Category Archives: English Literary Renaissance

Oxford’s “monstrous adversary”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “greatest wastrel of them all”

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

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

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

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

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

Howard’s Revenge

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

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

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

A certain hysterical tone

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

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

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

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

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

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of the scapegoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Degraded and useless beings”

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare and history

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

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

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

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

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

His “wounded name”

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare and sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we must conjecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford’s authorship in a nutshell

This seems like the right time to restate the argument that lies at the heart of all the material collected here over the past decade and a half.  It’s a complex thesis, based on a multitude of lesser arguments.  A monolith like the Stratford biography, and all the anomalous notions that have accrued to it over the centuries, will not be replaced with a single article, blog, or book.

Stated simply, the argument, as presented here, holds that the name that adorns the works that laid the foundation for the English we speak today was purchased from its original possessor by the acting company that performed the “Shakespeare” plays.  That company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was forced to do this when, after roughly a decade of performance, it became evident that the plays would have to be published, which meant that there had to be a name on the title page where by tradition there could be seen the author’s name.  Since the real author could not be named (for a whole host of reasons), for the first four years of publication there was nothing but a blank on the plays published at that time where the author’s name should have been.

It was William of Stratford whose name was chosen to fill this slot primarily because it lent itself to a pun that describes the author as shaking a spear.  Thus, although it was a real name, one that a real living and breathing individual could answer to, it was also a signal to the handful of readers who cared about such things that it represented someone who found it necessary to hide his identity.  Such tactics were nothing new at that time.  One of the major failures of the academics who publish on this issue is their blindness to the constant use of anonymity, pen names, pun names, mythological names and initials that we see on and in all these early works, which said academics report without noting it as rather unique in the history of literature, thus relieving them of any need for an explanation.

The issue of who actually wrote these incredible plays, who was actually meant by the pun name Shake-speare, remained well below the horizon of public awareness until midway through the 19th century.  When it finally reached the public through Delia Bacon’s book it launched the present inquiry as one candidate after another was proposed and discussed until 1920 when a British schoolteacher introduced the Earl of Oxford, at which point all oddities and anomalies finally clicked into place.  We’re now three years from the centennial of that revelation, and still the argument remains just that, an argument.  So why keep trying?  Why is this particular argument so important?  

Because it matters who wrote the Shakespeare canon!  The shibboleth: “we have the plays, what does it matter who wrote them?” is nothing more than a tiresome excuse for ignorance. Does it really matter all that much to most of us whether the earth is round or flat, or that it goes around the sun, rather than the other way round, or that my desk is made, not of wood, but of atoms and electrons, or that the water in my glass is actually a combination of two kinds of gas?  If these matter, then surely the source of the language we share with millions of others all over the world matters!

Scorned for centuries as brazen, brash, and bawdy, it was not until a later generation of wits and poets discovered the depths in Shakespeare and the beauties of his language that gradually he’s become revered as one of the greatest psychologists of all time. Even so, the dullness of the philologists who have inherited the plays continues to maintain this ignorance of how he fought with his pen to keep ancient Humanism (Platonism) alive at a time when it was in danger of being destroyed by the ugly visions of hellfire and damnation thundered from the pulpit by Calvinists who, having commandeered the English Reformation, made use of it to spread their hateful doctrine.

If anything matters beyond the getting and spending of our daily dollar, surely it matters who it was that accomplished this amazing feat, plus others for which he’s yet to be credited.  For not only did he write these ground-breaking plays, more than any other single being, it was he who created the forum whereby they reached their audience, the rash of purpose-built theaters that housed what we’ll call the London Stage, at the same time leading the handful of writers and printers who launched the commercial periodical press, which we’ll call the British Free Press. Taken together, these two, the infant Stage and the infant Press, constituted the first manifestations of what today we call the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the people.  If Shakespeare was not the only harbinger of what we’ve come to call Freedom of Speech, he was certainly one of the most effective.

These plays were not merely entertainments spun to tease a lord or set a lady laughing. Even the comedies, but certainly the dramas and the tragedies, were pleas for human understanding (“O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!”) and at a moment in time when they were not merely welcomed but desperately needed.  Further, that they have been purposely and determinedly divorced from their true source, not just by the authorities at the time, but by the author himself and his closest supporters, is in itself a tale worth telling.  If we’re to fully understand the history of the English-speaking peoples, who they are and what they’ve done with the language he created, it’s essential that we know this story.  

Born into chaos

The author, it seems, was born into hiding. His father, scion of one of England’s oldest and most prestigious families, appears to have been the product of an ancient bloodline sliding into the decadence inevitable to such very old families, but from which Oxford was saved perhaps by his mother’s less rarified genes. His great uncle, the 14th Earl, an ignominious wastrel, had spent his heritage on a Disney World version of a feudal palace which collapsed into ruin not long after his death at age twenty-six.  The 15th Earl, stripped of several of his ancient prerogatives by the disease-crazed Henry VIII, managed to hang onto the earldom, but shortly before Oxford’s birth, his father, the 16th earl, came perilously close to losing it to the greed of Protector Somerset, uncle of Henry’s son, the Boy King, Edward VI.  

Although Earl John and his domain were saved by the palace coup of 1549 during which Somerset was overthrown by his own Privy Council, he and his domain remained vulnerable to whatever determined gang would next take over the Crown. That was John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, but with the death of the poor little King four years later, Northumberland and his followers were themselves overthrown by a nation nostalgic for a time not all that long ago when Church ales and merry-making had not yet become the road to damnation.  

The bloodbath, however, was far from over, as Edward’s sister Mary, a determined Catholic, proceeded to marry Philip of Spain, son of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Their interest in the marriage alliance was invested in the hope that they could reestablish Catholicism in what under Edward and Somerset had become the most dangerously heretical nation in Europe.  

As the merry-making that followed their marriage fell silent, and the nation prepared for a new round of treason trials, hangings and burnings, Earl John and his supporters did what they could to prepare. The Oxford domain was particularly vulnerable due to its location along the coast that faced those European nations where Protestantism had taken deepest root and was most threatening to the European Catholic hegemony.  Earl John himself was suspected of complicity in the first Protestant effort to overturn Mary’s rule, the so-called Dudley conspiracy of 1555.

As Shakespeare demonstrates in more than one of his plays, in nations ruled by the whims of heredity, underage heirs of monarchs, and of great noblemen as well, were particularly vulnerable during moments of national revolution. As the Christmas holidays of 1554 came to a close, and Mary’s henchmen began gearing up for the bloodbath with which she hoped to end the great heresy perpetrated on her people by her brother, the four-year-old heir to the great Oxford domain was removed from the dangers threatening his unstable father.  Quietly, without notice or surviving letter, he was placed with the man who would be his tutor and surrogate father for the next eight years of his life.

