Category Archives: English Literature

Oxford’s “monstrous adversary”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “greatest wastrel of them all”

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

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

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

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

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

Howard’s Revenge

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

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

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

A certain hysterical tone

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

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

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

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

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

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of the scapegoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Degraded and useless beings”

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare and history

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

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

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

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

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

His “wounded name”

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare and sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we must conjecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a new paradigm

There are several factors that continue to block our access to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and until these have been overcome, or better, simply bypassed, we will continue to be without the kind of access to archives and established publishers that we deserve. What are these factors? First there’s the age of the mystery: 400-plus years is a long time, and, however absurd it may seem to us, the Stratford paradigm is so deeply rooted in the English-speaking mindset that attempts to chop it down leave little more than scratches.

Second: there’s the missing evidence. As all come to realize who research the infancy of the Stage and Press, whenever a particular paper trail reaches the point where it should have something to tell us, it tends to disappear––sometimes permanently, sometimes to reappear once the crucial moment has past. The conclusion is inevitable: someone got to the records before us, someone who didn’t want anything to remain that could connect the rise of the London Stage and the periodical press with the patronage and activities of government officials.

Third: there’s the religious nature of the argument: Shakespeare has become an icon (as Shakespearean Harold Bloom puts it, “the secular Christ”). Icons are sacred and cannot be questioned, no matter how absurdly irrelevant to human nature and common sense. Winston Churchill spoke for many with his response to those who wanted to know his take on the problem of Shakespeare’s identity. Said he, “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with.” And there’s Charles Dickens, who wrote: “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery. . . . I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”

Finally: there’s the attitude of the universities, who­––however grudgingly––acquired their present authority over all things Shakespeare when the first English Lit departments arose from within their departments of Philology at the turn of the 20th century. Having opted to treat him as they would an ancient artefact where its author was impossible to identify, these have continued ever since to refuse to consider any discussion of Shakespeare’s. While not stating openly that authors don’t matter (a stand promoted by Laputians Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Paul de Man and their students, and their students’ students, and their students’ students’ students) the universities and their co-conspirator, the Birthplace Trust, continue to (silently) adhere to the commonplace: “We have the plays; who cares who wrote them.”

We can, of course, continue to confront these and similar hoggish attitudes with reasonable arguments, but since none but a small percentage of born contrarians are likely to pay any more attention to us now than they have already, it might profit us to take a look at how we’ve been approaching the issue.

Rival candidates or Shakespeare’s coterie?

First, not unlike the academics, we tend to see only what we want to see, ignoring everything else. We read a book that awakens us to the Authorship Question by promoting one or another of the Shakespeare candidates––Bacon, Derby, Oxford, Marlowe, Raleigh, Philip Sidney––and from then on our interest settles only on facts that support him (or her: Mary Sidney and the Queen have also been nominated). Here we tend remain, gathering in conferences and online groups, writing articles for newsletters, journals and blogs dedicated to examining our particular candidate while studiously ignoring the others. This is easy due to the fact that along with no evidence for the creation of the London Stage, there is almost no evidence that these candidates had any contact with each other.

Take Oxford, for instance. The only evidence connecting him with another candidate is his spat with Philip Sidney on the royal tennis court, which was followed by some masculine huffing and puffing over a duel that both knew the Queen would never allow. His handful of appearances in the record point only to his activities as a patron of the Stage with only a poem here and there in the early anthologies to indicate his status as a poet. Were it not for the Meres comment in Wit’s Treasury (1598) that he, along with Richard Edwards, was once “best for comedy,” we would have no evidence at all that he had ever been a playwright.

As for the second greatest literary genius of the age, Francis Bacon, not until 1596 when, at age thirty-five, he published the first edition of his Essays, is there anything to show that he was in any way involved with the literary community surrounding him at Gray’s Inn. The only evidence of any connection with Oxford is found in a letter from Oxford to Robert Cecil (Oct 7 1601) in which he refers to his “cousin Bacon,” not as a writer, but as his lawyer. (Meanwhile, Bacon’s undeniable involvement in the Shakespeare phenomenon is evident from the survival of the file known as the Northumberland Manuscript.)

