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.

Why was Shakespeare never at Court?

So many things about Shakespeare make no sense.  Droeshout bloggie-2Constantly repeated in the traditional history of the British Stage is the notion that he showed no interest in his plays once they were performed.  That his name appears nowhere in any record of publication apart from title pages, that there’s no record that William of Stratford was even in London for almost a decade before his death in 1616, suggests to those attempting to explain this unique behavior on the part of a theatrical impresario that he was somehow “above” dealing with publishers.

In fact, as more recent studies have emphasized, nothing could be further from the truth.  As one of the literary giants of all time, Shakespeare understood very well the importance of getting his work published.  The idea, put about by biographers, that he took no interest in the publication of his plays, or by Walter Greg and company that they were utterly dependent on the whims of various actors and reporters who rewrote them for publication, violates common sense.

First, all but one or two of Shakespeare’s plays as published, whether in quarto or in the collected works known as the First Folio in 1623, are much longer than could be easily fitted into the traditional two hours “traffic” on the stage.  Why write so much more than what can be produced?  The answer is simple: while actors may have had no more than two hours, readers had as much time as they required.  From 1594 on, Shakespeare had two venues for his stories, the stage and the press, and prepared for both according to their differing requirements; if all we have are what he prepared for publication, in some cases with changes added by later editors), well, that’s the nature of publishing (some of the so-called “bad quartos” may in fact be the texts that the actors used).  If the print quality of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are far beyond that of most of the quartos, it simply argues that he had more control over the publishing of his poetry than he did over his plays.  It does not mean he sat back while––per Greg and countless editors––the actors rewrote and published his writing.

Second, the commonsense explanation for the many differences between the quartos, or pamphlet versions of his plays published between 1594 and 1619 and between them and the 1623 Folio versions, is that the varying qualities of the quartos testify to the period when they were written, the worse the earlier, the better the later.  Why replace this commonsense explanation with elaborate theories of reprehensible printers and unidentified spies and actors?  Because the dating scheme forced on the academy by the Stratford biography won’t allow for texts that reflect styles as early in some cases as the 1570s.

This is not to say that no play text was ever pirated or rewritten by later playwrights.  The effort by intelligent scholars like Brian Vickers to prove that other hands are to be found in a few of the plays can’t be discounted.  But it should be noted that none of these are among Shakespeare’s best, or even his better plays.  If the explanation for the variations in style in Titus Andronicus are due to later revision, not by the author but by some other writer, well, so what?  The importance of Titus has little to do with its value as a performable play, more in what it tells us about where Shakespeare began, a question for literary history based on text and publication, not on whether or not we would enjoy seeing it performed today.  While Vickers suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, his evidence works equally well as the later addition to an early original once Shakespeare was gone to his ancestors.  There’s no need to think, as he seems to, to see them sitting down together and discussing who will write what scene.

The same is true of Two Noble Kinsmen, what value it may have coming chiefly from the fact that Shakespeare’s name appears on its title page.  That TNK tells the same story from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as was told by a play titled Palamon and Arcite performed for the Court at Oxford University in 1566 (during which Oxford got a Master’s degree), and that a (lost) play by the same name was performed by the Admirals’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose Theater several times in the fall of 1594, the first time labeled “ne” for “newly emended,” are facts that to someone under no pressure to conform to the Stratford dates might suggest point to a single play, one written in 1566, revised by its author in 1594, and again in 1613 by John Fletcher, rather than three separate plays based on the same source.   This desire to break up a work based on a particular story involving the same cast of characters into a series of works by a series of early (unnamed) writers is based, not on any hard evidence of such a process ever having actually taken place, but purely on the need to limit Shakespeare’s terminus a quo to the 1590s before which time William of Stratford was simply unavailable.

The importance of the Court

Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe, the Court and courtier patrons stepping in to protect them only that the Queen might have her “solace” over the Christmas holidays.  According to this scenario, plays performed at Court by the adult companies were, as are plays today, written for the public as commercial ventures, some enjoyed by the Queen and her minions, but none written specifically with them in mind.

Why this should be true of the adult companies when it’s obvious that plays were being written specifically for the children’s companies to perform for the Court isn’t addressed.  It’s clear from the Revels accounts that what the Queen preferred for her solace were comedies performed by her young choristers.  Eight of these survive, written for the chorus boys from Paul’s Cathedral and attributed to John Lyly.  For the dozen or more plays performed by other boy companies throughout this period we have but one text and no authors.  The Court was also the souce for a great deal of poetry that if the academics are to be believed, developed in a vacuum apart from what Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing.  Prof. Stephen May’s 2002 The Courtier Poets ignores the fact that London was a small city and that the plays of both poets were not only popular with the public, but were also frequently performed at Court.

Common sense should also tell us that in a culture like the England of the sixteenth century, nothing could prosper without noble patronage, certainly nothing on the scale of the three-story theaters that dominated the landscape and that faced the kind of violent opposition that Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage describes.  The idea that Burbage and Henslowe could build their theaters where they did and keep them going for as long as they did without more assistence from their Privy Council patrons than simply the occasional letter of support is absurd.  That the obvious battle over the London Stage was connected with a similar battle within the Court community and the Privy Council over its identical twin, the Court Stage, should be obvious, and would be if the English Departments who are supposed to be the guardians of truth about our literary past kept so much as half an eye on its history.

Accompanying this astigmatism is the even bigger blind spot relating to the close proximity of the Blackfriars theater to the politically influential West End.  With the perfectly located public theater on the major thoroughfare into and out of Central London, one might think that this location too was the result of careful planning.  But such gaps are endemic in a study that either cannot or will not see the connection between the works of Shakespeare and the politics of Elizabeth’s Court.  Literary critics continue to chase their tails around Stratford while evidence of Shakespeare’s connection to the Court lies unobserved in open view.

That Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Baron Hunsdon, whose job it was to oversee Court entertainment, next to the Queen and the Principal Secretary, the most powerful man on the Privy Council, his fingers in every political pie, his hand close to if not actually on the rudder of the Ship of State, that this was just another acting company, its popularity the only factor in its importance, is the result of Hunsdon’s efforts and those of other powerful men and women, to keep his company’s connection to the Crown as hidden as possible for political reasons should be obvious to anyone with any grasp of the history of the period.

