Category Archives: mumming and disguising

Hide Fox and all after

In the second scene of Act 4, we find Hamlet alone in a room in the castle, where he’s discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been sent to bring him to the King, who’s just been informed of the death of Polonius. After taunting them with their servility, Hamlet agrees to go with them and, as they exit, he mutters “Hide Fox and all after.” Notes tell us what we could have guessed, that this is the name of a children’s game, the one we know today as Hide and Go Seek.  Why does Hamlet say this?   What does he mean? He isn’t saying it to his former schoolmates, nor to the audience. They won’t know what he means any more than we do. From this point on Hamlet talks in riddles a great deal of the time.

In Hide and Go Seek, the child who is “it” plays the role of a hunted animal, a fox if you will, who is sought by the dogs, the rest of the children. To evade the dogs, the fox must be silent and crafty. When one of the hunters tracks him down, the hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the fox, becomes “it.”  Since no harm comes to the fox in the children’s game, this role is more glamorous than that of a hunter, so there is competition to be “it.” To be the best dog, the one who finds the fox the quickest, then to be the best fox, the one who can outfox the dogs for the longest time––this is the motive force that drives the game.  Hamlet is a prince, born to rule. Refusing to see himself as a victim, he finds a way to cast himself as a winner––in his own mind at least––one who can outfox the dogs.

Hamlet is no longer a child, but until now he has lived a pampered existence.  Blissfully unaware of the murderous animal energies that drive the politics of Court society, he has, like Prospero, spent his life immersed in books and things of the mind.  It has taken his father’s murder to awaken him to the realities of power politics.  Unwilling to believe the ghost without some evidence of his uncle’s guilt, he sets a trap, a play, to determine the truth.  This works, yet it also puts him in serious jeopardy.

Now that Claudius knows that he knows who murdered the Old King, Hamlet, formerly just an irritation, has become a deadly threat.  Further, by killing Polonius, he has given his uncle a legitimate reason to get rid of him. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hamlet needs to get the hell out of his intellectual ivory tower and engage on the level of animal energies with all his wits about him.  Knowing how fear can paralyze action, to encourage himself he summons up a game from his childhood, so that he can act freely, with the élan of a child at play.  Thus it is to himself that he speaks when he mutters “Hide fox, and all after.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is full of clues about the author, but these have led nowhere since there’s nothing to be found in Stratford.  There was no prince in Stratford, living in an Ivory Tower.  This author felt safe in childhood, and what does he do as an adult?  How does he deal with the cruel realities of life?  He plays.  He plays the lute, and he writes plays, in which, as in children’s games, the victims rise when the curtain falls and the show is over to play again the following day in a world of make believe.  This author was someone who felt powerless in the real world of power politics, who found his strength and power in the world of the theater, the world of play.

The fox is safe as long so he remains hidden.  There is nowhere Hamlet can hide his physical self from the King and his henchmen.  But what he can hide are his intentions.  From now on, Hamlet, who is of an open disposition by nature and inclined to reveal his feelings, hides them behind a mask of foolery.  Like Hamlet, his author too hides himself behind a mask––the one we call “Shakespeare.”

Why Shakespeare hid

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was a genius.  We may not agree on who he was at this point, but surely we all agree that he was a genius.  There’s something else we know about him now, something we didn’t realize until recently: he was not only a genius at writing plays and poetry, he was also a genius at hiding.  We’ve been playing Hide Fox and All After with Shakespeare for roughly two hundred years, and still he remains elusive, dim, half––if no longer completely––hidden.  But why?

Hamlet hid his intentions because he was in mortal danger.  Is this a clue to Shakespeare’s hiding?  Was he in mortal danger?

Authors frequently hide behind pseudonyms when they publish works that might get them into trouble with the authorities.  (The list of famous writers who have done this is too long to include here.)  Is this why Shakespeare hid his identity?  Would he have been in trouble with the authorities had they known who he was?

Writers often use pseudonyms when they branch out and try something different, so that they won’t turn away faithful readers used to a different style or genre.  (Again, the list of famous writers who have done this, and are doing it today, is too long to list here.)  Could this be part of the reason Shakespeare hid his identity, so he’d be free to change style and genre whenever he felt like it?

Many writers in the past have hidden their identities because they wished to protect their class status or some professional identity.  Was this the reason, or part of it?

Writers hide from family, friends and fans behind unmarked doors and unlisted phone numbers because they need extended periods of unbroken time to get into the creative zone and stay there long enough to make something happen.  Was this why he hid?   To insure his privacy?

As so many great writers have agreed, great writers create out of their own experience, some of it potentially scandalous and embarrassing to their families, friends and lovers. Did Shakespeare hide to protect his family and friends from a posterity that might connect their private secrets with the plots of his plays?  With his villains and fools?  With the passion of his sonnets?

The early modern period was a time when poets were ashamed to put their names to the poetry they published.  In Shakespeare’s day, poetry, particularly love poetry, was regarded as a “toy,” a foolish pastime that healthy-minded adults gave up with maturity.  Is this why he hid?  Because, once past his twenties, he was ashamed to be known as a poet?

This was a time of fierce criticism of all innovations in word usage, spelling, syntax. The messy experiments of a language getting born led to ferocious condemnations of all attempts to do something new. Is this why he hid? Because he didn’t care to hear himself condemned by ignorant fools?

Another reason has been suggested in an article by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, published some time ago in The New Yorker, titled: “What is a Novelist?” In an effort to explain what motivates a serious novelist, Kundera makes the very interesting point that great writers are haunted by a demon unique to their craft, the awareness that their audience may well be posterity, that their name, unlike that of mere generals and tyrants, may last forever, and in fact, that the fame of generals and tyrants depends on writers, for no one will remember the greatest hero unless some writer preserves his deeds in words. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this when he promised the Fair Youth that so “great was his pen,” that the Youth would be remembered “when tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass are spent.” By separating himself from his name, did he wish to keep his inspiration free from the psychological burden of future fame?

Are any of these the reason? Are none of them the reason? Are all of them the reason? Why do we do anything important in life, marry, divorce, start a family, move to a different town or country, change career paths, go back to school? Isn’t it always for more than one reason?