The Earl of Derby’s connection to the theater community is based on his patronage of the second company of boys at the Second Blackfriars Theater, 1599-1601, and that apparently he continued to patronize his brother’s traveling company well into the 17th century. The isolated comment that he was “penning plays” found in a letter from one nonentity to another in 1599 [Chambers 2.127) is hardly sufficient to take him seriously as a Shakespeare candidate, even though he was certainly closely connected to Oxford from 1595 on by virtue of his marriage that year to Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth.

Gabriel Harvey, never a candidate himself, but a writer whose name can be found here and there throughout the period in question, is hard to connect in any real way with any of the candidates that he mentions in the marginalia with which he garnished his books. He does at least have a potential connection to Oxford in that both were tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, a neighbor of the Harvey family in Saffron Walden, where, after Oxford was off to London, Smith took young Gabriel on as his protégé, helping to get him a fellowship at Cambridge. Oxford and Harvey were definitely in each others company on the occasion of Harvey’s grand faux pas, the interminable speeches he wrote to introduce himself to Court society at Audley End in 1578.

As for the University Wits, the ghostly writers whose pamphlets circa late 1580s through early ’90s deserve recognition as harbingers of what was becoming the London periodical press, recognition of them as a group did not come until centuries later with the scholars who studied their works.   The only personal connections from their own time are the complimentary mentions of each other in their pamphlets. Later evidence of their activities and whereabouts rarely show them involved in each other’s lives to any notable extent.

Last but hardly least, while Christopher Marlowe is occasionally associated with the Wits, his rise to fame occurred without hints of a personal relationship with any writer other than the scrivener Thomas Kyd, whose own claim to authorship rests on the shaky provenance of a single early play. By the mid-to-late ’90s, a second generation of poets, playwrights, and pamphleteers––Jonson, Marston, Hall, Harrington, Barnes, etc.––would reveal their mutual awareness through the epigrams with which they taunted each other, but since they used phony names it’s impossible to establish their identities with any certainty.

The result of this lack of certainty is that academics, trained to go only where the recorded facts lead, have provided us with a worldview wherein none of these writers have any connection with each other. Whatever form their lives may have taken, as portrayed by their biographies in the DNB or on Wikipedia, it would seem that, apart from suggestions that they were copying each other’s style, they were almost totally unknown to each other in any more intimate way than through their writing.

Well of course they knew each other!  Writers write as much for their fellow writers as they do for their community of readers. Hints are rife that particular works were written with friends “figured darkly forth” so that only the author’s coterie will understand who is being praised or ridiculed. Why then are attempts to see “through the glass darkly” to the truth about the authors and their relationships with each other dismissed by the Academy as useless, without value, a waste of time? Is it because that truth might turn out to be something that the Stratford defenders, fearful of the consequences to their own reputations, not only don’t want to know, they don’t want anyone else to know?

Surely, if we are ever to locate the truth about the period in question, so much is missing from the record that it can only be by creating a convincing scenario, one based on human nature and on the nature of other writers, actors, audiences and publishers as demonstrated throughout time. Though Shakespeare himself was hidden, not all of his associates are so impossible to unveil. Sooner or later it will be by discovering and community that will define, by outlines suggested by those who were most involved in creating the London Stage and periodical press, where the Master ends and the others begin.

We can bypass the problems listed above by creating several levels of study. First, a description of the political history of the Elizabethan era and those that preceded and followed accompanied by a timeline of important events. Second, the literary history of the period, with a timeline of important works, plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, Lyly, Greene, Spenser, Sidney, anonymous and others. Finally, biographical sketches of the candidates, their rivals, patrons, and enemies with descriptions and dates for the major events of their lives. When these layers are aligned with each other in time and place, a believable narrative will simply emerge like an image in the photographer’s developing bath.

The necessary narrative

Until now we’ve focused almost entirely on arguing with the Academy, on pointing out the absurdities in their scenario. Forgetting that the best defense is a good offense, we’ve allowed them to define the grounds for argument. This of course has not sufficed. Because there’s no brilliant rabbit poacher escaped from the clutches of a local knight; no horse-holder cum play-patcher shooting overnight to theatrical stardom at age twenty-nine, inevitably we find ourselves tilting with windmills, and imaginary windmills at that. This exercise in futility has us going in circles, repeating the same arguments over and over. We need to move to an arena of our own choosing, one where logic, not hindsight, prevails.