However modest its origins were made to appear, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was in fact England’s Crown company, following the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1589, the second ever to be created, its official status reaffirmed when, following Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King James, it was renamed the King’s Men.   Their sharers included James Burbage head of the first company ever to get a license, his son, plus the top players from both leading companies of the time.

How can the so-called critics be so obtuse as to miss the connection between the most celebrated plays of the day and the politics that raged around them and their audiences?  How can they fail to understand that the London Stage was the sixteenth century equivalent of America’s John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, England’s Chris Morris?   Forced by the Stratford bio to date the plays ten to fifteen years out of sync with events, they continue the mystification that was first conceived by men like Hunsdon and Burbage, Howard and Henslowe, to hide the connection between the London Stage and the Crown.  How can they fail to see that the elimination of Marlowe was the act of an angry Crown towards one who brazenly and wantonly violated its unwritten agreement to treat the Crown and its religion with respect.  If not the English Departments, who will write the true history of this period during which poets, one in particular, stood at the forefront of a groundswell moving inexorably towards not just talking about, not just demanding, but actually getting, freedom of speech.

While Moliére was the intimate friends of the French King’s brother, a member of French Court society; while the Poet Ronsard was born into French Court circles, the intimate of three French kings; while the Italian poet Tasso, a nobleman at the Courts of the Princes of Urbino and Ferrara, was the familiar of their highest circles; while the playwright Ariosto was the familiar of the Cardinal d’Este and the Duke of Ferrera; while the playwright Machiavelli was the familiar of the Medici; the orator Cicero the colleague of Caesar and Mark Antony; the poets Ovid and Virgil known at the the Court of Caesar Augustus; Lord Byron the intimate of the highest members of Regency society––why was the great Shakespeare never seen at Elizabeth’s Court?  Why was he never even introduced?

Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court?  Yes, there are Court figures who feature in the story of the birth of modern English literature: Sidney was an important writer as was Raleigh and Bacon, Harington and Donne.  But what about Spenser?  Wouldn’t it make sense that he was brought to Court, like these others, and not left to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Irish kerns in the wilds of County Limerick?

And what about the great master, the greatest of all, Shakespeare, whose plays were performed at Court for decades?  Why is Shakespeare never found at Court?

The Authorship argument in a nutshell

First there’s the name

Yes, Shakespeare was a real name; yes it belonged to a real man who had ties of some sort to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that produced the plays and had them published.  But what must strike someone first who knows nothing about the myth is that the name is a pun, a classical play on words.  Not only is it a pun, it was often spelled with a hyphen on the title pages of plays, a standard way of spelling pun-names for comic characters like that female of easy virtue, Doll Tear-sheet.  In fact, the first time it was used on the title page of a play, it was spelled with a hyphen (the 2nd edition of Richard III, published in 1598, was the first play to bear the name William Shake-speare).

Not only is Shake-spear a pun, but, also like Doll Tear-sheet, it describes his vocation.  This author used the drama, as have so many before and after, to shake a spear at stupidity and evil.  Whether you see spear as metaphor for stage prop or pen, it works as a symbol for what he was doing.  How he, or more to the point, how those who published his plays managed to find a real person with a name that works as a pun and who was also willing to let them use it, is a separate issue.  What’s important at first glance is that the name that first became known as the author of the plays that were so popular in London in the early 1590s were ascribed to a man with what appeared to be a pun-name, a clear indication to those who could read that the publishers were not using the author’s real name.

There’s the content of the plays

At least half are based in Italy, many derived from Italian stories.  There’s no evidence that William of Stratford was ever in or could have been in Italy.  At the same time it’s clear that some of the Italian stories whose plots he adapted were not available then in English, which means that whoever wrote them was able to read Italian.  Academics attempt to bypass this by disdaining his knowledge of Italy, yet over time it’s been gradually proven, most recently and effectively by Richard Roe of Pasadena California, that Shakespeare knew Italy better than they did.   He knew it so well that he could place his characters with total accuracy in particular places in particular cities, while using Italian terms that only someone with personal experience could possibly have known.  He had to have been to Italy.

The plays are all about Court life and the lives of courtiers, kings and the nobility, written from the perspective of one who knew that life and those people intimately.  There’s his knowledge of games and sports, demonstrated partly by including them in his plays, partly by his use of their terms, partly by their use as metaphors, games and sports that were limited by law and expense to members of the Court community.  So knowledgable was Shakespeare about the intricacies and details of Court life that German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, Duke of Lautenberg and creator of the German Empire inherited by Kaiser Wilhelm, commented upon it.  Bismarck’s biographer notes that he wondered how someone,

however gifted with the intuitions of genius, could have written what was attributed to Shakespeare unless he had been in touch with the great affairs of state, behind the scenes of political life, and also intimate with all the social courtesies and refinements of thought which in Shakespeare’s time were only to be met with in the highest circles. (Whitman 135)

Yet no trace of a William Shakespeare has ever appeared in any record that shows that he was ever at Court for so much as a single moment.  Why, when earlier playwrights like John Hayward, later playwrights like Ben Jonson, composers like William Byrd, musicians like the Bassano brothers, actors like Richard Tarleton, all leave paper trails of Court involvement; why when individuals with names he used for his characters like Spinola or Petruccio, appear in Court records, why is Shakespeare himself absent?

There’s his knowledge of the Law, of Medicine, of Astrology, of Pharmacology, all displayed throughout his works, sometimes by direct description, many times by uses of their particular terms or by metaphorically comparing them to a host of otherwise unrelated situations.

There’s his obvious knowledge of languages other than English

Even if the Stratford grammar school did provide sufficient Latin, which, though likely, is still an assumption; and even if William did attend, which is not proven, nor provable, since so far the only writing in his hand that has turned up in 400 years of research are wobbly signatures on six legal documents, none of them related in any direct way to the London Stage, it doesn’t explain his knowledge of French, Italian and Greek.  Reseach into the sources of his plays, their plots and characters, shows knowledge of works in these languages, French and Italian stories, ancient Greek tragedies, that were not yet translated into either Latin or English in his time, and if translated, could not be found anywhere but in the libraries of educated noblemen.