Problems of understanding the period

To find the fox it is necessary to understand him, how he thinks, what motivates him. Those of us who reject the Stratford biography are forced to deal with several problems that complicate our search for Shakespeare, problems that we must address before we can understand him, before we can feel certain that we’ve found the man himself and not just another one of his colleagues, rivals, patrons or proxies. Most of these problems relate to the immense differences that separate our time from his.

Humans share a great deal across the boundaries of time period, nationality, class, language, skin color, etcetera. We share the need to eat, sleep, be protected from cold and heat, communicate, find work, love, companionship, and so forth, but there are also a great many differences between our time and earlier times, differences between classes and the ways in which we regard class differences, between word usages, between expectations with regard to security, privacy, opportunity, responsibility to family and community, differences between our belief systems today, our views on sexuality today, and those of Shakespeare’s time. Some of these differences bear close examination.

For instance, there were far fewer people then. There was only one real city in England, with a population of less than 200,000, while the larger towns were more like what we consider villages today, and the villages hamlets. Although a wave of restlessness and movement, fueled by economic troubles, was rising, most people still tended to stay in one place and keep to one occupation for their entire lives, resulting in much smaller communities with fewer opportunities for change or advancement. Few people outside the Court community were literate.

The high death rate meant that changes such as transfers of offices and property were brought about more by deaths than anything else, usually causing those who lived longer to have as many as three or more marriage partners. The extremely high death rate among infants caused a set of very different attitudes towards children than what we know today, which in turrn must have affected their attitudes as adults. It also caused women to have as many children as they could so that at least some would live to maturity, which had a great effect on the lives, the health, and the attitudes of women.

The high death rate also made religious tolerance next to impossible. With death an ever present factor it was simply too important to feel secure about what happens afterwards to allow any room for differences of opinion. Today most of us are existentialists who accept uncertainty as the price of living in peace with neighbors of differing beliefs, but that was not yet the case in Shakespeare’s time. Where so much was uncertain, certainty of belief was a necessity.

Apart from religion there were other things we routinely question today that were not yet matters for discussion––at least, not open discussion, including the need for strongly-defined social classes, that prestigious bloodlines should be the determining factor in choosing a leader, and that the political system should reflect a particular religion. Differences like these must be seen as absolutely necessary to our effort to understand both the fox we call Shakespeare and the background wherein we seek him.

There are plateaus in history, long periods where change occurs very slowly. Sooner or later these come to an end, giving way to periods of extremely rapid change, often triggered by a discovery of some sort, or a series of discoveries. This was one such period. For several hundred years following the fall of Rome, change had occurred at a relatively slow and even rate, but with the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance, change began to pick up speed.

As is the case in our own time when immense leaps in technology have shrunk, and continue to shrink, our planet while expanding our concept of the universe, the Elizabethan era saw similar leaps in technology bringing about an equally rapid, changing and expanding world view. Considering how long their world view had remained at the level it held throughout the middle ages, there is no doubt that this process was hugely disturbing to most. Awareness of these changes was spread by another factor, the expansion of literacy.

As a response to the Reformation, beginning in the 1550s and reaching a peak of expansion in the 1580s, an upsurge in the creation of grammar schools and colleges at the universities, an expansion of their teaching programs and rapid increase in their student populations, plus the addition of Renaissance humanist subjects to their curricula, created a supernova of learning. People of all ranks and both sexes were learning to read and write in far greater numbers than ever before while at the same time, the language itself was experiencing rapid change and expansion, a phenomenon that was occurring in every European nation.

That this supernova of learning was as intense as it was, and that it lasted at that level of intensity for only a short period of time, roughly fifteen years, can be seen by corelating the pertinent records with the relevant dates. Change and growth continued after this, of course, but at a far slower rate. Since Shakespeare is one of the two great creators of our modern English language that lived at this time, this supernova of language and learning must be taken into account as we seek his identity. Where does he fall on this steep bell curve of development? Reason should tell us that it must be neither too early nor too late.  Finally, because this authorship question involves the writing of poetry and poetic prose, we need to consider the place that poetry occupied in European minds at that time.

Poetry, so important to antiquity, has lost its significance today because it’s no longer needed as it was then. In Shakespeare’s day, although the need was already gone, centuries of habit continued to regard it with respect as a legacy of the aeons that we dismissively term the “oral tradition.” Before people could read and write, poetry and song were the means with which they preserved their cultures in memory, the vehicles whereby an immensely rich culture was passed from each generation to the next.

Poetry is language woven together through the use of mnemonics, tricks of sound that make things easier to remember because they stick in the mind. There are three major mnemonics: rhythm (or meter), rhyme, and alliteration. These, with the addition of song, are the means with which all peoples who do not write keep their cultures alive.  With the development of writing, people no longer had to keep everything, their history, their traditions, their stories, their wisdom, in their memories, they could simply write them down and refer to them when necessary. Nevertheless, although mnemonics, and eventually poetry itself, were no longer necessary, for the centuries preceding printing, tradition kept poetics alive, so that most ancient works of philosophy, religion, history, science, and medicine continued to be written in some form of poetry. Today we think of poetry as a vehicle for personal and emotional themes, but in ancient times, everything was written in poetry if it was to be kept in memory.

Although it wouldn’t be until our own time that schoolchildren––in America at least––would no longer be required to memorize a handful of poems, Shakespeare’s period, due to the Reformation attitudes towards art and the rapid increases in printing and education, saw the importance of poetry being seriously questioned for the first time.

Renaissance vs. Reformation

The great cultural revolution known as the European Renaissance, imported from Southern Europe, came late to England, and when it arrived it was almost immediately modified by another great cultural revolution, the Protestant Reformation, imported from Northern Europe. They reinforced each other in some respects, particularly in encouraging education, but in others they clashed, creating a tension that continues to exist in the English-speaking culture today. This tension was at high voltage during Shakespeare’s time. While the Renaissance craved art, music and poetry, the Reformation tended to frown on the arts as, at best, a waste of the Lord’s precious time, at worst, tools of the Devil.