The greatest weakness of the Stratford paradigm is not its absurdities, but its utter and total lack of a believable narrative. Provide a compelling narrative, one that accounts for the creation of the Stratford fable, one that is close enough to the truth to lead researchers into areas where there might be meaningful evidence, and we will win the day, if not with everyone, then with enough intelligent readers that Authorship Studies will continue as a viable, honorable, and necessary branch of English Literature, one that mends the rift between literature and history, and that eventually will lead to a much needed rebirth of humanism at the university level.

As far back in history as the Greeks and Romans, the Stage has always been a political forum, both for those working for the government, and those seeking to improve it, or to replace it. The Stratford paradigm ignores the political realities of the Elizabethan and Stuart period for the very good reason that it was created to mask what otherwise would have been far too obvious to Shakespeare’s public audience. That public is gone. It’s time to do as I believe the true author did, to reach beyond the defenders of the Stratford biography just as he reached beyond the Court audience that his evasions were intended to protect to the public audience that, ignorant of the political issues that so concerned his enemies, were free to respond to his deeper messages , the humanism that is what has created the great and lasting audience of which we are members.

Yes, it’s true that we have the plays, thanks to the true author’s willingness to sacrifice his identity to the political necessity of separating himself from them. And yes, it’s obviously true that to the academics for whom the Stratford biography has become a religion, it does not matter who actually wrote them. But for those of us today afraid that humanism may be dying, largely due to the refusal by the Academy to allow the human element, the story of how they came to be, it does matter who wrote them. It matters a very great deal. And we should work together to find a way to tell the story as it happened historically, and forget about trying to convince those who, in an earlier time, would have had us burnt at the stake for refusing to believe that it’s the earth that circles the sun, not the other way round.

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.

 

A little history is a useful thing

I’m back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks.  Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories.  Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire.  Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.

The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages.  Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect.  Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature.  Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.

In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him.  Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.”  He continues:

They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes.  Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . .  His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . .  He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature.  He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)

Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.

In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness.  One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone.  He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain.  We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances.  Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art.  When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control.  (xiv-xv)

All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them.  “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today.  There also seem to be many similarities in syntax.  Fennell continues:

Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers.  On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)

Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing.  As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .”  We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.

As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare.  As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.

Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life.  Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.

Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events.  Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus.  Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music.  Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.

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

Shakespeare’s hardy audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Shakespeare saved Christmas

What has Shakespeare to do with Christmas? Falstaff bloggie  He only mentions it twice by name, and then only in passing.  It’s clear from the name that Twelfth Night takes place during the Christmas holidays, but nothing in the play itself connects the behavior of Sir Toby and his friends to a particular holiday, at least not to us today.  Yet of all the paths that lead to our present celebration of Christmas, the one forged by Shakespeare is the widest and surest, leading as it did through the barren desert of the puritan Reformation to give back to the English, not the feudal style of merry-making, but through his creation of the London Stage, the joys of Theater and all that has developed from it, school plays and amateur theatricals, films and television.  While the Stage began as a compensation for the loss of the old processions, it shows its origins through the furnishings of many of his plays.

No more cakes and ale

The puritans who represented the more extreme beliefs that were brought to England in the 1540s with the Swiss Reformation did not condone the kind of merry-making that had always been associated with Christmas and the period after it leading up to Lent.  With their insistence on a lifestyle and a form of worship that adhered to what they believed came directly from the Bible, they regarded all festivity as evidence of papistical excess, a backsliding into the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the worship of Baal, of witchcraft, sorcery.  Following Calvin, the reformers eliminated all but four of the scores of feast days associated with the Catholic saints.  While Christmas was one of the four, it was a Christmas sadly bereft of its pagan trimmings––no decorating of trees, no burning of yule logs, no St. Nicholas, no mistletoe, no wassail bowl, no filling the halls with boughs of holly––no fa la la la la.

The church itself, once their beautiful and beloved halfway house to Heaven, was no longer festive.  Painted walls were whitewashed over.  The gorgeously carved rood screens and statues of the saints were broken up and burnt in bonfires in the streets.  The stained glass windows that portrayed the lives of the saints were smashed to smithereens.  The gold and silver candelabra were appropriated or stolen; the use of candles for anything but necessary light was denied.  The raised altar was replaced by a plain table in the center of the nave.  Priests were not allowed to wear anything but black.  Processions were forbidden.