There’s the lack of evidence of important patrons

In Shakespeare’s time, no writer from Shakespeare’s background ever got established without support from a wealthy patron, yet apart from his homage to the Earl of Southampton in the dedications of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, there’s no third party evidence that Southampton, or any other noble patron, ever did anything to help someone named William Shakespeare with his career as a writer or an actor.

The major share of evidence that he was an actor comes from five documents spawned by the Company that published works under that name: 1) 1595: when his name is listed once, and only once, as one of three payees for a production at Court; 2) 1603: in the official warrant for the establishment of the King’s Men; 3) 1604: in several yards of cloth given to all who marched in the coronation procession of King James; 4) 1605: in the will of one of the sharers of receipts from the Globe theater; 5) 1616: in a list of actors in two plays published by Ben Jonson; and 6) in a line that same year added to his own will bequeathing money for rings for the Company managers .  This is all there is; it’s limited to this one small group of men dependent on the fortunes of the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men; and it isn’t enough to take for granted that William of Stratford was, in fact as well as official fiction, a playwright and an actor.

There’s the lack of evidence of a training period in the theater

Four hundred years of research has failed to turn up any indication that William of Stratford worked with a theater company as either an actor or a writer before he suddenly began turning out hits with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s.   Scott McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean note that the Queen’s Men performed early versions of Richard III, King John, and Henry V, which suggests to them that Shakespeare must have been a member of their company, but though they have many of the actors from that Company, no trace of his name has ever appeared as working in any theatrical capacity in the 1580s.

There’s the lack of evidence of a life lived in London

No great playwright ever spent much time away from the center of his creative life, the Stage, yet there’s no evidence that William Shakespeare spent more than a few weeks away from Stratford.  As Ramon Jiménez has detailed at length, no one who should have known him as a writer and an actor ever mentioned him.  What great artist ever left no record of his relationships with the other great artists and patrons of his time?  The record of his life in London consists of measly accounts of tax evasion and a period of residence of an indeterminate length with a family of theatrical costumers.  No evidence of friendships with other writers and artists; nothing that comes close to what we know about Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, or even Shakespeare’s own (supposed) illegitimate playwright son, William Davenant.

There’s the lack of evidence that he owned theater shares

Along with the strange lack of any books in William’s will, the fact that neither he nor his wife, nor either of his daughters could write anything more than a legal signature, is the fact that he left no theater shares in his will.  The basis for believing that his financial success in Stratford was due to his shares in the receipts of two theaters where the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men performed, derives from his name on warrants for the second, and references to him as a sharer in documents generated by the Company.  Despite these, the fact that he left no shares in his will, and that in the litigation that attended the success of the King’s Men in the seventeenth century, where the fate of shares was the subject of lawsuits, no mention is made of what happened to his shares, suggests that he was recompensed for whatever it was that he did for the Company in some other way.

Finally, there’s the way his biography skews the dates

Most problematic may be the way the biography of William of Stratford, with its late placement in the story of the English Literary Renaissance, forces on scholars too narrow a window of time into which to fit his career.  It forces them to hunt for clues to his development where they simply cannot be found.  To limit the start of his career to the early 1590s, or the late 1580s at the earliest, forces them to see him beginning to produce works at or close to genius level with no apparent period of training.  It forces them to interpret the early quartos of his plays as the work of earlier unnamed playwrights and others to a strange habit on the part of such an innovative genius to imitate later, lesser writers.  It forces them to see the plays as written immediately before publication, putting them way out of sync with their natural placements in time, for instance, placing Henry V with its clear connection to the effort to prepare for the Spanish invasion to sometime after the Armada, when there would be no point in the stirring call to arms of the King’s  St. Crispian’s Day speech.

One or two of these issues might be accounted for by the attempts of academics to arrrange the facts to fit the biography, but not all.  From the pun-name used to publish his plays, his obvious knowledge of the Court, Italy, foreign languages, the Law, Medicine, Astrology and Pharmacology, all things that he could not possibly have learned from casual reading; his lack of patrons, of any evidence of a life lived in London, of an early training period, of any real evidence of acting or earning a living through the Stage, of any books, theater shares, or relationships with other artists.  And finally there’s the way his dates have forced unnatural and strained interpretations of the plays and their place in the timetable of Elizabethan history.

Taken together, these loudly proclaim the obvious, that William Shakespeare of Stratford was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for the use of his punnable name so that they could profit by the publication of his plays while allowing the educated and sophisticated courtier who wrote them to maintain his image as nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a genial and harmless patron of the arts and sciences.

How old is the Authorship Question?

The standard answer to this is the late nineteenth century, when Delia Bacon’s book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, claimed that the Shakespeare canon was not written by William of Stratford, but was the result of a collaboration of a team of courtly writers led by Francis Bacon.  This, however, was only the moment when the issue was opened to the reading public at large, for the issue itself has been there ever since the first peeps of Shakespeare criticism.  As Albert Feuillerat explains in his Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays (1953), the question of the authenticity of the Shakespeare canon

has been raised with more or less insistence ever since the eighteenth century. . . .  Pope conjectured that in Love’s Labor’s Lost, the Winter’s Tale, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus there was nothing authentic except a few scenes and some characters (1725). . . .  Similar doubts were expressed by Theobald regarding Henry V (1734), by Hanmer regarding the Two Gentlemen of Verona (1744), by Samuel Johnson regarding Richard II (1765), and by Farmer regarding The Taming of the Shrew (1767).  Ritson found some disparities so evident that in The Two Gentlemen, Love’s Labor’s Lost and Richard II he claimed he could distinguish Shakespeare’s hand as easily as one could recognize the brilliant brush strokes with which a Titian might have sought to touch up a mere daub.  Malone in 1790, in his often quoted dissertation on Henry VI, did not recognize Shakespeare’s hand except in some passages of the second and third parts and thought that the first part came entirely from one of Shakespeare’s predecessors. (32)

The difference between these early questioners and Delia Bacon is that they never disputed the existence of a William Shakespeare as author, however sparing his touch.  As lawyers and doctors began openly questioning the Stratford biography, Frederick Fleay and the so-called disintegrators got ever more severe in limiting the evanescent Shakespeare’s involvement in the production of the canon.  Clinging like drowning survivors of shipwreck to that crumbling bit of flotsam, the name itself, academics and their groupies continue to defend what, if one takes the long view, never really existed.  The first public attribution, by Francis Meres in 1598, is hardly solid since it stands alone while the book that introduces Shakespeare’s name to the reading public  was his only connection with the world of poetic literature.  The other attribution, that found in the First Folio of 1623, is fragile in the extreme, and nothing since has done anything to solidify it, quite the reverse.  We’re left with Authority’s age-old pronunciamento: “It’s so because I say it’s so.”

