The missing evidence

The major reason why, so far, it has been impossible to prove conclusively Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon, is the fact that there are simply no records of what, considering the impact it has had on the lives of English-speakers ever since, of what must have been an astonishing phenomenon at the time. This, of course, was the sudden appearance, almost overnight, of the first two commercially successful, purpose-built public theaters in England: Burbage’s great open air theater in Shoreditch, north of the City, and the first indoor theater, known to historians as the First Blackfriars Theater, located in the southernmost corner of the City Wall, as close as possible to Westminster. How can it be that this major advance in human communications, equal in impact to the advent of the printing press, the radio, the telephone or the internet, something that took place in the teeth of tremendous controversy, how could it have left so little in the way of official records?

In researching these matters, again and again I found myself running into what seems to be an interrupted narrative, the interruption occurring just where I would expect to find relevant material. Eventually it became necessary to face the fact that this couldn’t possibly be ascribed to accident. Accidents are random; when disappearances exhibit patterns it becomes ever more likely that such blanks reflect a purposeful intent to alter what should have been a feast of references.

In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s biography of Oxford he quotes Charlotte Stopes: “The volumes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Warrants, which “supply much information concerning plays and players, [are] unfortunately missing for the most important years of Shakespeare history.” He then quotes Charles Wisner Barrell that the official books of Edmund Tilney and George Buc,

Masters of the Revels under Elizabeth and James respectively, together with all office records of the Lord Chamberlain who supervised the Masters of the Revels in those times, have hopelessly vanished. With them have disappeared the voluminous and detailed correspondence and memoranda covering the origin, selection, licensing, casting, mounting, costuming, rehearsal and finished production of literally scores of plays, including Shakespeare’s. (121-22).

He then quotes A.L. Rowse who mourns the fact that the Burbages’ papers did not survive as did Henslowe’s notebooks. An expert businessman, as the success and duration of his theater proves, did Burbage simply not bother to keep records?

In 1912, C.W. Wallace, complaining of the lack of information in the Audit Office relating to payments made for plays, notes: “Perhaps if we had the Books of Queen’s Payments we should find the records as in previous reigns. But no such account books of Elizabeth prior to 1581 seem to be extant” (107-8). Were no accounts kept before 1581, or did someone get rid of them after she died? 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans, with Lyly answering to Lord Burghley.

George Peele

Among the paper trails that have mysteriously vanished are those followed by David H. Horne while he was writing his biography of George Peele, published in 1952. Peele was the purported author of several plays from the early days of the First Blackfriars Theater. A student at Christ Church College Oxford from 1571 to 1579, Peele had returned to London in 1581, the year Oxford was banished from Court. Regarded as author of the only surviving play known to have been produced at the First Blackfriars Theater by the Children of the Chapel, The Arraignment of Paris, he, like Munday, was also involved in creating the public shows the City produced for visiting dignitaries.

So far there’s no direct evidence that connects George Peele to Oxford such as we have for Munday and Lyly. In discussing the “continuous tradition of amateur acting at Christ Church” College at Oxford (a tradition that appears to have begun with Palamon and Arcite during the 1566 commencement when Oxford and Rutland were awarded Masters degrees), Horne complains about his inability to provide further details: “unfortunately the Disbursement Books, from which come most of our knowledge of the plays, are missing for the greater part of the period of Peele’s residence.” He adds in a footnote, “These are the first of many records which have hiatuses at the exact places where they might be expected to yield information about Peele.”

William Ingram, in his Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London (1992), notes that there is a great deal more information on the companies playing in the provinces in the 1580s, gleaned from local records, than there is for the London companies, this despite the obvious fact that London was the great center for English play production. “There are simply not many direct references to plays and playing in the City from the middle third of the century. An historian concerned with events in the City will have to find alternative kinds of evidence to consider. . . .”

Gingerly avoiding the issue of the missing impresario (an issue that Wallace was brave enough to address), Ingram speaks of the “unfortunate remedy in our own time, namely the general avoidance of biographical study as a component of Elizabethan theater history. . . ; when we do make use of biographical material . . . it is often in the service of some other agenda.” Is this due to “avoidance,” or to the fact that there simply isn’t enough to make use of?

