Category Archives: Oxford's education

Deconstructing Jonson’s Ode

It’s clear that Jonson admired Shakespeare immensely. Despite the traces of envy in things he said about him to Drummond or wrote in his notebooks, Jonson was a man of taste and intelligence, who, as an excellent writer himself, could not help but be awed by Shakespeare’s talent. Although clever and highly educated, Jonson did not often display genuine eloquence, yet here, inspired perhaps by a deepening awareness of his great rival’s accomplishment, when he speaks about him he comes close to the language of the Bard himself.

In a dedicatory ode intended to introduce to an eager and adoring public Shakespeare’s works in print, the strangely negative tone of the opening lines is usually ignored, probably because there’s no explanation for it. Why should anyone think that Jonson would or could “draw envy” to Shakespeare by mentioning his work and his reputation in print? What dark element is there that Jonson must address before he can begin to sing his hero’s praises? If he felt so strongly about Shakespeare and, despite the dangers he outlines at the start, is willing to express it in print, we can be certain that he is also expressing feelings he shared with the men and women who sponsored the true author, who protected his identity during his life, and promoted the publication of his works after his death.

That it took so long to produce the First Folio is testimony to the difficulties that this group faced. Anyone who has ever been involved with getting the rights to a body of work of an important writer so that a complete works can be published (or has followed such a situation, or read about it) will understand what difficulties must have been involved in organizing the publication of the First Folio, particularly if, as we believe, the Authorship Question was causing problems for both Oxford’s friends and his enemies, as it had been in varying degrees since the 1580s.

What are the difficulties that Jonson treats of at the beginning? He’s not exactly being transparent here, which suggests that this part was written for those who knew what he was talking about. That he begins with it suggests that he thought it was important. Or could the tone be due to his public role as chief cynic, so that he felt it necessary to stick to his trademark attitude, at least as an opener?

“To draw no envy on thy name”

What does Jonson mean when he states that he wishes to “draw no envy” on Shakespeare’s name? Envy was a word used a lot in the 16th century. Apparently a great many people were afraid of the trouble that could be caused by the malice of persons who envy others, who want what they have, something primitive societies envision as “the evil eye.” Since Jonson’s literary community was well past the primitive stage, why envy should seem so dangerous is hard to understand, unless, of course, because it was much easier to get away with dirty tricks, even murder, then than it is now. Since Shakespeare had long been dead, or at least quiet, by 1623, one would think he was beyond the reach of envy.

In any case, once past these initial snarls, Jonson finally gets down to the business of lauding the man whose book he is introducing, who in another context has claimed he loved “next idolatry” (Drummond/Dutton).

Much of what Jonson says in praise of Shakespeare is transparent and needs no interpreting. There are however two lies, untruths, false clues, “glancings,” that he felt it necessary (or was required) to weave into the fabric of his poem in order to shift attention from the true author to William of Stratford.

“Thou art a monument without a tomb”

However ambiguous elsewhere, Jonson was clear enough when he wrote: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room; Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s message throughout this verse and the next is that the book he’s introducing, the First Folio, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs. It seems the author is to have no monument, which is of course untrue of William, who seven years earlier had been buried under the floor of Trinity Church in Stratford under a slab of stone noteworthy for the unfortunate bit of doggeral verse carved into it.

The tradition of burying writers in the floor of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey began in 1599 with the burial of Edmund Spenser on a site probably chosen because Chaucer’s monument, the greatest poet of earlier times, was located nearby. Seven years later the tradition was amplified when a third writer was buried nearby, playwright Francis Beaumont. Still, it seems a bit raw to use his Ode to openly deny the Star of Poets his spot in Poet’s Corner. Why make a point of it?

Two thoughts seem appropriate here. First, following Beaumont’s funeral there may have been a movement to have Shakespeare buried in Poet’s Corner. Why not bury the great one in London’s most prestigious cemetary, where those who admired him could come to honor him without having to take the long trip to Stratford? Surely Shakespeare deserved no less.