That someone wrote the magic and that during the 1590s the name William Shakespeare got attached to it along with a good deal else that’s questionable is all we can be certain of, and all that anyone could be certain of for a very long time.  Beginning with Delia, the search began to replace the name with that of a writer whose biography made more sense, keeping Shakespeare only to identify the canon, as in A.W. Pollard’s article of 1917: “Shakespeare’s fight with the Pirates,” in which by Shakespeare he meant, not the author, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their precious playbook.

The questioning has taken new turns over the years.  At the beginning it must have been about who was writing the plays that began to be performed in the early 1590s.  This was answered in 1598 when three of the most popular plays were published as by William Shake-spear (Richard III) or Shakespeare (Richard II and Romeo and Juliet), the same time that it (the name) was introduced to the reading public via the Meres book as the author of several other plays as well, no doubt popular plays, and of  certain “sugar’d sonnets.”  Some readers were already familiar with the name from the title pages of two narrative poems published four and five years earlier, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Thus towards the end of the 1590s, long after the first versions of some of the plays had been seen by audiences (the Contentions and True Tragedies), they had a name for the author, but they never had the man himself.  The lack of any solid history of William’s presence in London, of letters to him from other writers or from him to other writers or from anyone to anyone else about him, suggests that the questioning must have continued, which the ambiguous wording of the front material in the First Folio was intended to put to rest.  That this wording continued through later editions suggests that the questioning continued until, as Feuillerat reports, the emphasis began to shift to questions about what seemed to be other hands of far less ability.

Long story short: the authorship question has been around from the beginning, it has simply shifted focus repeatedly from one aspect to another.  Where it rests at the moment, on which of several candidates actually wrote the works attributed to the Stratford money-lender, is only one stage in the long ongoing question of who actually wrote the canon, and, perhaps most important, why it’s taking so long to come up with an answer.

What is Shakespeare?

A word can mean more than one thing: a can can hold beer while to be canned can mean you can be fired from your job; you can be canned for driving with an open can in your hand.  By the word can alone we can’t know which of these is the intended meaning; that can only come from the context.  The meaning of “I’ve been canned” (I’ve been fired) as opposed to “it’s been canned” (what’s happened to my tomato) can only be determined by a pronoun.  Can, spelled differently, can even be a place on the French Riveria and or a film festival.

Language is a tricky thing.  It can hide as well as reveal.  It can hide while appearing to reveal.  Which is the case with the word Shakespeare.  First, it can mean the great poet and playwright; second the uneducated man from Stratford-on-Avon who was born with a similar name, though not pronounced the same; third, the body of work produced by the first; and fourth, a pun involving the shaking of a spear.  Which is the desired meaning can be understood by context: Shakespeare wrote Hamlet; Shakespeare was born and died in Stratford; I’ve read all of Shakespeare; the playwright shook a spear.  Our problem lies with an inability to distinguish among the first three: “I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”

Writer vs. author

One good thing that came out of the semiotic mess of the mid-twentieth century is the understanding that while an author is always a writer, a writer is not necessarily an author.  A writer becomes an author only when his or her writing gets published and his or her name gets printed on the title page.  The two may be identically spelled, or they may not,  they may not even be the same name.  Mary Ann Evans was a writer, as an author she was George Elliot.  Daniel Nathan and Manfred Lepovsky wrote mysteries together, as authors they were both Ellery Queen.  When writing the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay were PubliusMark Twain was really Samuel Clemens.  Lewis Carroll was really Charles Dodgeson.  And so forth.  The list of writers cum authors is long and would probably be even longer were all clearly identified.

From the very beginning of writing there’s been an issue over the author’s name.  Writing is one way of getting a message out that can’t be expressed any other way, so a large percentage of written material has come from sources that were unable to disseminate it directly through word of mouth.  Notes passed in class, anonymous letters, demands for ransom, are the result of situations where the writer can’t speak without fear of retaliation.  The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, was probably written by priests at a time (or times) of stress when it was feared that what until then had been an oral tradition might vanish should none of those who held it in memory survive.  During the Reformation and the period leading up to it it was worth a man’s life to publish the Bible or any of its parts in anything but the official Latin.  With the invention of printing came two great and powerful instruments: first, the ability to disseminate writing to a far greater readership at almost a single stroke, and second, the power to hide its source.

Literature originated as speech.  The rules that governed self-expression back in ancient times, known as rhetoric, were created to help orators communicate verbally with crowds in public arenas.  It took centuries before these rules were altered to fit the needs of communications created solely for publication.  Shakespeare, who wrote most obviously for speakers but also, as Lukas Erne makes clear, for readers as well, represents a transition between the two.

With printing, suddenly a few hours of labor by a compositor and a pressman, and there were hundreds of copies ready for distribution.  With this also came the ability to cleanse the writing of the tell-tale handwriting that could lead angry authorities to the author of a manuscript, or to his secretary.  No sooner were presses imported from the Continent than laws were passed and rules created to make such mystification difficult: printers were licensed, printshops were limited to a fixed number and location, censors were appointed, the name of the printer and the author had to be published on the title page.  And of course as rules were created, methods were found for circumventing them, many of them used as often by the Crown as by its enemies, and far more successfully.  Which brings us back to Shakespeare.