Missing Privy Council minutes

In the first paragraph of his Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, 259), E.K. Chambers comments that “It must be borne in mind that orders relating to plays are probably missing [from the Privy Council register] owing to lacunae.Lacunae is Latin for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” As listed by Chambers, these lacunae are eight periods where the minutes of the Privy Council are missing, and since it’s most unlikely that the Council failed to take minutes during these periods, the question becomes, why the blanks? Since several of these missing sections cover periods when it’s likely that the Court Stage, and/or the Stage in general, would have been a matter for intense discussion by a Council wherein at least two of its members had become patrons of two of these theaters, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that someone in a position to alter the record, did so on purpose. Following are the eight lacunae cited by Chambers:

1: May 1559––May 1562: This three-year blank took place at the beginning of the reign when little effort was being expended on holiday entertainment. It covers the period when Ambassador Throgmorton was petitioning Cecil to have Sir Thomas Smith sent to France, which would have left the twelve-year-old de Vere without a tutor, a period followed by the death of Earl John that August. Three months later comes a second hiatus;

2: September 1562––November 1564: It was during this two-year period that plays began replacing masques at Court. It begins with Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, continues through the period when Richard Edwards supposedly took over the Children of the Chapel and when Paul’s Boys first appeared at Court, through the winter holiday of 1563-64 at Windsor, where the Court was entertained by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under Richard Farrant, later Master at the Blackfriars School. It covers the period when when Damon and Pythias was performed for the Court during the commencement exercises at Cambridge University, when Oxford and Rutland were given Masters degrees.

3: December 1565––October 1566: These ten months represent the period when Paul’s Boys, performing three plays over the Christmas holidays, rose to the level they would maintain for the next thirty years. On New Year’s Day, Sapientia Solomonis (“The Wisdom of Solomon”) was performed for the Privy Council by students at the Westminster School, during which a velvet sword scabbard belonging to the Earl of Rutland was broken (Holmes 77-8). On February 19th, when Oxford was fifteen, Lord Montague produced a masque at his City mansion in Southwark for the wedding of his 13-year-old daughter, Mary Browne, to the young Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen; his Romeo was fifteen). In June, Oxford and Rutland received Masters degrees at Oxford University, where later that summer Palamon and Arcite was performed for the Court.

4: May 1567––May 1570: During this three-year blank in the Privy Council minutes, the Court scribe recorded the titles of eight plays performed over the Christmas holiday of 1567-68 that touch the history of Shakespeare’s works including the King of Scots, Wit and Will, and Orestes. In addition to the plays performed by three Children’s companies, adult companies joined the roster. For the Christmases of 1568-69 and 1569-70: Rich’s Men, Paul’s Boys and the Chapel boys performed one play each.

5: July 1572––February 1573: It was during this six-month period that Sussex took control of the Court Stage away from Leicester, opening the door for more plays by the Earl of Oxford. That Christmas saw Oxford’s man Lawrence Dutton act as payee for Lane’s Men, the first of a yearly series of holidays in which Dutton was payee for two more companies, companies that in 1580 would be revealed as Oxford’s.

6: June 1582––February 1586: This three-and-a-half-year stretch (the longest of Chambers’s lacunae) includes the latter half of Oxford’s period of banishment when productions of Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, attributed to his secretary John Lyly, were performed by Oxford’s Boys on the Blackfriars School stage. The spring of 1583 saw his return to Court, the death of Sussex, the creation of the Queen’s Men by Walsingham, and probably also the first versions of plays like Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Julius Caesar, produced for his Inns of Court audience, possibly on the Blackfriars School stage, plus Romeo and Juliet produced for the public at Burbage’s Theatre. Over the Christmas of 1584-85 Oxford’s Boys performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

7: August 1593––October 1595: It is simply not possible that the creation of the “theatrical duopoly” by two members of the Privy Council, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Henry Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by Charles Howard, would have left no trace at all in the minutes. This is also the period that saw the Cecils’ takeover of Walsingham’s office; the first Marlowe sting in Flushing; the Dutch Church libel, the torture of Thomas Kyd; the hanging of John Penry (May 29, 1593); and the assassination (or transportation) of London’s most popular playwright, Christopher Marlowe (May 30, 1593). It saw the registration in May through June 1594 of the first batch of plays later attributed to Shakespeare; the 1595 wedding of Oxford’s daughter to the Earl of Derby; and the Masque at Gray’s Inn produced by Francis Bacon for Christmas 1594-95 which included a performance of The Comedy of Errors.