Thus it was due to the political chaos of the time that Sir Thomas Smith, former Secretary of State under Somerset, and before that Vice-Chamberlain of Cambridge University, was given the humble task of “bringing up” the boy who would give the world the Shakespeare canon.  It was this great educator, statesman, polymath and follower of Plato’s philosophy who gave Oxford the education that we see reflected in the works of Shakespeare, an education to which almost no one else in England at that time could have had access.  Among the hundreds of books in Smith’s library were the plays of the great Greek and Roman playwrights, Euripides, Sophocles and Plautus, favorites at that time for teaching boys Greek and Latin due to the fact that their plots and characters were better suited to capture the restless attention of teenagers than the proverbs of Erasmus or the letters of Cicero.

The hiding continues

With his removal to London in 1562, the twelve-year-old Oxford found himself a member of a coterie of young translators employed by Secretary of State Sir William Cecil and his friend Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, as they sought to get the major works of Calvinist doctrine translated from Latin and French into English. As for this crew of translator-poets, most of them six to ten years Oxford’s senior, would this budding genius have forced himself to sit by modestly, constrained by the tradition that forbade peers of the realm from competing with ordinary artists, or would he, unable to resist, reveal his talent by tackling the most demanding translation of all, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, famous as ancient Rome’s masterpiece of Latin literature, its first four books published just three years later under the name of his uncle, the translator Arthur Golding?  Is it just my wild imagination that hears in Golding’s Metamorphoses the same youthful voice, in a meter and rhyme scheme similar to the ground-breaking poem Romeus and Juliet (attributed to another member of the Cecil House coterie), and published almost as soon as he arrived in London?  

By 1573, desperate to escape the Court and those servants who were forever spying on him for his father-in-law, Oxford’s genius for disappearing is rather humorously revealed in Alan Nelson’s account of his preparation for a journey to Ireland (that never took place). Over five pages (100-104) Nelson details efforts by Burghley’s agents to pin him down long enough to get his signature on papers that, doubtless, put Burghley in control of his estates, should he die while overseas.  

Let them quibble as they would, by late 1574, Oxford had the Queen’s permission to travel to Italy, and travel he did.  While it’s unlikely that he managed to ditch all those who who seemed most likely to report back to Burghley, or that over the summer of 1575 he sailed the Mediterranean totally without companionship, there remains no evidence that he took anyone with him on that supreme adventure.  No one, at least, whose name has survived.

He vanishes from the record

With his return to England in April of 1576, followed by the sudden appearance in London of the first two commercially-successful purpose-built theaters in English history, the kind of reporting that tracks him during his early days at Court dries up almost completely. While a poem or two surfaces in anthologies, his own efforts to get himself and other poets published appear to cease.  Why?  Because he has begun what has become a lifelong concentration on producing plays for the Court, the public theaters, and most significantly, the parliaments that gathered in London every three or four years, and which provided him with his most influential audience, leading men of education and significance from all the shires and towns of England.

Playwriting had several advantages over publishing. First, since only a handful of Londoners could read at that time, plays could reach a far greater audience; second, it satisfied his appetite for dramatic action in ways that poems and tales were lame by comparison; and third, it did not rouse the anxieties of the authorities as did published works since no one outside the Court establishment paid any attention to who was writing the scripts.  His coterie knew; the officials knew; but neither the public nor the outside reading world knew, and most of these did not care. So long as he wrote nothing objectionable to the world view purveyed by the religious and political authorities of his time (most notably his in-laws) he was allowed to continue.  Even Burghley was doing what he could in 1580 to assist the Earl of Oxford’s acting company in gaining access to the universities (something the universities continued to reject).

Yet sooner or later a break was bound to come between two such differing world views.  With the banishment from Court that followed his affair with the Queen’s Maid of Honor in 1581, if it cut him off from Her Majesty’s favor, it also meant he was free to give vent to his own personal concerns in plays for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” from the eastern half of Westminster.  In works that erupted from his frustrations with the Court, his fury at the Queen and his rivals for her favor, and his knowledge of English and Roman history, it was then that he wrote The Spanish Tragedy, plus the earliest (now lost) versions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice, plays that would certainly not have pleased either the Queen or his Calvinist in-laws.

Brought back to Court in 1583, probably by his tutor’s old State Department friend, Sir Francis Walsingham, now Secretary of State, who needed him to help launch the newly formed traveling company, the Queen’s Men, for them Oxford wrote early versions of what would later evolve into plays like Edward IIIHenry V, King John, plus some that never made it into the canon, such as Thomas of Woodstock and Edmund Ironside.  

The coming of Shakespeare

When his wife died just before the attack of the Armada, Lord Treasurer Burghley, furious with his son-in-law for his perceived mistreatment of Anne, not to mention his mistreatment of Burghley himself as Polonius (and perhaps also Shylock), put a stop to his obnoxious play-making by seeing to it that his credit was destroyed.  Forced to sell his home of ten years and disband his staff of secretaries, Oxford spent three years, from 1589 through 1591, in penurious disgrace.  During this period, while the Stage too was under attack by his in-laws, he occupied himself with writing sonnets, some to his one remaining patron, the young Earl of Southampton, others to Emilia Bassano (Lanier), mistress of the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, who shortly would reinstate him as the main provider of plays for the newly-created Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  

Thus was launched the company that would bring fame to the plays that Oxford, doubtless glad to be back with his favorite team of actors and now, in his forties, at the peak of the matured style that we know from the First Folio, would mostly recreate from plays he’d written originally for the Court and parliamentarians over the past twenty years. Some, chiefly old comedies like As You Like it and Love’s Labor’s Lost, he revised to suit the temper of the times; some, like The Merry Wives of Windsor and Antony and Cleopatra, he wrote in response to current issues.

Because Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon worked hand in glove with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, both long time patrons of the London Stage, to bring an end to the theatrical chaos created by Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, who, now as Secretary of State was using his power to destroy the London Stage, they formed new companies which, doubtless they promised the Queen, would conform to their new set of rules. 

Henceforth there would be two licensed companies: the Lord Admiral’s Men, patronized by Howard, would operate out of the Rose Theater on Bankside; the other, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, out of Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch.  Plays that in times past had been shared between the two companies were to be divided, with those that Oxford was interested in revising assigned to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and those that he no longer cared about, or that had become so identified with Edward Alleyn, the leading actor at the Rose, assigned to the Lord Admiral’s company.  These they identified by stating on the title page what companies had performed that particular play.  

At this point the issue of what author’s name to put on the published plays arose in such a way that it simply could not be dismissed.  For the first four years, from 1594 to 1598, the Company simply ignored the problem by leaving blank the space where the author’s name was normally placed.  Then, in the fall of 1597, with the opening of the Queen’s ninth parliament, came the inevitable showdown between the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Robert Cecil, who had eliminated the most popular playwright in London and most recently saw to it that there would be no theaters available to them for the near future.  Clearly Cecil was determined to destroy his brother-in-law’s bully pulpit before it could trouble him during his first turn before Parliament as the Queen’s new Secretary of State.