Here’s another clue that William wasn’t the author, for had he been, there would have been no reason whatsoever to deny him a place in Poet’s Corner. Jonson’s explanation, that Shakespeare was so great that he needs no such recognition, is about as weak as it gets. It’s also worth noting that Jonson claims he has no tomb and no monument (other than the First Folio). William died in 1616. Seven years later, was the stone with its doggerel platitude not yet laid in the floor of the Trinity Church? Was the Stratford monument not yet in place? If not, then what did he mean by “thy Stratford moniment”? If they were, was he unaware of it? Or was he covering up the truth?

Jonson may simply be using a very old trick in the art of disinformation, namely conveying important information by stating it as a denial. Jonson’s biographer, Richard Dutton, in his chapter on Jonson’s “glancings,” notes that this was one of his favorite tricks. The fact that the authorities repeatedly accused Jonson of doing what he denies is not proof, but it must evoke suspicion. The fact that Jonson so consistently denies it proves nothing either; obviously he was not going to admit it. It is, however possible to construe the denials in the end as protesting too much: in effect, . . drawing attention to something in the writing by publicly insisting that it is not there.” (141).

Jonson may be telling those concerned with Shakespeare’s final resting place that if they want to honor him, they can do so by standing on a spot in the Abbey midway between the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont. Those who cared about the true author and his legacy were people with great influence who could easily have arranged for a funeral ceremony in the Abbey at night, when it was closed to the public. Whether or not Beaumont’s coffin had to be moved matters little; Jonson’s purpose was to point to the spot where Shakespeare lay, beneath the paving stones of the Chapel floor.

Chaucer’s monument was then, as it is today, an upright structure standing on the floor against the wall, but the tombs of Spenser and Beaumont were simply plaques with their names set into the floor, as are so many tombs in the Abbey and in Poet’s Corner. Unfortunately, there’s no telling today exactly where they were then, since plaques from many eras now lie edge to edge beside each other covering the entire area.

What is most probable is that he lies beneath the statue that was placed in the Abbey by the patron who acquired his name in the mid-18th century, the First Earl of Oxford by the Second Creation, whose manor of Welbeck had become the repository of books, paintings, and probably much else as the peers of that period sold or lost their valuables through gambling and as collateral for unpaid loans. The Statue and its meaning to an ever shrinking community of insiders, was created by members of the Grand Lodge of Masons to answer to a higher deity than the gaping and ignorant public.

“But though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”

As we have seen, this line of Jonson’s is what set orthodox Shakespeare studies on the wild goose chase from which they have never returned. Why did Jonson lie about Shakespeare’s erudition and how did he manage to get away with it? How did the obvious knowledge of Plautus, Terence, Euripides, Ariosto, etc., (often in the original language) that Shakespeare reveals in his many neologisms escape Jonson’s readers (those at least who expressed opinions in print) and all orthodox scholars since?

Shakespeare was circumspect about his learning. Unlike Jonson, who liked to parade his education, Shakespeare’s characters tend to reveal the erudition of their creator obliquely, sometimes by satirizing it as the confused versions that live in the minds of lesser intellects who had learning beaten into them by their grammar school teachers. Like himself, his more advanced characters often reveal their learning through metaphors and descriptive phrases that will be only partly understood without an educated awareness of their roots in Greek, Latin, French, or Italian.

Why so modest? Was he ashamed of his erudition? Not ashamed, but cautious, as behooved one whose learning so far surpassed even most of his closest associates. And why bother to use references that no one is going to understand? This was true to some extent when he was writing for the Court, but even more so for the public. And since he obviously wished to remain anonymous, he would have done his best to avoid in his published plays and poems the kinds of classical references that would have made it impossible for those who knew him personally to remain ignorant of his authorship.

Nevertheless, the very plots and characters of his plays plus a thousand tropes that made up the substance of his work revealed much too clearly, particularly to a literary milieu educated in the classics to a degree probably never seen since, the kind of education that could not possibly be ascribed to William of Stratford; not, that is, without some serious tampering with the record. So Jonson had no choice but to lie as forcefully and plainly as possible. Contemporaries may have questioned it privately, but scholarship has declined since then, and scholars of subsequent ages have taken at face value this out and out prevarication. Not that they care about the author anyway since their chief interest in Shakespeare is, and always has been, the text.

