Category Archives: Hamlet

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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Update: THE BOOK ROOM, etcetera

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

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

Francis Bacon and the University Wits

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

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

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

D Day 1588

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

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

Tolkien and Beowulf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Oxford and Marlowe

Was Marlowe Shakespeare?

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

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

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

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

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

Marlowe as Shakespeare’s predecessor

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

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

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

The Rival Poet

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

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

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

Who wrote Hero and Leander?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My scenario

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

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

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

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

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

In short

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

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

The origins of Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford in the early 1580s

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford’s Coriolanus

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

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

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

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

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

So who was Caesar in Oxford’s fantasy?  

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

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

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

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

Hamlet

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

The Spanish Tragedy

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

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

Beautified is a vile phrase

With all the argument about his identity, the one thing that no one denies is that Shakespeare was an artist, one of the greatest that ever lived.  Yet what does that mean to most people?  Far too often in discussions of what he must have read, what he believed, why he wrote, even who he was, the one thing that we do know about him, that we can be certain of––that he was an artist––somehow gets lost.  When it comes to discussing his motivations, there seems to be very little real understanding of what makes an artist tick, particularly one of the greats.

To a genuine artist Art trumps all.  Nothing, not religion, not politics, not professorships or money or property or status, not heritage or titles, not even love, that powerful motivator for so many great works of art, come before Art itself.  When Keats said that “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know,” he wasn’t speaking to lawyers, clergymen, doctors, patrons, English professors, etc., he was speaking to artists like himself.  Byron understood.  Shelley understood.  Mary Shelley understood.  Bobby Burns would have understood.  But how many of their readers or publishers or critics or professors have ever understood?

Those who cheerfully accept the notion that the great theater artist we call Shakespeare quit the Stage in mid-career to spend his final decade buying and selling land and hoarding grain in a small market town, two days ride from any theater, certainly don’t understand.  Sure, the author, the true author, cared about important issues, his plays show that.  Sure, he loved his children, his friends, the women (and perhaps the men) he slept with.  Doubtless he wanted to see better governors in power.  But these were not what drove him.  Politics, events, the people he knew, the stories he grew up with, even his own sorrows and disasters, were ultimately but grist for the mill,  fuel for the fire of his uncontrollable creativity.  

It got him into trouble, he cut too close to the bone, he told too much, but all that did was to stimulate his ability to dodge, to equivocate, to hide.  He asked King James to invest him in motley––that is, allow him to continue to write for the Stage––but long before James he’d already invested himself.  It was his path and, will he nill he, he was bound to it.  That he had the will to shake his spear in the face of the most daunting odds and get away with it is one of the great stories of all time.  We should acknowledge him for that, as well as for all he accomplished.

He took his motto from the ancients and from his name, which in Latin means truth (and in French, green), a challenging motto in a time of great and dangerous secrets.  Even his spear-shaking was less to, as he said, “cleanse the foul body of the infected world” than to feel the sense that he was rising to the level of the greats of classical literature.  He learned from experience that the more powerful the circumstances and pressures that besieged him, the better the play, which is why Hamlet, when confronted by his father’s ghost with the horror of his murder, rather than seeking immediate revenge, calls for, and revises, a play!  We can imagine how more than one of his victims, finding themselves skewered, like Claudius, felt like crying “Away!” as they hurried from the room.

Also recorded for posterity is the grief he felt when he first realized how alone he was in his passion.  Raised by a man who, something of an artist himself, admired the artistry of the stylists of antiquity, it must have been a shock to the young teenager to find so many in London, even in his own household, even his own guardian, who not only didn’t respond to Art, but actually disliked it.

How do we know that Burghley disliked Art?  His biographer agrees that despite his immense output of letters and papers, he himself  was a tedious, uninspired writer.  We know that most regard Polonius as a portrait of Burghley.  We also know that two of the books that provided Shakespeare with so many of his stories were published shortly after Oxford arrived at Cecil House––Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1565, and the following year, Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, on which title page the word “Beautified” is emphasized in extremely large type. We can also see that Painter’s Palace was dedicated, not to Cecil, but to the Earl of Leicester.  

In Hamlet: Act II Scene 2, while explaining to Gertrude and Claudius why Hamlet is mad, Polonius reads them the poem that Hamlet gave Ophelia: “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,” then, pausing for an aside, adds his opinion: “that’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase . . . .”  I think we can take Shakespeare’s word for it, that Polonius’s opinion of Hamlet’s poetry was Burghley’s opinion of Oxford’s poetry.