It should be obvious that Shakespeare (meaning the author) was closely connected to the Crown, that is the central government of the nation.  The name William Shakespeare is not to be found on anything relating to the Stage or the theater until 1595 when it appears on a warrant for payment for a Court performance by the recently-formed Crown company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  From then on the only reliable records connecting the name William Shakespeare to theatrical matters will come from this same source, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––later the King’s Men, sanctioned, licensed, and protected by patrons who were, if not the monarch himself or herself, leading members of the Privy Council, responsible for all matters of Crown policy and its dissemination.

Shakespeare an instrument of the Crown

The fact that from the first the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were in every respect a Crown company is rendered ambiguous by their name, which deflects, probably on purpose, their roots as a part of the Court establishment, but the name does reveal the fact that, as an instrument of the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, their primary purpose was to entertain the Court and otherwise do the Court’s bidding in terms of what plays they put on and where, the Lord Chamberlain being the second most powerful member of the Privy Council, the Queen’s cabinet.  As second in power only to the Secretary of State, he was a major instrument of Crown policy, both creating it and enforcing it.

Shakespeare’s Company was preceeded by the first Crown company, the Queen’s Men; for whom the earliest versions of some of his plays were written.  Following the death of Elizabeth, the Company was more formally acknowledged by the incoming monarch as the King’s Men.  Their first actors and managers included some who had been entertaining the Court since Elizabeth first took the throne, first under her favorite, Robert Dudley, as Leicester’s Men, their manager and the creator of the first purpose built stage in London, James Burbage and his sons.

That from their organization by the Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon in 1594 until 1611 or thereabouts, their company playwright was one William Shakespeare is a fact known and accepted by all theater historians.  Towards the end of the 1590s they began to perform works by other writers, but that Shakespeare was their mainstay throughout their entire history until the Civil War shut them down, is evident from the history of publishing throughout that period and from what bits of evidence have accrued from other sources.

How strange is it then that no evidence that a William Shakespeare was ever recorded as having been seen or introduced at either Court, Elizabeth’s or James’s?  Ben Jonson, who took on the role that Shakespeare played earlier as leading author for the King’s Men was the Poet Laureate of the Court of both James and Charles I with clear ties to the King’s Lord Chamberlain, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.  Milton and Dryden were both Poets Laureate, and as such, instruments of the Crown, purveyors of Crown policy.  Molière, whose plays were written as much for the Court of Louis the Fourteenth as Shakespeares’were for Elizabeth’s, was a well-known member of the French Court community as was the poet Ronsard earlier to the Court of two French kings, and as were Ariosto and Tasso to the Court of the Princes of Este in Italy.

But at Elizabeth’s Court?  Nary a trace of William Shakespeare.

Did Oxford translate some of Plutarch’s Lives?

Can the crossovers between North’s Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus be explained by Oxford translating this section of North’s book?

It’s a set piece of literary history that for the Greek and Roman plays, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s main source was Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Greek Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.  Having found similar repetitions in other supposed sources and apocryphal works where the likelihood is that Shakespeare, i.e., Oxford, was not stealing, but was simply repeating what he himself had written earlier, when years ago I read that in certain places, Shakespeare repeated North’s language word for word, it struck me that he might have prepared himself to write these plays by reading and translating Amyot’s Plutarch into English, then publishing it as someone else’s who could use the money.

We know from Burghley’s records that Oxford owned a copy of Amyot’s French translation since it’s one of the books he bought from Seres in 1569. He would have been well-acquainted with Plutarch even then, from eight years with his tutor’s library where it’s listed in both the original Greek and Latin translation.  In all probability, Smith followed standard procedure by using Plutarch to teach young de Vere good language use and ancient history.  Himself a Platonist, Plutarch’s Platonism would have been another plus for Smith.  Geoffrey Bullough, in his chapter on Coriolanus, includes the ancient Titus Livius and Dionysius of Halicarnasus as possible sources, both on Smith’s library list: Livy in the original Latin and Dionysius in the original Greek as well as Latin translation.  Because there was no English version of the latter in Shakespeare’s time, Bullough has to dismiss it as a direct source except as it influenced Plutarch, though he does include it, I suppose for that reason.  He attributes Shakespeare’s knowledge of Livy to a 1600 translation by Philemon Holland.

Plutarch was one of the major voices for the European Renaissance.  As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:

His Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, translated in 1579 from Jacques Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, has been described as one of the earliest masterpieces of English prose.   Shakespeare borrowed from North’s Lives for his Roman plays—Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus—and, in fact, he put some of North’s prose directly into blank verse, with only minor changes.  (2006)

And as North’s ODNB biographer puts it:

North’s fame, since Samuel Johnson’s contention that Shakespeare had read Plutarch in North’s translation . . . has rested in the dramatist’s having, among very much else, thrown “the very words of North into blank verse.”  Shakespeare’s acquaintance with North’s translation probably derived from the printing house of Richard Field, whose presses may have been at work on a 1595 edition of [North’s] Plutarch at the same time that they were printing Shakespeare’s Lucrece in 1594 . . . . North’s translation influenced profoundly not only the larger narrative structures of Shakespeare’s Roman plays but innumerable local shapings of their language . . . .

Jacques Amyot’s 1559 translation of Plutarch came from studying manuscripts in the Vatican.  North’s English translation, published by Vautrollier in 1579, was based on Amyot’s third edition, published in 1574.  Richard Field, Vautrollier’s former apprentice, published the second edition of North’s verson in 1595, and a third in 1603.  As we know, it was Field, whose print shop was spitting distance from Oxford’s Blackfriars theater school, who, two years earlier, had published Venus and Adonis, the first published work to bear the Shakespeare name.

Nothing directly connecting Oxford with North has come readily to light (although it’s clear the author of his ODNB bio found their names linked in a 1591 document with that of Sir Julius Caesar).  The younger brother of the first Baron North, Thomas North (his knighthood came later) appears to have struggled throughout his life with that bane of a second son, poverty, which is not to say that he wasn’t a genuine translator, though according to the author of his ODNB bio, his influential 1557 English translation of de Guevara’s Diall of Princes did have some authorship issues:

It seems likely, . . . from comments made by North in the second, revised, edition of The Diall (1568), that the first edition was not altogether well received for more literary reasons: “detracting tongues,” he wrote, had given out that the translation “was no work of mine, but the fruit of others’ labor.” (Lockwood)

If North was not the real  or sole translator of Diall of Princes, published in 1557, the real author could not have been Oxford, who at age seven was still living with Smith in Buckinghamshire.  (If nothing else this comment shows the kind of suspicions that were rampant at that time about the authorship of so much literature of the imagination.)  During the period that the Diall of Princes was translated, North was enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, where he remained until sometime before 1568, where, like so many other Inns of Court gents, he may have crossed paths with Milord during Oxford’s years at Cecil House (1562-68).  Oxford’s senior by 15 years; North’s nephew, Lord North’s son John, was Oxford’s contemporary, but he died before his father so the title passed to his son, North’s grandson, in 1600.