Jonson then makes up for his monstrus fib by ascribing to Shakespeare a genius that surpasses the “antiquated” Greeks, attributing to him a mystical perfection that transcends Time. He also attempts to salve the fact that he is attributing (however obliquely) the greatest works ever written up until then to an illiterate nonentity by claiming that, as their “father,” Shakespeare’s god-given “mind and manners” shine through his characters and their stories.

 “Sweet swan of Avon”

These are the only words in the entire First Folio that point, however obliquely, to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon Avon. Although not true, they are not quite a lie. No doubt it was incumbent on Jonson, as Court poet and advocate for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to put something in the Ode that connected Shakespeare the poet with William of Stratford, their chosen proxy. If so, this was possibly the least obvious clue he could have dreamed up. Either that or it could be something most easily translated by those who knew the truth, to a reference to the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes.

As Jonson’s patron, Pembroke and his Court circle could, if they chose, read “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a reference to Shakespeare entertaining the Court community at Pembroke’s home, Wilton, which stands on the bank of the Avon River in Wiltshire. (There are at least nine rivers named Avon in Britain; avon means river in Welsh.) There is a strong possibility that the true author was present for at least one such production in 1603, when the young Earl and his mother, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke and former mistress of Wilton, were entertaining King James and his retinue before they made their royal way to London. The swan was thought to sing only at its death. Since Oxford would die (or rather pretend to die) within a few months of that event, the phrase was appropriate in more ways than one.

Jonson makes up to some extent for these necessary prevarications by giving us some important clues about the true author and how he worked. He compares him (and all true poets) to the hardest working of all artisans, the blacksmith, who sweats as he hammers, beating his work into shape. The term “second heat” refers to the phase in metal-working known as termpering when, having beaten the metal into its initial form, the smith allows it to cool, then reheats it for another round of beating. Jonson seems to be comparising these rounds of heating and cooling, a process that strengthens the metal, to the rounds of revision required by good writing, revisions being the “Art” that “makes” a writer, even the most innately gifted. Revisions over a period of years is a better explanation for the anomalous topical references and alterations in language in some of Shakespeare’s plays than the theory that these necessarily reveal the work of a co-author or later reviser, as those who see him as a commercial hack would have it.

“Shine forth, thou Star of Poets”

But the most important clues of all offered by Jonson as to who Shakespeare was and what he actually did, may be contained in his final lines: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage.” What does he mean by pairing rage and influence, chiding and cheering? Aren’t these pairs duplications? Don’t they mean the same thing? That Shakespeare’s works, returned in their true form in the First Folio, will both condemn what’s wrong with the present and encourage a return to something better? Is he speaking only with regard to the Stage, or perhaps in broader terms, to what the Stage represents, the power to change humanity, to change the way it thinks and acts. Isn’t “rage” too strong a word for just the pretense of emotion generated by an actor and his part? If we knew that Shakespeare meant, not just to entertain, but to move his audiences to action, what sorts of action would he be advocating? What influence? At what did his pun name manifest: I “will shake [a] spear!” Surely this is what Jonson––who himself got into trouble more than once for his satires––meant by influence, rage, and chide.

Finally, regarding the use of the word “envy,” we might note that the initials for Ned (Edward) Vere are NV. Can Jonson’s opening line be read: “To draw no NV on your name”? Is this another instance of stating a fact as a denial? Could he have meant instead to be speaking to those who knew the truth: “To draw on NV as your name . . .”?

Are we reading a too much into Jonson’s Ode, one of the most significant poems he would ever write in a long career of writing just such models of doublethink? For as the academics know quite well and have stated as an interesting feature of the time, that is, when there is no chance of its casting suspicion on the Stratford myth, that this kind of seeking for a satirical subtext was the very passion of the period, wouldn’t the true author’s followers be studying Jonson’s dedication for just such sleights of hand? Wouldn’t Jonson know that they would be expecting to see their hero acknowledged in the subtle ways he demonstrated so often in his many odes and epigrams, doing a little “sweating” himself to produce something worthy of the greatest wordsmith of them all, putting his true feelings for the man that by the time he wrote it, had been dead for almost twenty years?