After July 1596, with Robert Cecil in supreme power as Secretary of State, in control of the Privy Council and its minutes, only one more large lacuna remains:

8: April 1599––January 1600: This period follows the publication in 1598 of the first plays to bear the name William Shake-speare, a period when Cecil was struggling to maintain his control of the Privy Council against a rising tide of wrath emanating from the group surrounding the Earl of Essex. The Globe was being built on Bankside by the Burbages with timbers from their old Theatre in Shoreditch. While patronage of the company remained with the new Lord Chamberlain, Hunsdon’s son, no patrons’ names were attached to the Globe as this appears to have been paid for by the central actors themselves, thus creating the unique cooperative structure in which they functioned as “sharers,” while protecting the real investors from Cecil’s wrath, since it’s most unlikely that the actors would have had the funds necessary for creating such a structure. It is also during this period that the Burbages were allowed to rent their shuttered Blackfriars Theater to the popular new commercial Children’s company, the “little eyeasses” that Shakespeare derides in Hamlet.

It is also true that the minutes of the Privy Council from January 1602 to May 1613 are missing. According to the National Archives, where the surviving Registers are now located, this substantial loss, covering the entire period that Cecil was Secretary under James, was due to a fire in 1619 that destroyed the old Banquetting House where a great number of government papers had been stored.

Missing collections of private papers

Among the documents that would surely shine a brighter light on the Elizabethan era are the private papers of some of the leading figures in our story, three in particular: the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Essex, all to some extent rivals or adversaries of the Cecils. Some of Leicester’s papers, long thought lost, appear to have been widely dispersed after his death and have recently been catalogued, but these are only a fraction of what there should be considering the place he held in government and society and for how long he held it.

Following Essex’s execution, his papers were appropriated by Secretary of State Robert Cecil, remaining ever since among the collections at Hatfield House. It’s interesting that, in that time of avid playgoing by Essex’s associates, there should be in what remains of Essex’s papers, such a total lack of evidence of his interest in, or patronage of, the Stage, its actors, or its playwrights.

As for Walsingham, all that remains of his papers are the letters that relate to his official duties as Ambassador to France and Secretary of State. According to the author of his DNB biography, their fate after his death was “complicated.” As Walsingham’s brother-in-law, Robert Beale, stated not long after Walsingham’s death, “all his papers and books both public and private were seized on and carried away.” Seized on by whom? Only the Cecils, by then in control of everything related to Walsingham’s office, would have had the authority. In the process all private material was weeded out and has disappeared with the exception of two semi-official diaries or ledgerbooks, one covering the years 1570 to 1583 (Martin, ‘Journal of Sir Francis Walsingham’), and the other 1583 to 1584 (BL, Harley MS 6035). As a result, Walsingham’s official career can be reconstructed in detail, but his personal history remains a blank.

In The Lame Storyteller, a compilation of essays and notes by authorship scholar Peter Moore, he includes items culled from nineteen of the twenty volumes of Cecil family papers known as the Salisbury Manuscripts to which he had access at the University of Maryland library. Among the many mentions of Oxford over the years, Moore notes “the total disappearance of Oxford between 2 June 1590 and 9 March 1595 . . . until we reach the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to William Stanley . . . in January 1596” (251). This of course was the period when Oxford, having been forced by Burghley to sell Fisher’s Folly, wrote the bulk of his sonnets to Southampton, when Marlowe was assassinated, Robert Greene “vouchsafed” to die, Hunsdon launched the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the battle between Cecil and Oxford reached its apex during the Parliament of 1597-98.

It should be clear by now that we will never find that “smoking gun,” that piece of conclusive evidence that will put an end to the Stratford hoax for the simple reason that someone from Shakespeare’s own time devoted a great deal of effort to destroying everything that testifies to Oxford’s connection to the London Stage and Press. That person could only have been Robert Cecil. Driven by his hatred of the Stage for its power over the minds and hearts of the public, its rough treatment of himself and his hatred of its creator for his treatment of his father and his sister, driven by his need to retaliate for the repeated editions of Richard III published every other year during the twenty years he functioned as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth and King James. Only Cecil had the power, the time, and the motivation to wreak such havoc with the record, a record that his powerful descendants have prevented from being seriously questioned for the four centuries that, until very recently, has remained at Hatfield House, the Cecil family home.

