Stanley Wells quotes The Oxfordian

It seems that a watershed moment for Authorship Studies took place a year and a half ago at the 2011 World Shakespeare Congress in Prague, when Dr. Stanley Wells, the eminence grise of Shakespeare Studies, General Editor of the Oxford Series and honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, not only mentioned an article from the 2002 edition of The Oxfordian, but dwelt rather heavily on it in his lecture––even more surprisingly, naming its author, Andrew Werth, and the fact that he’s an Oxfordian; “For which we mustn’t condemn him,” said Wells, provoking an appreciative titter from the audience.  Hey, after centuries of being ignored, a little paternalism ain’t so bad.

The article in question, “Shakespeare’s Lesse Greek,” makes the case for the author’s knowledge of Greek, still widely regarded as an impossibility.   In an easy style, devoid of mind-numbing geek-speak, author Andrew Werth laid out the facts that make it evident to all but those indoctrinated from undergraduate days with Stratford cult beliefs, that there’s enough evidence of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek literature that during his time were not yet translated into Latin or English, that suggests that Ben Jonson’s dismissive phrase in the First Folio: “though he had small Latin and less Greek . . .”, was either a cheesy attempt to damn his rival with faint praise or, simply––for whatever reason––flat out lie about his education.

Some of Werth’s points are dismissed by Wells as “vitiated” by recent “discoveries” of Shakespeare’s collaboration with writers like Fletcher, Jonson, and Peele (our turn to chuckle) .  Yet, said he,  “in other respects they seem strong.”  As indeed they are!  Good for you, Dr. Wells, and good for me and Andy, and Dan, and Charles, and Bill, and all those who, years ago, when The Oxfordian was still in the planning stage, saw a moment like this as the very goal at which such a journal would be aimed.  There’s no way to know how Andy’s article reached Dr. Wells, but reach it it did!  And where one has gone before, others will surely follow.

Wells focuses in particular on the section of the article in which Werth deals with Sonnets 153 and 154, the final two of the collection.  As a pair, these two form a category all their own.  Though the versification of these two is no different from the rest of the sonnets, the subject and tone are unique.  The characters addressed in the first two long sections do not appear, nor are these final two cast in the same intimate and passionate mode as the rest.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Obvious translations, Wells mentions Helen Vendler’s theory that they were school exercises, another example of the current academic eagerness to amplify the capacities of the Stratford grammar school to the level of a university (and not a little ridiculous considering the poems’ naughty sophistication), but on point as impersonal examples of a poet’s expertise, the kind that, in Shakespeare’s time were the mark of an accomplished courtier.  Poems like these were usually written as a graceful gesture, possibly for the birthday of a patron, or for someone to whom the poet wished to demonstrate his ability to deal with a mundane topic in the most elegant possible manner.  First written by a fifth century Greek, the pair migrated from one collection to another, sometimes included, sometimes not.  Typical of the kind of divertissment on a minor topic that characterized such poems, these focus on the baths that the Greeks and Romans used as both healing founts and places where men could relax together.

Scholars have tracked Shakespeare’s source for this pair to the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrammata first accumulated sometime in the first century BC, and added to over the years, most notably in the tenth and fourteenth centuries, primarily in manuscript and almost always in the original Greek.  Since the beauty of an epigram lies in a tight blend of sense and sound that resists translation, the anthology had continued its passage through time mostly in its original language, with copiers doing as did Shakespeare, rendering personal versions in their own languages, until 1603 when a Latin version was published in England.  (Werth explains this in some detail in an end note on page 27.)

Thus the problem for the Academy has always been, where and how did Shakespeare come across these epigrams, and in what language?   Although almost as frequently referenced by poets as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s hard to locate anything resembling a solid publishing history for this famous anthology, for with its long history of manuscript distribution, of divisions of text in one version, amalgamations of texts in others, what’s most likely in my view is that the poet transcribed the originals from a manuscript in Greek, either one he himself owned, or that he borrowed from a friend.

Oxford and Essex

My personal view is that these two sonnets were written in 1589-91 as a gesture of friendship towards the Earl of Essex during his rise to power.  After inheriting Leicester House in 1588, Essex enlarged and extended it.  In 1590 it was recorded as having 42 bedrooms, a picture gallery, a banqueting hall, a chapel, and outbuildings, among them an old Roman bath built on a freshwater spring just steps from the river.  I recall seeing early photos of it in a book, which one I can’t remember (along, alas, with a great deal else).  It may be the one that still exists at the end of Strand Lane, just north of the Temple gardens.  Wikipedia dismisses the possibility that this is the bath in question because it lies where history places property belonging to the neighboring mansion, Arundel House, but so much has changed over the years on this valuable bit of turf, where boundaries that defined the original houses would change with the fortunes of their owners, so what belonged to Essex at the time may well have included it.  Certainly his name is all over that area.    Or there may have been another bath built over a second spring nearby.

As part of his campaign to raise himself at Court, Essex in the early 1590s was patronizing all sorts of people and projects at the same time that Oxford, having suffered a series of disasters, was in desperate need of support for his Stage.  Already pouring his poetic energies into sonnets for the young Earl of Southampton, that he would have recast these choice bits of literary caviar into sonnet form as a means of asking Essex for his patronage is as likely as anything.  If, as has been suggested, the poems refer to baths as a cure for the pox, for which Essex is thought to have required medication from the physician Lopez, this would date them to the period in question, before Oxford’s marriage to Elizabeth Tresham in 1592, certainly before 1594 when Essex turned so viciously on Lopez, or 1596 when he was in disrepute for having an affair with Oxford’s daughter, the Countess of Derby.  Whoever was responsible for publishing the Sonnets in 1609 must also have had a copy of these poems, and wanting to make sure they got published, stuck them on the end, after the two major sections.

Shakespeare’s Latin

Before exploring Werth’s argument for Shakespeare’s Greek, Wells spent time discussing the importance and universality of Latin.  T.W. Baldwin having assured him that Shakespeare must have been competent in Latin due to the probable curriculum of the Stratford grammar school, Wells is happy to accept evidence that allows the author at least some education.  According to Wells, the townsfolk of Stratford were wont to converse with each other in Latin while the boys at the Stratford grammar school were so fluent that they were not allowed to speak any other language during school time.  Optimistically he adds, “when we discover Shakespeare’s own letters, they will probably be in Latin.”

Certainly there were people in Stratford, and in every English town of any size, who could read and write and even speak Latin, but it would have been a fairly narrow circle consisting of the schoolmaster, his assistant, the town clerk, perhaps even the vicar and a handful of local bookworms.  Sixteenth-century Stratford was hardly an intellectual center.  It was a manufacturing town whose only importance beyond its own neighborhood was the market it held once a week, primarily to sell wool and other smelly products of sheep-raising like leather, charcoal and paint.  To that end,  it also brewed and sold a good deal of ale, another smelly process.  Students at Eton may have been required to speak Latin at all times, but Eton was a boarding school, which Stratford was not.