Shakespeare: an experiment gone wrong

Edward de Vere was something of a pedagogical Elyot bloggieexperiment.  In their Platonic desire for a Philosopher King, so eager were the humanistic reformers to educate the nobility, that, following Quintilian, Vives and Elyot, they sought to begin them as early as possible on Latin so that they would begin to absorb the wisdom of the ancients and early Church fathers while still young enough furnish their adult minds with the noblest and most idealistic thoughts.  So while the Marian reign had its horrors, it did produce one benefit––to humanity that is––it sent the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom, in many ways the most important domain in England, to Sir Thomas Smith, the most highly qualified Reformation teacher in the nation.  No doubt many were watching to see the outcome of this kind of training.  This being the Reformation, you can believe that not all were pleased with the results.

Oxford himself must have experienced this interest as pressure, subtle perhaps, but still pressure, as seen, for instance, in the kind of criticisms and suggestions offered by Roger Ascham in his book, The Scholemaster, written for Cecil right at the time that he was first responsible for educating Oxford and Rutland.  Oxford must have been aware from very early that all eyes were on him.  “To whom much has been given, much is required.”  What a disappointment it much have been to men like Cecil and Ascham and even to Smith when instead of another well-behaved, pious Sidney, who hadn’t begun his studies until the great age of seven, their prime experiment turned to poetry and plays, his vast education little more than grist for the mill of his comedies and love songs.

No doubt his elders gave him time.  Poetry was a pastime of youth, something that, as with Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurt would surely pass when the weight of mature responsibility awakened him to more important things.   But as Oxford matured, his interest in literature only deepened.  Scorned for his early efforts to join the international community of scholars, he channeled his talents into writing entertainments for the Court.  This Cecil tolerated, probably because they pleased the Queen, perhaps also because he saw opportunities for help with the onerous business of creating the propaganda that was one of his most important weapons in the fight to destroy the political power of the Catholics.

As a peer, born to be a patron of the arts, Oxford had fallen into the trap that Elyot and other pedagogues had warned about in educating the nobility, he became an artist himself, and as an artist, as is always the case with a true artist, he held nothing higher than Art.  This included rank and all the distinctions and constraints that it held dear.  Clear to him from reading Plato was the distinction between the external world and the truth he felt within himself: “for I have that within that passeth show.”  They wouldn’t give him the military command his patrimony required, nor the role in the government for which his training had prepared him, so he would fulfill the one thing he had, besides his rank, his inherited office of Lord Great Chamberlain.

The chamberlain of a Tudor household was a sort of glorified butler, one who ate at table with the family rather than with the staff.  Often a member of the family from a lesser social level, or one whose family was tied in some way to the fortunes of the family he served, he was responsible for the smooth running of the household, including its removals to other locations and its entertainments at the three big turning points of the year, Christmas/Carneval, Easter/May Day, and Midsummer/St. John’s Day.  At the Tudor Court, the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the same functions, plus the honor and responsibility of serving as a leading member of the Privy Council.  It was an appointed position, and although as with all such offices it was often given to the heir of the former Lord Chamberlain, that was only because having been raised at Court, he was often in the best position to fulfill the office.

England’s Lord Great Chamberlain was, and still is, a very different kind of office.  Except for a brief time during the reign of Henry VIII, it’s one of a handful of inherited positions, a vestigial remain from the Middle Ages, when even then all it signified was that this fellow, his father before him, and his heirs after him, was the official best friend of the monarch.  Since the earliest days of the Norman hegemony all that’s required of the LGC is that he appear dressed appropriately for processions in which his place comes after the Lord Privy Seal, and before the Lord High Constable, and that he act as personal attendant to the monarch at his or her coronation, something that generally occures no more than once or twice in a lifetime, or with a particularly long-lived monarch, not even that.  From the very beginning this honorary office had belonged to members of the Vere family, as it still does today, having been shifted to descendants of Oxford’s sister Mary’s husband, Sir Peregrine Bertie (the Earls of Lindsay), when Oxford’s line died out with the death of the 20th Earl.