Why Elizabeth would never marry

The great social movement known as the Reformation that began under Henry VIII, that was codified under Edward VI and made permanent under Queen Elizabeth I, carried a strong anti-sex message that had nothing to do with purifying the Church Service or reducing the Church calendar. With the evangelicals, sins like pride and greed, previously among the worst because they blocked the sinners’ access to God, were now overtopped by lust. Anything that might lead to sex, such as masqueing; too much time spent playing and listening to music; indulging in seasonal “may games,” a term often applied to ancient mating rituals like dancing around the maypole; these were banned as slippery slopes leading to sexual activity and eternal damnation.

As the government strove to eradicate such “merry-making,” plays too were condemned by the puritans and their bishops as “filthy” and “ungodly,” catchwords for sexual behavior. While plays have always made the authorities nervous because they are so liable to contain anti-authoritarian messages, the notion that sex leads to damnation allowed the puritans to make hell, quite literally, for the Elizabethans who enjoyed them. As testified by the almost 300 pages of “Documents of criticism and control” in Volume IV of Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage, the creation of the London Stage, with its bawdy humor and portrayal of sexy activities, was met with such passionate resistance by the evangelical establishment that reasons must be sought for this irrational panic over this most basic of human drives.

In 1989, a professor of Comparative Sociology at the Polish University in London, Stanislav Andreski, provided what would seem to be the best explanation. In his book, Syphilis, Puritanism and Witch Hunts, he explains: “I want to put forward the view that the importation of syphilis into Europe had . . . profound effects on European civilization: affecting most directly religion and sexual morality . . . . (4). While there have always been “preachers of asceticism”––cries for a return to the innocence of Eden lest God unleash another Flood on Sodom––what “demands explanation” according to Andreski, is why the Elizabethans were so ready to support this grim, unhappy religion:

Causation of great historical processes is always bafflingly complex, and clearly many other factors were involved. But this seems to me less uncertain than any other explanation: puritanism would not have had the appeal which helped it to find adherents so quickly . . . without the spread of syphilis. (5)

As Andreski uses the term puritan, he refers more specifically to the evangelical view that sexual intercourse is inherently sinful, which suggests that human life, which relies on sex if the species is to continue, was regarded by the God of the evangelicals as wicked and disgusting and therefore that humans are all born sinners––“In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Catholic Church dealt with this by providing these sinners with priests who had the power to redeem them through confession. Protestants on the other hand, resentful of the power of the priesthood, were left to bear the weight of their “heaps of heavy sin” with little relief (apart from a very great deal of very dull poetry).  Some hoped to escape damnation through “profitable” work; others by claiming membership in an “Elect,” who for some reason felt that this guaranteed them salvation without having to work for it.

While Andreski doesn’t discuss the health of Henry VIII or the fate of his children, when he comments on how the disease was ravaging the royal houses of Europe at that time, he notes Henry VIII (and Ivan the Terrible) as prime examples (77). Is Andreski right? The grossness of Henry’s physical decline; the unhappy fate of his wives and their children; the paranoia that caused him to execute his most dedicated ministers; his reckless wars and senseless vendettas––can these be due to the physical and moral deterioration common to the later stages of syphilis?

Andreski’s message falls on deaf ears

By the 1980s, the English, battered by two world wars, had come to accept historian Geoffrey Elton’s reversal of the comforting image of “Great Harry” as provided by earlier historians, but neither Elton nor his audience––forgetting perhaps what syphilis was like before the discovery of penicillin (in 1928)––were prepared to ascribe his insanity to a disease, particularly if it suggested a deeper look into the medical history of the last three Tudors. If syphilis is ever mentioned by historians or other commentators as a factor in the King’s behavior it’s invariably dismissed, as in this typical blurb: “If Henry VIII did have the disease, then his comprehensive medical records would have mentioned either the obvious symptoms or the extensive treatment, but there is no mention of either.”