According to Wells, what Shakespeare didn’t learn from the Stratford School he learned from the University Wits: Marlowe, Peele, and Nashe, who kindly provided the poor fellow with a “surrogate university,” then were happy to collaborate with him on those plays that seem to lack the necessary Shakespearean verve.  That the Wits, who were so committed to mentioning each other in their dedications, never thought to mention their brilliant student and collaborator from Stratford has apparently not struck the good professor, at least, not hard enough to give him pause.  As for the local grammar school, surely it was capable of bringing bright boys up to the level where they could enter one of the universities, even further for a particularly brilliant boy, but again, there is absolutely no evidence that William was such a boy.  What evidence there is suggests he was unable to write even so much as his own signature.

That Shakespeare understood the lingua franca of all of Europe fits with Wells’s chosen topic: “Shakespeare as a Man of the European Renaissance.”  But oh dear, there’s that darned biography again!  While thoroughly Renaissance in his writing, it seems Shakespeare was “circumscribed” in almost every possible way.  He was not, like Sidney, a courtier, warrior, patron, the embodiment of chivalric ideas, etc.  He never travelled.  Nor was he versatile, like Bacon, a philosopher, equally fluent in Latin as in English and author of many varied works.  According to Wells, Shakespeare was “exceptionally limited”; circumscribed in both ambition and accomplishment, he wrote no books, no stories,  nothing but a few poems and plays for the public.

With Oxford as author, such peculiarities vanish.  The author is fully revealed as the thorough-going Renaissance man his works suggest.  Half the translations on which he based his plays and poems were more likely than not his own doing, published under other men’s names, as were half or more of the plays and novellas attributed to those University Wits that have no biographies to speak of, as well as the Italian tales from books attributed to William Painter,  Thomas Lodge and George Pettie.  With Oxford, Gulliver stands tall, and the Liliputians diminish to their proper stature.

Shakespeare’s Greek

While Andrew Werth, then an undergraduate at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, has gone on to higher things (a career in music), his opening thrust has since been followed up on by Dr.  Earl Showerman, whose series of articles for The Oxfordian and the online journal, Brief Chronicles, dig deep into the facts surrounding Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek drama, adding immensely to Werth’s opening salvo.

Stanley Wells, now in his eighties, is perfectly positioned to open the Academy to the Authorship Question by letting it be known that he would like to see it allow the question a place in the scholarly dialogue that takes place in journals and at conferences.  Authorship scholars have been shamefully mistreated for centuries.  If someone of Wells’s stature could tilt the scales a little our way, giving us a chance to speak at conferences and in mainstream journals about what we’ve discovered, Shakespeare Studies would take on a terrific new attraction for students, genuine research would begin, and whatever the truth may be would eventually come to light.

We may not have it ourselves, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but what we do have are solid answers to most if not all of the questions that academics have been asking ever since English Departments first came into existence at the universities, which in some cases was not until the second decade of the twentieth century.

A right jolly old elf, Wells has the power and possibly the wisdom, to see the potential to Shakespeare Studies of the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.  Who knows, people might actually begin to read again the classic sources that inspired Shakespeare and so many other great writers.  Who knows, those of us who still see ourselves as humanists might live to see another literary Renaissance, something our culture is so badly in need of.

Here’s Wells’s lecture at the World Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011.
(Many thanks to Earl and Marty for passing on the information.)

The Authorship argument in a nutshell

First there’s the name

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

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

There’s the content of the plays

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

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

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

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

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

There’s his obvious knowledge of languages other than English

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

There’s the lack of evidence of important patrons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Burghley defended Oxford

Much has been made, by Alan Nelson and other Burghley appologists, of the seemingly kindly treatment by the Lord Treasurer of his reprehensible son-in-law.  I believe that William Cecil did love Edward de Vere, insofar as he was capable of loving anyone, at least at first, but there is a political side to this that must be acknowledged.  Nothing Cecil ever did, whether good or bad, was without political implications.

First, it seems most likely that Cecil was the major instrument in removing de Vere from wherever he was being cared for in 1554 to the household of Sir Thomas Smith.  Although Smith was a loyal constituent of the sixteenth Earl, the Smith family having been longtime residents of Saffron Walden in Essex, a short ride from the Oxford stronghold at Hedingham Castle, it was Cecil who was in a position to make the necessary arrangements, not his father the Earl, or his uncle Arthur Golding, nor Smith.  As his tutor at Cambridge, Cecil knew Smith well enough to know that he would make the perfect caretaker for the precious heir to the great Oxford earldom.  It was a firm belief of those reformers who instilled in Cecil the Reformation mantra that good government would occur only when young peers were raised as Protestants.

Smith was honest, honorable, sexually chaste (i.e., no pedophile), a dedicated Protestant, a great humanist scholar, and possibly the most highly regarded teacher of his time.  He had no legitimate child of his own, and, most important, was essentially out of work having lost his position as Secretary of State during Somerset’s great fall, then with the return of Catholicism under Queen Mary, his place as Provost of Eton.  Since Cecil was the only member of Edward’s reform government to remain (unofficially) in office following Mary’s accession, he was in a position to know when the boy had to be moved, for safety’s sake, before the anti-reform storm struck Essex early in 1555.

Cecil was also in a position to offer Smith a juicy quid pro quo in exchange for a year or two of taking care of the boy [I don’t imagine they had any idea the arrangement would continue for eight years]: Cecil happened to be in a position to arrange Smith’s second marriage to the widow of a former colleague at Court, a marriage that brought with it an excellent estate at the northern edge of the Forest of Waltham, which meant that Smith would be back in Essex, not far from his family in Saffron Walden, at an easy commuting distance from both Cambridge and London.  Further, there was probably the understanding that as soon as possible, Cecil would see to it that Smith got returned to a worthwhile position on the Privy Council.

It’s very likely that Cecil, and many others, were aware from the start that Mary’s health was dicey, and that it was unlikely that she would live for more than a few years, giving him time to lay the groundwork for her younger sister to take the throne, at which point de Vere would be safe and Smith could return to his old place on the Privy Council.  There’s no record of such a deal, but then there wouldn’t be.  Where evidence is lacking we must go by the nature of events, human nature and common sense.  We do know that once Elizabeth was on the throne and Cecil was Secretary of State––while Smith got nothing but a bone, JP for his district in Essex––he and Smith had a falling out that lasted two years.  We also know that as soon as the sixteenth earl was buried, Oxford went to London while Smith went to France as the English Ambassador.

Foreign ambassador was not what Smith had in mind, but at least it meant he had a foot back in the government door.  France brought mixed results for Smith.  Although his embassy was a failure (as were most Elizabethan embassies) he saw some buildings that left a strong impression on him, which he explored when he returned to renovating his new home in Essex.  He also had the opportunity to add important books to his library and to send some to Cecil and Walsingham.