Looking around for something that could define his ambiguous role in his community, Oxford took advantage of this rather empty office, turning it into something genuine and powerful.  It was probably as surprising to him as to anyone else when out of his genius and the great need of the English public for entertainment was born the Fourth Estate of modern government, what we call the media, which, in those days consisted of the London Stage and commercial Press.

There may be a kernal of truth to the rumor that Oxford ruined his patrimony out of revenge at Lord Burghley, though the proper wording would be out of the necessity to find something for himself in what he’d been left by his father.  Awakening gradually to the horrible mess left by that foolish father; aware, probably from the start, that Burghley, his one and only financial advisor, was more concerned about his own family, their wealth and prestige, than he or they were about him; raised by the parsimonious Smith, whose ascetic diet and modest dress were the foundation of a lifestyle that, once the peacock period of Oxford’s twenties was over, required little more than a secretary, ink and paper; he used his wealth, whatever it was (he could never be sure) and his credit as a peer (for as long as it lasted), to praise his friends, wound his enemies and influence national policy by way of his favorite audience, the lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End.  When his own credit and wealth ran out, he turned to the “angels” that every theatrical enterprise requires, chronologically: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, the Earl of Southampton and the third Earl of Pembroke, all of whom play an important role in their patronage of the great  experiment we call Shakespeare.

Shakespeare for snobs?

I pay attention to the blogs that mention the authorship question.  Those that rail against or make fun of it have two points they make consistently (and only two, repeating, like parrots, what they’ve heard from others), that Oxford died before “some of Shakespeare’s plays were written,” and that we’re snobs to think that only a nobleman could have the education.  Well, the first isn’t true, if they’d bother to do some easy research (like read this blog), and the second is true, as they would know if any of them knew anything at all about 16th-century England or the facts, the genuine facts, about William of Stratford.

Shakespeare is so much a part of our lives, only those who spend a lot of time reading or hearing his words realize how often the words and phrases in newspaper headlines, television interviews, and ordinary conversation are his. Reach for a phrase to express the highest thought, and it will usually be his.   He was the great flower of the English Renaissance, and our language and thinking is still permeated with the perfume of his poetic thought. Steeped in the aphorisms of the Greeks and Romans, he turned them into English, beautiful English, the kind only a poet can craft, and made them accessible to those who speak English for as long as English is spoken.

This kind of immersion in the literature of ancient wisdom and the beauties of poetry and rhetoric can’t be picked up in books along the way, even today.   It arises out of high level dinner table conversation with adults steeped in the subject, out of continual application to books that are ready to hand, by stimulating conversation with others who know and love poetry, by hearing beautiful prose and poetry read aloud, and it has to begin early.   In Shakespeare’s case it began with the removal of little Edward de Vere to the home of the great Greek scholar and statesman, Sir Thomas Smith, in 1554, with whom he would study Greek and Latin literature and history and English history for 8 years.

Smith didn’t care for music, so it wasn’t until de Vere came to live with William Cecil in London and was involved in Court activities that he heard live music by professional musicians on a regular basis and acquired training in and keyboard and stringed instruments himself.   Since later he was acclaimed as having enough musical skill to be considered a professional, it may be that Shakepeare’s poetry was the product of one who was at heart a musician, who, as a child was not yet able to make music with instruments, so made it instead replacing the sounds of music with the sound of words, through rhymes, alliteration, and meter.

In his dedication to Shakespeare’s Collected Works, Ben Jonson compared Shakespeare to a smith who must sweat to work the metal at white heat, hammering it into shape.   Those who take the craft of writing seriously know that it takes hours of thought to create prose that’s pleasing to both mind and ear, and although great poetry is sometimes born all of a piece (as was Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening or Coleridge’s Kubla Khan), it can only come from a mind continually steeped in poetic thought.