Following the period of the most intense growth of education came a second period of rapid change, one that also lasted a fairly short period of time, roughly the two decades that spanned the 1580s and 1590s. During this period language and style developed at a breathless pace.

It began at a pathetically low level. Try reading a few pages of Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Baldassare Cortegiano’s The Courtier. Hoby’s attempt to translate this Italian masterpiece into English is so turgid, so stilted, so convoluted, that over and over, the editor finds it necessary to translate so the reader can understand what the Italian original had intended. Or try some of the jog-trot poetry of Thomas Churchyard or George Whetstone. C.S. Lewis called this the “drab era.” Although education was increasing during this period by leaps and bounds, most teaching was still done in Latin, while English remained as stark and awkward as ever.

But by 1600, two short decades later, the standard had climbed to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached either before or since, that set the bars for every writer of English to come later. This was a bell curve of change so steep it’s almost vertical. While the previous generation saw a supernova of education, the era of Marlowe, Sidney, Bacon and Shakespeare created a supernova of culture.

What caused this abrupt and rapid change? Certainly the preceding upsurge in printing and education had a great deal to do with it. But was there more to it than that?

Birth of the commercial media

This cultural supernova was fueled by an extremely important event in English history, one that, so far as I can see, has not been given its due. This momentous event was the birth of the commercial stage and the commercial press in the mid-1580s. Historians haven’t rated this in proportion to its importance in the history of the English-speaking peoples, not just their literary history, but a far more important development in the grand scheme of things, namely the history of Democracy. As the people of London began to make their will known by the plays they supported and the pamphlets they read, a new branch of government was born: the Fourth Estate, the voice of the people, the vox populi, what today we call the Media, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before the mid-1580s.

Before that, plays and books were dependent on wealthy patrons to get produced.   Following the Edwardian Reformation, when printing took off, roughly 90 percent of everything published were sermons or translations of religious tracts, with five percent how-to books or other works of self-improvement. But with the popularity of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, and of pamphlets like Robert Greene’s romances, a wealthy patron was no longer necessary––for these paid for themselves. Now theater owners and publishers could produce works based purely on their appeal to the public. From this point on, writers began to write what they believed readers and audiences would want to read, rather than what someone thought they ought to read.

This was the beginning of democracy in action, a bloodless revolution––well, relatively bloodless––and, perhaps because it was relatively bloodless, it hasn’t been seen in its true light.  So why did it occur at this particular moment in time?

Hunger for entertainment

For centuries the Church had filled all the entertainment needs of the public at large. Almost every week some Saint’s Day provided an excuse for a feast, while at least once per season there would be a full blown festival lasting for several days, offering an excuse to dress up, dance, feast, drink, play games and make elaborate processions to the local parish church. These gave the people something to look forward to throughout the days and weeks of the year. With the Protestant Reformation, most of this came to an end. Such carryings-on were seen by the early reformers as papistical pandering to pagan disorder. Yule logs were banned––may poles torn down.

For centuries certain inns in London and the larger towns had doubled as theatres when acting troupes came to town. With the loss of the Church calendar, people began to spend more time and more money in the theater inns, to the point where business entrepreneurs like James Burbage and his brother-in-law thought a building dedicated solely to plays might be able to support itself.   This they just barely managed to do until the mid-80s when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine showed that with the right play and the right performers, significant profits could be made from the enthusiasm of an audience willing to pay its penny, not once, not twice, but whenever the play was performed.

As for the commercial press, the same scenario held, though on a considerably smaller scale, since pamphlet sales were limited to the reading public, which at that time was probably roughly five to ten percent of the population. And while a pamphlet might eventually reach 500 readers, a play could reach thousands. According to Thomas Nashe, by 1592, 10,000 people had seen Henry the Sixth.

Later historians may have missed the significance of this revolution, but the Crown, the City and the Church certainly did not. Throughout this period they made continuous and frantic efforts to stop or at least control their growth, and even to banish them altogether. But as a poet once put it: “stop running water and it will rage”––once a revolution has been launched in full force, there’s no stopping it.

By the end of the ’90s, the booming commercial theater and press began to produce a small corps of professional writers. By professional we mean that they could live, or at least hope to live, on the proceeds of their writing­­––something that is difficult at any time, but was, until then, so impossible that no one bothered to try. Point being, there simply were no commercial writers at the beginning of this revolution. There were scriveners who made their living acting as secretaries to the illiterate public at large, who, for a small fee would read to them the letters they received and write letters for them, but this trade was not an art.

In the end it was a small community of university-trained secretaries and tutors to the well-to-do that would provide the budding media with professional writers, but that did not happen until the very end of the century.

As for the actors, until the 1580s most performers had a trade that kept them going between holidays. Once the stage went commercial, and there was work year-round, talented actors simply gave up their “day gigs.”  But the situation was different for the writers who would provide the material that actors and theater owners relied upon. Until the professional writers began to appear in the early 17th century––Jonson, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher––who was doing the writing on which the actors and theater owners––and audiences––relied for their entertainment? The answer is, we really don’t know.

This is a mystery of much greater proportions that just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Who wrote these early pamphlets and plays? Who kick-started this literary revolution? If we go solely by the records, Shakespeare played no part in the production of these first commercial plays from the 1580s. There must have been several hundred plays written by the beginning of the nineties for the various boy companies, the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men. Apart from the occasional one-timer like Udall or Wilson, for all of these we have authors for no more than 17 plays and for these, only four authors: 4 plays from Christopher Marlowe, 9 from John Lyly, 1 from Thomas Kyd, and 3 from Robert Greene [Orlando, James IV, Friar Bacon, ]––and two of the four authors, Kyd and Greene, are no more than conjectures. Since pamphlets required names on the title page, we have a few of these, but for genuinely literary pamphlets, only two names stick out, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

Groups or coteries

First: no lasting revolution was ever engineered by a single individual. Revolutions are always created by groups. They may center around a single inspiring leader, but it requires a group to accomplish any set of common goals or to create an accepted standard. By the same token, great artists, who are almost always revolutionaries of a sort, do not create out of a vacuum. Invariably they have colleagues and rivals, if not equal in genius, then close enough to stimulate them to reach for greater heights.