Difficult as this was to bear throughout the year, it was hardest of all during the holiday period that included Christmas, for centuries the major moment when the laboring classes got a much-needed break from the year-round struggle to wrest sustenance from the soil and the sea.  Most of northern Europe was frozen from mid-November through mid-March.  Forced indoors, farmers and fishermen spent the winter months mending gear, visiting friends and relatives, eating, drinking, dancing and singing––in other words, making merry.  Beloved traditions reflected origins in Stone Age rituals, in particular the processions that circled through the parish, from and back to the church again: mumming and disguising, the Boy Bishop, the Hobby Horse, the Morris Dancers, the Green Man––all forbidden.  Bishops who sided with their parishoners ended up in the Tower.

Although the rural districts far from London were better able to keep some of the old antics, Londoners, closely watched by a series of die-hard puritan Mayors, could not get away with anything that hinted at a return to making merry.  When the boy king’s death in 1553 put his Catholic sister on the throne there was a brief reprieve.  But with Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the reformers returning from their exile stepped directly into important political positions, their determination to see reform strengthened by having spent the years of Mary’s reign in Frankfurt, Strasburg or Geneva, listening to the most adamant creators of the Protestant Reformation.

An Elizabethan Christmas

When it came to Christmas and other holidays, Queen Elizabeth was in something of a hard place.  She owed her throne to the reformers, yet personally she was drawn to the Old Faith and its lavish celebrations, in particular music and dancing.  She was also bound to provide a festive atmosphere for the visitors and ambassadors from countries that still kept holidays in the old style.  A compromise was achieved early in her reign by switching from the expensive masques that had been the Court’s version of mumming and disguising to the more sedate, seated observation of holiday plays, interspersed with musical interludes, mostly provided by members of her staff and paid for by her courtiers.  The acting and singing were done by the boy choristers who sang for her and her entourage in the palace chapel during devotions, then entertained on a dais in the dining hall , the instrumental music provided by her staff of England’s most accomplished musicians.  With costumes provided by the Revels department, it was all done on the cheap.

All elements of this entertainment came from within the Court and its circle of providers.   Where then did the plots and characters, the text of the plays come from?  Though plays consist of nothing but talk, and talk is cheap, these plays were not all that easy to write.  They had to be entertaining without overstepping the bounds of Court etiquette or offending a laughter-loving but hypersensitive female monarch.  Plays require conflict to be interesting, but for these plays the conflict could not reflect the grim religious and political issues that were what she dealt with day to day.  They had to be funny without being bawdy.  In short, to succeed, they had to be written by someone aware of what would please and what would not, in other words, an intelligent and sensitive Court insider.

Unfortunately the strictures of the Reformation had left the English literary community at one of the lowest points in its history.  Known to historians as “the drab era,” the poetry was crabbed and dense, its themes morose and depressing.  This was not surprising considering that the Reformation tended to see poets (playwrights were called poets) as liars, and poetry (anything that qualified as imaginative literature) as an instrument of the Devil.  As with most Renaissance courts, all good courtiers wrote poetry just as they played the lute or virginals and could sight-sing complex madrigals, but these were pastimes and unfortunately writing witty plays requires rather more than an hour or two snatched from running at the ring or playing Primero.

Along came Shakespeare

Of course he wasn’t known as Shakespeare then, in fact he wasn’t “known” at all.  He was a member of one of the Court coteries that prided itself on its writing, but which member wasn’t always clear, except within the coterie itself.  Fearful that being labeled a poet would mean loss of any hope of advancement, at least one gifted young writer openly condemned it as a “toy,” vowing to give it up.  But the youth who would someday be published as Shakespeare had that ineffable gift that time and again meets the moment with just the right stuff.  Protected by his high estate from the slurs of the less able, he began providing the kind of dramatically exciting and witty entertainment for the winter holidays at Court that would someday make it one of the most famous in Europe.

The talented boys who performed these plays came from the middling levels of society.  Usually discovered by their grammar school teachers, they were brought to Court or to Paul’s Cathedral, given the equivalent of a basic grammar school education, and trained to work with her musical consorts, singing the complex works of composers like William Byrd so that the Queen and her entourage could move through the day accompanied by music, as we do today by means of ipods and radios.