Oxford shakes his spear

Faced with the loss of both their theaters, their father and manager James Burbage having died following the previous holiday season, and their great patron and protector, Lord Hunsdon, having also died recently and suddenly, Oxford unleashed the devastating power of his pen.  Revising his earlier and milder version of Richard III, now, with Richard Burbage as the evil King, adopting Cecil’s perpetual black attire, his manner of speaking and his wobbling walk , Burbage and Company trashed their enemy to such an extent that, despite the official heights to which, as first Baron Cranborn, then Earl of Salisbury, he eventually rose, there was from then on no more hated man in all of England.

This showdown, while almost totally erased from history, obviously demanded adjudication by the only one in a position to do it, namely the Queen.  Though missing from the record, the results clearly left Oxford and his company untouched (she could not do without her holiday solace), while Cecil, officially as powerful as ever, was forced to live from then on with his unofficial reputation utterly and permanently destroyed, a situation that must have lent a bitter and resentful force to the vicious brutalities with which he would rule England under King James until his death in 1612.

Interest in the authorship of this play, which must have thundered through the pubs and wine shops both in London and in the towns throughout England to which the MPs returned early in 1598, each with a copy of the published play in his pocket, must have been what finally compelled the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to publish a second edition of Richard III, this time with a name on the title page.  Thus was the name of the humble wool dealer’s son from the market town two days journey from London to escalate into a permanent and everlasting brand.  

Richly recompensed for the use of his name, the wool dealer’s son soon bought himself the biggest house in his hometown; for his respected sire he bought the crest that had once been denied him as “without right,” and ordered an impressive monument to be placed in the local church in which his father’s bust, clutching a sack of wool, dominated a spot high on the wall beside the altar.  

Years later, when both William of Stratford and his wife were past questioning, the vicar of Trinity Church, would enjoy emoluments brought him by a team from London whose job it was to replace the image of the mustachioed Shakspere Sr. with a more gentlemanly figure and the woolsack replaced with a quill pen and a pillow. Whatever had once been the message, if any, beneath the bust, was replaced by something in Latin that seemed to suggest that William Shakspere had been something of a modern Nestor, a character from ancient history whose only importance was due to how old he had been when he died.  Nothing to do with drama or literature.  No mention of Plautus or Euripides.

Meanwhile, the Burbages’ company, protected by the Queen and raised to an even greater level of importance by her successor, who demonstrated his patronage in a way that she never had by allowing them to call themselves The King’s Men, went on to ever greater acclaim and great financial success.  Of course by this time the official name of their playwright had become so installed in men’s minds that there could never be any possibility of changing it, even if the Company, or the Court, had wished to do so, which they most certainly did not, for reasons that were not only political, but deeply personal to those involved.  Thus was the brand name irrevocably wedded to the canon, and so was also launched the centuries of failed attempts to bring their location in time and their relation to the events reflected in the plays into alignment with the biography of the illiterate original owner of the name, whose birth date, sometime in April of 1564, presented such a problem when it came to dating the plays.

Our evidence

What evidence is there at for this scenario?  If there is as yet no “smoking gun,” there is certainly enough to support what we describe here.  Without the slightest doubt it’s the Stratford biography alone that is the sole cause of what the uber-academic E.K. Chambers identified in 1925 as the two major aspects of “the Shakespeare Problem”: “Problems of Authenticity”: i.e., who actually wrote the canon; and “Problems of Chronology”: i.e., the issues created by the 15-year displacement forced on scholars by the impossible birth date of William of Stratford.  

With the Earl of Oxford as the true author, all of these problems vanish.  The plays appear right where they so obviously belong in the timestream of historical events; all the early plays that “foreshadow Shakespeare’s style,” and that academics have been forced to attribute to various nameless or weaker writers, take their proper place as the missing Shakespeare juvenilia; and Shakespeare (the poet) is finally free to jump to the forefront as the original inspiration for writers like Marlowe, Daniel, and Chapman––not, as the Stratford biography demands, the other way round.

A word to the wise: the trolls retreat to Facebook

I appreciate it when defenders of the Stratford faith show an interest in my work, but inevitably it becomes impossible to maintain a cordial discourse where one side knows nothing of the other side of the argument, and clearly has no intention of pursuing it, or if pursued, only to focus on the sort of details that are all that they are capable of seeing from the low levels of understanding where their educational limitations have left them.

Arguments at this level quickly become a waste of time, as I know all too well, having made similar attempts over the years, for instance on HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare), the online forum for authorship discussion established many years ago by two Oxfordians, which I left when it descended to the level of a schoolyard brawl.  The same was true on SHAKSPER, where, despite the prohibition of any mention of the Earl of Oxford, we were allowed to discuss such questions as whether great literature can ever be produced without an emotional connection to the author’s own life and experience.  No amount of quotes from great authors or examples from their biographies were sufficient to sway the left-brainers from the absurd notion that no such personal experience is necessary or that it even matters––a clear case of distorting reality to fit a particular case, since nothing has ever been located that could connect the plots and characters of Shakespeare with the life of William of Stratford.

I created this blog in 2009 because it gave me control over a forum wherein I was free from this kind of frustration, and free I intend to remain.  Having recently cleared the decks of a handful of impertinent comments, I see that these rudeniks have retaliated by creating a group on Facebook for which they’ve appropriated the name of my blog, where they are free to amuse each other with the kind of comments that are no longer welcome here, on the real politicworm.  Readers who are curious to see what they have to say please keep in mind that while they may have appropriated my brand, I myself have nothing to do with these guys except for the rather pleasant feeling that to cause this kind of a ruckus I must be doing something right!

NB: Please understand that even probing comments will always be welcome if politely presented.  Also know that a particular question can often be answered by typing a keyword into the search field in the upper right hand corner of every page.  If I, or one of the authorship scholars whose works are posted here, has written on that subject, this will bring a list of posts and pages that deal with that particular issue, and in much greater detail than I go into when replying to a comment.

Trolls and tribulations

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

Regarding the troll

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

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

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

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

As for the editor

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

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

Regarding long “wordy” sentences

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

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

Ornaments and lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She who must not be named”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alan Nelson and the Howard/Arundel libels

Among the things that block our path to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, the most difficult to overcome has been the damning portrait of Oxford created by Lord Henry Howard and his cousin Charles Arundel in their desperate effort to evade the hangman. At the launch of the 1580-’81 winter holiday season, Oxford, at his peak as Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, had gone down on his knee before her and a panoply of England’s nobility and officialdom, to ask forgiveness for having gotten involved in their plot to overthrow the Crown. Taken by surprise, it seems the Queen had all three detained. Letting Oxford go the following day, she had Howard placed under house arrest with Christopher Hatton for four months, and Arundel in the Tower, where it seems he remained a good deal longer.