Whether or not he had anything to do with it, the death of Earl John in 1562 enabled Cecil, by then Master of the Court of Wards, to bring young Oxford to London where he could oversee the finishing touches to his Protestant education, and, not least, to arrange for his marriage to his daughter Anne.  However Oxford attempted to keep his “lewd” poems to himself, Cecil, the premiere spymaster, was probably well aware of his writing, but thought little of it so long as the boy kept it to himself.  It’s interesting that two of the works of imaginative literature that issued from that community in 1565, Golding’s translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses and Painter’s translations of the French and Italian tales in the Pallace of Pleasure, were dedicated to the Earl of Leicester.  Only scholarly works and sober works of Reformation dogma were ever dedicated to Cecil.

Cecil must have been pleased that Oxford turned out to be so popular at Court, and that his talent gave him access to the Court Stage.  With the advent of the Earl of Sussex as Lord Chamberlain in 1572, Cecil, now Burghley, saw the political advantage to his own interests when Sussex, under pressure to take control of Court entertainment away from his hated rival, the Earl of Leicester, opened the door to Oxford’s control of the Court Stage, as Sussex worked to remove it from Leicester’s control.  He may even have been party to the decision to let Oxford have a year in Italy to learn how to produce public theater from Francesco Andreini and theater building from Andrea Palladio.

Following Oxford’s return, Privy Council members Burghley and Leicester would have to know of plans being made by fellow Countil members Sussex, Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard to create a public theater where the Court could control the kind of plays produced.  That Oxford took the moment of his return to break with the Cecils was unfortunate for Burghley, but while his heart remained bitter, politics demanded that he do everything he could to mend the breach, partly for his daughter’s sake, but also to have some say in the process as plans continued to create a channel between the Court Stage and the public.  Burghley pretty much had total control of the Press, which he had helped to create.  He wasn’t about to hand over control of the Stage to either Leicester or Sussex.

The first open breach between Burghley and his former ward came with Oxford’s banishment from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Ann Vavasor.  Perhaps more disturbing than the insult to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford’s wife, were the plays that he was writing for the adult actors to perform at the little Blackfriars school stage, including an early version of Hamlet in which, as he heard from his sister-in-law, who lived near the theater, he himself was being parodied as Corambis (later Polonius) and that Oxford had dared to draw parallels between the recent death of Sussex and the infamous murder some years earlier of the Italian Duke of Urbino.  But again, political necessity overrode all else.  For the sake of Court solidarity as well as his family, Burghley had to do whatever he could to get Oxford back in the fold.  The Queen looked to him to keep his family in line.   He simply had no other choice.  Later he whined in one of his memos to posterity, “No enemy I have can envy me this match.”

Relief came with Walsingham’s plan to create a Crown company.  Oxford would return to the Court with a real and important task, to provide the new Crown company with plays that would promote understanding of England’s present danger by comparing the present stand-off with Spain to other times in history.  This allowed Walsingham to create a propaganda office made up of the crew of secretaries and musicians that hung out at Oxford’s manor, Fisher’s Folly, located just outside Bishopsgate, a few steps from his own residence, the Papey, just inside the gate.  With Oxford’s own credit stretched to the breaking point, Walsingham provided the funds to hire more secretaries, among them young Francis Bacon and even younger Christopher Marlowe.

These together with George Peele, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson, and Thomas Lodge (the so-called University Wits), provided plays for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen and her visitors while Oxford concentrated on writing for the Queen’s Men and other adult companies.  This is when The Famous Victories, The True Tragedies and The Contention plays were written that would be revised in the nineties as the Lancastrian history cycle (Richard II to Richard III), for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the second royal acting company.  Eventually Walsingham was able to persuade the Queen to pick up at least part of the tab by giving Oxford an annuity at the same time that she provided the Secretary with the money he needed to protect England from Spain.

Although Oxford agreed to the Queen’s demand that his return to Court depended on his return to his wife, it’s unlikely that he ever again shared any real home life with Anne.  He must have set up a situation where it could appear that they were a family once again, providing the Cecils with three more girls and a boy who died shortly after birth, while he continued to spend most of his time at Fisher’s Folly or one of the theaters.  Unable to tolerate the interference with his life that was simply part of Burghley nature, Oxford’s remorse over what this did to Anne, and to his daughters, is reflected in the plot or sub-plot of at least six plays, from Pericles to Othello.

Several events in the late 1580s to early ’90s caused the final rupture between Milord and the Cecils.  The first was the 1587 break between Christopher Marlowe and the Crown, when Marlowe and Edward Alleyn brought the anti-establishment play Tamburlaine to Henslowe’s Rose Theater on Bankside, where its popularity posed a threat to the social calm at a time of increasing political unrest.  As co-creators of the London Stage, both Walsingham and Oxford were doubtless blamed by Burghley and Whitgift for this breach of contract by two of their players.

The second was the death of Walsingham in 1590, and the immediate takeover of his office and his papers by Robert Cecil, who, with the help of his father, set to work immediately to put a stop to the escapades of the Fisher’s Folly crew.  Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588 Burghley had moved to end Oxford’s ability to get credit, forcing him to sell Fisher’s Folly in 1589, and Vere House at London Stone a year later (ironically to one of the major enemies of the London Stage).  University Wits Robert Greene and Thomas Watson were the first to go, “dying” on the same day in 1592.  Marlowe and John Penry, scapegoat for the crew that produced the antiestablishment Mar-prelate pamphlets, were eliminated within 24 hours of each other early in 1593.  The patron of the company that produced Tamburlaine, Lord Strange, was murdered the following year, just as the majority of his company was being reorganized into what would soon be the new Crown company.

If Burghley had any sentiment left for the golden-haired lad whose fate he had engineered almost from birth, it was gone.  Suffering from overwork, gout, and self-pity, he saw only the ungrateful son-in-law, who had fathered a fine bastard but failed to give him the heir he felt he deserved, and who had somehow managed it so that there was nothing left of the great Oxford earldom to pass along to his grandchildren.  If the final version of Hamlet reveals the truth about Anne Cecil’s final hours, Burghley’s bitterness is understandable.  As for Oxford, forced to work in silence and secrecy, his identity and true meaning masked by pun-names and ambiguous wording, the poet yet had one great weapon, the truth, and his actors.

It was when Cecil attacked the Company that the break flared into open warfare.  Too many people cared about the Stage to let Robert Cecil destroy it.  Lord Hunsdon, by then Lord Chamberlain of the Household, together with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, stepped forward to save it, but when Cecil, finally having acquired the power of the Secretary of State, shut down their new theater in advance of the Parliament of 1597, leaving them with no stage of their own, with the following deaths in rapid succession of both manager Burbage and patron Hunsdon, the company itself, and its playbook were on the ropes.  Out came the spear (his pen), up went the curtain, out came Richard Burbage, dressed like Cecil, his back hunched over, his imitation spot on; out came the first edition of the play for those who missed the performance; and Cecil’s reputation was done for.  He still had his power, but without a good name he was helpless to accomplish anything important.