Second: nothing is so powerful in stimulating human action as competition, whether for food, power, or recognition, even if the recognition is only from a handful of others of like mind.

Third: writers and performers need audiences. And no artist finds a better, more stimulating, audience than that provided by his or her peers. That we see no evidence of any connection between the artists who stand out from this period: Shakespeare, Philip and Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, etc., does not mean, as the academics seem so strangely willing to accept, that they had no connection with each other. Of course they did. Birds of a feather flock together. Just because we don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What does a bear do in the woods? Do we need an affadavit?

So here’s another dog that didn’t bark in the night, another anomaly in the orbit of the visible planets.

And the fact that there is no evidence of what common sense demands––should tell us something else––namely that such a connection was hidden––that concern with each other or time spent together was not something to spread about or refer to in print. What behaviors are acceptable in public and what are acceptable only within the privacy of the family or private coterie is something that every child learns very early, if not at his mother’s and father’s knee, then at the knee of his tutor or her governess.

This can hardly be considered a “conspiracy,” as least not as the Stratfordians derisively term it. Is it a conspiracy when a man and a woman who are married to other partners have lunch together in some out of the way bistro, and then simply don’t tell anyone about it?   Or when politicians from opposing parties get together in private to discuss a sensitive issue and neglect to inform the newspapers?

Very little of what was done and said in those days wound up in the records if the letters that survived with the legend “burn this” inscribed at the bottom are any indication. There’s no reason why writers who were members of different and sometimes opposing coteries would leave any record of their connections with each other, or why those who worked for them would reveal relationships that their employers preferred to remain hidden. There were no paparazzi in those days. Not only was there no yellow journalism in those days, there was no journalism period.

There was not just one fox in this game of hide and go seek, but several. Why? Because this was a revolution and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Were they aware that they were creating a revolution? Maybe, maybe not. But what they were surely aware of was that as soon as the fox was caught the game would be over. This was not a conspiracy, it was a game! At least, that’s what it was at first.

Merry-making

To banish his fears of the horrors of an adult reality, Hamlet strives to return in his mind to a childhood world of play. In the effort to understand Hamlet’s creator, one of the prime factors that has been missed by the so-called experts is this quality of playfulness, or, to use an old English term, “merry-making.” In English we call dramas “plays.” Sixteenth-century audiences called actors “players,” reflecting the source of modern theater in the games and rituals of “merry-making,” the English term for the age-old response of the human animal to the changes in the seasons.

At particular moments during the year, the English of all classes and callings donned costumes and masks and stepped out of their humdrum workaday world into a holiday world of fantasy ritual. These moments occurred most significantly on May Day, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and on several occasions during the winter holidays from November 30th, All Hallow’s Eve, to January 6th, Twelfth Night, then to Shrovetide in early February, also known as Fat Tuesday or, on the Continent, Carneval, the last big blowout before the beginning of Lent. This was part and parcel of the Church calendar as it had been pursued around the year from time immemorial.

But, though they were loosely connected to Christian holidays, these festivals were not Christian in origin. They had grown over the centuries out of pagan festivals, which themselves had grown during even earlier ages out of grim Stone Age rituals––rituals whose significance had been forgotten long before the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s early plays reflect their origins in these rituals. Authorship scholars are proving that the sexual greenwood adventures of May Day, as reflected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the traditional wedding chivaree, as in Taming of the Shrew, were, in fact, written for two such occasions. The teasing and tormenting of authorities or obnoxious neighbors through satires, burning of effigies, breaking of windows, chanting of naughty jingles, which, combined with a hearty consumption of ale, could lead to real trouble, were sublimated and refined by Shakespeare into the vicarious tormenting of stage characters like Malvolio and Falstaff.  Thus were the crude animal energies that were so feared by the reformers sublimated into a the genteel theater event of the present.

In other words, for the first decade of this revolution, the 1580s, this uprush of expression through plays and pamphlets was done, most of it, in the age-old holiday spirit of merrymaking. Quashed by the evangelical reformers, now it was spilling over the ancient time boundaries that until then had kept it contained within the traditional holiday periods, much to the horror of the Church that had created the problem in the first place.

In any case, these folks whose identities we are tracking did what they did in a spirit of good clean fun, or fun at least. Brilliant minds met to create moments of exhilarating hilarity, the tensions and fears of the regime blown away in gusts of laughter, first among themselves at Court gatherings, then spreading to the public theaters and bookstalls. That we can still hear that laughter echoing in the scenes with Falstaff, Nym and Pistol, with Hal and Poins teasing Francis the drawer, is due to Shakespeare’s comic genius. And when Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, saying “dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” we are hearing Shakespeare confront a rising tide of humorless Calvinists that half a century later would shut down his brilliant, funny, witty theater, leaving it cold and shuttered for two long decades. He must have seen what was coming, having given the last word of the play to the puritanical Malvolio: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

These young Court writers were not out to change the world, not at first. Like kids in school, they were just out to have a good time and were not about to let anyone stop them. There’s your conspiracy––a gang of gifted mischief-makers out to torment the self-righteous, a conspiracy among the real Marias, Sir Tobys, Fabians and Festes, between the real Oberon and Puck, between the real Prospero and Ariel, the real Mistresses Page and Ford, the real Hal and Poins.

So who were they?

None of them are unknown to us. All are known to us today, at least for their reputations if not for their actual works. Most of them were courtiers. Courtiers were the only people in Elizabethan society with the leisure to play such games, games that, like cards, dice, dancing and singing madrigals, could only be played by a group. They were also the only ones with an awareness of what was being done by their counterparts at the Italian courts, by Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Tasso.

How did they do it? By using proxies on their title pages.

How are we to tell who was a proxy and who was a real writer?

Because the real writers have genuine writer’s biographies, their works match their life experiences, and we know them today, not just for their works but also by their proven presence in society where they were acknowledged for their writing.  The proxies show only that they lived and died; they show no evidence of a writer’s life; and their purported works do not match their life experience as projected by their biographies. This is not the case only with Shakespeare, but with all but two of the major writers during this two.decade period.