Following where their daimon takes them, to the next painting, or sculpture, or dance, or song, ignoring all obstacles and, if necessary, all obligations to family, friends, patrons and creditors, all health and money issues, critics, rivals, their own best interests, on they go until brought down by death, whether the death of the body or, sometimes, even more sadly, the death of their passion.  Why?  Because, while in pursuit of perfection, while “in the zone” as a modern rubric has it, they stand in the light of a spiritual reality that is closest to that of great scientists like Archimedes, Newton, Tesla, Philip Farnsworth, architects like Philippo Brunelleschi, Andrea Palladio, saints like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Edmund Campion, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, athletes like Babe Ruth or Mohammed Ali,  dancers like Nuryev or Michael Jackson.

If the needs of family or community concern them at all they will, if necessary, shove them aside; aimed at eternity, they see that in the long run, once they’re gone, these things won’t matter, all that matters is that from their activity a tangible work is born, one that combines both beauty and truth to the highest possible level, something that, unlike their lowly sinful selves, has the potential to survive death.  Disappointment or inspiration only drives them to try again.  And again.  And again.

This is not to say that all who are born to this path find success––far from it.  The restaurant kitchens and taxicabs of the great art centers, New York, Paris, Rome, LA, are manned by struggling artists who haven’t yet and probably will never leave behind works that posterity thinks worth keeping.  They care of course.  They would like to be successful, but only to buy more paint, rent a real studio, get new head shots or a better camera, get the piano tuned.  What matters most is the calling itself, is being able to stand in the light of truth and beauty as often and as long as possible.  For a genuine artist, that is all they know and all they need to know.

For this reason we must keep in mind that from whatever works formed the foundation of his education in childhood, the boy who became Shakespeare would take different things from what other bright boys, what boys who became lawyers, clergymen, scientists, adventurers, or statesmen, would take.  Where future Latin or Greek scholars would want never forget the correct form of a verb, Shakespeare was content with what sounded best.  Where future grammarians were concerned with syntax, again, Shakespeare was concerned with sound.  Where future historians were concerned with the accurate timing of past events, Shakespeare was concerned with their meaning.

Life, he could see, was filled with drama.  How to take the facts of history, to distill away the dross, bringing to life the essentials.  That’s what concerned him.  Where most students then would experience little beyond the drudgery of translating, the boy Shakespeare would feel that frisson described by one poet, that repeating a great line will make the hairs of his chin stand up while shaving, every single time!  Long before he shaved, he knew what poetry could do.  In the imaginary gardens described by Marianne Moore, he would have seen real toads.  

There’s a good reason why Sir Thomas Elyot and other Reformation pedagogues like him warned tutors like Sir Thomas Smith against allowing noble children to become too attached to an art.  Once Art (or Science, or God) claims your soul, it may drive you to self-destruct, to poverty or madness, but it rarely lets you return to your hometown to invest in land and grain and engage in trivial lawsuits with your neighbors.

The smoking canon

We hear all the time from both sides that we have no firm proof of Oxford’s hand in Shakespeare’s plays, no “smoking guns.”  The fact is that we have dozens, scores, hundreds of perfectly acceptable facts, the kind that in a less controversial inquiry would never be questioned.  Some are more obvious than others, but when they’re all connected they provide a perfectly understandable picture of Oxford’s creation, not only of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, but of the London Stage and the English periodical press that bore them.   The problem is not finding answers, we have the answers, it’s getting the media to pay attention.  Hey, this guy created you!  Aren’t you curious?

Lacking direct evidence, we turn, as does every historian working earlier than printing, with proximity, timing, identification, anomalous absence or a combination of these.  Here are a few of our “smoking guns”:

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s metaphors reflect all the special interests of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, with whom he lived and studied from age four to twelve.  The Law, Greek and Latin literature, English history, horticulture, distilling, medicine, astrology/astronomy, falconry, have all been noted by scholars as areas in which Shakespeare showed an unusual level of knowledge.

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s primary sources reflect titles in Oxford’s tutor’s library list.  Even some of the more arcane sources are to be found there.

Proximity and identification: Half of Shakespeare’s plays take place in the towns in Italy that Oxford visited in 1575, a personal experience reflected in the numerous references to things that only someone who had been to those towns at that time could possibly have known.  (Oxfordian scholars have provided all the evidence for this that anyone could ever require; hopefully some day some of it will be available in hardback).

Proximity and timing: The London commercial Stage, the venue in which Shakespeare’s genius took form, was created within months of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576. It came to life in two locations, the small private indoor theater for the wealthy in the Liberty of Blackfriars, which Oxford must have known from his documented involvement in Court entertainments in the 1560s and early ’70s; and at Burbage’s big public theater, located on land still largely controlled by his companion from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland.