Halted in his villanous progress by the 1597 production and publication of Richard III, with its obvious portrayal of himself as the evil Lancastrian King, having chased Oxford into hiding in the Forest, he did whatever he could to erase any connection between his brother-in-law and the London Stage.  Having achieved the ultimate in political power, though he survived him by only three or four years, that was enough time to burn almost everything that connected Oxford directly to the world of English literature, and everything that connected himself and his family to any of the characters in Oxford’s plays.  Oxford had destroyed his good name, but he got the last laugh, destroying any connection between his hated brother-in-law and the English Literary Renaissance.

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Act IV

Academics are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end (with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s), for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain the West End in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy.  However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

However it happened, Oxford was to some extent both a product and a victim of the Cecil family.  Whether by luck or design, eight of the leading noble youths of his time, himself and seven others, were, by the early deaths of their fathers, brought under the advising arm of Sir William Cecil through his office as Master of the Court of Wards.  Whether by luck or design, the raising of these important social leaders by Cecil was a major move in the fight to turn the nation from Catholic to Protestant, from allegience to Rome to allegience to the English Crown.  As the first of Burghley’s wards, Oxford became to some extent the leader of a faction that saw the Cecils as upstarts and political manipulators (“a politician did it”), out to take away their power and destroy their class.  By his marriage to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford was also the most thoroughly embedded into their faction, a 16th century version of “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

Any society as small, closed, tightly-woven and barricaded against change as the power center of Elizabeth’s Court develops excruciating tensions that only increase over time, often continuing on past the deaths of the principals, who pass their rivalries and hatreds on to their heirs.  This was the case with Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester, whose rivalry got passed on to their heirs, Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, just as Burghley’s efforts to control the life and behavior of his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, and his nephew, Francis Bacon, got passed on to his son and their cousin, Robert Cecil.

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.   At a Court that worshipped height, shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who looked down on him, the tall, handsome men prefered by the Queen, men like Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex.  So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves.  Most of all he detested his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford.  Partly because Oxford outranked him, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and perhaps also out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.  Whichever was the overriding factor, ultimately both were stuck with a stalemate.

Robert hated his brother-in-law for many reasons: because he had everything that he lacked, because he was admired by the Court for his social prestige, his good looks and his talent, but mostly because of the rude disdain with which he treated his father’s and his sister’s love.  Although Court protocols and family solidarity required that they maintain a pretense of cordiality, as soon as the death of Walsingham in 1590 placed the reins of power in his hands, Robert began planning how to destroy the man who had broken his sister’s heart and, in his view, sent her to an early grave.

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction.  If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed such things to occur.  If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could––and did.

Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588, Burghley, as Master of the Court of Wards, had moved to have Oxford’s debts to the Court called in.  This was less of an immediate threat to Oxford himself, who was already broke, than to the patrons who had backed his loans, and whose own estates were now threatened.  What it did destroy of Oxford’s was his credit, that is, his ability to use the perquisites of his title to raise cash.  Without credit he could no longer pay actors and musicians, stagehands and costumers.  The Queen saw to it that as a peer of the realm he was saved from the humiliation of complete bankruptcy by arranging his marriage to an heiress in 1592, but apart from a few donations, most notably from the young Earl of Southampton, Milord was pretty much silenced.

Theater of Blood

In attempting to explain what happened to Marlowe during the plague of 1593, biographer Charles Nicholl resorts to a metaphor by which he compares the way governmental sting operations to plays.  According to Nicholl, poets find spying an easy step because they live in the fantasy world of The Theater.  This is absurd; would Kurt Weil have spied for the nazis?  Would Vaclav Havel have spied for the StB?  An artist of surpassing power and reckless honesty, Christopher Marlowe did not, could not, have agreed, or been forced, to spy for the Crown he detested.  But the metaphor works if placed where it belongs, with Robert Cecil, for the plot with which he brought down the dangerous playwright in May of 1593 was just as creative as anything Marlowe himself ever designed for the stage.

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 5 instead.)

For Cecil, the removal of Marlowe, whether by murder or transportation, and without any blame attached to himself, was a magnificent coup, and for those who knew the truth, which must have been pretty much the entire Privy Council and London theater community, brought him another great benefit, the respect he needed to move with confidence in the brutal world of Elizabethan politics.  It also had the salubrious effect, salubrious to the Cecils, that is, of throwing the London Stage into a chaos from which they had every hope that it couldn’t recover, at least, not in its current form.

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil was not yet on the Council.)  We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, Burghley’s granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the sixth Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage (the alliance with Oxford having produced only girls).  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, with so many Catholic family members of high rank, Lord Strange on the throne would be a disaster for the Cecils.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in 1572, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Stanley’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son George Carey’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been an element of revenge in his and Howard’s move to resusitate the Stage, or at least to use it as best they could to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

This is best summarized with a timeline:

  • May 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594:  The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signaling the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s.
  • Apr 4 1594:  The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning.  Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company came under the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594:  The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally licensed companies, what Gurr calls “the duopoly” that had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • February 4, 1596:  The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential West End.
  • July 5, 1596:  The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council.  Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596:  The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons.  Four months later . . .
  • November 1596:  The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, acceded.  Two months later . . .
  • January 1597:  The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.   Four months later . . .
  • July 28, 1597:  The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.” Either immediately before or after . . .
  • July/August 1597:  The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson and Robert Spencer.  The LCMen took to the road.  Two months later . . .
  • October 1597:  The opening of Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation.  Immediately before or shortly after . . .

. . .  came the publication of a new version of  the anonymous play Richard III in which the evil king is described in terms that clearly identify him with Robert Cecil.  This sold out so fast that it was only a few weeks before a second edition was in the bookstalls, this time with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it had appeared on a play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did somewhere seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time.  Fired with fury by the suspicious deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.

Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue.  Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside the following year.

This chain of events suggests a bloody behind-stairs struggle for control of the London Stage.  Whether or not Robert Cecil was responsible, via the “projectors” he’d inherited from Walsingham, for the deaths of leading members of the Stage community––from Marlowe to his patron Lord Strange, to the “sporting” Thomas Kyd, to the grand-daddy of the Lonson Stage, James Burbage, to his patron Lord Hunsdon––is less important to our story than the actors’ suspicions that he was responsible.  It should be our suspicion as well, based on how the Master Secretary would go on to entrap and destroy other leading members of Court society, the Earl of Essex, his own brother-in-law Henry Cobham lord Brooke, and his former friend Sir Walter Raleigh.   The level of hatred and fear engendered by Cecil in his years of power under King James is clear from the stream of slanders and nasty epigrams that deluged the bookstalls following his death in 1612.

