that they have genitals and then figure out what to do with them. Throughout the centuries dominated by the Church, unmarried men and women were segregated into communities of monks and nuns. This did not prevent desire, but at least it made consummation more difficult. The Church was also largely willing to care for the unwanted children that were the result of illicit sex, bringing them up in convents as loyal servants of the Faith. But once Luther and Calvin got hold of the Church, all forgiveness was impossible; even infants who died shortly after birth went straight to hell unless they had been baptized first. As Calvin put it (1536)––

Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it–such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings–he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21).

Apparently murder was less distressing to Calvin’s God than either theft or sex.

Nor was the Reformation the source of this pan-European anti-sex campaign, for at about the same time that the Reformation took up the fight, the Catholic Inquisition, instituted to weed out religious heresy, erupted in an hysterical pogrom directed against women, burning them at the stake as often for witchcraft or “misleading their children” as for practising pagan or Jewish rituals. “Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed.  About 80% of those killed were women.  Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France [and] 1,000 in England . . . .”

Why women? The only plausible answer is that because they arouse desire in men they were seen as tempting them to engage in sinful acts and thus leading them to damnation. We may see this as a perverse belief system and something that our culture has (largely) outgrown, but just because we don’t follow this line of thinking today, doesn’t mean we can ignore its long terms effects.

That back around the dawn of history the Patriarchy managed to eliminate women from the hierarchy of all the modern religions, and gradually from all positions of authority, can be attributed to simple male animal territoriality. However sweet and reasonable they can be as individuals, as a group men are competitive beasts, so relegating women to the kitchen and laundry was a simple matter of eliminating one big chunk of the competition. What happened in the 16th century was different. This was hacking at the roots of the tree of life while rendering desolate millions of addle-headed believers. (Those interested in the realities of this terrible belief system, still very much alive and functioning today in evangelical churches throughout the mid-west, will get an insight by viewing videos of current evangelical preaching on You Tube.)

The question is not just why did Luther and Calvin believe such terrible things, it’s even more perplexing why on earth so many people accepted them. However radical, the answer is simple enough: one word: syphilis.

Disease a factor in history

Understanding the diseases rampant at a particular time is necessary if we’re to see it clearly, particularly when certain aspects remain hidden as is true with the authorship question. The diseases rampant in 16th century England were, in no particular order: the bubonic plague, the ague (malaria), the small pox (smallpox), and the great pox (syphilis). Though there were certainly others, these seem to have had the most consistent influence on the culture, though, the plague excepted, their effect on history is generally ignored.

Although the plague was no less terrible than when it first struck Europe in the 14th century, by Elizabethan times it hardly affected the lives of those prepared to avoid it, for its habit, if not its cause, was understood so well that those who could would simply pack up and head for the country, where they would remain until it died out.

It tended to strike every ten years or so, first appearing with warm weather in the funky areas around the docks where ships brought it from abroad (exactly how was still a mystery), and from whence it spread, again by unknown means, to the poorest and most crowded areas of the city. It was most virulent in the heat of mid-to-late summer, dying away with the coming of cold weather. Plague years were sometimes preceded by an outbreak in the summer of the preceding year, to return more destructively the following year, after which it died out. Or it could return the year following a particularly harsh outbreak for a lesser outbreak.

Property was particularly vulnerable during a plague year since it was difficult to adequately protect unguarded manors. It was hard to get workers to dig graves and otherwise help get rid of the bodies, so the air stank of rotting corpses, which was blamed for spreading the contagion. Bodies buried in churchyards were put into common graves as soon as they came in each day, five or six at a time, covered with a sprinkling of lime and dirt to prevent contagion. The Court spent the worst part of plague years holed up at Windsor Palace.


The English were also used to malaria, as is seen by how often their letters mention the ague. It’s worth suggesting that only those who lived far from wetlands, sluggish streams or stagnant ponds were entirely free from the periodic attacks of joint pain, chills and fever, which as yet had no cure. Once bitten by the anopheles mosquito, rife in England at that time, he or she would be subject to attacks off and on for the rest of their lives. A severe attack could mean death to a child or someone already ailing from another disease.


This highly contagious disease was also well known to the English of the 16th century. It occured sometimes occasionally and sometimes in epidemics, always by direct or airborne infection through contact within 6 feet or so of someone who was sick. The progress was rapid, over a period of three days or so, and and often fatal. Pox, an alternate spelling of pocks, identifies a disease most notable for a rash or pimples, which, with smallpox, covered the face and other parts of the body, often leaving them disfigured, “pockmarked,” for life. The Queen had a bout with smallpox in 1562 which caused her ministers to fear for her life, but she recovered, apparently without scars. The one who did get scarred was her faithful lady-in-waiting, Lady Mary Sidney, mother of Philip and Mary, who was infected while attending her mistress. It’s said that her face was so badly scarred that she never again appeared in public without a veil over her face.


While these were all familiar to the English and had been for centuries, a new and virulent strain of what later came to be called syphilis appeared in Naples in 1495, from whence it spread fairly rapidly throughout western Europe. Concentrated in the port towns where sailors from Italy and the Far and Middle East indiscriminently exchanged bodily fluids with English prostitutes (first noted in England in 1497) who then spread it to clients who took it to their wives and mistresses throughout the nation. By this means, within a generation it had arrived at the doors and the beds of the great as well as the humble.