We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors; from questions Oxford gave Thomas Norton so he could question the accused pair; their statements in defense, commonly referred to as “libels”; and a mention here and there as a news item in other letters. The French ambassador waited some two or three weeks before writing about it to his King, doubtless because Oxford had implicated him as well, so he may have been waiting until he could be certain what was going to happen to himself. (Nothing, as it turned out, since it was Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, who was most guilty of conspiring).

The statements that Howard, Arundel (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their defense were labelled “libels” right from the start, since they consisted of little more than an all-out attack on Oxford’s character. Their strategy, it would seem, was less to attempt to prove their innocence than to portray their accusor as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his innocent friends whose every living thought was for the Queen’s welfare, yadda, yadda, yadda. The first question at this point should not be what if anything in these libels was the truth, it’s why the Academy has chosen to believe these traitors and not the historical record.

According to history, neither the Queen nor any of the officials involved believed Howard and Arundel since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under lock and key. According to history, Henry Howard was certainly guilty as charged, since Walsingham, having devoted the following three years to tracking down sufficient evidence to indict him, had him arrested on November 4, 1583, along with Francis Throgmorton, for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as Charles Arundel heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, he fled to the Continent, where he published the libel known as Leicester’s Commonwealth. (He’s also thought to be the author of an earlier libel against the Queen and her ministers, Le Innocence de la Tres Illustre Royne.)

So how is it that at the turn of the 21st century English Prof. Alan Nelson of UC Berkeley had no trouble in finding a publisher for his so-called “biography” of the Earl of Oxford, in which he casts every incident in Oxford’s life in the mold provided by these two miscreants?  Titling it Monstrous Adversary, a phrase from one of Arundel’s libels, Nelson, it seems, is so bemused by his anti-Oxford animus that he doesn’t realize that he’s chosen to follow two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of treason!

“The evil that men do lives after them . . .”

Nelson, however, is only the most recent of a long stream of academics who have played fast and loose with Oxford’s reputation. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labelled him and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites,” and Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Yet by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been in disrepute. Never mind that he was Elizabeth’s Lord Great Chamberlain; that he was one of her enduring favorites; that dozens of important books were dedicated to him; that he was patron to top acting companies over the course of 30 years; that he published one of the most important works of the European Renaissace, Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier; that he was praised by a string of respectable contemporary commentators; that many of these praises came from foreigners whom he met on his trip to Italy, famous scholars like Johan Sturm and princes like Henri III of France. Nothing to his discredit was ever recorded from his visits to foreign shores.

Yet every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention him in passing has felt it compulsory to connect his name with a pejorative, as in “the notorious Earl of Oxford.” “Profligate,” “obnoxious,” “violent,” “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable,” are only a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace in 1912, he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read in 1960 he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse in 1964 he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel.”

Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his early days at Court, leaving a record of fights and feuds with his fellow courtiers (no murders, though he was badly wounded in one brawl). After returning from Italy, having gone undercover to create the London Stage and the commercial press, because he did (almost) nothing that got recorded, there was (almost) nothing in the record to counter the effect of his early antics. Then of course there were his in-laws, the Cecils, whose control of the record for some 50 years meant that only those letters and other documents that reflected well on themselves (or badly on others) were retained, a paper trail that historians ever since have been forced to follow if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House, and 2) if they were to get published.

Even so, much of the problem is Oxford’s own fault, for it seems he was a past master at making enemies. If, as we believe, it was he who lampooned Leceister as Robert Shallow in Merry Wives, Philip Sidney as Master Slender, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Lord Cobham (and his son) as Falstaff, William Cecil as Polonious in Hamlet, or Robert Cecil as Richard III, there was even more cause to hate him (and for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to hide his identity). If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as history and their biographies attest, dealing with a genius is never easy.

But nothing has caused him the kind of damage that Howard and Arundel did with their libels, a long, slow-acting revenge, one that lay dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP (Calendar of State Papers) until Looney proposed him as the most qualified candidate yet for the tarnished Shakespeare crown, forcing the Academy to assemble a counterattack to protect the sacred biography and dating system, and prevent the loss of centuries of accumulated suppositions based on the life of William of Stratford.

As for Henry Howard

By the time Oxford went down on his knee to the Queen and company, Howard was already known as a dangerous intriguer.  Incarcerated in 1571 during the investigation into the Duke of Norfolks’s treasonable plan to marry the Queen of Scots, for which the unfortunate Duke was beheaded, Howard, though later released, was never freed from the suspicion that it was he who had gotten his brother involved.  In 1595, Anne Bacon warned her son Anthony, “Beware in any wise of the Lord H! He is a dangerous intelligencing man . . . and lieth in wait. . . . The Duke had been alive but by his practising and double undoing” (Dumaurier Lads 109-10). In fact, that Oxford had welcomed them into his coterie was probably an act of altruism.

What would continue to save Howard from permanent incarceration was probably the fact that he was so closely related to so many peers and highly-placed officials. During this early period his intrigues were aimed at assisting the continental catholics in their efforts to get a catholic on the throne so they could return to England and he and his relatives could return to the Howards’ former commanding position at Court. Years later, after his conniving had paid off with high office and titles under King James, he continued to foster intrigues, though the plight of his fellow catholics had become less important to him by then than weaseling his way as deeply as possible into the upper tier of Court officialdom.

“The end crowns all”

Howard’s final turn on the stage of history came in the second decade of the 17th century when his niece Frances (Fanny) Howard created the major scandal of James’s reign. Having encouraged her in her efforts to seduce Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, when Carr’s secretary, Sir Thomas Overbury, got in the way, Lord Harry persuaded the King to get rid of Overbury by sending him on an extended embassy to Russia. When the foolish secretary refused, the King had him incarcerated in the Tower. (Overbury was being difficult because he was in love with Carr. The entire upper tier of the Court at that time was gay, the King was gay, Carr, his official favorite, was mostly gay, Carr’s secretary, Overbury, was gay, and Howard, by then Earl of Northampton, was gay.)

When at a crucial moment in this gruesome tale the unhappy Overbury died in prison, supposedly of an overdose of poisoned tarts, someone squealed, and the wheels of the Law began to turn, inexorably moving ever closer to Fanny, now Countess of Somerset, and her hapless husband. Having been given a royal wedding by the King the following December, the couple were eventually indicted two years later, and though spared execution, they spent the rest of their lives either in the Tower or under permanent house arrest in the country.

As David Lindley shows in his excellent book on the subject, The Trials of Frances Howard (1993/96), it’s clear that the ultimate decision was reached through a plea bargain that saved the lives, if not the reputations, of those involved. Largely because of her mother’s involvement in the scheme (the reprehensible Catherine Knyvett), she and Fanny’s father, Lord Treasurer Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk, were disgraced as well. At least one benefit to literature came from this scandal, Carr’s fall opened his office of Lord Chamberlain to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, giving him, and his brother the Earl of Montgomery, control of the London Stage for the next two decades.