It should also be the clincher to the argument why Oxford hid his identity.  Had anyone during the first decade of James’s reign––anyone beyond the inner circles of the Court and Stage community, that is––made public who it was who wrote the 1597 version of Richard III, Oxford would have been as dead as Marlowe, Kyd, Stanley, Burbage and Hunsdon.  As it was, since the playwright was, as he kept reminding Cecil in his letters, a member of Cecil’s family, father of his nieces, etc., he escaped, both with his life and with his papers––not an easy task, but one facilitated by the accession to power in 1603 of King James and his fondness for Philip Herbert, and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, who would see to it that Oxford’s works, and the Stage he created, be secured from harm.

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, this was handed over to a new company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapel, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  1610, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, saw the beginning of its rise to a level of success never before seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

These are only the most salient points in the story of this final showdown.  The thread presented here, the string of deaths, theater closings, constant publication of revised versions of Richard III (eight in all, over the years), the fact that it was the first play to be published under the name Shake-speare, must be correlated to several other threads, if all taken together, make a subject worthy of a full-length book.  What part did Essex play?  Bacon?  The Queen?  The printers?  George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir and the Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign?  Where does the revision and publication of Richard II that accompanied the publication of Richard III fit in?

But even this is not the final act, the one that follows Oxford’s death.  For that we must wait to hear the story of the making of the First Folio, and of William of Stratford’s illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant, inheritor of his father’s phony fame and the primary engine of his investiture as the world greatest playwright.

For the first three acts of this drama: The murder of Shakespeare’s Identity

Theatrical birth pangs: 1776 to 1584

Early in April 1576, following a year of exciting adventures on the Continent, the Earl of Oxford arrived back in England to a sea of troubles.  During his final days in Paris, someone from home had prepared him for the gossip he’d encounter on his return.  Rumor had it that his daughter, born during his time away, was another man’s child.  Worse, it was even rumored that that other man was his wife’s own father, Lord Burghley, who, concerned that after five years of marriage there was still no Cecil heir to the Oxford earldom, had taken matters into his own hands.

This of course was nothing more than foulest, cruelest rumor, and Oxford would have cause to work different versions of the dreadful story into six plays over the years, but in his hot youth, when touched where he was most vulnerable, he was all too easily roused to unthinking fury.  Brooding on this and other worries, his mood was hardly improved when the ship that carried him accross the Channel was boarded by pirates and all he had with him was lost.  Ignoring his well-intntioned brother-in-law, Thomas Cecil, who had come to meet him at Dover, he returned to London with one of the “lewd friends” that Burghley so disliked.  Refusing to have anything to do with either his wife or her father, he rented rooms at the Savoy and turned his attention to plans already in progress to create the suburban theaters that he and Sussex and Burbage agreed were the only way to accommodate the burgeoning London theater audience in a way that would stop the constant interference by the Mayor and other London officials.

Once Oxford calmed down, the truth about his daughter must have been obvious, but by then he also realized how important it was that he break off as completely as he could with Burghley, whose habit of prying into everything he did or said was driving him mad.  He was not in love with Anne, never had been, and although he was sorry for her, stuck as she was between her husband and her father, he had his life to live.  If Burghley wouldn’t let her go, then let him keep her, “for there, “ he wrote, “as your daughter or her mother’s, more than my wife, you may take comfort of her, and I rid of the cumber thereby.”  The future Shakespeare was never one to mince words when he was sore.

Within days of his return a huge new theater began taking shape in the outskirts of northeast London.  Based on temporary stages he had seen in Siena built by Palladio and on plans for theaters in the ancient Latin tract on architecture he borrowed from his tutor, the innovative yearround theater, the first of its kind in England (and possibly in all of Europe) was built to hold somewhere between two and  three thousand paying customers at a time.  Meanwhile plans were in progress to turn one of the apartments in the Revels section of the Blackfriars compound on the Thames into a school for the Queen’s boy choristers, where the little stage meant for their rehearsals could be used from time to time to entertain the audience that meant the most to Sussex and his vice Chamberlains, the lawyers, scribes, and parliamentarians of Westminster.

The summer of 1576 saw audiences flock to the big round public theater in the East End, where herds of apprentices and tradesmen and their wives and sweethearts were eager to pay their pennies to see plays they were told had been performed for the Queen.  Burbage and his crew grew bold as they collected the money that had always escaped them at the theater inns, where they could only pass the hat at intermission.  That winter those residents of the West End who could afford it were charmed by the boys at the little stage at Blackfriars where they paid a substantial fee to see, by candlelight, richly furnished early versions of A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens.

The residents surrounding the new theaters were not so thrilled by the litter, the noisy crowds and late hours––but with powerful privy councillors like the Earl of Sussex and Lord Hunsdon as patrons (Hunsdon now living next door to the little theater), and the Earl of Rutland, whose City manor stood a few yards from Burbage’s stage on land that until recently had been his family’s heritage, and where he still held rights––there was little the neighbors could do, at least, not right away.

For six years, all went relatively smoothly for the newborn London Stage and its patrons. Then in 1581 Oxford got himself bounced from Court for impregnating a Queen’s Maid of Honor.  Furious at how he was being treated by the Queen and the Court; fearful for his life and the life of his retainers at the hands of his mistress’s angry relatives; bitter at his mistress for what he saw as her willingness to drop him for a better prospect––he refused to continue to write for the Court and began turning out plays filled with personal passion and aimed at the West End audience.  This probably meant using the little theater at the Blackfriars school, probably with adult actors from Burbage’s and Worcester’s Men, and probably fairly late into the night.

These were not the kind of plays that he could have written for the Court.  Angry at Ann Vavasor for what he believed was her perfidy in taking up with another man, he rewrote one he’d written earlier about the Trojan war, lavishing it with irony, and pouring all his pain over his mistress into the plot and characters in Troilus and Cressida.  Furious at his cousins for accusing him publicly of treason, he dramatized the assassination of Julius Caesar, with Brutus in a situation similar to his own, and Cassius, whose “lean and hungry look” identified him as his cousin Henry Howard.  Frightened by the determination of his mistress’s male relatives to kill him, he wrote another in which he portrayed himself as already dead, observing from above as an imaginary father takes bloody revenge on his killers by means of a play within a play (The Spanish Tragedy).  Then, with the discovery that his mistress still loved him, he poured his lonely heart into a blazing new version of Romeo and Juliet.  Finally, as his patron and surrogate father, the Earl of Sussex, sickened and died, he accused the Earl of Leicester of poisoning him by drawing parallels between him and King Claudius and between Elizabeth and Queen Gertrude in a first version of Hamlet.