Lord North was a client of Leicester’s, and therefore not likely to have been particularly concerned with the young Earl of Oxford’s interests or welfare, but that’s not to say that his relations followed suit.  His grandson, Dudley, 2nd Baron North, was a member of the literary circle surrounding Prince Henry.  It’s worth mentioning that, during the Elizabethan era, Lord North owned the most gorgeous of all Chaucer manuscripts, the Ellesmere Chaucer, created in the 14th century as a gift for the 12th Earl of Oxford.

Shakespeare and Coriolanus

One of the Plutarch biographies from which Shakespeare borrowed most heavily, Coriolanus was probably written originally for the winter holidays, late 1582 to early 1583, the period when Walsingham and Sussex were engineering Oxford’s return to Court.  This required that he make amends to the Queen and his in-laws, for which the story of Coriolanus must have seemed ideal, providing a graceful mea culpa for the Court while for the public it functioned as a moral tale addressing the current civil unrest over rising food prices and the increasingly harsh punishments being meted out to followers of the Old Faith.

This would not be the first time Oxford had used Plutarch.  Following his return from Italy in 1576, freaked out by the realization of just how much trouble he was in financially, he had turned to Plutarch’s biography of Timon of Athens, pouring his bitter disillusionment with the Court and his fair-weather courtier friends into the earliest version of what someday would be known as “Shake-spear’s” most angry protagonist.  Then, following his banishment, aware that some were still contented to believe he was a two-faced traitor, he turned again to Plutarch to explain himself via Coriolanus.

Because Oxford’s enemies wanted him seen as a traitor, they promoted the story that he had been planning to run away and fight for Spain.  Coriolanus is evidence that this may be true, or at least, that he had talked rather recklessly about doing it.  Recall that following the untimely birth of his son, he was stopped on the road to Dover in an obvious attempt to flee the country.  To Spain, they said, where he intended to take advantage of an offer to lead a contingent of the Spanish army.  Though not in exactly the same situation as Coriolanus, he too was being charged with treason, something that, unlike the ancient Roman general, he had no means of confronting openly.  Like Hamlet and Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy (both first written about the same time) a play was his way of explaining himself to the Court and his West End community, with the onstage murder of the protagonist in the final act a form of symbolic suicide.

In the inevitable effort to place Coriolanus as late as possible, Bullough tries to connect public unrest in Republican Rome with that of 17th-century England, not all that convincing, public unrest having been endemic throughout the reigns of both Elizabeth and James.  Because the time period he’s chosen, 1605, falls just when England finally made peace with Spain, Bullough makes no effort to make the most obvious connection, namely the similarity of the threat to England from Spain  throughout the 1580s and ’90s to the fears of the ancient Roman authorities over the threat from the Volscians.  He also ignores the startling relevance of the martyrdom of the aristocratic Coriolanus at the hands of the hoi polloi to the calls for more freedom of speech from puritan members of Parliament.  The skewed dating forced on historians by William’s biography won’t permit even the most logical and obvious questions to be given consideration.

It struck me long ago that the role of Menenius could easily be one of Oxford’s more benign depictions of Burghley, while the realistic family scenes with Volumnia and Virgilia just might be snapshots of life at Cecil House.  If the militant Volumnia was meant to represent Mildred Burghley, it reinforces Peter Moore’s take on Oxford’s relationship with his mother-in-law.  Perhaps she represents a combination of all four of the Cooke sisters, including the ferocious Elizabeth Russell, whose proximity to the little Blackfriars theater school gave Lady Russell the power to torment Oxford during the period he was fighting to keep the little stage going, the same period when this play was probably written.

All of this is just the most cursory glance at what seems to me to be an important area of inquiry.  Has some scholar compared North’s biographies with each other to see if they display the same high level throughout?  Are some better than others, those perchance that were the ones used by Shakespeare?  Has anyone capable of the French involved compared the French of Amyot with the English of North to see how much North’s skill depends on Amyot, and how much was his alone?  We’re told the 1595 edition varies in some respects from the 1579 original.  In what way ?  What has been added, and to which of the biographies?  Shakespeare refers to incidents in a number of the Lives in his works, but only these four were the basis for individual plays.

Finally, there are two prefaces to North’s Plutarch, both signed Thomas North, January 1579, one dedicating it to the Queen, the other the traditional letter “To the Reader.”  Both sound for all the world like Oxford’s dedicatory letters, the one in English to Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, and the one in Latin for Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of  Castiglione’s The Courtier.  The same kind of points are made, the same opinions about what is important in literature, even his daring use of the word love.  I’ve read an awful lot from this time––in my opinion, no one else writes like this:

To the Reader

The profit of stories and the praise of the Author are sufficiently declared by Amyot in his epistle to the reader, so that I shall not need to make many words thereof.  And indeed, if you will supply the defects of this translation with your own diligence and good understanding, you shall not need to trust him; you may prove yourselves, that there is no profane study better than Plutarch.  All other learning is private, fitter for universities than cities, fuller of contemplation than experience, more commendable in students themselves than profitable unto others.  Whereas stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books as it is better to see learning in noblemen’s lives than to read it in philosopher’s writings.  Now, for the author, I will not deny but love may deceive me, for I must needs love him with whom I have taken so much pain, but I believe I might be bold to affirm that he hath written the profitablest story of all authors.  For all other were fain to take their matter as the fortune of the countries where they wrote fell out; but this man, being excellent in wit, in learning, and experience, hath chosen the special acts of the best persons, of the famousest nations of the world.  But I will leave the judgement to yourselves.  My only purpose is to desire you to excuse the faults of my translation with your own gentleness, and with the opinion of my diligence and good intent.  And so I wish you all the profit of the book.  Fare ye well.  The four and twentieth day of January, 1579.