Unlike smallpox or the plague, which struck suddenly, death occuring within days, syphilis was slow; slow to appear; slow to develop. Understanding of its deadly nature must also have been slow. Even today arguments continue regarding its symptoms, which are often hard to diagnose. Where smallpox appears openly on the face and hands, the great pox first appeared in those areas most hidden from view, on the genitals. Following an early outbreak, these lesions would appear to heal, so the patient would consider himself or herself cured of one of the lesser STDs, and so continue to have sex, not realizing what they were doing to their partners, or what it could do to their families, since a man could infect his wife, who would then bear children with the inherited version of the disease.

Due to its varying symptomology, the Pox, as it was most commonly termed, could well have masqueraded for years as one of several other venereal diseases for which there were folk remedies, so its devastating nature would have become apparent only gradually over time. For while smallpox and the plague come fairly quickly to a crisis after which the patient is either dead or gets well, the bacilli that cause syphilis continue to spread deep within the cells of various parts of the body where they proliferate, gradually over the years bringing about the more obvious symptoms, the stinking, suppurating sores that won’t heal, or the deterioration of the bones of the face, most notably the nose. The only cure that was at all effective, ingesting mercury, was almost as devastating as the disease.

Because the symptoms could vary so widely depending on what organs had been compromised, because the disease could appear to have healed, going dormant sometimes for years, and because the effect it had on childbirth (the miscarriages, the stillbirths, the sickly infants, the children who only got sick later in life) were slow to be understood, it would have taken time for the pox to have shown itself in all its horror to the religious leaders who could only explain it in terms of original sin, that sex itself was the curse, God’s punishment on Adam and Eve for aspiring to forbidden knowledge. It also explains why their congregations, shocked and terrified, were so willing to follow Calvin and his fellow reformers down the path of stringent self-denial.

It was also why Queen Elizabeth had not only a dislike of sex, but genuine horror, fearing as she certainly must have what was the true cause of her father’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s terrible illnesses and what the results might be should she become pregnant. Much as the English historians continue to deny it, seeking ever more arcane explanations for Henry’s insane behavior towards the end of his life, no one who researches the matter can fail to agree that the disgusting nature of his illness, the troubles all his wives had conceiving and if they conceived, giving birth to healthy infants, were all due to the disease that all the Court either knew for a fact or guessed, was due to syphilis contracted during one of the many sexual peccadilloes with which he entertained himself in his youth. And even as the delicate sensibilities of the historians continue to prevail, there can be no argument that most of the Court under Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth would have believed the cause of the king’s insanity and his wives failures to produce a healthy heir to have been syphilis. This then, was the true cause why Elizabeth not only never married, but also why, despite her obvious delight in surrounding herself with handsome men, she would never have allowed herself to have sex (that is exchange bodily fluids) with any of them, taking refuge in the Greek myths of virginal goddesses like Diana and Phoebe.

This is the primary reason why sex was forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court; why the word “filthy” was inevitably used whenever reformers referred to sex; why books of sexy stories like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure were condemned as dangerous filth by Reformation pedagogues like Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor; and why those who transgressed her anti-sex edicts were punished so severely. This is also largely why the men (and women) who translated these works and had them published invariably hid their identities and why printers and publishers used ambiguous language on the title pages and in the front material of these and , so that the reform censors would pass them without reading further.

It also explains how the sexuality of young, vital Court poets, repressed by the dangers of yielding to impulse and intensified by the frustration of repression, burst forth in long sequences of sexually-charged poetry, long narrative poems about love and sex like Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and why during the decade of sonnet cycles addressed to cold disdainful dames, some, like Astrophil and Stella and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, exceeded 100 verses! Repressed by the sex hatred of the reformers and the fears of the Queen, desires that could not be allowed expression in any other way found release in reams of verse, some of it glorious––the lotus flowering from the heap of dung that was the terror inspired by this horrible disease.

Unravelling the Mystery: The Professor and the un-Countess

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

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

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

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

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

The almost Countess and the not really Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

The evangelicals vs the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

Cecil’s triumph

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

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

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

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

Hunsdon and Field

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

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

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

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Acts I through III

One of the reasons why it’s been so hard to convince the world that the Stratford story is a sham is that no one’s ever come up with a single strong reason why the true author’s identity had to be hidden.  Those who first drew the public’s attention to the subject in the 19th century pointed to his obvious knowledge of Court life, claiming that courtiers of stature would have hidden their involvement in the then déclassé public stage.  Certainly this is true, but for most it doesn’t explain why the cover-up had to continue so long after the author’s death.  Sir Philip Sidney’s work was in print, over his name, six years after his death.  Oxford’s uncle, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, was similarly published over his within ten years of his death.  So why not Oxford’s?

Most of the bigger things in life occur for more than one reason.  If you look at your own life, you’ll see that you went to college for more than one reason, that you picked a particular college for more than one reason, that you married a particular person for more than one reason, changed jobs, bought a house, divorced, always for more than one reason.  Nations go to war for more than one reason, and resist going to war for more than one reason.  Just so, the Shakespeare authorship got hidden for more than one reason.

Had this not been the case, had it not been first to one person’s advantage (his own), then his tutor’s advantage, then to his guardian’s advantage, then to an entire community’s advantage, and ultimately to the advantage of the company he started, one that initiated an industry that has come to be seen as the fourth branch of government, the voice of the people, the truth would surely have been revealed somewhere.  But it wasn’t, it didn’t, and some of these reasons have not faded with time.  For the fact is, that there never was, during Oxford’s lifetime, any advantage to him, to his family, to the theater companies he created and those who profitted by them on into succeeding centuries, for the truth to be revealed to the public; never any advantage to any of these, and plenty of disadvantages.