Since the Blackfriars theater was cheek by jowl with the City manors of Lady Russell, Mildred Burghley’s termigant younger sister, and of Sir William Brooke Ld Cobham, longtime supporter of Ld Burghley and Robert Cecil’s future father-in-law, that it wasn’t long before they became aware of what sort of plays were now taking place next door should go without saying, as should the probable fact that this was the real reason why the Blackfriars landlord, Sir William More, began petitioning the privy council to shut down the school, for Sir William, determined to rise at Court, would never have taken on councillors as powerful as Sussex and Hunsdon had he not had some hefty backing of his own.

The War with Spain and the rise of the Stage

As the threat of attack from Spain took center stage at Whitehall, Secretary of State Francis Walsingham moved quietly ahead of Burghley, Sussex, and Leicester as Privy Councillor with the most important duties.  Then, as Lord Chamberlain Sussex’s health began to fail, Walsingham moved, again quietly, to take his place as major patron of the Court Stage.  Although not in his job description, the Secretary, whose shoulders bore the responsibility of preparing for the inevitable attack from Catholic Spain, had a vision whereby a Crown company made up of the leading actors from Burbage’s and other companies could bring the kind of plays that Oxford was capable of writing to the hinterlands, plays that mixed entertainment with English history and anti-Spanish propaganda.

Himself a student of history, Walsingham understood that nothing binds a people together like a shared past.  What past was being shared then by his largely uneducated countrymen were stories from the middle east, told in the Bible.  Rouse their emotions with English stories, whether proud or bitter, and they’d be British first, Catholics second.  That this was clearly the mandate for the creation of the Queen’s Men can be seen by their travel itineraries for the years 1582 through 1588.  These show that the company spent more road time than anywhere else in towns along the southeastern and western coasts where the Spanish were most likely to attack (McMillin 175-78).

It should be clear that plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and Edmond Ironside were written for the same reason that, during WWII, when little was being filmed in England due to the stringent economies forced on the British by the war, the government made it possible for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V to be lavishly costumed and filmed in expensive color.  During the war the American military did the same thing, enrolling director Frank Capra and others to produce propaganda films, while giving movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Paul Heinreid deferments so they could continue to play roles in anti-Nazi films like Casablanca.

As a close friend and colleague of Oxford’s tutor, the former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, Walsingham understood that Smith’s former student badly needed something useful to do, something to keep him from continuing to cause trouble for the Court.  Writing for the Queen’s Men would keep him busy in a worthy cause.  It also made use of his knowledge of English history, knowledge stored in the papers and manuscripts he inherited from his father, passed down from one earl of Oxford to the next, papers that he kept closely guarded, allowing only those closest to him to know what they were.  No one was in a better position to turn the story of England’s past into exciting drama, an argument that helped him get the majority of the Privy Council behind the Queen’s Men, and finally, to get the Queen to fund Oxford’s crew at Fisher’s Folly, as neither he nor the improvident earl could continue to fund the stage on their own for much longer, now that Sussex and his wealth were gone.

For the adult actors this was a major step forward.  In previous years they had to share the Court stage with the children’s companies.  More recently they suffered from the heavy competition from the other companies that were springing up like mushrooms to meet the public demand for more plays.  So although they couldn’t have been pleased by the prospect of so much travelling, the fact that they were guaranteed first place at Court with fees, props and costumes supplied, was a terrific boost.  Also, when in London, no longer to be confined to the little school stage at Blackfriars, but as the Queen’s own company, to be guaranteed the Belle Sauvage Inn as their primary winter venue meant they were guaranteed London’s best holiday audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.

Since Francis Bacon, too, was without a job, and since he too was a gifted writer who was already successfully entertaining the Court with installments of his Faerie Queene, Walsingham put him to work writing the holiday comedies for the choristers that Oxford no longer cared to bother with.  These had to be written by a courtier steeped in Court gossip, one who knew how to amuse without offending the great ones in the audience, how to tease without wounding their equally great and touchy egos.   It was this last factor that Walsingham failed to consider well enough when he brought young Christopher Marlowe on board as an apprentice to Oxford and Bacon.  Talented he certainly was, and a quick learner, but, to everyone’s grief, including his own, Marlowe turned out to have a very different agenda than what Walsingham and Oxford had in mind for him.

Shortly before the beginning of this turbulent period (December 1580), Richard Farrant, the school master in charge of the children’s school at Blackfriars, died, leaving his wife with the boys to care for, and nowhere near enough money for them or her own family.  As More continued to press for the power to close down the Blackfriars theater through 1581, ’82, and ’83, its lease got passed around, from Farrant’s widow to Henry Evans, assistant master in charge of the boys; then from Evans to Oxford, who by then was back at Court; from Oxford to his secretary, John Lyly; and from Lyly to Lord Hunsdon, who joined with Walsingham to keep the school, or the theater at least, from going under.

Officially the school came to an end in April 1584 when the court decided in favor of the landlord, though proxy data suggests that the little stage may have been allowed to operate as a private theater until Hunsdon’s leases were up in 1590.   It’s hard to believe that this important space, which for most of its existence over the past fifty years had been used to rehearse or store props for Court revels, would have continued to stand silent and empty for the first six of the ten most important years in the birth of the London Stage: from 1584 to 1590, most particularly from November 1584 to March 1585, when the West End was crammed with important men from all over England, gathered for Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament.  Oxford, Hunsdun, Charles Howard, Rutland, Bacon, Beale, and Raleigh, were all present and took part, as is shown by the journals of the houses of Lords and Commons in the records online. (Comes Oxon. Magnus Camererius, means Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain.)

Parliament’s holiday break that year lasted from Dec 21 to Feb 4.  This would have been the ideal time for plays aimed at the visiting members to receive their greatest attendance.  The Revels accounts show that the Queen’s Men produced four plays at Court that winter, so we would assume that these were performed later at the Belle Sauvage.  Oxford’s name is unusually prominent in the Revels account for this holiday season,  along with the traditonal “activities” (acrobatics), he’s listed as patron for two plays, one by his “servants,” the other by his “boys,” who produced, on St. John’s Day, December 27th, a play titled The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, which E.T. Clarke suggests was probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These, or others not appropriate for the Court, would, like the plays performed by the Queen’s men, have been performed somewhere handy to the West End during the same time period.  That “somewhere” would either have been the little stage at Blackfriars, or in a hall in one of the waterfront mansions on the Thames, the most likely being Somerset House.  Then the primary London residence of Lord Hunsdon, it was located directly across the Strand from Cecil House.

“King of Shadows”

Like the anthropologist who spends thousands of hours sifting through tons of rubble beneath a cliff-side, seeking bits of bone no bigger than the end of a thumb that she hopes will fit the skeleton she’s piecing together of a proto-human aboriginal, so we sift through the texts of the period and, at second hand, through modern critical texts, seeking evidence of things that we have no other means of accessing as we strive to piece together the truth about a great artist.  The bits of bone we seek are often no more than a single word, one that bears a particular significance.  In our search for the truth about Shakespeare, one such word is shadow.