This is blarney. Henry’s symptoms are far too obvious, and if his doctors ever did use the treatments used at the time, they would certainly not have allowed that to be entered into any record. Furthermore, neither would they have informed the King, for, as all of his biographers make plain, Henry was so terrified of disease that at the slightest hint that there was illness anywhere in his vicinity he would instantly move to another palace, forcing the Court to follow (Elton Reform 104). Even more to the point, as his brain deteriorated and the chronic paranoia that is a symptom of the final stage of the disease possessed him, it was known that anyone who dared to present him with unpleasant news risked destruction.

By the time Henry’s doctors would have been certain that all the ailments assignable to the second stage of the disease were actually caused by “the pox” (known as “the great imitator” due to the wide variety of the symptoms it shares with other diseases) the only certain cure, mercury, would have been too late, and even had they tried it––perhaps explaining it as a cure for something less fearsome––it’s absurd to suggest that they would have left a record of it or discussed it with anyone outside the King’s immediate circle of care-givers. These were the so-called Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, whose task it was to minister to to the King’s body, bathing him, assisting him to the toilet, changing the bandages on the stinking sores that covered his legs and genitals, and dealing with his fearsome outbursts of rage.

Many at Court must have guessed the truth, but while most courtiers were kept as far from him as possible, these unhappy men were privy to things that, however denied from openly discussing, they would never have been able to erase from memory, horrors brought about by the sexual license the King was allowed in his teens and twenties, behaviors that at that time were considered signs of a vigorous male constitution.

Forced by their office to be physically close to the King during the final decade of his life, forced to watch as his once fine body became a rotting mass of putrid flesh, his mind tormented by the paranoid fears and mood swings that accompany the final ”tertiary” stage of the disease, the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber were constrained both by fear and by their oaths of office to keep these horrors to themselves. Thus it is no surprise to find that it was largely these men, and their families, who were most active in driving the English version of the Reformation, with its potent anti-sex campaign, to the extremes that they did.

A “physically lavish” adolescent

When Henry came to the throne at age seventeen he seemed every inch the image of the ideal Renaissance prince. His athletic build and energy, his love of music and literature, his scholarly efforts to raise the level of studies at the universities to levels already accepted in Italy and Spain, brought him a reputation that shone through all the Courts of Europe, promising a glorious career.

Almost immediately he was forced to deal with the international impasse into which death had cast his older brother Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Eager to stay on good terms with her father, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, Henry solved the problem by marrying his brother’s widow. But marriage placed no constraints on the royal libido. As historian Geoffrey Elton so delicately puts it, his councillors felt that “so physically lavish an adolescent” would be better off married (Reform 18). Nor did he restrict himself to one-nighters with pretty milkmaids, for, one after another, he took his poor wife’s royal handmaidens to bed, and when they got pregnant, married them off to one of his male courtiers.

Nine months from the day they married, Catherine of Aragon bore the first of a series of stillborn sons and daughters. In 1519, six months after she miscarried for the sixth and final time, having produced only one living child, the Princess Mary, a son was born to her husband’s current mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount. Still without a male heir, Henry dubbed him Duke of Richmond and gave him a princely education.

Most know the rest of the ugly story: his brutal divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn; how Anne, after providing yet another daughter, made the fatal mistake of miscarrying a male fetus two months before the seventeen-year-old Duke of Richmond died; how on the very day after Anne was executed, Henry married her handmaiden, Jane Seymour, who, the following year, gave birth to the all important male heir a week before she herself died, supposedly of child bed fever. By the time Henry attempted marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, he was fifty years old, sick, obese, and probably no longer actually capable of fathering another child.

History’s silence

Although history continues to dismiss it, the truth should be obvious: at some point during his reckless youth Henry had contracted “the great pox”––so named for the sores that left scars (pock marks) when they healed. (The “small pox” was “small” because it was somewhat less deadly; many survived it, and those who did were permanently immunized against a further outbreak.) The silence that surrounds this disease in the records of the time is due to the intense shame it engendered, the fact that its symptoms were often hidden from view, the disgusting nature of its symptoms, and its deadly etiology. Among its horrors was the way it could infect the victim’s partners, and through them, their children.

Most of us today know nothing of this nightmare, protected as we are by antibiotics, but the disease having struck some time before it was first recorded (in Naples in 1495, in England in 1497) its symptoms were certainly understood by the time Henry began having problems in his forties. (Among the many cruelties of his administration, not the least should be the way his officials stood by as he continued to infect one wife after another.)