Not everyone who knew the secret knew it in its entirety, that is, some knew one thing, some another, but the likelihood is that no one knew all that he was writing, or later, all that he had written.  Even to this day there is disagreement over what was his and what was by some other writer or editor.  The committee that produced the First Folio could collect versions of the plays from the various friends, actors, and printers who held them, but how sure could they be of what was and wasn’t his?   Nothing was signed, and because like most men of his class, he dictated to secretaries, nothing was in his own handwriting.

Certainly the Queen knew that particular plays were his, at least since 1598, when the Meres book was published, at least of those plays named by Meres and most likely a dozen more, but it is very likely that of the 38 accepted plays and the 15 to 20 suggested early plays, there were some that she knew nothing about, and those she knew may very well have differed from the versions we know, because it was not advisable that she know the versions played for the West End audience, or on the road, or for a particular private gathering.

As Secretary of State, Oxford’s guardian (then his father-in-law) William Cecil/Ld Burghley had oversight over the press, so he knew all  about using both the stage and the press for propaganda; it’s a fact that he made use of both in his early years as Elizabeth’s first Secretary of State.  Burghley was instrumental in bringing printers over from the Continent to publish those works he considered essential to a reformation education.  Though unfortunately his biographer, Conyers Read, does not elaborate, he refers to the press as “the weapon Cecil knew best.”  Since Oxford lived with Cecil during the years he first began to publish, years when Cecil was doing his own propaganda, it was from him that he learned how to publish on the sly.  Knowing him as well as he did, he also learned how to work around him.

ACT I: Hidden in plain sight

When he first began to write, no one, including the boy himself, had any idea where it would take him or how important his work would turn out to be.  In fact the field in which he would flourish so luxuriously, English literature, hardly existed before he began transforming it.  Given the intense, bustling environment at Cecil House, surrounded by poets and translators in that important age group for a young artist, six to ten years his seniors; then in his late teens at Court, with a ready-made audience hungry for sophisticated, educated entertainment; what would end as the most important body of work since Chaucer two and a half centuries earlier began simply as a lark, a folie, a bit of “pickle herring,” something to entertain the lads at Cecil House, then the ladies at Court.

The authorship issue was never about writing anyway, it was always about publication.  So long as he wrote just for the Court community via the traditonal handwritten manuscript exchange there was no problem.  But creating hundreds of printed copies for sale to all comers meant making public what the Court saw as its own private pleasure, making it available, if to a far smaller public than today’s where almost everyone can read, yet it meant revealing it to the same 15 to 20 percent of the population most eager to pry into Court secrets.  And it was publishing that interested Oxford.

Writing was no big deal, everyone he knew did it.  It was creating books that fascinated him; books, those magical vehicles of culture, that could carry a man’s life and reputation for hundreds, thousands of years into the future so that readers would come to know someone like Alexander the Great, or even the mythical Achilles, as though they had lived with him; knowing him better in some ways than they knew their own families. Publishing was also the best means of hiding his identity as author.  While handwritten manuscripts could be traced back, if not to directly to himself, then to someone who knew who wrote it, typeset print was anonymous.  All that identified the author was the name on the title page, or registered with the Stationers, and that could be faked a lot more easily than handwriting.

Taking advantage of the traditions of his class as patrons of the arts, Oxford began a long career of publishing what he regarded as important works, some by  his friends, some his own, some translations of famous foreign works, , some about science, or music, or psychology, or  but mostly works of the imagination, stories and poems.

In this he was also following in his guardian’s footsteps, although most of what he considered worth publishing differed considerably from Burghley’s view of what was important.  Reformation ideologues, William Cecil and his in-laws occupied the legal and social center of a deadly serious, extremely repressive Reformation culture that saw adherence to Protestant beliefs as paramount.  They also saw sex as filthy and satire as rebellion.  So Oxford’s first step in what would become the long and complex process of hiding his authorship began by persuading pals like George Gascoigne and his uncle Arthur Golding to let him use their names so he could get his plays and poems published without Burghley’s permission, possibly even without his knowledge of their source.

Though not aware of everything Oxford wrote, William Cecil must have been aware of his ward’s talent.  That would have been impossible to hide, and, as a propagandist himself, he probably saw the boy’s gifts as something he might put to future use.  The ward, however, was destined to take a different path in life, one he wanted his guardian, and his guardian’s wife, and her family (and perhaps even his own wife), to know as little about as possible.  In his teens, his writing was just a lark, something to entertain his friends before settling down to––as he would often term it––“a graver labour.”

By his late teens, when he was more or less on his own at Court, there was no need to hide from the other members of the Court things like his madrigals and interludes written for holiday performance.  On the other hand, satires or poems that touched dangerously on intimate matters, however discreetly distributed within his own circle, must inevitably have spread further, raising eyebrows along with the question of their authorship.  So long as none of this escaped the confines of the Court community there was no real harm in it.  But when, just before taking off for a year on the Continent, in a first of many anthologies, he published along with love poems by himself and his friends, a “tale” that dwelt too obviously on the sex lives of certain courtiers, it released a firestorm of furious retribution.  This did nothing to prevent him from publishing, but it did help to make him more cautious about what and how he published.