To understand how the creation of the Fourth Estate in Elizabethan times by the emergence of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press attracted the energies of six or seven tremendously gifted individuals who created lift-off for an industry that by the 17th century saw professional writers emerging from the population at large, it’s important to make the point that this was done at the beginning in the spirit of a game, of play, of a new kind of “mumming and disguising,” of new and more respectable forms of “merry-making” to take the place of the old May games that, along with the Church calendar, were being driven into disrepute by the Reformation.

In my view, which is of course, subject to change with the arrival of new facts and insights, there were six major figures in this revolution that came from the Court community: these being Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his cousin german, Francis Bacon (we don’t call him Sir because he wasn’t a knight yet, during this early revolutionary period), Philip Sidney (for most of this period, Philip was not a knight yet either), his sister Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (she was a countess during this revolutionary period), and Sir Walter Raleigh. In addition to the Court writers, there was a commoner who belongs in this top category, Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury.

Just as the history of the Trojan War requires the story of the combatants, their personalities, their goals and ambitions, and their relationships with each other, to understand this revolution of language, we must know the stories of the revolutionaries and of their relationships. Just listing them won’t be enough. The proof is in the story. But we can’t examine their stories, we can’t put them together in a single story, or in a single blog. What we can do in this time, is identify them, affirm that obviously they knew each other’s work, affirm that they must have known each other personally, and that by their works they drove each other to reach for the heights. It was simply too small a community for any other scenario to be possible.

Who were the proxies then, the so-called writers who lent or sold the use of their names so the Court writers could publish anonymously? Whose biographies lack the necessary factors that we must see in a writer’s biography to give it credence?  The men who, I believe, rented their names to the Court writers purely for cash or other forms of remuneration were: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, William Shakespeare, and John Webster.

Other men for reasons of friendship lent their names for one or two publications: among these were: George Gascoigne, George Pettie, Barnabe Riche, and Thomas Lodge. There may be others, but of these we can be fairly certain, for all of them show similar problems with their biographies and with the fact that the nature of the works that they are supposed to have written does not match the nature of their lives as revealed in their biographies.

Scholars tend to be a serious lot. For centuries they’ve managed to ignore the obvious clues that the death of Robert Greene was a joke. Of these clues, the most glaring is that he was said to have died of a “surfeit,” or overdose, of “pickle-herring.” “Pickle-herring” at that time was a traditional name for a clown or comedian, similar to Harlequin or Punch. So the reader is being told, of course, that Greene’s supposed death was due to an overdose of foolery. You’d think that this would have alerted scholars to the game-playing nature of his work, but so far as I know, for over 400 years it has failed to alert a single one.

Much is yet to be puzzled out, much reading of early works is left to do, many word studies created that may now give us some real results since we have better questions to propose, much time spent in thought, yet I believe that it’s fair to state that the most important of these writers was responsible for, in chronological order: the Gascoigne plays, the Pettie canon, the Lyly novels, the Robert Greene canon, and the Shakespeare canon. The second most important was responsible for most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon. And a third is responsible for the John Webster canon and perhaps a handful of plays attributed to other, later writers. That they are grouped this way can be shown, I believe, first, by noting similarities of approach, basic habits of expression, and unchanging personal concerns that transcend all changes in style and genre. And second, through their dates. For instance, it is of utmost significance that the appearance of Shakespeare follows so closely on the demise of Robert Greene and, for another, that Nashe follows almost immediately on the final works of Edmund Spenser.

Finally, the point must be made, that while three of these writers published under other names than their own, the works of the other two were published under their own names. Philip Sidney himself wrote everything, with a few very minor exceptions, that was published under his name, while Marlowe’s plays are all his own. It should also be noted that both of these writers died young, before they were published, while those who published under proxies all lived fairly long lives and all published long before they died. Where Raleigh fits into this picture is hard to tell at this point. Perhaps the few poems that we believe to be his, his marvelous reports and tracts on naval matters, and the history of the world that he wrote towards the end of his life are, in fact, all he ever wrote. Hopefully what poetry was his will become more clear as we investigate his cronies. These are the main players, the authors of most of the important works of the imagination during this earliest period. Others there were without doubt, with possibly equal talent, who chose, for personal reasons, not to develop it in later life. But these six had a passion for writing that could not be silenced, even if for their own good.

What then can I state without equivocation?

First, that the English Literary Renaissance was launched by, not one, not two, but at least six individuals, five courtiers and one commoner, five men and one woman; that they knew each other and inspired each other; and that a number of important and not so important works attributed to other writers are, in fact, the works of three or four members of this group. Second, that their impulse to write and publish grew, at least at the beginning, out of the game-playing spirit of holiday merry-making, and that the hiding of their identities grew out of the same tradition, that of holiday mumming and disguising and that the game turned deadly roughly halfway through this period when “Maxwell’s silver hammer” fell down on Marlowe’s head. From then on the mumming became serious and the disguising a necessity.

Finally, we will not know the full truth about Shakespeare until we’ve unraveled the truth about all the writers of this period, both those who did the writing, and those who took, or have been given, the credit for it. This is the story of, not just one individual, however great, but a group. And it’s a darned good story, and well worth the telling.

[The above is a slightly modified version of a lecture given at the Globe Theater in 2006 for the first of what has become the annual Shakespeare Authorship Trust lecture series.]

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Oxford and the London Stage

Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?

Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same.  Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.

From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out.  Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.

Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability.  Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines.  The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.

At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London.  During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through.  In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies.  Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience.  This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.

The Lords Chamberlain and the records

Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment.  It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.

Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle.  There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder.  Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two.  And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.

All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.

As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”

Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage.  These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.

Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time.  When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place.  Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.

By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies.  Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses”  in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines.  For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.

The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties

Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability.  Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.

The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys.  Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.

The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record.  Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies.  For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.

Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys.  There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII.  The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand.  That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.

Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.

Oxford and the Court Stage

This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley.  Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each.  Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries.  One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.

The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents.  On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain.  A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party.  Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.

Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary.  At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex.  All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.

Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games.  For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.

That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons.  One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men.  This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.

The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem.  Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.

Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.

Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin.  Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis.  Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources.  Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?

Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies.  The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed.  It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.

Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage

It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born.  In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne.  In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.

Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London.  Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.

It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC).  Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566.  As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.

It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.)  Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.

Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars

By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then. (click to enlarge)

An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.

Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End.  The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer).  Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.

The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.”  Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.

The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589

Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season.  Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign.  Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.

Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names.  All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.

Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy.  Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience.  A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s.  Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library.  On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.

On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest.  (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?)  Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius.  On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.

1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests.  On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy.  On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank).  Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English.  No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.

Trouble in Illyria

Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament.  Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel.  In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.

Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays.  Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to.  The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.

Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings

Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw.  The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber.  Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.

Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles.  Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.

Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something.  From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three.  The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests.  Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.”  The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style.  Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.

So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court?  What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns.  Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.

The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created.  Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85.  As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range.   He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.

Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it.  He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them.  So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters.  Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself.  As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.

Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham

Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return.  What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.

For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point.  In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders.  Who but Oxford could write such plays.  Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).

Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died.  For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage.  In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year.  The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida.  Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment.  After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded.  From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.

Another turn of the screw

In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.

Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity.  Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.

London in the 1590s

Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign.  With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.

As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.

As described by Lawrence Stone in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End.  That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.

The Cecils attack the Stage

That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.

Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils,  made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over.  Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.

Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.

Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City.  In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies.  Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men.  Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

So where was Oxford?

In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto.  Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.

In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son.  This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.

While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.

Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s.  Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.

In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.

Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.

All for the want of a horseshoe nail


Droeshout bloggie-2For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of the horse, the rider was lost.
For want of the rider the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

O
Memory is identity.  Without memory, without a record of what we’ve done and thought and said, what we’ve heard and seen, a human exists only as a thing, as foreign to itself as it is to those who pass it on a busy city street.  Know thyself, said Socrates.  But to do that we must have memory.  Our memories are the building blocks of our identities.  They are what make us unique from others, they guide us as we mature.  The sunny ones bring happiness and cheer on dark days, the dark ones help to keep us from suffering through repeated error.

History is our word for our collective memory as a people, a culture.  To our personal memories it adds the experiences shared by our ancestors.  Whether we absorb it from tales told around a winter fire, from lectures, sermons or books, it gives us context; it connects us to our fellows, expands our personal identity and that of our immediate family to embrace our neighbors, our ancestors.  It gives meaning to the buildings and streets that surround us, to the art and architecture of our cities, to the songs we sing, the movies we watch, the stories we repeat.  It gives us something to be a part of, something bigger than ourselves.  Know thyself, said Father, quoting somebody he called Socrates, but who was that?  The Greek who used to cut his hair?  Without the shared memory we call history, we’d never know.

History is the story of humanity.  While science, religion and philosophy all attempt to explain a great deal more than just who we are, history is focussed on us, on what we have done, with, to, and for each other.  And at the center of that “we” is always some central figure, some human being whose name and life story are central to a particular area of our shared memory, a story that holds meaning for a particular community, culture, religion, philosophy, the leader, the ground-breaker, the pioneer, the genius whose name we connect, not just with the history of whatever it was they invented or discovered, but the thing itself.

All history, be it the history of France or the American car industry, revolves around the name of its creator.  Without that name it’s a story without an opening chapter, an adventure without a hero.  If for some reason the name of one of these pioneers gets lost, the entire history of what they found or created can get broken into pieces and dispersed, skewed, distorted, minimized, misunderstood.  If somehow we had lost all evidence of the life of Alexander the Great, to what would we attribute the spread of the Greek language over the 500 years from 300 BC to the rise of Rome in 200 AD?  What would the history of mathematics look like without Isaac Newton?  The history of the Russian revolution without Karl Marx?  The history of aviation without the Wright brothers?  The Blitz without Churchill?  The Cold War without Stalin?

Hard as it may be to fathom, this is exactly the problem we have with the history of today’s English language.  It’s Greek without Homer, Christianity without St. Paul, Existentialism without Sartre.   In fact, it’s more than these, for the loss of the story of Shakespeare not only skews and disperses the history of English literature, it’s lost to the history of England the most important of the pioneers of the sixteenth century gathered at the Court of Elizabeth.  It’s skewed the history of the language itself.  It’s plunged into darkness the bloody birth of the modern media (the fourth estate of government)  and modern humanity’s first painful steps towards a functional democracy, of all these stories the most important today, not just to the West, but now to the entire world.

What the man known by the pun-name Shake-speare did in the sixteenth century has never been fully understood because, for reasons of political and economic expediency, his primary achievement was passed along by contemporary politicians and historians to an undeserving front man, one whose modest story has skewed this era in English history so badly, that, deeper than ever did plummet sound, it’s buried the truth about these things for over four hundred years.

And all for the want of that horseshoe nail, his name.

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.

Another piece of the puzzle falls in place

The name Shakespeare emerges for the first time in connection with the London Stage on the title page of the second edition of Richard III, published in 1598, shortly after the first, anonymous, edition of 1597.  After several years of anonymous publication, why did the name appear at just that time and on that particular play?  We’ve been examining the phenomenon of Richard III from a political viewpoint, that of the war waged by Secretary of State Robert Cecil on the London Stage.  What about the play itself?  What can we learn from that?

Albert Feuillerat, writing in the 1940s and into the early 1950s, made an exceedingly close study, word by word, phrase by phrase, of Richard III and several of the other earliest plays in the canon: Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI parts Two and Three.  The earliest to be published, they were also the first to bear the name Shakespeare.  Feuillerat’s close attention to detail, to the meter and vocabulary of these plays, should command more respect than it does.  That one hears his name so little is probably due to the fact that the results of his study tend to point in a direction uncomfortable for the Stratford biography, cornerstone of the academic cult.

One of the things Feuillerat brings out that should be a central point in Early Modern literary studies is the obvious fact that the repertory companies had to revise their plays every so often to keep their audiences coming back, a logical perception that should put paid to the academic nonsense about “bad quartos.”  Anyone with money can build a theater.  Anyone with a little chuzpah can grab a cloak and spear and do a turn on stage.  But not just anyone can write a play that holds an audience’s attention, particularly one that brings them back for a second or a third time.  So the plays had to be refurbished from time to time so that the producer could advertise them as “newly augmented” and thus continue to use them to bring the audiences in.