If there’s one thing that unites the Stratfordians who call us snobs (besides their ignorance), it’s their prejudice against aristocrats.   If it turned out that Shakespeare was a black African, would they call us anti-white?   Do they have some image of Bertie Wooster in mind, helpless without Jeeves?   What about the great aristocrats?  Henry V?  Or Oxford’s own ancestor, the 13th Earl, patron of the arts, the indefatigable warrior who survived an ignominious defeat, the execution of his heir, and imprisonment for ten years to defeat Richard III in battle, handing over the English throne to the Tudors?   What about Lord Byron, the immensely popular poet who sacrificed his life for the cause of Greek freedom?   What about Alexander the Great, son of King Philip of Macedon, who brought Greek civilization to half the world?  What about the painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?  What about Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha?

Oxford was only half aristocrat, anyway.  Although it’s true that his father was the direct descendant of a Norman aristocrat dubbed Earl by William the Conqueror, his mother was simple entry, while Smith, his surrogate father, was the son of a local farmer.   As an artist, Oxford was, in many ways, an outcast from his own tribe who preferred the company of other artists to members of his own class.   There are more reasons than one why his identity as Shakespeare was hidden, but surely the major reason was the way he portayed his aristocratic friends and relatives as characters in his plays, some with cruel satire.  He could satirize them because he knew them! And because they knew it, they would not, could not, allow his identity to be revealed.  Did this “torture” him, as some Oxfordians have held?  It may have caused him moments of frustration, but given the choice between continuing to write, or not, he chose to continue writing.

There was another potentially great poet, one from Oxford’s own class (though on a lower level) who, seeing what it meant to get a reputation as a poet, did choose to stop writing, or at least, to stop using his own name: Thomas Sackville, Ld Buckhurst.  His was the first voice that had anything like the sound that would later transform the language.  He wrote several of the scenes in the first modern play, Gorboduc, produced at Court in 1561, a year before de Vere came to London.  Had Sackville continued, it might have been he who won the glories reserved for Shakespeare (the Poet), but Sackville retired from the poetry arena early, explaining in a poem, Sackville’s Old Age, that such toys were not for him.  Did this have anything to do with Elizabeth’s willingness to promote him, lavishing him with promotions and perquisites that ended by raising him, as the Earl of Dorset, to Oxford’s level, allowing (some might say forcing) Oxford to slide into bankruptcy, giving him almost nothing he ever asked for?

Did the Lord Chamberlain’s Men choose to hide their playwright’s identity behind someone else’s name have anything to do with the fact that only months earlier the only other playwright close to his level, Christopher Marlowe, had been assassinated by government agents?

What do you think?

Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith

Sometimes a single fact can become the key to an entire period in history.  Oxford’s childhood with Sir Thomas Smith is that sort of key, not just to complete our picture of Oxford’s life, but to complete the picture of Oxford as Shakespeare, and beyond that, of Shakespeare as central to the history of England during what may well have been the most crucial period in her history and absolutely the most crucial period in her literary history and the history of the London Stage.

By establishing Smith as Oxford’s surrogate father, the Aristotle to his Alexander, the Plato to his Aristotle, the Leopold Mozart to his Amadeus, we have the riches of Smith’s library where dozens of titles provide the sources for some of Shakespeare’s most valued works.  We have, through Smith, the source of Shakespeare’s legal and distilling metaphors, his ascetic attitude towards food, his lack of religious bias, his Platonic philosophy.  Through his years at Ankerwycke we have the source of his river, gardening, and hawking metaphors (as noted by Caroline Spurgeon), his sympathy for animals, the forest’s deer, the meadow’s rabbits and birds, the garden’s caterpillars and snails.  In Smith, we have four of Shakespeare’s most vital characters, Holofernes from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thomas of Woodstock from Richard II Part One, Gonzalo from The Tempest, and, greatest of all, Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet.

We also have a number of smaller though tighter connections, such as the metaphor of a haggard hawk for a wayward woman, something Smith touches on twice in the few quotes provided by his biographers, or, in the advice Polonius gives Laertes, the advice to noblemen written by Smith during the period that Edward was living with him (Strype 53-5).  With all of this securely in place, ipso facto: Oxford was Shakespeare––evidence that comes later is simply icing on the cake.  And with Oxford confirmed as Shakespeare we can also complete our puzzle of the entire period, of all of the missing literary history, and even much of the mainstream history, for Shakespeare and his works are as central to the history of the Elizabethan era as is Elizabeth herself, or Burghley, Bacon, Raleigh, or Drake.  Thus while Smith is the biggest missing piece of the Shakespeare puzzle, Oxford is the biggest missing piece of the Elizabethan Court puzzle.