ACT II: Birth of a professional

Then in 1572, when the Earl of Sussex came on board as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, what had begun as a lark began turning serious.  At that time it was still the Earl of Leicester who ran the Court Stage, but Sussex, who hated Leicester, was determined to get the oversight of Court entertainment back where it had been for centuries, in the Lord Chamberlain’s hands, that is, under his own control.  And unlike Leicester, whose taste ran to more old-fashioned stuff, Sussex understood how important the Court Stage could be in winning hearts and minds, not only at Court, but with the influential West End community that lived and worked within walking distance of Whitehall.  Quickly bored by the constraints of what he could and could not produce at Court, it was this audience he was most eager to reach.  Thus it was that the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral, known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, began performing Oxford’s plays, first at Court, then for a week or two after, at the little theater connected to the Cathedral.

If a professional is defined as someone who works to a schedule, who provides for a public demand, who competes successfuly with others in the same line, as opposed to someone who merely hangs out a shingle, frames a certificate, and earns a living wage, then by age 25 Oxford was functioning as a professional dramatist.  Not that that was his ambition; not at all.  His ambition from childhood had been to follow his ancestors as his nation’s foremost military leader.  Fate, however, had other plans.  The times were not right for someone of his station to risk his life in dubious battle––not while the British Media was straining to be born.  Paul’s Boys were only one of a number of companies that sprang into being at that time, foremost among them the men who wore Leicester’s livery, but who were free to play for anyone who could pay.

As competition for space at the theater inns became intense, trouble with the City officials increased.  For them it was one thing to deal with the rowdy holiday crowds for a few weeks in December and January,  a tradition too old and too ingrained to stop, even for determined Reformation puritans, which is what most London mayors were at that time––but to allow it to continue on into the spring and summer was, so far as they were concerned, simply out of the question.  Their escalating demands to “pluck down” the theaters drove the Privy Council to seek solutions.  Thus it may well have been Sussex who persuaded Burghley and the Queen to finally let Oxford have his much desired tour of the Continent, particularly to Italy where he could see at first hand how the Italians did it.

To Sussex and his relatives on the Council, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard, the Stage as a factor in English society was obviously not going to be suppressed.  Rather than fight it, they must join it, regulate it, and use it to promote Crown policy.  That this was in any way the motivation for Oxford’s trip would have to be kept to themselves, since any sign to the City or the Clergy that the Council’s interest in the burgeoning London theater went beyond the Queen’s right to her “solace” would cause even more trouble than was already the case.  For Burghley this may have seemed like a way to keep his wayward son-in-law in the fold.  For enemies like Leicester and Hatton it meant getting him out of the way, at least for awhile.

Oxford had a lot of reasons for wanting to visit Italy.  Not only was it the source of the Italian Renaissance, of the western world’s most dazzling art and architecture, home to painters like Titian, scholars like Jerome Cardan and poets like Tasso, it was also where the immensely popular comedia dell’arte troupes were performing on the streets and in the halls of princes, and where the great architect Andrea Palladio was constructing experimental theaters of the sort that he and Sussex and Hunsdon thought might be the answer to their greatest need.  They had the actors, with Oxford they had the scripts, they certainly had the audiences, and in James Burbage they had both an actor and a builder who had already built one public theater that, unfortunately, had failed.  What they needed were better locations and better theater designs.   It may be that while Oxford was in Italy, they were already at work on plans for these.

That this was one of the most important reasons for Oxford’s trip seems obvious by how the first two commercially successful, yearround, purpose-built stages in England (possibly in all of Europe) began taking shape within weeks of his return.  With two theaters, several adult companies and three companies of boy choristers hungry for scripts, Oxford was now a fully fledged theater professional, duty bound to keep them satisfied, and desperately in need of assistance.  This came with his acquisition of the manor known as Fisher’s Folly located in the heart of the theater district.  With the financial assistence of patrons like the Italian banker Benedict Spinola, the music of artists like the Italian Bassano brothers, and the transcription skills of secretaries like John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and eventually Francis Bacon, Oxford was off and running.

It’s hard to see where he found time to write the first two novels in English history, Zelautoand Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit.  With these he performed the first of his great upward leaps in style.  What we call euphuism may already have been a fad at Court by the time that he both raised it to an art form and dealt it its death blow, for having taken it to its peak, there was nothing left but to turn it to satire, some of it his own.  It does give us an idea of what some of his plays from this period were like.  In any case, now that he had secretaries he no longer had to beg the use of their names from friends or family members.  And since no one at that time saw any point in publishing playscripts, the issue of their official authorship had yet to appear.

ACT III: Banished: The second leap

Court life was never easy for Oxford.  He tended to drink more than was healthy and spend more on clothes and luxuries than was wise.  He got caught up in dangerous intrigues and overreacted to the rivalries that surrounded him.  Young and handsome, the temptations of sex and the hungers of his heart got him involved with too many women, none of them his wife.   His Catholic cousins played on his sympathies and on his bitterness towards Burghley and Leicester for their use and misuse of his estates.  Believing himself to be in love with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor, he dreamed of escaping with her to Spain where he’d been promised military action and a decent income.  It all came crashing down when the dishonored Maid gave birth to his bastard in the Queen’s chamber, and he found himself in the Tower for two months, then banished from Court indefinitely.

