Shakespeare’s patrons-who were they?

Born as the crest of two waves, the German Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, crashed into each other, the great poet and playwright blended these two often incompatible energies into the culture that has been England’s ever since.  Under the constraints of the Reformation, the passions that went into painting, sculpture, and architecture in the Southern European Renaissance, in England went into language: a bare stage, good costumes, superb actors, and the great human stories we know as Shakespeare, stories whose sources are to be found in the libraries where the Earl of Oxford spent his childhood.

Oxford’s development and survival as an artist was largely due to his patrons, surely among the best a writer ever had.  He sank low at times, but not so low that he ever had to quit writing, at least, not for long.  One of the most important research projects remaining to be done is on these patrons.  Burghley, Sussex, Walsingham, Hunsdon, Charles Howard, Southampton, the Pembroke brothers, are the leading figures, but there were others as well who contributed to his survival in various ways.  Even when they were disgusted with him, as Hunsdon must have been when the bum took up with his mistress, they kept him afloat because they knew his value.  For the great ministers of that time who had the dreams and aspirations of both Italian and Reformation humanism alive within, he was the great instrument of their policy, though this would be fully realized only when he was gone, as so well expressed by Ben Jonson in his dedicatory Ode in the First Folio.

Historically Oxford’s role in Early Modern theater is as a patron, a role that tends to get lost in the argument over his role as a writer, but his involvement as patron of the arts and sciences went a good deal deeper than what shows on the historical surface.  He patronized musicians and composers as well as other writers, and was praised by them as one of themselves.  When looking for a model for Oxford within our own times, the composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, an entertainment genius of the same all-encompassing nature, only, shall we say, considerably less fearful of recognition.

One question that hasn’t been dealt with yet, so far as I know, has to do with the company maintained by Oxford’s father.  Were they, perchance, the one we know as Leicester’s Men in the 1560s?  When Earl John died in 1562, Elizabeth gave Leicester control of the Oxford estates.   Though there’s no sign of it (so far) in the record, that could mean that he inherited what had been the sixteenth Earl’s acting company?  Unlike our world today, the arts community was very small.  Leicester’s Men were a handful of Court actors, some the same men who later became the core of the company that called themselves Hunsdon’s Men and operated out of Burbage’s Theater, just up the street from Fisher’s Folly.  Were some of these the same men who, decades earlier, had performed John Bale’s King Johan in Ipswich in 1561, just prior to the Queen’s entertainment at Hedingham Castle?  It’s worth considering.

Michael Jackson: “He was just too good.”

Many years ago I got to see Michael Jackson perform in person.  We, myself and daughters, got to go to my husband’s gig, playing for Michael who was soloing at a local music auditorium in the New York suburb where we lived.  It wasn’t the kind of big concert tour that would come later; the room was full, but not overflowing.  He must have been about twelve or thirteen, just a skinny kid with a big Afro.  But could that skinny kid sing!  And could he dance!

 Michael was a genius, perhaps we should say, IS a genius, for his music and his videos will last as long as we have instruments to play them.  Fred Astaire called him “the greatest dancer of the century,” although we hardly need anyone, even the world’s second greatest dancer, to tell us when we have the evidence of our own eyes and ears.  Those long skinny legs, that perfect balance, that total embodiment of human exuberance and grace, leaping from one amazing move to another, like a great soprano reaching the final high note, a great skater doing a triple axel and landing perfectly, silently, easily, steadily, on point. 

 Michael wasn’t just the greatest dancer of the century, he may actually be the greatest artist of the century.  With so many of the arts in the doldrums, struggling to retain a foothold in a world that no longer needs painters or sculptors to record images or poetry to memorize truths, great dance performances, which until the recording devices of today used to survive only as long as stars like Nijinsky lived, will now remain long after Jackson, Barishnikov, and Astaire are gone.  

 The great ones of the world, the ones we term genius, Ellen Winner defines as “creators,” men and women who not only give us great works, but bring permanent change to their domains.  Michael Jackson was such a one, taking Rhythm and Blues out of the niche of Black Soul into the mainstream of American Pop, and from there to the far reaches of the globe.  Despite the sad obeisance to white beauty standards that caused him to do such harm to his face, it was with his body that he helped a generation of all nationalities and races accept that Black is Beautiful, for nothing on earth could be more beautiful than Michael Jackson in motion. 

With his almost violent dancing he turned rage and pain, much of it about sex, much about being born black, into great art, a feat similar to that of another genius whose instrument was his body, Bruce Lee, whose monument, like Jackson’s, is the present worldwide acceptance in the media, film and television,  not only of his art, but of his race. 

And what does all this have to do with the Shakespeare Authorship Question? For one thing, it’s interesting that he died the day after Midsummer’s Day in the ancient folk calendar, the end of the entertainment half of the Festival Year, and the day after Oxford’s official death date.  Also, there’s the fact that entertainment geniuses have certain things in common, among them a tendency to eccentric behavior, to die in massive debt, a painful relationship to their born identities, and a very great need for privacy, which, as I keep saying, was the primary reason that Oxford hid his right from the start. 

As one of the commentators said of Michael this morning, regarding how he opened the door to black entertainers on MTV, “He was just too good.”  The same could be said of Oxford, who opened the publishing door to the great Court writers who followed him, Sidney, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, and John Donne.  When Oxford first began writing back in the “drab era,” his stuff was different from everyone else’s, but once it got out into the mainstream, by getting published, it clicked.  Why?  Because it was “just too good.”

In saying goodbye to Michael on television, Germaine Jackson wished that his brother might rest in peace.  Myself, I think he’d rather be dancing.