Clever lads, the boys easily memorized the lines given them to perform these early comedies.  Enchanted by their little satin suits and mammoth ruffs as they trilled the witty lines that they themselves may not have fully understood, they would continue to be the favorite entertainers of the childless Queen throughout her reign.  However, since she was also a tightwad with everyone but her male companion of the moment, she and her ministers looked aside when the boys and their masters would continue to perform a play written for a Court holiday in the halls of wealthy householders whose donations helped to defray the cost of the boys’ upkeep.

Thus it was that the great breakthrough occured.  What began as a few holiday plays in the London homes of the wealthy spread, bit by bit, to more public venues like the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers trained to sing the Service were allowed to entertain the public during the holidays.  There’s nothing more exciting for a theater company and its patrons than an enthusiastic audience, so the temptation to go commercial was hard for these financially struggling music masters to resist.  That, plus the fact that Londoners were desperate for entertainment, plus the most important fact of all, that the plays were so good––so much better than the silly antics that in former years had been provided by amateurs recruited from the City guilds to provide holiday entertainment for the City.

Birth of the London Stage

Starved by the Reformation for the merriment they craved, the London public had begun to frequent the theater inns in ever-increasing numbers.  City inns built on a square, surrounded on three sides by two or three stories of rooms accessed by an open passage that faced the central courtyard, were able to show plays performed on the second level overlooking the courtyard.  Performances at the inns lasted through the winter holidays, ending with the beginning of Lent, and beginning again in June.  By adding this to travelling on the circuit to the bigger towns, actors began to get the kind of work that they could count on throughout most of the year.

Seeing this, patrons of the major companies, some of them members of the Queen’s Privy Council, began to plan how to take advantage of this growing public audience and the growing mastery of their acting companies.  Politicians at heart, they saw the advantage of going with the flow, working it to their own advantage.  The Church on the other hand hated it, and fought the growth of the London Stage with every weapon it could muster, but it had only itself to blame for denying its parishoners their beloved season of good cheer.

In 1575, royal permission was finally granted to the young lord with the golden pen to travel to France and Italy where he could discover methods of theater production along with ways that it might work for, not against, Authority.  Persuaded by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Elizabeth and her chief minister, Lord Burghley, saw an advantage in promoting a theater that could be monitored and controlled as opposed to fighting the one that was growing helter skelter without their consent.  Within days of the young lord’s return in 1576 the first purpose-built year-round commercial stage began rising on a well-travelled road just outside the City in an ancient Liberty where the puritanical City fathers had no control.  That summer the adult company that gathered around the builder of the theater, James Burbage, began entertaining the public, two to three thousand at a sitting. And whose plays do you think they were performing?

Six months later, a little stage in a school created to train the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in their holiday entertainments for the Court opened in the old Revels offices in the Liberty of Blackfriars, also outside City control, at the edge of the most important audience in England, the lawyers and parliamentarians who spent their days in or near the law courts of Whitehall in what today is known as London’s West End.  And whose plays do you think the boys were performing there?  And possibly also––occasionally, advertised only to a select few through word of mouth––by Burbage’s adults.

Thus it was that the youth with the gifted pen whose plays would someday be published under the name Shakespeare, began gathering the audiences that would make the London Stage the wonder of the western world, spreading his magic first to Germany, then to all of Europe, then to the world.  Born from the Queen’s need for cheap entertainment at the winter holidays, “speaking daggers” on government policy at the little stage at Blackfriars to the members of parliament during their Christmas break, Shakespeare brought to a nation starved for happiness in the winter holidays the London Stage and with it the English Literary Renaissance.

That Shakespeare understood and rebelled against the Reformation’s idea of what constituted good writing is clear from Oxford’s prologues to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte.  The ideal held out for writers by the Reform community was Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Castiglione’s Courtier.  Try reading a bit of it, or something by George Turburville, and you’ll see what Oxford was confronted with by his contemporaries as he came of age.  Luckily he had been trained to a higher level by his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  Luckier yet he had that adventuresomeness of spirit that allowed him to fly free, not only of the turgid style of his contemporaries, but of the ancient styles learned at his tutor’s knee, ever seeking a fresher vision, a more direct and immediate means of communication.