However wounded his pride, exile gave him the space he’d been craving and rage gave him the impetus to take the second of the three great quantum leaps in self expression that would ultimately place him in the pantheon of the world’s top creators.  No longer bound to produce lighthearted comedies for the Court, he turned to writing tragedies for the West End, both the classic Greek and bloody Senecan varieties.  With Sussex dead and Walsingham pressing for history plays for the newly formed Queen’s Men, he took refuge in the familiar preoccupations of his childhood, studying the papers that Richard Field and others were preparing to publish in Holinshed’s name, some of which came from his old tutor Smith.  Reading and translating Roman poets and Greek plays, his style deepened.  Trimmed of euphuistic artificialities, the old fourteeners replaced by iambic pentameter, the most natural rhythm for English, he spoke more simply, directly, and powerfully to the audience he cared most about.

Although by June of 1583 he’d been accepted back at Court and had returned at least to the appearance of living with his wife, he was by then too deep in the production of the works that meant something to him, and to the lifestyle that allowed him to produce them, to ever go back to full attendance on the Queen.  She craved a return to the early days when he was always around, dancing attendance and producing the kind of entertainment he’d taught her to prefer, but there was no privacy at Court, and he had to have privacy to write.  So there developed a neverending tug of war between them, him straining for freedom, which she would continue to dangle before him but with no intention of giving him anything that might mean losing him.  He was the goose that laid the golden eggs that made her Court so popular, and at so little cost to herself.

Restless, seeking new outlets, it was during this period (1582-92) that Oxford launched the English periodical press with the series of pamphlets he published as by Robert Greene.  After 1589, when Bacon joined him with their joint attacks, first on Martin Mar-prelate, then on Marlowe and Alleyn, they kept the fun going with a phony pamphlet war in which Bacon’s fictional persona, Thomas Nashe, and Oxford’s fictional version of poor Gabriel Harvey (very much alive but in no position to do any kicking), taunted each other with hilarious abandon, thus establishing the first audience for what would evenually become the British tabloid press.  Unfortunately for the lads, neither the Cecils nor the Bishops saw the humor in this, and with Robert Cecil approaching an age where he could enter the fray, the stage was set for the final act in the birth of the English Stage, the creation of the fictional author, William Shake-speare, poet, playwright, actor and sharer.

Coming:  Act IV: Shakespeare: The third and final quantum leap

The origins of Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford in the early 1580s

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford’s Coriolanus

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

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

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

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

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

So who was Caesar in Oxford’s fantasy?  

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

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

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

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


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

The Spanish Tragedy

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

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

Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.

Review: Peter Moore’s Lame Storyteller

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

Or how about the

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

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

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

Alan Nelson’s stunning gullibility

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

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

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

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

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

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shakespeare Clinic

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

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

Misdating the plays

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

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

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

Much Latin and more Greek

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

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

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

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

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

The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised

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

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

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

“Whose name one silent letter bounds”

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s search for silence

Writers are solitary creatures.  However gregarious some may be by nature, if anything is to come of their effort they’ll need long spells of unbroken solitude on a regular basis.  Unlike painters or sculptors, they need very little in the way of material things like studios or materials, what they chiefly need is privacy and time.  Writers need regular chunks of unbroken time, anywhere from two to six hours at a go, day after day, week after week, to effectively ply their craft.  Writers of fiction in particular need this if plots are to form and characters to take shape.  (With writers of modern television serials, something else maybe taking the place of time, cocaine perhaps.)

This is not the kind of thinking that can be done in bits and pieces.  It takes time to get “i’ th’ vein,” as they put it then and it also requires protection against interruption in order to stay in “the vein” (or “the zone” as it’s sometimes termed today) long enough for development to take place.  For a full-length novel or a play, these spells have to occur regularly enough over several days or more likely weeks for the process to continue until the story has acquired a life of its own.  A metaphor of giving birth was often used back then––literary gestation occurring in the darkness and silence of the womb of the mind.

It’s hard enough to find this kind of seclusion today, but apparently it was next to impossible in 16th-century England.  For as Lawrence Stone pointedly notes, there simply was no concept of privacy in 16th-century England:

This was a society where neither individual autonomy nor privacy were respected as desirable ideals. . . .  Privacy like individualism, was neither possible nor desired. . . .  Privacy was a rarity which the rich lacked because of the architectural layout of their houses and the prying ubiquity of their servants, and the poor lacked because of confinement in a one or two room hovel. . . .  The closest analogy to a sixteenth-century home is a bird’s nest” (4, 6, 7 Family).

His point about architecture is clear for anyone who has ventured into Hampton Palace, Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, or one of the great houses of the 16th century that remain in their original form, for the Elizabethans lived in houses where rooms circled a central meeting area, then, as the building grew, branched off in strings of rooms that opened directly each one into the next, so that to get to the last room on the chain it was necessary to go through every room in between.  With halls came privacy, but it seems that what we call a hall today (a hall to the Elizabethans was a room large enough to hold many people) was a thing of the future.  What privacy they got was achieved through the use of screens and the great curtained beds.  Nor did wealth and rank make privacy any more attainable, since the least private dwellings were those of the aristocracy, where they were also surrounded by herds of retainers, “bed partners” and “gentlemen of the bedchamber.”  This lack of privacy is one of the factors that made secrecy so important during this period.