This is what makes it crucial that we ground our view of Oxford’s childhood with Smith in provable facts.  It was largely my purpose when, driven by an offhand remark by Mary Dewar in her biography of Smith, I spent six weeks in England in 2004 (funded by a fellowship raised by Dr. Daniel Wright of Concordia University) to see three of Smith’s notebooks for myself.  These, two in the library at Queens’ College Cambridge and one in the archives at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, seemed at first to offer nothing.  I didn’t realize until later that one did in fact hold one of the clues that I was seeking.  Not all clues are of equal weight, but as it happens, this one’s a pip.

In each of the two notebooks at Queens’ College are inventories, the same except in minor wording, one written in 1561, one in 1569, in which he notes the 20 rooms at Ankerwycke, listing the contents of each.  In the first, #49, a room on the upper floor between his father’s room and the maid’s chamber is labeled “In my L. Chambre.”  In the 1569 inventory in notebook #83, page 123, a similar list is headed with the words: “In my Lorde’s Chambre.”

1561 inventory of Ankerwycke rooms, “In my L’s Chambre”

By “My Lorde” Smith must have meant de Vere, who, born “Viscount Bulbeck,” was considered a “lord” from birth.  Smith was punctilious about terminology, particularly where social distinctions were concerned, so he would never have made a mistake by called somebody a lord who was not, in fact, a lord.  Strype “supposes” that by “my Lorde” Smith meant the Duke of Somerset (170), but that’s impossible since Ankerwycke wasn’t finished until 1553, by which time Somerset was dead, nor would someone as self-righteous as Smith have wished to memorialize a master with whom he had had such profound differences.  It could not be Cecil, since from 1550 until Elizabeth’s accession Cecil kept his own household at The Parsonage at Wimbledon not far from Ankerwycke, nor did Cecil become a lord until 1571, long after Smith had drawn up these inventories.  Other than these, there is simply no lord other than de Vere who could possibly have had his own room in Smith’s home.

When we add this evidence to the phrase “brought up in my house” from the 1576 letter to Cecil, we should have enough to place Oxford with Smith for the better part of eight years, and in so doing, add to his story the riches of experience he gained as a child in a traditional country manor with all that that implies, as I’ve detailed in a number of blogs, pages, lectures, and articles.  Among many other puzzle fits, this scenario provides a reason for de Vere’s placement at Queens’ College for five months in his ninth year, Queens’ being Smith’s alma mater, and Smith needing that time to assist Cecil with preparations for Elizabeth’s accession, a hard fact for which we have more than enough evidence.

De Vere was still with Smith when the first list was written.  As for the 1569 inventory, although Oxford was no longer a member of Smith’s household, that Smith would continue to use his name for the room is seen by how he continued to call the room next to de Vere’s “my father’s chambre,” although Smith’s father died the summer of 1557.

By examining an actual document, its visual appearance can add to what its text and authorship have to tell us.  For instance, in the letter in which Smith finally turns to the issue of Oxford’s treatment of Burghley upon his return from Italy, that Smith was more emotional at the end than he was anywhere else in the letter is obvious from the condition of the paper at this point.  The pen was pressed so hard on the paper that the ink is darker here and the stroke thicker than anywhere else in the letter, so hard that the acid in the ink had eaten away the paper at that spot to a degree that it threatened to render a few of the words unintelligible.  I showed it to the librarian in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, suggesting they do something to preserve it before it crumbles completely.

More nine-inch nails in the Stratford coffin

Much of the overwhelming evidence for Oxford as Shakespeare can be found in the eight years he spent with his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, from age 4 to 12.  Not only did Smith own most of the important works that scholars tell us were Shakespeare’s sources, but his personal interests, the passions that drove him, appear in Shakespeare in depth, astonishing knowledge for a poet and playwright, whatever his class, knowledge he throws about with abandon in allusions, similes and metaphors.  This is an approach to a subject that can only be taken by one who’s been steeped in a subject from earliest days so that it permeates all his thinking.