Of the six plays examined by Feuillerat, the three history plays have a further interest in that they’re closely related to a handful of anonymous plays known as the First and Second parts of The Contention between the houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedies of Richard III and of Richard Duke of York.  So perfectly do these fit the plots, characters, and much of the language of  Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard II, and the last two parts of Henry VI, that avoiding the inevitable conclusion that they are Shakespeare’s own early versions has required the kind of intellectual contortions that we’ve come to expect from the university English Departments.

The simplest and easiest and most likely explanation would be that Shakespeare wrote them himself; where else in literature do we find early versions of works by anyone but the individual who wrote the final version?  But because the Stratford biography has Shakespeare placed too late for that, some other explanation had to be found.  It was in search of this that Feuillerat spent 30 years deconstructing these plays, both the early versions and Shakespeare’s.  Feuillerat’s close attention to the language, meter, tropes, archisms, etc. of these plays, reveals that they display four separate and definite styles, each, according to him, easily distinguished from the others, and all of them most relevant to our thesis.

Feuillerat calls the three styles, or hands, as he terms them, that preceded Shakespeare’s versions: authors A,  B, and C; author A is the creator of the first version of the history plays while author C is the creator of the first versions (now lost, though traces remain) of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet.  Author A’s originals were revised at some point by author B, whose work he calls “Marlowesque” and whose job it was to regularize the uneven verse patterns of A into a tight iambic pentameter.  This version was then updated in the early 1590s by Shakespeare, who added humanistic touches,  Shakespearean imagery,  further refinements to the meter––and what Feuillerat sentimentally and not very accurately calls his “sober sweetness”––to the versions published under his name in the 1590s.  (Where is there any “sober sweetness” to be found in Richard III?)

Although Feuillerat makes no effort to affix dates to the originals by A and C, his descriptions suggest that those parts written by C may go as far back as the 1560s and 70s, while A fits better with the early 80s.  And although he claims at the outset that he’s able to discern where author B has overwritten A, and Shakespeare all three, he confesses in several places that he’s not all that clear where Shakespeare and C are concerned, as both are fond of similar tropes.  Nor does he make the slightest effort to identify any of the three, a significant ommission considering that he published several books and articles on Philip Sidney and also on John Lyly, whose dates, one would think, would make him a prime candidate for at least one of these hands.

One problem with Feuillerat’s scenario is that he’s forced to cast Shakespeare in the role of “play-patcher,” a ringer brought in in the ’90s to update old plays, who quickly works his way up to the role of Company playwright.  So once again the workaround created to deal with problems caused by the Stratford biography forces Shakespeare into a role not befitting the most creative force in English letters.  If Shakespeare didn’t write these plays, if he merely updated them, what about all the others?  What about Henry V, which is so obviously a rewrite of The Famous Victories?  Flatly dismissing the obvious connection between Thomas of Woodstock and Richard II, as “of no significance,” he never addresses any of these issues.  What about all the plays that don’t have previous versions by earlier phantom writers?  When did Shakespeare begin writing his own plays?  Apparently such questions are also “of no significance.”

Worse than this is the problem his scenario creates of identifying authors A and C, whose plays were so dramatically sound that, despite their questionable versification and awkward archaisms, rather than let them go, the actors saw to it that they were consistently revised over time, with improvement to the language, but rarely to the structure, placing them first among the plays to be upgraded with the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s men.  It would seem that these two original authors deserve a place in English letters close to Shakespeare himself, if only we knew who they were.  But of course we know who they must have been!

One of the things that struck me when I first began studying these matters was the immense disconnect between the fantasy Stage of the orthodox imagination and the limited reality of the times.  The size of the community that produced these first works of genuine literature does not allow for all the ghostly figures conjured up, first by the courtiers who used one phony name after another to get published, then by later historians who, like Feuillerat, have filled the record void with any number of brilliant if nameless writers.  The earliest days of the Stage, and of the popular Press that published its plays, was an outgrowth of what the Elizabethans called May Games, the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages that turned a few weeks in the heart of the winter into a fantasy world of feasting, masquing and role-playing.  The writers were simply distilling the ancient May Games into books, entertainment via plot and character compacted into little back marks on white paper, bound into a small package that could be taken on trips and read alone at night by candlelight, that is, by people who could read.

May Games, mumming and disguising, were means by which a community trapped in its own hard reality could transport themselves into another world.  Transformed by mask and costume into Faeryland, the Middle East, Africa, or, most often, Illyria, where, as Greek shepherds and nymphs they sang and played the lute surrounded by gods and goddessses.   But when the party ended, and the mummers were unmasked, whom did they see but their same old neighbors?  When Shakespeare’s audience demanded that the playwright be revealed, who was there to reveal?  Let the names without biographeis, the authors A, B, and C, fade into the shadows whence they came.  Let the masks come off.

Of course authors A and C were the same individual who, having turned 40 and, faced by the need to provide another Crown company with modish material, perfected his own earlier plays, the earliest in the style Feuillerat calls author C, the history plays by the one he calls author A.  And of course the “Marlowesque” author B could have been no one but Christopher Marlowe himself, who, brought to Fisher’s Folly by Walsingham in 1584, had been given the task of regularizing the meter of the Contentions and the True Tragedies for the benefit of his new company, the Queen’s Men, “the jigging mother wits” he scorned in Tamburlaine, with unrhymed iambic pentameter (aka blank verse) which had become, in the intervening decade, the industry standard.

Thus, thanks to Albert Feuillerat, French Professor at Yale in the 1930s and 40s, we have another and extremely important piece to add to that puzzle, the Birth of the London Stage, of the Popular Press, of the Fourth Estate, of the British Media, call it what you will.  Thanks to Feuillerat we have expert and thoughtful descriptions of Oxford’s voice from the early 70s, his voice from the early 80s, and Marlowe’s from the mid-80s.  At some point we hope to take a closer look at his description of these voices.

Those with a taste for intelligent word studies will find Feuillerat’s book of interest:  The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1953.  Some parts are available online for free, but there is a downloadable version for $10.