Although the documents generated by this long drawn-out court case prove that Howard was guilty of masterminding this bedroom coup through his power over his niece (as seen by the disgustingly salacious nature of his letters, read aloud in court for all to hear), that it was he, not Fanny, who sent the poisoned tarts was never pursued because Howard had taken the truth with him when, ever so conveniently, he died before the questioning began. As for poor Fanny, it may be that she would have been better off had she gone through with the trial. Having fallen from her status as her nation’s bejeweled princess to its most reviled and detested criminal, called every dirty name in the book, locked away in the country, she died utterly without friends including the husband who blamed her for his disgrace. (The only thing ever written in her defense, then or later, IMHO, was John Webster’s The White Devil.)

Back to the “great treason”

Shortly after Oxford’s revelation in December of 1580, Walsingham began to focus on the household of the French Ambassador, Mauvissiere.  With clues painstakingly gathered by means of spies in the ambassador’s household, it took three years of patient fishing before he got the evidence he needed to arrest Francis Throgmorton, Mary Queen of Scot’s contact, and Henry Howard, Throgmorton’s accomplice. Throgmorton withstood a racking, but when threatened with a second, came across with the information that Walsingham so desperately needed if he was to convince the Queen that there was a real danger that had to be faced, and overseas agents to be paid for.

From Throgmorton Walsingham learned that the plot in question was the creation of the great French grandee, the Duc de Guise, who, in concert with the Pope and the King of Spain, was planning an all-out attack on the English mainland.  According to Throgmorton, the French army was to invade England from Scotland at the same time that the Spanish navy struck at its southern coast.  As the two armies marched towards London they would gather with them the hordes of English catholics that, in their imaginations, were eager to replace Elizabeth and her ministers with the Queen of Scots and those they were promising to give a place at Court.  (Hutchinson 1o5).

In tracing the links that finally led the Queen’s Secretary of State to Howard and Throgmorton and “the great treason,” neither of Walsingham’s biographers, Conyers Read (1925) nor Robert Hutchinson (2007) mention Oxford, but it should be obvious that it was Oxford’s public “confession” that led Walsingham first to Mauvissiere’s household, then to Howard and Arundel’s involvement, then to the Spanish Ambassador, who was given his walking papers in 1584. England would not have another Spanish ambassador until 1607, when James signed a treaty with Spain.

That “monstrous adversary”

In examining the libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, most would seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than was wise, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had reason to hate, and may well have made some outragous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading courtier is absurd: obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any Court figure ever confirm any of Howard’s accusations.

However serious these charges may have seemed at the time, none of them would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years to come until it may be what has cost Oxford his reputation for so long, if not (as we hope) forever. This is the charge that he had “polluted” some of his young pages.

Oxford the homosexual

Among the pejoratives attached to Oxford’s name over the centuries, homosexual has been by far the most damaging, not because there’s any more substantiation for it than for any of the other charges, or that it was seen then as anything but yet another slander, or that it was true, but because of how a puritanized English society came to see it later, when homosexuality had become the foulest of crimes as well as a sin, and all that it took to condemn a man as a homosexual was for someone to accuse him.

Throughout the preceding centuries, sex between men (oficially a crime only since 1535), was almost totally ignored in Elizabeth’s time. In fact it could be said that there were no homosexuals then because the word homosexual, along with the concept that men who have sex with other men are a race apart, would not appear until the late 18th century (Bruce R. Smith, 1990).  Until then the term used was sodomite, which simply referred to anal sex, whether male-male or male-female, forbidden since biblical times, less perhaps for any moral reason than because it violated the ancient nostrum: “be fruitful and multiply.” (Primitive cultures are apt to allow male-male sex as a means of regulating population size since too many births could overwhelm the food supply.)

Until the 18th century, men who preferred to have sex with each other were no more scorned than men who spent too much time and energy having sex with women. It was the kind of sex that was the issue, not the kind of partner. During the reign of Elizabeth the only men on the record as indicted for sodomy were accused of abusing boys, but this was less because it was a disgusting violation of morals than because it was a cruel misuse of power, similar to beating a boy to death for misbehavior or not doing his homework. Sex between adult males was not an issue then, or at least, not what it would become later. As Jeremy Bentham noted during the most rabid period of English homophobia, if sex between men was in fact a crime (which he doubted) it was the only one that caused no one any harm.

That tone of hysteria

In reading whatever I could find from and about the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the documents in Volume IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage: “Documents of Criticism,” that had a certain tone with which I was strangely familiar. After awhile it came to me: it was the same hysterical tone we hear today in condemnations of homosexuality by evangelical preachers and politicians.  And it was the same tone used in the mid-to-late 16th century by preachers and city officials with regard to the bawdiness of plays and their reasons for banning them from London.

It was not until I saw a connection between other aspects of that period that the reason for this began to appear. This was the same general period when: 1) Calvinism took hold as the ruling aspect of the Elizabethan Reformation, spreading until it led to the Civil War and twenty years of Cromwellian puritanism in the 17th century, and 2) it saw the spread of the “great pox,” what we now call syphilis.  This was no coincidence!  This was cause and effect!

The ultimate in STDs, horrific in its effects if left untreated and without any truly effective cure (until the invention of the microscope and the discovery of penicillin), since it was first reported in Naples in 1495, syphilis had been spreading among the more sexually-active members of the population long enough that its horrific effects on partners and their children was known and feared by the time Calvinism began taking root, gradually spreading to affect the attitudes and tone of what was on its way to becoming the Church of England. To John Calvin and his followers, all sex was sin, and, as products of Original Sin, all humans were headed for the permanent and unremitting torments of hell unless they banned sex from their lives and thoughts (excepting only what was absolutely necessary to maintain the human race).

Of course there was a connection between the spread of this grim religion, with its emphasis on the evils of sex, the horrors of hell, and the hellish horrors of this incurable disease.  This explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women, and homosexuals that continue to haunt the still essentially puritanical nature of the dominant American culture (remember who first stepped off the Mayflower with what religion in 1620).  Why the original fear of sex should have shifted to gay men towards the latter half of the 18th century, culminating in the homophobia of the latter half of the following century, must have something to do with the tendency of humans to let the majority off the hook by turning some hapless minority into scapegoats.

The pillory

Louis Crompton, one of the first of late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its particularly insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were almost as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic Church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, England gave it a pass, entering instead upon the cruelest period of homophobia ever known in the West.

Most readers know what happened to Oscar Wilde, the wittiest, most successful playwright of his day, who, accused by his boyfriend’s father of a sodomitical lifestyle, was robbed of his name, his career, his family, his liberty, and really his very life. Few however are aware today of the extremes of cruelty to which this anti-sex hysteria drove, not just the handful of lawyers, jurors, and journalists who saw to Wilde’s destruction, but the nation that followed it with slavering excitement in the news media. For roughly 50 years, men accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. The excitement felt by people who believed that God hated sex (as they contemplated with sick enthusiasm thoughts of men having sex with each other) had become a psychological disease. There was a political aspect to this as well. Since some of the most capable politicians and businessmen were gay, this pogrom helped to eliminate them as competitors for positions of authority and power. (Still to this day a politician who craves to rise knows that he’ll do better with a wife and children by his side.)

Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope were subjected to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, their head held fast in one hole, their hands in another, forced to stand for hours in the most public of locations, they would be subjected to the hysteria of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands, who, screaming abuse, were allowed to pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even stones and bricks, for hours on end. Those who survived were often maimed for life. Some, like Byron, seeing themselves in danger of arrest, fled to live abroad in permanent exile. Others, fearing discovery, committed suicide. Nor was this for any actual act; since that of course was difficult to discover (since photography had not yet been invented) new laws were created that enabled the police to arrest and arraign men for “attempting to commit sodomy”!

Scapegoats

The barbaric nature of this punishment is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils, burning, drowning, or stoning to death a member of the community as a scapegoat. Frazer in The Golden Bough describes these rituals as he found them described in ancient Greek documents:

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

The word scapegoat shows how over time this ritual had been transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be michievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the poor creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the inhospitable wilderness.

Yet use of a human scapegoat has never been completely eradicated or shifted to a domestic animal, for it continues to errupt again wherever tensions get intense enough and humanitarian controls have weakened, the only difference being the nature of the chosen outcasts, whether witches for causing droughts, plagues, and the deaths or diseases of neighbors or domestic animals; catholics by protestants or protestants by catholics for heresy; communists and terrorists for anarchy; southern American blacks for speaking out in their own defence, and Jews and gypsies for almost anything. And still today in rural areas of the middle east, the law allows men and women accused of committing adultery to be stoned to death by their neighbors.   That 19th-century England found it useful to relieve public tension by giving mobs the opportunity to exorcise their frustrations by stoning one or two helpless men, sometimes to death, every year for a good half-century, is but one instance in the long history of these orgies of public violence.

“The love that dares not speak its name”

So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice in the 19th century, so dangerous was it even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest it for fear they too would get sucked into providing the Establishment with yet another scapegoat. So shameful had male-male sex become that it was shameful even to mention it. The DNB, launched in 1885, avoided any mention of the part sex played in the lives of their subjects; that someone “never married” was as far as it would go.   Men became afraid to show each other affection, or even to touch each other in public. The  handshake took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that could be construed by a prurient public, themselves starved for affection, from “getting the wrong idea.” Boys were starved of love, sent off by age six or seven to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they were far more vulnerable to molestation than they would have been at home.

Crompton attributes this to religion, which is certainly partly true, though it does not explain why France and the rest of Europe did not exhibit the same reaction (they chose instead to persecute women for witchcraft). Bentham, seeking an explanation, notes that it seems to have had something to do with protestantism, but he doesn’t go far enough. Protestantism yes, but one form in particular––Calvinism.

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

As a reaction against the corruption of the Church of Rome, Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of its supposedly celibate prelates, but that was only one aspect of a far more complicated campaign to gain for the northern states control of its lands and wealth, along with a great nostalgia for the simplicity and purity (they imagined) of the early Christian Church.  During the reign of Mary Tudor, when so many of the protestants who had overseen the Reformation under her brother Edward fled to Germany and Switzerland, when they returned under Elizabeth, they formed a party that influenced the nature of the English Protestant Church. Embracing the severities and rigors prescribed by John Calvin, governor of Geneva, they formed a block in the Parliament and on Elizabeth’s Privy Council passionately devoted to the kind of reforms promoted by Calvin.

So harsh was the Calvinism promoted by the returned exiles, that it begs the question why were so many attracted to his message?  The answer surely lies in the increasing awareness of the effects of “the Great Pox,” syphilis.  One of the most insidious diseases ever to wreak its horrors on the human race, by Elizabeth’s advent the English had had plenty of time to understand all too well that it was spread through sexual intercourse, and to recognize the horrific effects this could have on its victims and their mates and subsequent children.  At a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this to be interpreted in any way other than as His punishment for their sexuality?

“The cause of plagues is sin and the cause of sin are plays.”

When Oxford, Sussex, and James Burbage set about to create public stages in London, they found themselves up against a wall of repression. The ruling parties in London disliked the advent of the public theaters in 1576 for different reasons: the officials were afraid of contagion from the plague and other diseases, while the preachers were afraid of God’s wrath, afraid that people who had enjoyed themselves at the theater might forget for the moment that having sex would lead them to the fiery furnace. (There was also the likelihood that too many would rather be at the theater than at church).

Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sexy nature of the plots, the suggestive postures of the actors, and the fact that men and women could sit next to each other in the audience.  In their view, the door to the theater was the pathway to perdition.  In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the Church’s outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

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

The almost 200 pages that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate the theaters and the sneering disregard of officials for actors and anyone involved in producing plays.  Clearly, anyone who had something to lose would have wished to keep his (or her) involvement with the public stage as quiet as possible.

Shakespeare and history

Shakespeare’s name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, but it only became famous after 1610 when his company, by then known as the King’s Men, was allowed to use their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars complex.  With King James as their patron and Queen Anne as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared. However, as time went by, enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I.  His wife, Queen Henrietta, raised in Paris, preferred the lavish masques then popular in France.  It was largely her overspending that led to the Civil War that closed all the theaters for twenty years, after which new audiences under Charles II saw Shakespeare as old hat.

Shakespeare’s reputation continued to diminish until the 18th century when a new respect was cultivated by the next wave of brilliant poets and scholars: Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Edmond Malone. But it was not until the turn of the 19th century that a new set of actors brought a new style of acting to the public stage and the public took to “the Bard” in numbers not seen since the early 17th century.  Awakened by poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Shakespeare’s genius, as his name approached the level of national icon, interest in his identity ground to a halt when Sir Edmond Malone published the Sonnets as originally written.

With the bowdlerized pronoun returned to the original “he,” horror struck the Establishment: the great Shakespeare was a homosexual!  With homophobia on the increase, all interest in uncovering the truth about the authorship withered away and the Academy bound the Stratford biography to itself with hoops of steel.  Better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite!

Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, other forms of repression continued. Still in effect were any number of anti-gay laws; it was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him. Sex-hatred was on the rise again, to peak in the 1950s. (Consider what was done to Alan Turing, the hero of British Intelligence who helped bring World War II to an end). Already in bad with the historians, Oxford’s threat to the sacred Stratford dating scheme set him up as ripe for posthumous scapegoating.

Shakespeare scholars, aware for at least a century of Oxford’s involvement in the early years of the London Stage as a patron and a playwright (“best for comedy”), not only did not dare to promote him, they were constrained to revile him! That’s where academics like Stone and Nelson acquired that hysterical tone in their comments on Oxford! The same tone heard in the sermons by the bishops lambasting the plays and actors in 16th century London! It’s the language of sex-hatred! The language of the Calvinist Reformation: sex as “filth”!  Sex as “pollution”!  No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, could hold out against the horrors of being called a homosexual!