Smith’s interests form the major part of Shakespeare’s arsenal of metaphors, but there are five areas in particular that are worth noting, because they’ve often been singled out for comment by scholars.

Entire books have been written in efforts to prove that in two of these subjects: the Law and Medicine, Shakespeare was so deeply versed that he must have been a professional!  The same thing would be true of astrology cum astronomy (the two were the same back then), it being as much of a profession then as the first two, for he reveals his knowledge of this arcane science through metaphors and the use of esoteric terminology just as he does with law and medicine.  Smith had been named by Henry VIII the first Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge when he was still in his twenties, and was a dedicated practitioner of Paracelsian medicine his entire life.  He was sufficiently schooled in astrology to draw up horoscopes, something that required a fair amount of mathematics then, plus all the necessary ephemerides, which he also had.

As for gardening and horticulture, these Oxford would certainly have learned from eight years of living with Smith, whose enthusiasm for gardening is revealed in his letters and also in the fact that wherever he lived (at Ankerwycke and Hill Hall), or taught (at Eton and Queens’ College), he planted gardens.  As Caroline Spurgeon shows in her book Shakespeare’s Imagery, the author had the kind of knowledge of gardening that could only have been acquired through living with it for years.  (I’ll make a page on the gardening connections soon.)  And the same is true of hawking, in fact, in one of his treatises Smith himself uses Shakespeare’s favorite hawking metaphor, comparing a haggard, or badly trained hawk, to a wayward woman.

If still thirsty for more information on the Smith-Oxford-Shakespeare connection, check out the page on how Shakespeare immortalized Smith in his plays.

And so we hammer on.  How many nails is it going to take?

Crammed like a Strasbourg goose

In writing about the education of the nobility in Oxford’s time, American historian H.J. Hexter quotes Sir Thomas Elyot on the reasons for educating the nobility, “which is to have authority in a public weal,” adding, “Sir Humphrey Gilbert has a scheme whereby gentlemen’s sons will be crammed like Strasbourg geese with knowledge and skills, the better to serve in Parliament, in council, in commission and other offices of the Commonwealth” (1979, 63-4).  That this was Sir Thomas Smith’s aim in educating the future Earl of Oxford seems beyond dispute.  It should be added that Gilbert was one of Smith’s closest friends.

When I first began my study of the authorship issues many years ago, one of the first questions that I sought to answer was, what was Oxford doing before he was placed with William Cecil?  Back then, nothing that had yet been published dealt with Oxford’s early childhood.  I began putting it together from bits and pieces gleaned from a variety of sources: things said in passing by Smith’s biographers, a note in one of Smith’s household inventories, and, as always, by comparing the recorded timing of events, chiefly those surrounding his Cambridge stay at eight and his departure for Cecil House at twelve.  Since then much more has accrued that contributes to this scenario, with nothing so far to contradict it.

Now that his childhood with Smith has been revealed, our view of Oxford as creator of the Shakespeare canon has taken on new weight.  Revealed are: 1) the fact that those areas in which Shakespeare shows an unusual level of expertise are all areas in which his tutor was deeply interested; 2) Smith’s library contains most of the books that Shakespeare relied on as source material, often in the inexact way that we do when recalling early memories; 3) in his treatises, Smith often used dialogues so he could explore arguments on both sides of an issue, a form often found in the inner debates of Shakespeare’s soliloquies as well as the general form of all drama; and 4) Smith’s “lukewarm” attitude towards religion are echoed by Shakespeare’s seeming lack of adherence to a particular branch of Christianity.

For some weeks now I’ve been preparing essays on his education based on the information I’ve been collecting over the past fifteen years or so (much of it due to Dan Wright and the 40 or so Oxfordians who contributed to the fruitful six weeks I was able to spend researching in England in 2004).  These essays are up now as pages under OXFORD, and once I get some more up on Shakespeare’s sources, you should find it interesting to compare them in some detail.  The conjecture that Oxford may have attended several semesters at Christ Church College Oxford is something that hasn’t been discussed before.  There are several other new pages as well.  Their titles should appear on your screens in color.