To the Most High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth
By the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland
Queen, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Under hope of Your Highness’ gracious and accustomed favor, I have presumed to present here unto Your Majesty, Plutarch’s Lives translated, as a book fit to be protected by Your Highness and mete to be set forth in English.  For who is fitter to give countenance to so many great states than such an high and mighty Princess?  Who is fitter to revive the dead memory of their fame than she that beareth the lively image of their virtues?  Who is fitter to authorize a work of so great learning and wisdom than she whom all do honor as the muse of the world?  Therefore I humbly beseech Your Majesty to suffer the simpleness of my translation to be covered under the ampleness of Your Highness’ protection.  For, most gracious Sovereign, though this book be no book for Your Majesty’s self, who are meeter to be the chief story than a student therein, and can better understand it in Greek than any man can make it English, yet I hope the common sort of your subjects shall not only profit themselves hereby but also be animated to the bettter service of Your Majesty.  For among all the profane books that are in reputation at this day there is none (Your Highness best knows) that teacheth so much honor, love, obedience, reverence, zeal and devotion to princes as these Lives of Plutarch do.  How many examples shall your subjects read here, of several persons and whole armies, of noble and base, of young and old, that both by sea and land, at home and abroad, have strained their wits, not regarded their states, ventured their pesons, cast away their lives, not only for the honor and safety, but also for the pleasure of their princes.

Then well may the readers think, if they have done this for heathen kings, what should we do for Christian princes?  If they have done this for glory, what should we do for religion?  If they have done this without hope of heaven, what should we do that look for immortality?  And so adding the encouragement of these examples to the forwardness of their dispositons, what service is there in war, what honor in peace, which they will not be ready to do for their worthy Queen?

And therefore that Your Highness may give grace to the book and the book may do his service to Your Majesty, I have translated it out of French and do here most humbly present the same unto Your Highness, beseeching Your Majesty with all humility, not to reject the good meaning but to pardon the errors of your most humble and obedient subject and servant, who prayeth God long to multiply all graces and blessings upon Your Majesty.

Written the sixteenth day of January, 1579.
Your Majesty’s most humble and obedient servant,
Thomas North.

Blogging or slogging?

If I’ve been slow with blogging lately, it’s because I’ve been slowly slogging through the histories of the period seeking patterns in events and dates to complete the puzzle of when and why the authorship question first arose.  Now that I have it, I have to find a way to present it as a narrative, which is a thing that takes time and a lot of thought.  Rather than hold off any longer, I’ve decided to post as pages what I’ve come up with so far.  This means I will risk contradicting or repeating myself, but if I don’t, life being what it is, I may never get around to it at all.

There’s no hard evidence for the story I’m at pains to tell, but then there wouldn’t be.  First, they didn’t keep evidence of this sort of thing back then; no one who was close enough to the action to know the truth would have mentioned it openly either in a letter or a published work.  Second, this was the very thing that, once he had control of the national archives, was erased from the record by the man who made the coverup necessary.  Obsessed with making it go away, he made it appear that the English Literary Renaissance had never happened.  If it weren’t for the hundreds of published works that were beyond recalling or burning, he would have gotten away with it.  He did get away with erasing all evidence of how it came to be.

Literary historians like E.A.J. Honigman, Andrew Gurr and Scott McMillin have seen the truth.  McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean, for instance, see the truth about Walsingham, unlike their mainstream  colleagues who still see the great Secretary as little more than the Queen’s spymaster.  But without the chief protagonists it’s all just a collection of shadows on a wall.  Without the authorship question and the answers it provides about the principals, there’s no dynamic, no thrust; it’s Yalta without Churchill or Stalin.

For years I’ve felt that it was impossible that no one seriously questioned Shakespeare’s identity until the mid-19th century.  If there was a problem with revealing it, and if William of Stratford was hired to stand in for the real playwright to resolve this problem, then it must be because at some point the question of who was writing the plays demanded an immediate response.

A man who created something so popular as the plays that made the Lord Chamberlain-King’s Men the most successful acting company of its day and perhaps of all time, would not have gone unnoticed, unrecorded, without commentary, in London or in his own home town as Ramon Jiménez has so clearly and succinctly shown was in fact the case.  That there is so little, really next to nothing, in the record about the author as a person, not just a name, cries out for an explanation and this cry would not have waited until the late 19th century.  It would have been immediate.

In fact, it was immediate, as Andrew Gurr shows in his studies of the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, though he can’t get to the heart of it without knowing the principals and the stakes involved.   No doubt questions were asked throughout the 1580s, but the author wasn’t quite Shakespeare yet.  Not until the 1590s, with his quantum leap in style from “Robert Greene” to “Shakespeare,” would theater buffs begin asking with increasing emphasis: “Who is writing this stuff?”  (Of course there were theater buffs then as there are now and always have been, particularly when the commercial Stage was so new. )

Although they didn’t use the name Shakespeare right away, the company must have purchased it from William at some point in 1594-95.  The first (and only) appearance of the name William Shakespeare on a Court warrant as payee for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men is dated March 1595, so the deal must have been done by then.  Why then was the name not used on any of the 15 Shakespeare plays published between 1594 and some point in 1598?  It would seem that not everyone in a position to make policy was enthusiastic about using a standin, or at least, not William.  Were they waiting for a better solution?  And what was it that caused them to begin using it in 1598?

As we might have suspected, as in Hamlet, “the play was the thing” that caused the question of the author’s identity to rise to such a pitch that a response had to be forthcoming and as soon as possible.

That play was Richard III.

Stay tuned.

Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

In a book titled Shakespeare, Puritan and Recusant, published in 1897, author Thomas Carter makes a convincing argument that the apparent troubles brought on the Shakspere family beginning around 1576 were due neither to Catholicism nor debt, but to John Shakspere’s adherence to the radical Protestant line.  In other words, John Shakspere was what in the 1590s would be described as nonconformist or dissident.  In other words, he was the opposite of what we’ve been told.  Although this may leave a few problems unresolved, it makes a lot more sense than the Catholic theory.