“A wounded name”

It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s his accusation that Oxford forced himself on his pages that continues to deny the Earl of Oxford his true place in history!  While to Stone he was only a violent wastrel, Nelson has swallowed Howard and Arundel’s charge of pederasty hook, line and stinker!  Letting no opportunity pass to stick on more tar and feathers, he ignores Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy­­––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust.  The “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1582––testimony to his role as patron to the Children of the Chapel––more evidence of his sexual depravity.

Truly we must ask ourselves, is this evidence of Oxford’s diseased behavior?  Or isn’t it rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination?  He seems a little skewed in this regard in other areas, for instance describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for such a term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary reference I’ve ever seen to Anne’s looks was “comely,” and that, going by her lifelike image on Burghley’s great tomb, an exaggeration.

Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, the product of the Cecils’ outrage, the Howard libels, and the rabid homophobia still in effect, is the academic version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence, if only with words. That’s why he’s been bombarded ever since, not with the rocks and dead animals that killed and maimed the poor “inverts” pilloried in 19th-century London, but with every bad adjective any English-speaking academic could conjure up.  No matter that there’s no other record of these crimes, or that no one else (except for Arundel) ever came forward to back up Howard in these, or any other of his charges, all the homophobic needs to unleash his fury is an accusation.

Shakespeare and sex

The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. As the poet John Masefield wrote: “sex ran in him like a river.” And while there are hints here and there of male-male passion in the plays, most of the attractions he so convincingly dramatizes are between men and women.  John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was Love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the Sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; sex plays no obvious part in them as it does in those written to and for the Dark Lady.  What did he want from the youth?  Surely what he wanted was his love.  He says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and survivors of 19th century homophobia, love means sex.  If it doesn’t show, that’s just because the writer was being cagey.  Parse every sentence, search every etymology, there must be sex in it somewhere!

Love is not incompatible with sex, but sex changes it. Shakespeare says it himself in Sonnet 129, sex is “savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . . .” “Not to trust”––surely that is the point, true love is all about trust.  Separated by years, by reputation, only love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written after time has passed:

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

Where the Poet’s relationship with the Youth is harmed it’s because there has been a breach of trust, which he forgives on the youth’s part in some sonnets and, for which he asks for forgiveness on his own in others.  If there is sex in this then it’s regarded in a very different light than we regard it today.  As Shakespeare shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, sex in a relationship makes men vulnerable to jealousy, a destruction of trust that can lead to emotional agony, and to tragedy.

Maybe now that the English-speaking culture is attempting to eradicate the evils done during that long-ongoing spasm of sex-hatred, we can relax and see the Earl of Oxford in a clearer light.  The least we can do is to take him at face value, and not be picking through his verse in search of a reality that may be ours but that almost certainly was not his.  The Sonnets were written before the centuries of homophobia changed forever how the English, poets and academics alike, thought about sex. The imagery of the Sonnets, that so many have struggled to prove did or did not indicate sexual relations, cannot be taken as evidence, for we do not know, nor will we ever know, what exactly the poet had in mind when he wrote them.

Oxford and Southampton

But if, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, we do know a few things that the academics do not. The majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife dead, his in-laws out to deprive him of his access to the Stage and the Press. Living in a hostelry down by the river, in “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that can’t be faked.  Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he was enrolled at that time.  On his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love, not the sexual kind, but the unconditional love of a mentor, a father figure.  His own father was long since dead, he did not get along with his mother, and his guardian, Lord Burghley, was obviously mostly interested in what he could get from Southampton, if not entry to the peerage by marriage to his granddaughter, then a goodly chunk of his inheritance as a fine for having refused her.

Much as Sussex had been to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb and to be young, alone and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. It’s likely they first met when Burghley was urging the teenager to marry Oxford’s daughter, and Oxford, willing to assist, wrote the first seventeen sonnets for his seventeenth birthday in 1590, the so-called marriage sonnets. They met, and formed a bond out of their mutual need, one that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, by which time Southampton had reached his majority, grown a beard, and was capable of making his own way at Court.

No longer in need of a father, by 1594 the Fair Youth had turned to the one to whom he would (disastrously) pledge his allegience for the next seven years. By then Oxford, married again, living in the kind of luxury he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours writing sonnets, a good thing since he was no fan of the Earl of Essex, Southampton’s New Best Friend.

As for the nature of the passion expressed in the sonnets, why should we care? Homophobia had not yet made men overly cautious about the terms they used to express their feelings for each other, the rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a rather misplaced, prurient concern over something that shouldn’t really matter, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare first became acquainted with their same-sex context, a period poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired so long before by Calvin’s fear of syphilis.

Frankly what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who it seems was using makeup and dressing as a girl in his teens, was already well-versed in homosexual sexplay by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man, a surrogate father, helping this youth to accept his role as a lover of women, a necessity if he was to marry and continue his line, the Sonnets make a lot more sense, all of them, including those written for the Dark Lady which do address their sexual relationship in no uncertain terms, then as a wouldbe lover consumed with lust.

In any case, what’s important about these libels to history is not whether or not Oxford was a monster, but the fact that it was his “confession” in December of 1580 that put Walsingham on the track that enabled him to prepare for the attack of the Spanish Armada.  What’s important to literary history is not whether or not he had sex with Southampton, it’s that the time spent writing these sonnets, probably on a daily basis during a period when he had little else to do, gave him the command of the language he needed for the plays he would soon be writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, plays that would make his cover the most famous name in literary history.

Howard and Shakespeare

As for Howard, Oxford had his revenge, though sadly not seen by anyone but that rather small percentage of his audience who knew that he was the author.  There’s no doubt that at some point he came to realize that Howard was responsible for the rumor that broke up his marriage.  Proof of this are the villains in two of the plays that bear the Shakespeare name, and several others that came earlier.  That Howard was the model for Iago is beyond dispute.  That he was also the model for Iachimo and Lady Macbeth is almost as convincing.

One of the strongest arguments for Oxford as author of the canon is the fact, obvious to those who know both the plays and Oxford’s biography, that six of Shakespeare’s plays  involve the story of the breakup of his marriage, either as the main plot: Othello, The Winter’s Tale, All’s Well, and Cymbeline, and, as backstory: Pericles and Hamlet.   When the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays have been completely integrated into the history of the English Court during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we’ll have a fuller understanding of both––and not until then.

 

Unravelling the Mystery: The Professor and the un-Countess

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

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

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

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

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

The almost Countess and the not really Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

The evangelicals vs the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

Cecil’s triumph

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

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

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

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

Hunsdon and Field

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

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

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

Shakespeare ignored by the Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Shakespeare die on the 24th of June?

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

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

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

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

The evidence

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed: Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

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

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

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

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

Dates don’t lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William did not pay––he got paid.