In addition, the Elizabethans had not yet developed the respect for writing as an art that we have today.  Writers were not expected to produce literature; writers were scriveners, clerks, men trained to put into simple language the thoughts of their illiterate or busy employers.  The small percentage of Elizabethans who were lucky enough to be taught to read and write acquired respect for the poets of ancient times along with their studies, but these were perceived as immortals––the notion that there might be equally great writers among their own friends and family members was a concept born with the Italian Renaissance, one that, when Shakespeare and his colleagues first began had not yet made its way to Britain.   As for poetry, anyone who could read and write could scribble verses for particular occasions.  Some may have been seen as better than others, but rarely so much better as to be worth saving.  So where and how Shakespeare got the respect and privacy he needed to create the literature he gave the world should be a major issue for authorship researchers.

With this as with so much else, we can but “see through a glass darkly”––still, as with all truths, once we know what to look for chances are we’ll find clues.  For instance, it wasn’t until Philip Sidney, wounded by the way he was being treated at Court, deserted his habitual entourage for refuge with his sister Mary that he had the breakthrough that put him on the literary map for all time (“Fool! Look in thy heart and write!”).  As a writer herself,  respectful of her brother’s talent and aware of the struggle he was having to express himself, Mary understood that what he needed most was privacy.  And as a Countess she was also in a position to see to it that he got it.

From early in his career Francis Bacon sought refuge from the noise and interruptions of London at his brother’s estate on the Thames that was eventually bought for him by the Earl of Essex, who certainly knew from his own life what it meant to need privacy.  By buying this writer’s refuge for Francis, Essex was compensating for failing to talk the Queen into making him Attorney General.  In actuality, the gift of Twickenham Park was the greater, at least where posterity is concerned, for it enabled the great Francis Bacon to keep on writing, something he might not have had time for had he gotten the Court job he craved.

If seen through the lens of a writer’s search for privacy, much about the Earl of Oxford’s life and nature is explained.

Early in life he would have developed the habit of solitude, living as he did with the scholar Sir Thomas Smith, who would himself have required such spells of silence and privacy for his own writing.  Without, it seems, companions of his own age and rank, what could be more natural than for the solitary boy to adopt his mentor’s habits.  It was only when “exempt from public haunt” and on his own outdoors he heard, speaking from within his own mind, tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and “good in everything.”

Having been transferred at twelve to the hotel-like turmoil of Cecil House in London, an atmosphere more like that of a foreign embassy than a private residence, this habit of solitude must have been sorely tried.  Cecil’s penchant for spying on his associates is as good as any other explanation for Oxford stabbing the undercook, something that, if we take the events in Hamlet as reflections of events in his life, may have been a hot-headed teenager’s reaction to the realization that he and his fencing partner were being watched, not by Polonius himself of course, but by one of his household spies.

The need for privacy may well be a factor in the way he behaved when, upon arriving back in England after a year abroad, he ignored the welcoming party arranged by Cecil, and hurried off with one of his pals.  If properly interpreted, his beef with Cecil seems to have been less the rumors about Anne than Cecil’s inability to keep private family matters to himself––allowing them to become, as Oxford put it, “the fable of the world.”  It’s hard to deny that his need for privacy had more to do with the five-year break with the Cecils that followed than any suspicion he may have had about his wife’s fidelity.

Ensconsed in his own household at Fisher’s Folly, surrounded by secretaries, writers and composers––who of course understood that when milord was writing he was NOT TO BE DISTURBED!––he was finally able to achieve a life for himself where he could get this kind of privacy whenever he needed it––one reason why this period shines as the most likely source of so many early versions of his greatest plays.  That this ideal environment was lost to him when he lost Fisher’s Folly in 1588 may help to explain Bacon’s title for Nashe’s introduction to Menaphon the following year: “Camilla’s alarm to slumbering Euphues in his melancholy cell at Silexedra,” and his reference the following year in Spenser’s Tears of the Muses to the fact that “Our pleasant Willy, Ah! is dead of late, with whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded and in dolour drent.” (Ugh! That godawful style!)

By 1594, remarried and so established once again in a household that could provide him with clean linen and regular meals, he began rewriting his old plays for a new generation of audiences, both Courtly and public, but one wonders how much privacy he was able to squeeze for himself from the constant call upon him for favors, interviews, etc., that were the daily business of a peer of the realm.

The likelihood that his young wife and the staff she provided had more interest in running a functioning estate than in making it possible for Prosper-O to conjure up the magic on a regular basis suggests his 1595 return to begging the Queen for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham.  This in turn explains, to me at least, why the strange lack of evidence that he actually died in 1604 suggests that, with his mortality facing him, he simply took a card from his own “fantastical duke of dark corners” and “died to the world.”  Having acquired from a King who understood, as Elizabeth had not, his need for privacy, he finally achieved a setting that would allow him to leave the world the masterpieces of English literature that , in some cases, it had taken thirty years to polish to perfection.

A can of politic worms

One of the problems with getting academics to pay attention to authorship research is that it’s cross-disciplinary in ways that leave it outside the various boxes into which most universities put their studies.  Who has credentials in not just English Lit but European Renaissance History, plus the Psychology of Creativity, plus Linguistics?  The authorship question falls not just between two stools, but three or four.  As a result, no one department is properly constituted to take the issue seriously.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for all of these is the issue of falsification.  Academics can handle the idea that anomalies arise naturally in history, literature and science, but only through simple misunderstandings or misreadings arising out of ignorance.  They’re not trained to accept misunderstandings created on purpose.  English Lit profs are puzzled and annoyed by the problems created by the massive use of falsification in the works of the time, but like dedicated field workers deluged by rain, rather than turn their attention to the rain, they do their best to minimize or even ignore it.