The word shadow meant more things in the sixteenth century than it does today.   Besides a term for the patch of darkness created by blocking the sun’s rays, or a slang term for someone who sticks too close to someone else, or a 1930s Hollywood verb for a spy technique, in Shakespeare’s time it was a metaphor for any kind of reflection.  You saw your shadow in a mirror; painters created shadows on canvas: in his 1579 diatribe School of Abuses, Stephen Gosson wrote: “Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts] to vanquish the taste, nor painters in shadows to allure the eye, than poets in theaters to wound the conscience.”  Some uses may reflect Plato’s vision of human beings as mere shadows on the wall of a cave, reflections of multi-dimensional spiritual realities in a three-dimensional world.

Shakespeare used the word shadow for all of these; the account in Schmidt’s lexicon of the specific uses in his works fills well over a full page in very small type.  He was especially fond of the biblical phrase shadow vs. substance, which for him expressed a world of meaning.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he uses shadow several times to refer to plays or actors.  Replying to Hippolyta’s description of Pyramus and Thisbe as “the silliest stuff that ever I heard,” Theseus opines: “The best [plays] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” When Puck bids adieu to the audience after the last act he uses the term to refer to the characters created by the actors: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. . . .”  Twice Puck calls Oberon, “King of Shadows.”  Years earlier, the True Tragedy of Richard III, the first version of Shakespeare’s play, opens with:

Enter Truth and Poetry. To them appears the ghost of George, Duke of Clarence.
POETRY:    Truth well met.
TRUTH:     Thanks, Poetry; what makes thou upon a stage?
POETRY:    Shadows.
TRUTH:     Then will I add bodies to the shadows.  Therefore depart, ………………and give Truth leave
 to show her pageant.

In his prefatory letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, Oxford uses the word to mean the reflection of a patron or friend if mentioned in a work of literature that lives for generations long after the friend himself is departed.

Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs, whereby when they be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument.  But with me it happenth far better,  for in your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone.

“That shadow of thine”

One of the thousand and one smoking guns provided by authorship forensics is the handwritten note in the Cecil papers from one Thomas Vavasor to the Earl of Oxford, insulting him and taunting him to a duel.  Dated January 19, 1585, it’s the final piece in the record of assaults on Oxford and his men by members of the Howard, Vavasor, and Knyvett circle in retaliation for Oxford having “ruined” their cousin, sister, niece and former Queen’s Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, who, in March 1581, gave birth to Oxford’s illegitimate son in one of the royal bedchambers.

Following two months in the Tower and many more under house arrest, Oxford and his retainers were subjected to a year of attacks in the streets of London by Ann’s uncle, Thomas Knyvett, and his men.  There were four of these “frays” that reached the record, the first March 3, 1582, the final February 21, 1583, three months before Oxford’s reinstatement at Court.  Several on both sides were killed, and Oxford himself was seriously wounded in the first.  There may have been other lesser incidents that escaped the record, but once milord was back in the Queen’s favor it’s unlikely the Knyvett faction would have dared to continue their vendetta.

The note, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, was found among Burghley’s papers.  If the date added (in Burghley’s hand), January 1585, is anywhere near the date it was written, this puts it almost two years after the last recorded street fight and Oxford’s reinstatement at Court.  But in fact it could have been written at any point from 1582 on, having come into his possession at any time after that.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the note itself.  Here’s the text (spelling modernized) as reproduced by Alan Nelson in his fact-filled if negative biography:

If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown.  I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits.  Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting mind?  Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels?  If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers.  But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse.  For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer. (Nelson’s brackets, 295)

Let’s have a close look at what Vavasor is saying:

If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown.

According to Vavasor, if Oxford’s looks were as bad as his morals, his sister would never have been seduced; one more bit of evidence that he was considered good-looking; also testimony that he was not an instigator of the street brawls.

I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits.

In Vavasor’s view, Oxford is “base and sleepy” (cowardly and unresponsive) because he is “wedded” to (totally involved with) something he calls “that shadow of thine” that prevents him from doing his chivalrous duty as a nobleman and answering Vavasor’s challenge.  Nelson states as fact that by “that shadow of thine” this he means “an unnamed male relative of Oxford’s,” as he scrambles among the names mentioned in connection with Oxford for one that might fit.  This is a possibility because the use of shadow then did include such a use.  However, that he was unable to come up with a name suggests there wasn’t any such person in Oxford’s life at that time.  Having just recovered from two years of banishment and so most likely exhibiting extreme caution with regard to unseemly companions, “that shadow of thine” must be something else.

Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting [unknowing] mind?

The “revenge” taken of Oxford’s “vileness” must refer to the wound dealt him by Thomas Knyvett during the first recorded brawl three years earlier.  However unwilling to engage in street fights, Oxford has done something to provoke the “unwitting” Vavasor.  What might he mean by “unworthy instruments”?  Since this sentence follows directly on the reference to “that shadow of thine,” it seems most likely that the shadow and the unworthy instruments are connected.

Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels?  If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers.

This must refer to one of the recorded “frays” in which only Oxford’s retainers were involved, or to some other for which there is no record.  This also shows that his financial straits were already a matter of Court gossip.

But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse.  For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer.

It’s unlikely there ever was an answer.  Either Oxford handed over the threat to Burghley, as Nelson suggests, or more likely, whoever was supposed to deliver it thought better of it, and gave it directly to Burghley, either immediately or after holding on to it for some time.

What “unworthy instruments”?

If, as we believe, based on a great deal of evidence provided here and in other locations, that during the mid-1580s, Oxford was not only the playwright who in later life would publish under the name William Shakespeare, he was the primary creator of the London Stage, the author of most of the plays then being performed by the Queen’s Men, as well as the comedies performed by Paul’s Boys at Court in the 1570s, then what Vavasor meant by “that shadow of thine” must be the stage, which was certainly considered an “unworthy instrument” by many of their contemporaries, particularly by those who’d been publicly skewered by one of milord’s satires.

As for the more recent provocation mentioned by Vavasor, I believe this was the original production of Romeo and Juliet.  Written (I believe) during a rush of feeling following the realization that the silence and lack of response from his lover following her release from the Tower was not due to the perfidious change of heart he so angrily depicts in Troilus and Cressida, the first version of which (I believe) he wrote during the early days of his house arrest, as soon as he was back at Fisher’s Folly with his staff, musicians, and actors.

Most likely the play was ready for production by late 1584 for the audience then gathering in Westminster for the Parliament that would run until the following March.  With the 18-year-old Edward Alleyn as Romeo and the 16-year-old Richard Burbage as Juliet, the play would have been performed at the original Blackfriars Theater, located just above the fencing academy where Oxford and his friends were given to practising the routines demonstrated in the play (Richard Tarleton was reputed to be a genuine fencing master).  Impelled by the added passion of relief and a deep desire to make amends to Ann for having portraying her as Cressida, Romeo and Juliet expresses the love that got them both into so much  trouble, not so fatal as what doomed the Veronese lovers, but trouble nonetheless.  Such were the emotions contributing their force to what has been described as the “lyric rapture and youthful ecstasy” of one of the most loved plays in all the literature of drama.