Proximity and timing: The innovative round wooden theater built by Burbage in Norton Folgate in 1576 was based on a design by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (as shown by mainstream scholar Frances Yates).  During Oxford’s childhood with Smith he was privy to a Latin edition of this ancient work that he could easily have researched again on his return from Italy.  In a visit to Siena he may even have seen such a round wooden theater in action, built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio as a dry run for his great marble indoor Teatro Olimpico, built a few years later on the same Vitruvian principles of sound amplification.  The Italians were immersed at the time in creating the most beautifully resonant wooden stringed instruments ever made.

Identification: Shakespeare’s plays reflect events in Oxford’s life, most notably seven that focus on a situation that reflects the breakup with his wife that took place on his return from Italy in 1576.  Pericles, Cymbeline, All’s Well, Much Ado, A Winter’s Tale, and Othello, all involve a villain who breaks up a marriage or engagement by suggesting to a highly suggestible man that his wife has been unfaithful.  There’s even a hint of this scenario in Measure for Measure (Angelo’s cruelty towards Mariana) and in Hamlet (his otherwise mysterious harassment of Ophelia).  In Oxford’s life this villain was his cousin, Ld Henry Howard.

Identification and anomalous absence: Several early history plays that are commonly regarded as sources for Shakespeare’s history plays, feature Oxford’s antecedents in speaking roles: The True Tragedy of Richard the Second features the 9th Earl, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth features the 11th, and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third features the 13th; all of them playing, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles they actually played in history. While rewriting these plays in the 1590s As Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III, the author kept the characters based on the ancestors of other well-born patrons of the London Stage like the Stanleys (Ld Strange’s Men, Derby’s Men), the Pembrokes (Pembroke’s Men), and Howards (Ld Admiral’s Men).  He eliminated all the speaking roles for the ancestors of only one of these patrons, the Earl of Oxford.

Proximity: After returning from Italy in 1576, Oxford left his former residences in the West End and Central London, moving north and east to Bishopsgate where he renovated a manor walking distance from all four of the commercial theaters then in operation in London, to the south, the two City theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes, to the north in Norton Folgate, Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre and the smaller Curtain.

Proximity and timing: By 1580, when Oxford set up housekeeping at Fisher’s Folly in the theater district of Shoreditch, he happened to be located one door from where 14-year-old Edward Alleyn lived and worked at his parent’s Inn, the Pye (later known as the Dolphin).  Later, as the lead in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Alleyn would become the first superstar of the London Stage.

Proximity, timing, and identification: In the 1580s, during his early years at Fisher’s Folly, Oxford’s secretaries included the authors of poetry, plays and novellas Anthony Munday (author of Zelauto, dedicated to Oxford), John Lyly (author of plays for Paul’s Boys), Thomas Watson (author of Hekatompathia, A Passionate Century of Love), and George Peele (author of The Arraignment of Paris) all known by historians as members of what they term the “University Wits.”  Other members of this group can be connected to the Fisher’s Folly group though less obviously, among them Thomas Lodge (author of Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It), Robert Greene (author of Pandosto, the source for The Winter’s Tale), Thomas Kyd (whose Spanish Tragedy has a close relation to Hamlet) and Christopher Marlowe, whose plays contain a number of shared tropes with Shakespeare.

Proximity and identification: All the other candidates for Shakespeare that one hears bruited about were individuals closely connected to Oxford in some way.  Francis Bacon was his cousin and his neighbor during his teen years; the Earl of Derby was his son-in-law; Mary Sidney was his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law; Emilia Bassano was his neighbor in her childhood and was raised and educated by his sister-in-law.  With Oxford as Shakespeare, all of these, most notably including Marlowe, can be even more closely connected.

Identification: The one identification that most mainstream scholars is that Ld Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet. They fail to mention that he was also Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, which suggests that his daughter, Oxford’s wife, was the model for Ophelia, that Queen Elizabeth was the model for Gertrude, and the Earl of Leicester was the model for the murderous Claudius.  Would you eager that everyone know that you had written something accusing one of the most powerful men in England of murdering a rival, or the Queen of complicity?  And these are only one example of other identifications of important Court figures that can easily be made if Oxford is seen as the author.

Timing and identification: The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they urge the “Fair Youth” to marry.  That the Fair Youth was the young Earl of Southampton has been agreed upon by enough scholars to accept it as fact.  These seventeen sonnets have been dated (by scholars unknown to each other) to the early 1590s at a time when the teenaged Southampton was being pressured by his guardian, Ld Burghley, to marry Oxford’s daughter.