The hiding of Shakespeare’s identity by his publishers is only one small example of the kind of shape-shifting that was not only not all that unusual, it was the norm during the era we study.  Most of the works that concern us were published with great care taken to blur some or all of the facts about when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, and if living persons were being addressed, who they were.  This was true, not only of the small percentage of published works that fall into the category of imaginative literature (plays, love poems, bawdy tales, novellas) but things like pro or anti-Catholic screeds and dissident polemics like those of Martin-Marprelate, while contemporary historians dealt with problems by simply ignoring the more sensitive issues.  All this to stay out of trouble with a government that was behaving more and more like Stalin’s or Hitler’s every day.  Authors, publishers, printers, later editors, all had very good reasons for hiding some or all of the facts we seek. Everything we study has to be examined keeping in mind the possibility of this kind of dissimulation.

Again and again the question in hand takes us back to the fact that the community we are discussing was so very, very small.  Where none of us today are likely to know personally the authors of the books that interest us, it was the opposite then.  For us today, when reading a book, even one by an author whose name we know, the thought never enters our mind that the name is a phony or that the front material has been created to distract us from the true authorship.

For the small percentage of the Elizabethan community who were capable of reading these books back then, the possibility was always in mind that, no matter what the name on the title page, it was probably written by someone they knew, if not intimately, then by sight and/or reputation.  In a city of under 200,000, a best seller was one that sold 1200 copies.  Imagine a publisher today being satisfied with such a number.  Where today we are awash with new titles every week in mega-bookstores with miles of shelves, there was a handful of bookstalls in St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, run mostly by the printers or their publishers, where weeks could go by without the appearance of something new.

Yet it’s the small size of this community that’s one of the major factors that makes it possible for us to sort out who wrote what and when.  Once we’ve identified the writers and come to know their dates, situations, attitudes, fears, goals and perspectives, we’ve got some real controls.  Styles are helpful, but only when we keep in mind that styles were changing rapidly throughout the entire period.  Some of the writers we study delighted in imitating each other; some hoped to hide their authorship by creating several completely different styles; in some a later editor may have cut or added lines for any one of a dozen reasons.  Stylistic crossovers may mean the same person wrote both works, but it may also mean that one was the other’s student at the time of writing, or that the two were working closely together at the time those works were being written.

In short, it’s absolutely necessary to know as much as possible about the men and women who were writing then, and their probable reasons for writing a particular work at a particular time.  This is where the Stratfordian dating has caused so much trouble, offsetting the origin of Shakespeare’s works by as much as two decades.  Shakespeare’s creation is so central to everything else, plays, poetry and novels, that the misdating of his works and misinterpretation of his purposes has created a mess that’s taken centuries just to begin to unravel.

We not only need to know the writers, we need to know how they related to each other.  Since they (or their descendants) left us next to nothing by which to judge, we have to rely on what is revealed by their recorded actions and by clues in their works.  We also need to know who were their enemies, who was out to stop them, whom they were praising or attacking in their works, whom they loved or hated and who loved or hated them.

To understand how individuals came to hate or depend on each other in that far off time  it’s necessary to understand the social and political forces in play.  Persons who shine as enemies in the histories were often in close contact with each other and so shared many moments of apparent good fellowship, a necessity for the dispense of business.  Underlying animosities might come to the fore and should be kept in mind, but not everything can be explained by them.  Shakespeare explores once such dichotomy in Coriolanus where the personal attraction between the Roman general and the Volscian Aufidius overwhelms their enmity as military adversaries.  Shakespeare revels in the attraction of opposites.  He is a past master of the romance of passion, something that thrives on opposition and the thirst for forbidden fruit.

On the level of the Court and the great gentry families, if you go back far enough, everyone was related to everyone else––so merely finding a family connection or an ancient family enmity says nothing about the potential relationship between two individuals.  It can add weight to more solid evidence, but by itself it means very little.  Brothers could become just as bitter enemies as two men who were taught to hate each others’ families in the nursery.  Lawrence Stone identifies the innate enmities between eldest and younger brothers created by the system of primogeniture, where boys grew up knowing that the oldest brother would inherit most of the wealth and all the titles.  He claims that the only family relationship that wasn’t stressed in any way was that of brother and sister (Family xx), but even they were often strangers to each other, having been separated early on and raised apart, sometimes at birth.

A number of forces worked to create enmities as well as alliances.  Common interests, beliefs, educations, sexual biases and the simple emotional response of true friendship, could play as much of a role as could ambition, jealousy, envy, and paranoia which, given the rigid traditions that bound them all, were certainly rife at the time.

The Real Authorship Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford and Bacon

Many Oxfordians try to ignore Francis Bacon, probably out of rivalry for the Shakespeare crown, but there’s no way he can be dismissed.  He was certainly a genius with words, as all of Europe but the English still recognize, and the second most famous English writer of the Reformation period, up there with Shakespeare on a pinnacle that far exceeds any others of their time.  Given that the writing community was small, that they were cousins and neighbors in youth, only 11 years apart in age, Bacon is not only a big part of the story of the English Literary Renaissance, he’s got to be part of Oxford’s story too.  The question is, how much and in what way?