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

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

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

Lost in a sea of weeds

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

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

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

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

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

To be or not to be the author

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

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

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

Update: THE BOOK ROOM, etcetera

Those who have purchased, or who plan to purchase, Richard Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and its Audience so we can read it together, please begin reading if you haven’t already, and taking notes, if you wish.  I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this and everything else in my life, due to a stream of events that has kept me on my feet for days, but I have been reading the book, and will be happy to respond to comments on the BOOK ROOM page.  I hope this works out.  If not we’ll try something else.

Having accepted the fact that Oxford had access to a number of the Latin works discussed by Beacham, we may find solid reasons for believing that these played a part in forming the London Stage in the mid to  late 1570s.  Could Oxford have been thinking about how to create such a theater as early as his childhood?  What do you think?  What other questions does the book raise for us?

Francis Bacon and the University Wits

It’s clear from the stats I get from WordPress that the pages here on  the Wits have the most interest for readers.  Years ago, when Ogburn’s Mysterious William first got me interested in the authorship question, I came away with two unanswered questions:  first: what was Oxford’s education and does it fit the extraordinary knowledge revealed by Shakespeare in his works?  Second: who were the other writers publishing when he began, and do any of them show the same anomalies in their biographies that we see in Shakespeare?  Having done my best with the question about his education and childhood, I hope to do the same with regard to the other writers, who for the most part can be grouped under the scholar’s rubric of “University Wits.”

Dry runs for this will no doubt appear here as the work takes shape, but there is little room in a blog for outlining a particular chain of evidence, particularly one that has been so damaged by both time and the purposeful elimination of anything that might connect the Cecil family to the works of Shakespeare or the birth of the London Stage.  Nevertheless, as (ironically) Polonius puts it, the truth is the truth “though it were hid indeed at the centre.”  A perpetrator may wear gloves, but his fingerprints will always be found somewhere, that is, if one is looking for the right things and in the right places.

The major factor in our effort to revise history according to basic common sense is getting the authorities to accept the fact that during the period that Shakespeare and other writers were creating the English Literary Renaissance, they found it necessary to hide their identities.  Because they will not accept this, we are stuck at the very gate, for every phase of this argument is determined by this fact, which is fairly easy to prove, and certainly far from unusual in human history, that is, of course, if attention is paid to enough historical facts, which sadly in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question has not been the case.

D Day 1588

The revisiting seen on television over the past few days of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe by the British and American forces in 1944, the true beginning of the end of the Second World War, brings to mind the situation England found itself in the mid-to-late 1580s as it faced the certainty of an invasion by Spain’s great Armada in its crusade to keep all of Europe contained by the Roman Catholic power structure .  When we hear academics scoff at the idea that writers were able to keep their identities a secret, what about the fact that D Day, the greatest naval invasion in the history of the world, was kept a secret, not only from the enemy, but also from everyone else, including the international media.

In times of war and revolution, keeping certain matters a secret becomes a deadly serious necessity.  By disdaining to reference history, the academics have ignored the fact that when the writers who later took names like Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Nashe first began writing, they were locked in deadly combat with the Calvinist Reformation, that held that such works were the tools of the Devil.  It has also escaped them that Shakespeare was dealing, sometimes with passion, with the realpolitik of his time.  This misapprehension, largely due to the misplacement in time forced on the academics by the Stratford biography,  is the heart of our problem, and until we get it unravelled, and get the word out by publishing, online if not in print, we will continue to “perne in a gyre”  for another 100 years of getting nowhere with the authorship question.

Tolkien and Beowulf

The article by Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker on Tolkien and his immersion in Old English, written to acknowledge the publication, finally, of his translation of Beowulf (Houghton Mifflin), is one of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to this one magazine (the other major reason for an artist and page designer is the stylish and generally reader-friendly layout and their continued dedication to publishing the work of wonderful artists).

Thoughtfully Acocella recounts briefly the plots through which Beowulf defeats three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon.  Like the Reformation ideologues of Oxford’s time, Grendel, monster #1, hates the music with which the ancient Geats would make merry into the night, though his technique for stopping them––tearing them into pieces which he then eats––is rather more ghoulish.  Certain artists during Shakespeare’s time did have their heads removed by rope or axe, but nobody ate them.

By defining the prosody of the poem, what makes it distinctive as a style, for us this article raises the question of what Oxford may have taken from the opportunity he was given to study the Old English manuscript of Beowulf that Alexander Nowell had in his keeping during the period he was tutoring Oxford at Cecil House.  There’s no indication that Nowell himself translated Beowulf into either Latin or English, but how likely is it that Oxford and his translator friends at Cecil House would have passed up the opportunity to do exactly this, or at least some sections of the manuscript?

I have pondered at some length the comment by Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’em) in his Scholemaster that he preferred the Greeks to the Gothians, wondering just what he meant by the latter:

But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surely, to follow rather the Goths in Rhyming, than the Greeks in true versifying, were even to eat acorns with swine, when we may freely eat wheat bread among men.  Indeed, Chaucer, Th. Norton, my L. of Surrey, M. Wyatt, Th. Phaer, and other gentlemen, in translating Ovid, Palingenius, and Seneca, have gone as far, to their great praise, as the copy they followed could carry them, but, if such good wits and forward diligence had been directed to follow the best examples, and not have been carried by time and custom to content themselves with that barbarous and rude rhyming, among their other worthy praises, which they have justly deserved, this had not been the least, to be counted among men of learning and skill, more like unto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians, in handling of their verse.

If by this, written in 1563, he was describing a current fascination with the forms discovered in Beowulf and other texts by Nowell, first modern scholar to recover the sounds and meanings of Old English, a fascination  that has escaped the world of letters, this might resolve what it was that Ascham was condemning at the time that Nowell and his students were delving into the mysteries of Old English prosody.  One would think the appropriate term would be alliteration, since these Anglo-Saxon poems did not depend upon rhyme, at least as we use the word, but on a particular kind of alliteration, as described by Acocella.

Hope to hear from some of you shortly in THE  BOOK ROOM.

 

Here’s an idea

Taking a break from my normal writing schedule, I just got a book from the library on a subject that I need to know more about, the Roman Stage.  It’s called The Roman Theatre and its Audience, by Richard C. Beacham.  Published in 1992 by Harvard U Press, it’s available from Amazon in paperback for $21, but doubtless is also freely available through local libraries (Interlibrary loan) in the original hardback edition.  Written in a comfortable and accessible style by an expert in the field of theater design, Beacham can help answer questions about Oxford’s knowledge of the Roman Stage and its playwrights.

If three or more of you are interested, perhaps we could have a sort of online reading group.  We could set a deadline for finishing the book, and then begin a series of discussions here––much like the comments that follow one of my blogs, only this time without a blog––about the Roman Stage and its relevance to the public stages that came into being with Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and what plays may have been written for them rather than for the Court.  This way we would all have the same frame of reference.

If some of you have teaching or other commitments that will ease in June, we could agree to begin at a particular time as well.

How does this sound?