Certain that Shakspere’s son was the great playwright, Carter also believes that John must have been literate, and even holds that certain fees paid him were to send him to London to observe a session of Parliament.  We needn’t go this far; greater certainty would lie with evidence from other towns of the literacy of men like Shakspere Sr. during this period of rapid change in levels of literacy.  The most likely may be the middle view, that the glover’s mark he used as a signature was an artisan’s tradition, not a symptom of illiteracy, so that Shakspere Sr. could read enough to manage his affairs, something according to Carter he did well enough throughout.  As for John’s son William, it’s evident that, whether or not he could read at any level, he was unable to write his own signature with ease, which would seem to put him out of the running as the author of Hamlet.

From the beginning, John Shakspere’s career path followed that of the rise of Protestantism and fell with the rise of government anti-Puritanism.  He came to Stratford in 1551, possibly on a wave of Protestantism when John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Warwickshire’s Protestant overlord, came to supreme national power.  Dudley lost it when the Catholics came back in in 1553, but then in 1558, with the pendulum of power swinging back to the reformers, came Shakspere Sr.’s first steps up in Stratford town government.  His lifelong friend Adrian Quiney was the town’s first Bailiff under Elizabeth, while in 1564 “Chamberlains” Shakspere and friend Robert Wheler were paid to rid the town chapel of its Catholic symbols, the cross, the rood screen, and the images and pictures of the saints (69).

For twenty years John Shakespeare and his friends continued to serve in one capacity or another as leaders in the Stratford Council until the mid ’70s when it appears he lost interest in civic service, either from debt or recusancy.  Although his recusancy is a matter of record, Carter shows that Shakspere was neither bankrupt nor was he even in serious debt.  The land transaction that scholars have interpreted as a sale by a desperate bankrupt were, as Carter explains, standard moves made by recusants to shift ownership of land to a friend or family member to avoid having their property confiscated should they be condemned by the Ecclesiastical High Commission (94-106).

The word recusant is usually taken to mean Catholics who refused to conform, but in fact it simply means one who abstains from attending church out of protest.  It’s true that the majority of recusants were Catholic, but right from the start it was clear that for the Queen and many others, the complaint was less with the Catholic service than it was with Catholic politics.  As for religion, once the Armada was defeated and the Crown was no longer so worried about Spain, Elizabeth’s attention turned to the English dissidents who, if anything, were even more offensive to her personally in their demands, whether for a reformed Church or the freedom to worship as they pleased.

Having been made the Head of the Church by the actions of her father, Elizabeth took seriously the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament shortly after her coronation that demanded allegiance to the (once again) reformed Service and Book of Common Prayer.  Seeing the empty churches as a personal affront, she put her “little black husband” Archbishop Whitgift in charge of forcing them back to church and the machinery of repression under the High Commission swung around toward the dissidents.  Thus was the Church of England born.  Shorn by the Star Chamber of opposition at both ends of the religious spectrum, it settled into what the proto-Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, etc., saw as a Catholic service in every respect but that Latin was replaced by English and the clergy were allowed to marry.

Carter sees this wave of repression, sparked by the uproar caused by the Queen’s threat to marry the Catholic French prince and her brutal treatment of John Stubbes for writing against it, as sweeping through Stratford in 1579, bringing strict reprisals from Westminster and forcing Shakspere Sr. and his reformist friends to retreat from the kind of involvement in civic affairs that could lead to serious trouble for them and their families.  As the records show, John was willing (and apparently able) to pay a heavy fine for not taking Episcopalian communion (118).  That John Shakspere retired from public life for twenty years, not because he was a Catholic, but because he was a dissident, makes a good deal of sense in almost every respect.

One issue that it doesn’t resolve is the matter of the Catholic handbook found by roofers in the eaves of the Henley Street house in 1757 (Schoenbaum 41).   This has been taken as evidence that John was a devout Catholic who hid the book out of concern that it might be found by some delegation of church commissioners.  Surely we can let go of this one.  It doesn’t affect the authorship thesis in any direct way.  Anyone could have hidden the book, such as an apprentice with rooms in the attic, concerned that his Master find him with such a dangerous item.  Another issue is the reason why William’s daughter Susannah was listed in 1606 by an ecclesiastical commission as a recusant (234-5) which Schoenbaum attributes to her being “popishly affected,” though it can just as easily be interpreted as an attempt to keep track of persons who failed to show up for communion so that they could be fined.

It does resolve other things.  There’s the problem of why John Shakspere’s neighbor, tanner Henry Field, clearly a staunch Protestant (having placed his son as an apprentice with the Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier), would name a devout Catholic in his will to act as his executor.  When seen as fellow Protestants, Shakspere and Field’s relationship makes better sense (even if John did take Henry to court once over a debt).

But the best proof comes from the plays, where advocates of a Catholic Shakespeare have a hard row to hoe.  Some of Shakespeare’s many Biblical references could have come from any Bible, but the prevalence of quotations, some almost word for word, from the 1560 Geneva Bible far outnumber them.  The very fact that there are so many Biblical quotes in Shakespeare while the Inquisition taught that it was a sin for a layman, not just to read the Bible, any bible, but even to own one, should be enough to quash the Catholic Shakespeare theory.  (The ability of theorists to cling to a notion, no matter how utterly it’s been proven false, never ceases to amaze.)

This prevalance in Shakespeare of quotations from the Puritan Bible, as Carter calls it, helps him with his Puritan Shakespeare theory, but not nearly so much as it helps Oxfordians with ours, for the Earl of Oxford spent the first eight years of his school career being tutored by one of England’s leading reform theologians, one who helped to create the also frequently quoted Book of Common Prayer, while the very Geneva Bible that Oxford purchased when he was nineteen, when presumably he was off on his own and no longer reliant on the books in his guardian’s library, is still to be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Oxford and Marlowe

Was Marlowe Shakespeare?

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

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

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

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

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

Marlowe as Shakespeare’s predecessor

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

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

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

The Rival Poet

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

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

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

Who wrote Hero and Leander?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My scenario

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

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

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

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

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

In short

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

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