Identification: Emilia Bassano, whose profile perfectly fits that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, grew up near Fisher’s Folly.  In her teens she lived with and was educated by the Countess of Kent, Oxford’s sister-in-law.  In her late teens and early twenties she was the mistress of Ld Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who founded The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company that grew rich on Shakespeare’s plays.  That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could also be seen as the company of the Lord Great Chamberlain is the kind of double meaning that Shakespeare was so fond of.  There are a number of contemporary documents in which the Lord Great Chamberlain is referred to simply as “the Lord Chamberlain.

All the world of London knew Oxford as the Lord Great Chamberlain, a title he was born to, one that represented 17 generations of support for the English Crown.  They knew he’d been the Queen’s ward, that he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, that he’d had the temerity to break off with his wife, Burghley’s daughter, and that he’d gotten one of the Queen’s maids of honor with child for which he’d been banished from the Court for three years.  All of London knew this about him.  So let’s consider how the Queen, Burghley, and the many other Court figures he portrayed, many in a less than kindly light, some as out and out villains, might have felt about all of London knowing that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain himself who, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra put it, had thus “boyed” them on stage for all the world to hiss or laugh at.

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

The Rule of Law: Jude Law IS Hamlet

During a three month London adventure in 1999, I got (thanks to Dan Wright) the opportunity to see Jude Law in John Ford’s T’is Pity She’s a Whore at the Young Vic.  Impressed by Law’s ability to express the most intense anguish, I’ve been hoping ever since, first, that he’d do Hamlet (instead of one lame movie role after another) and second, that I’d be able to see him do it.  Both wishes just came true: not only has Jude Law done Hamlet, but (once again, due to the kindness of friends) I got to see him do it on Broadway!  And I was right.  What a Hamlet!

Hamlet is tricky, even for the best actors.  It’s become such a museum piece, there are so many famous sililoquies, every avid Shakespeare fan has a favorite performance to which they match each new approach, so that watching the play runs the risk of turning into a sort of Olympics of the Stage, where the actor playing Hamlet is not so much enjoyed as he is rated, in the same way that Olympic figure skaters get rated during their performance, feat by feat, by TV commentators.

Law sweeps this away with the utter naturalness of his style.  Sililoquies flow from him as easily as he greets his old school friends or rants at Ophelia.  Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language runs as trippingly off his tongue as if it were his own most natural form of expression, yet there’s none of that jack-hammer rat-a-tat-tat that some use when reciting Shakespeare, apparently in an effort to spew out the bloody awkward stuff the way they do their own native slang.

I think this is largely because Jude Law is as much a dancer as he is an actor.  He expresses the beautiful but strange language as much with his body as he does with his voice.  Together the two, the voice and the body, create a satisfyingly complete whole in a way that I can’t remember ever seeing before.  Anger possesses him utterly.  Anguish torments every fibre.  How perfectly Shakespeare has captured these emotions in words and how perfectly Law renders them, his gestures flowing, not from the words themselves, but from the emotions they are meant to express.  Today, thanks to television, we have all seen, over and over, how real people respond to disasters or the deaths of people they love, and so we can’t help but know how at such moments, words failing, it’s the body that reacts.  With his dancer’s sense of timing, Law also knows how to pause before reacting, something many actors either never learn or tend to forget in production.  It’s such an energetic performance, I can’t imagine how he can do it, not only night after night, but twice on matinee days.

Unfortunately there’s little good to be said for the rest of the production.  Law’s gutsy approach was not echoed by a single other member of the cast.  Apart from the King, who did prove a strong and convincing match to Hamlet’s energy, the rest simply entered, exited, stood or walked about as though waiting for something exciting to happen.  Horatio was particularly disappointing, less an antique Roman than a pool hall shark.  The set and lighting are good, providing some interesting accents to the action, but the costumes, modern suits in shades of gray, not only disappear into the gray walls and black floor of the castle set, but seem totally out of place. With no chairs or benches to relieve the need to stand, what group of twenty-first century people would choose to spend more than a minute or two in this cold, empty, castle foyer?

Now that my wishes have been fulfilled I have a new one, that Jude Law will repeat his performance on film, with costumes and sets that match, a Horatio whose body language speaks of his strength and dependability , a sober Gertrude who knows deep down right from the beginning that she’s damned, so that her son has only to remind her of it, and . . . and . . . oh, Michael Palin and Terry Jones as the gravediggers!   Hey, let’s shoot for the moon!

Unfortunately when it comes to Ophelia, it seems the role is unplayable.  Since it’s very likely that the Countess of Montgomery had a say in the publication of the First Folio, she could well have had something to say about the final version of her own mother’s unhappy fate and death.  For whatever reason it seems impossible for any young actress (or director) to actually bring her to life, at least, I’ve never seen it done. With Jude Law directing, maybe we could see an Ophelia who really cuts loose.  Wishes do sometimes come true.