Note:  Archaelogists may have discovered the skeleton of Richard III beneath a car park in Leicester.  Wounds to the back and skull are relevant to those suffered by the King at Bosworth field.  The spine shows evidence of scoliosis, though not of a hunchback.  They hope to get an answer from its DNA.

They all knew each other

It’s hard for us today to understand why a writer would wish to hide his identity.  We live in a society where, to get ahead in life, one must become known to as many people as possible.  We go to particular colleges where we can meet the right people, we “network,” we get on websites like Facebook and Myspace, we are fascinated by celebrities; magazines and television people make their livings reporting on their lives and showing pictures of their faces.

This is one reason why so many Americans, young ones in particular, are focused on achieving fame.  In a world where there are so many people, such quick turnovers, such constant movement, changes in personnel, entire companies relocating over vast distances, even to foreign countries, a trend that’s been spreading and expanding for generations, more and more there seems to be no other way to feel important or needed than to become world famous, or at least as famous as possible.  For this reason we have a hard time understanding why someone would actually not want to become famous.  In a world where fame seems necessary to establish identity, it seems unnatural that a writer would want to hide his identity to the point where it could get permanently lost.

We need to keep in mind how very small were the communities involved in this question.  If we don’t we’re in danger of being so blinded by today’s world-view that much of what this story is about won’t make sense.  Where today we have thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of publishers and published writers, hundreds perhaps thousands of would-be playwrights, far more than any one person can know personally or even that they exist, Elizabethan readers could count the published writers of that time, those they could identify, on the fingers of one hand.

While today we see the world more as an ocean of vast if vague possibilities, dotted here and there by islands of what is known, all of it subject to change, most Elizabethans still saw themselves as members of a handful of small overlapping communities that saw only occasional changes.  Think in terms of a small town, where changes to the population occur only through childbirth, death, and the occasional newcomer out to find better work or escaping from trouble somewhere else. Think in terms of a high school where no one ever graduates, where the football captain and the homecoming queen take those roles with them into old age.

This stable universe was changing; economic pressures and other factors made it seem to many at that time that there was far less stability than their fathers had known, but seen from today’s perspective, it was stable to a degree that most of us no longer expect or even understand.  Unconsciously we always have the sense that there are many unknown people out there just beyond the perimeter of our consciousness.  If we are uncomfortable with the people around us, we can make changes, get divorced, move to a different neighborhood, get a different job.  Their options were far fewer.  Basically they were stuck with each other.

They were also stuck with themselves, that is, everyone they knew knew everything there was to know about them, about their family history, for good or ill, ugly rumors, misbehaviors, plus their own feelings of guilt and oppression.  Until we understand this we won’t understand what the Revels meant to them, those annual moments of emotional release, of social reversal when they could hide their burdensome identities and play at being the Hobby Horse or the Green Man.  Until we understand this we won’t understand what the birth of the London Stage meant to the Elizabethans.

So please try to keep in mind that this story calls for a cast of tens––not thousands, not even hundreds.  There may still be an unknown figure here and there that time will reveal, but for the most part, be assured that every role in this scenario was played by someone well known to the others, and probably well known to history as well.  This in itself should suggest at least one reason for their need for secrecy.  With this and with every other factor, think small town, think small town high school.

The other major factor to keep in mind is dates.  The series of events I propose is based primarily on a time structure of dates that unfold within the reality of the small size of the educated Elizabethan arts community and the necessary conclusion to be drawn from that fact, which is that they all knew each other very well.  Everything good, everything bad.  With this comes some understanding of the author’s power and consequently his need for secrecy.  He was the Hobby Horse of his community, their Martin Mar-Authority figure.  He was their Green Man.

What? No such thing as Santa Claus?

When we discover  at age six or seven that it isn’t really Santa who provides the toys under the tree, but our parents, questions that were becoming ever sharper to our developing sense of reality––How can he get in when we keep all the doors locked?  Why do they say he comes down the chimney when we’ve got no chimney?  How can he possibly take care of all the children in the world in a single night?  How come his reindeer can fly?––are suddenly resolved.  A world that was becoming ever more mysterious in problematic ways returns to making sense.  And so it is with one myth after another throughout life.  And so it must be, eventually,  with the Stratford biography.

Just as no fat man in a red suit could get himself down a million chimneys in a single night, no son of an impoverished, illiterate yeoman from a beer swilling market town two days ride from London could possibly have revolutionized English letters at a time when 90 percent of the population was illiterate.  And just as Santa’s miracle is created by parents sneaking downstairs when the kids are asleep, so the English Literary Renaissance was (mostly) created by educated courtiers and their patrons working silently behind the scenes to provide a depressed nation with a replacement for the mummings and disguisings, the Church Ales and parades so harshly condemned by the Reformation.

The Renaissance, the rebirth of interest in Art and Science that began in Italy in the 14th century with the rediscovery of ancient texts and artifacts from the ancient  civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean, was delayed in reaching the northern and western areas of Europe by physical and cultural barriers.  When it finally reached  England in the late 16th century, it only did so because a politically weak monarch who desperately needed some inexpensive glamour to hide the fact that she had no wealth to speak of, was persuaded by some of her councillors to allow it to burst into life, first at Court, then in the public arena.

The English Literary Renaissance was not, uniquely, created by clever members of the working class any more than Christmas mornings are created by Santa’s elves.  It was created by the same social group that created it in most of the southern nations of Europe, members of the Courts of kings, queens, and princes.  In Spain, where a long connection with Islamic culture separated it from the rest of Europe, the “Golden Age” was largely created by men of a class much closer to that of William of Stratford, but this is an exception that can only prove the rule, for, unlike William (or Greene, or Nashe, or Watson, or, or, or), the two greatest Spanish writers of the period, the novelist Cervantes (born two years before Oxford) and the incredibly prolific genius Lope de Vega (born two years after Bacon) both show trustworthy and substantial paper trails that fit well with the dates and themes of their works and de Vega at least was assisted and supported by courtiers.

It’s been a year now since I began outlining this scenario, and although I’m still nowhere near getting even short versions of all the information that needs sorting out, a start has been made.   Now that we are embarked on the great holiday season of the year, the one that started “Shakespeare” on his career, may you all find peace and relaxation in whatever form of “merry-making” brings you pleasure.