Hardly anyone who writes about the close connections between Oxford’s biography and the plots of Shakespeare’s plays fails to connect the street brawls between the Oxford and Knyvett/Vavasor crews and that between the Montagues and the Capulets, or Oxford’s wound with Mecutio’s death.  The strong resemblance between Friar Lawrence and Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, is another important link.  Less strong but still relevant are others such as the fact that Arthur Brooke, author of the narrative poem that served as a basis for Shakespeare’s play,was a nephew of George Brooke, Lord Cobham, Burghley’s close friend and his neighbor during Oxford’s years at Cecil House in the 1560s.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, neither Edward nor Ann died, they were not married, and Ann was pregnant as Juliet was not (or she died too soon to know), in any case, these unromantic differences aside, there’s too much that’s similar between the play and the events of 1581-’85 to brush off the similiarities as mere coincidence.

As for Ann, exactly where she was at this time we don’t know, but following her release from the Tower, the most likely place, based on what usually happened in such cases, would have been to stay with an older, dependable relative, closely connected to the Court, where she would be under surveillance (as her poem reports) until the Queen could decide what should be done with her.   At some point she ended up with Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s champion, perhaps as a sort of prize for his years of service.

For Ann’s view of the situation, we have her poem, written to explain why she was behaving as she was.  Other interpretations and attributions have been placed on this poem, but why not follow the most natural?  Poetry is always the quickest path to the heart of a poet, and in those days, it was the path most often taken in matters of the heart, even by those who would have done better to stick to prose.  Oxford’s later attachment to another female poet, Emilia Bassano, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, plus the witty female characters he created as Shakespeare, suggests that a clever tongue in a woman had a great attraction for him.

That the play was written for some other audience than the Court should be obvious, for there were lines in it that would have infuriated the Queen, had she heard them.  Or, if it was at some point produced for the Court, lines that remained in the First Folio, such as Juliet’s in Act II Scene 1, “O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,” or Romeo’s a little later:

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

Elizabeth’s colors, as everyone knew, were green and white.  Words like these would have been cut for a Court performance.  Oxford was reckless at times, but he was not insane.

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Boar?

One of the major problems in getting the world to take Oxford seriously as Shakespeare is his bad reputation with historians.  Sure it came from his enemies, Henry Howard and Robert Cecil, who, no matter how notorious they were themselves, managed to make their character assassination stick, largely because, apart from their dirty deeds, their public roles haved tended to supercede the crimes they commited, while Oxford’s public role has remained hidden.  All his money, his imagination and his energy went into creating the London stage and the London periodical press, something he could not take the credit for at the time, something for which his worst enemy, Robert Cecil, made certain that he would never, ever, get the credit.  Even today, the academics who have (ironically) inherited his story, seem determined to hand his accomplishments over to his actors, co-authors, publishers and editors.

So were they wrong about Oxford?  Was he the ungrateful bastard that Alan Nelson loves to flog, or the saint that some would have Shakespeare, gentle, kind and good?  Have they never read the biographies of geniuses of the stage and press?  What about Diagliev or Balanchine, the manipulative obsessives who created the world’s greatest ballet companies, or the world’s greatest dancers, Nijinsky and Michael Jackson?  What about those brilliant bisexuals, Leonard Bernstein and Lord Byron, neither of whom made any effort to hide their sexual relationships with their sisters?  And how about the genius whose level of influence over the world we live in is the only one of any of these that reaches to the level of the man we call Shakespeare––what about Steve Jobs?

Here’s what Malcolm Gladwell says in his recent review in The New Yorker of the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, who interviewed his friends and associates at length:

“Jobs, we learn, was a bully. ‘He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe,’ a friend of his tells Isaacson. Jobs gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then denies that the child is his.  He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates.  He cries like a small child when he does not get his way.  He gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour.  He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times.  He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong: he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is “disgusting.”)

“‘Machines and robots were painted and repainted as he compulsively revised his color scheme,’ Isaacson writes, of the factory Jobs built, after founding NeXT, in the late nineteen-eighties. ‘The walls were museum white, as they had been at the Macintosh factory, and there were $20,000 black leather chairs and a custom-made staircase. . . . He insisted that the machinery on the 165-foot assembly line be configured to move the circuit boards from right to left as they got built, so that the process would look better to visitors who watched from the viewing gallery.’

“Isaacson begins with Jobs’s humble origins in Silicon Valley, the early triumph at Apple, and the humiliating ouster from the firm he created.  He then charts the even greater triumphs at Pixar and at a resurgent Apple, when Jobs returns, in the late nineteen-nineties, and our natural expectation is that Jobs will emerge wiser and gentler from his tumultuous journey.  He never does.  In the hospital at the end of his life, he runs through sixty-seven nurses before he finds three he likes.  ‘At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated,’ Isaacson writes: ‘Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it.  Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. . . .  He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex.’”

Now there’s the real McCoy, not the Santa Claus of childish dreams.  And who doesn’t love him?  As a Mac user since 1995 who used his technology to create The Oxfordian and who uses it every day to run this blog, I did, and do, and always will.  And my kids and grandchildren who are addicted to their ipods and iphones do too.  Just as you and I love Shakespeare.

No, Edward de Vere was not a saint.  He used people.  He complained (see his letters).  He was cruel to his wife and to Gabriel Harvey.  He wasted his patrimony on profitless theatrical projects (profitless to himself and his family, though immensely profitable to the Kings Men).  He ratted on his cousin and friends, sending them into confinement.  He created deathless stage portraits of his family members and associates as fools and villains.  That historians have followed his enemies in accusing him of pederasty, plotting to murder his Court rivals, and most foul, ingratitude to his in-laws, well, perhaps it’s no more than such a wretch deserved.

But it’s more than we deserve!  As humans we deserve to know the truth about ourselves.  Surely the geniuses who have given us our greatest art, our greatest advances in science, medicine, and technology, are just as important as all the other things we study.  “Know thyself,” said Socrates.  To know the truth about the great English humanist who, according to one of the academics who knows and loves him most, invented us, is to know ourselves.

Let’s get all this nonsense about other candidates and sick relationships with the Queen and others out of the way and find out all we can about the real human being who created the language we speak.  Surely it’s time.

Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford and Marlowe

Was Marlowe Shakespeare?

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

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

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

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

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

Marlowe as Shakespeare’s predecessor

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

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

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

The Rival Poet

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

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

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

Who wrote Hero and Leander?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My scenario

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

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

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

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

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

In short

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

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

Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.