For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot!

Did Shakespeare see his career as saving Christmas and all holidays for a people beaten into submission by a heartless, sin-obsessed Authority?  Perhaps not, but it seems likely that among the various forces that drove him over the years, one was the need to save for posterity some of what was good about the feudal culture that was under such severe attack by the Reformation, if not merry-making specifically, then the kind of hospitality, the noblesse oblige, that saw to it that widows and orphans were not forgotten, that everyone shared in the holiday, no matter how poor, when the true spirit of Christ, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” was not just cold words preached from a lofty pulpit, but actively lived at all the major turning points of the year.

In the upper Thames valley, where as a boy he had lived with Smith during Mary’s reign, the wild antics of the Hobby Horse and the Green Man could still have been seen in nearby towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday, May Day and Midsummer’s Eve.  Before Hamlet sits to watch the play that will catch the conscience of the King, his otherwise pointless cry, “For O, the hobby horse is forgot” must refer to the role of the Hobby Horse, some rural Robin Hood dressed in a horse costume, whose joyous duty it was to whinny as he charged at the homes and businesses of local evil-doers (bullies, wife-beaters, malicious gossips, avaricious money-lenders, loose women) as the rowdy procession passed them, to roars from the jeering crowd.  Was Hamlet using the play as in former times Oxford had seen when the Hobby Horse, given license by the ancient tradition, took the opportunity of the procession to  humiliate persons whose behavior was causing trouble within the community?

As the provider for so many years of the plays that took the place of the ancient forms of public merry-making, it’s not surprising that many show their origins in the old holiday folkways.  The sub-plot of Twelfth Night reflects what must have been a frequent situation during this time in many wealthy households, the battle between a widow’s overly rightous steward, and her old party dog of an uncle, with the jester, Feste––in Shakespeare’s position––caught between the two.  As Sir Toby puts it to the “baffled” Malvolio, “Dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?”  The Merry Wives’  torments of Falstaff end with what Oxford must have seen as a child in the villages in and around the Forest of Windsor near where he lived with Smith, a holiday ritual associated with the running of the stag, a relic of England’s Celtic origins.  That Shakespeare loved these holiday rascals is clear from how often they appear on stage and how long they stay there.  Falstaff and Sir Toby, if not based on the same individual, are certainly cut from the same cloth, as is Mine Host, and Bottom with his merry shout: “Where are these lads!  Where are these hearts!”

With his constant focus on love, many of the ancient traditions touched on by Shakespeare were courting rituals.  In As You Like It, the love poems Orlando pins on branches of trees would seem to reflect a courting tradition, though on what occasion remains a mystery, possibly St. Valentine’s Day.   The forest adventures of the couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect a similar tradition from ancient celebrations of May Day when girls would go into the wooded meadows alone, ostensibly to gather flowers for “Mary’s Day,” whence they would be pursued by the young men of the village.  This tender means of providing courting couples with an opportunity to meet privately in a romantic spring setting, was of course abhored and forbidden by the reformers, represented in the play by one of the fathers.  Other Reformation figures include Malvolio and Angelo from Measure for Measure.  Angelo’s message seems to be that it’s better to let the Old Nick come out in company for a few weeks a year than to keep it bottled up for years, finally to explode into some gross indecency with its aftermath of remorse.

True to the spirit of the masque, of the mumming and disguising that accompanied not only Christmas, but several of the ancient festivals, the great English Lord of the Dance hid his identity from the Blatant Beast, Spenser’s personalization of the Reformation, behind a sober mask contributed by a “prudent” burgher from the midlands, until his Book of Gladness, published in 1623 by the patrons who loved and cherished his work, spread it throughout England and from there to all the nations of the world.

Passing the plate

Those readers who enjoy these comments on Shakespeare, his identity, and how the English Literary Renaissance managed to find its way to the light despite the efforts of Reformation politicians to stamp it out, may find it in their hearts and pockets to help with this effort.  Unsupported by any organization or university, I’m sometimes at a loss to get the books I need or an occasional month’s membership to the online DNB.  If you’d like to make a modest contribution towards this effort, here’s how.

Thanks for your interest.  It’s what keeps me going.