As the first anti-Stratfordians, the Baconians did a lot of important preliminary work on the Authorship Question.  They were the first to strip William’s biography of its fantasy trappings and the first to question the anomalies that have stumped orthodoxy ever since.  They were wrong about Shakespeare (most of this research took place before Looney’s book on Oxford), but they were right about just about everything else, including Bacon’s authorship of at least two other canons that he, and only he, could possibly have written.

The 1910 book by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Bacon was Shake-speare, gives the major arguments both against Stratford and for Bacon.  Durning-Lawrence provides a short list of the leading lights he knew of then who scorned the Stratford authorship, among them Prince Bismark, who found it unlikely that someone of William’s background would have known, as Bismark himself certainly knew––and as he could see that Shakespeare knew––what life was really like at the Court of a Prince, not something that anyone, genius or otherwise, could possibly pick up from books or conversations in pubs. Durning-Lawrence discusses the paltry evidence for William’s presence in London, the six signatures, the damning (to William) preface to the 1609 publication of Troilus and Cressida, and other key points in the anti-Stratfordian argument.

Some of the most obvious anomalies in the Stratford story Baconians could explain via Sir Francis.  Unlike William, Bacon was a courtier and had every reason to hide his identity.  Unlike William, he had the kind of education that explained the Bard’s erudition.  They could explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of France by Bacon’s two years in Paris in his teens.  He was responsible for the Court’s entertainment at Gray’s Inn in 1595 where a version of A Comedy of Errors was performed, as he was also responsible, all or in part, for several Court masques under King James.  Certain intriguing manuscript documents have survived that connect him with Shakespeare, more directly through the Northumberland MSS, less directly though also intriguingly through his notebook, Promus.  Most significant is his comment in a letter to poet John Davies, on his way north to connect with King James VI, soon to be King of England, in which Bacon hopes that James will be kind to “concealed poets.” (Stratfordians quibble over his intentions, but fail to explain why else he would bother with this in a letter that was obviously meant to promote himself.)  Luckily there’s no need to prove wrong most of the arguments on either side.

One of the most obvious things about Francis Bacon is his intellectual energy.  From 1596 on he turned out a cornucopia of written works, some in English, some in Latin, some published, many not.  He seems determined to put England on the world map, not only of literature, but of jurisprudence, science and philosophy as well.  To rest content with the idea that this intellectual dynamo spent his youth doing nothing of note is more absurd than anything the Stratfordians have ever conjured up about William.  Most geniuses begin their careers in their youth, many in their childhood or teen years; most people are at their peak of energy in their twenties and thirties.  What was Bacon doing between 18 when he arrived back in England and 35, when he finally got a Court position?  Absence of information hardly means he was doing nothing!  Not Francis Bacon!

My scenario

Putting all the pieces together, both literary and historical dates, their shared high level of literary genius, their similar educations in Greek literature, English law and biblical studies, their family connection (Bacon was Oxford’s wife’s first cousin), their attitudes towards Essex and Southampton, Oxford’s passing reference to his “cousin Bacon” in a letter to Robert Cecil, plus a number of other clues from my own research that I intend to detail in later blogs and pages.  Through these I hope to show how close they were at times, and how involved with each other’s lives and fates.

By combining Oxford’s data with Bacon’s, we hear, once again, the swish of Ockham’s razor, simplifying, simplifying, simplifying, leaving us with two cousins, one, the elder, the leader, the other, his student and amanuensis who began his own great career by trying his hand at every form of writing that was the great adventure of the reading class in his time, in poetry, plays, and pamphlets.  This he did partly to impress his Court community, partly just for the fun of it and to extend his wings, but the forms used and the subjects chosen were chiefly to impress the “King of the Paper Stage.”  During this process of learning and development, how could he help but adopt in any number of instances, the language of his brilliant older cousin?

I believe that we can see where Bacon enters into both the literary history of the time, though under assumed names, and also where he appears in the plays, put there, not by himself, but by his cousin.  Most enlightening of all are the exhilarating exchanges published under cover of their adopted pamphlet identities in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a virtual feast of “Pickle Herring” that continued well into the mid-’90s, when finally, with Oxford silenced by his loss of credit and Bacon finally able to begin working his way into what he felt was his true calling, the retooling of the English legal system, their literary partnership came to an end.

Forced into ever deeper cover, Oxford would continue to fulfill his own unique literary destiny via the London Stage, using it to create and disseminate a modernized English language while Bacon continued his climb to high office.  Someday, further study may suggest one final “collaboration” in 1622-’23 when the Earl of Pembroke, following his mother Mary’s death and Bacon’s fall from grace, gave Francis the task of editing those remaining Shakespeare plays that required the master’s touch before they could be set in type.  If in so doing the weary wordsmith tucked in a few subtle references to himself it was as much for love and reverence of their author as his own battered ego.

Keep in mind that this is my scenario only (though borrowing much from the Baconians), and that I make no claims for it, other than the same one I keep making, which is that, whether true or not, my version accounts for most of the anomalies in four arenas:  Shakespeare, the Stratford biography, Bacon’s biography, and the Nashe Harvey pamphlet war, along with a myriad of lesser confusions in the general history of the times, both political and literary.  Unfortunately, Oxford and Bacon are being portrayed today more as opponents in the struggle for the Shakespeare Crown than as the partners and teammates that they actually were in putting English at the forefront of world literatures.