Known as “the great imitator,” syphilis can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms. The officially diagnosed causes of the deaths of several of Henry’s wives and children––consumption (aka tuberculosis)––lends strong testimony to Andreski’s thesis, consumption having long been a general term for a range of pulmonary diseases, syphilis among them. From Catherine and Anne’s failed attempts to produce a viable male heir, to the early deaths of his sons, the Duke of Richmond at seventeen (of consumption) and Edward VI at fifteen (also of consumption), to Mary and Elizabeth’s poor health, Mary’s inability to conceive, and certain of Elizabeth’s symptoms––what other explanation can there be?

Consider the case of Edward VI, whose death from “consumption” does not fit the description of his symptoms as provided by Frederick Chamberlin, who published his research into Queen Elizabeth’s medical history in The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth (1921). Of her brother’s death, Chamberlin quotes the British Medical Journal of 1910: “in addition to the symptoms of pulmonary disease [consumption], eruptions on his skin came out, his hair fell off, and then his nails, and afterwards the joints of his toes and fingers” (38). Chris Skidmore (Edward VI: The Lost King of England [2009]) quotes an Ambassador sent by Charles V: “He does not sleep except when he be stuffed with . . . opiates. The sputum which he brings up is livid, black, fetid and full of carbon; it smells beyond measure; if it is put in a basin full of water is sinks to the bottom” (250).

As for Edward’s sister Mary Tudor, who strove without success to get pregnant by her husband Philip of Spain, Chamberlin wrote: “many years she was never free from headache and palpitation of the heart; she was habitually afflicted with the most abject melancholy; she was anaemic to a notable degree . . . . her periods were irregular, scanty, painful, and in the main suppressed” (37)––all symptoms of inherited syphilis.

Why Elizabeth never married

As for Henry’s third living child, Queen Elizabeth, who never married, never got pregnant, and never gave birth, the records of her various illnesses, again examined by Chamberlin, suggest the same thing. While reasons commonly given for her resistance to marriage cannot be discounted––as a female, marriage would certainly have weakened her ability to maintain her authority––but if she was aware of the cause that had laid waste to the rest of Henry’s progeny, she would also have been aware that it could infect his offspring “unto the third and fourth generation.” Clearly marriage, or rather, the sexual intercourse that would inevitably follow, resulting in the pregnancy so fervently desired by her people, would, as she would surely have been aware, be a far greater threat both to herself and to the nation she was sworn to protect.

This was the kind of Catch-22 that would have been impossible for her to explain. When we read her statements to the members of Parliament who were tormenting her with demands that she marry, we can’t help but feel some compassion. According to the historian John Neale who gives close accounts of her relations with Parliament, she was very clear from the start that she did not intend to marry. Forced by their demands that she marry and produce an heir, thereby avoiding a showdown over the succession that could lead to civil war, to show a willingness to marry, should the right suitor appear, there is simply no other way for us to compare what she said then to her total failure to follow up on any of the many marriage proposals that she pretended to consider during her fertile years.

Those who knew without being told why she would never marry were those who had been close to Henry VIII during his descent into madness. These included William Cecil, son of Richard Cecil, the King’s valet, who had known the King from birth to death; Secretary of State Francis Walsingham, protégé of Sir Anthony Denny, Henry’s leading Groom of the Stool; and Sir Thomas Heneage, another Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, later Elizabeth’s chancellor of her personal exchequer. Most important perhaps, considering his fatherly influence over his powerful son-in-law, was the authoritarian Evangelical Sir Anthony Cooke, whose function as one of Henry’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber over the final weeks of his life had rendered him vulnerable to the sex-as-sin message in the Calvinism he encountered while living in exile in Strasbourg during Mary’s reign. Back in England, Cooke spread his brand of Calvinism to his fellow believers in Parliament even as he indoctrinated his children with his beliefs, among them the future wives of several of Elizabeth’s leading ministers of State.

The shadow that followed the King’s attempts to get an heir, that damaged his wives and their children, leaves little doubt that as early as 1513 he had become infected with syphilis, and that it was this that, along with other factors, was the primary reason why Elizabeth never married. Yes, marriage could have meant a loss in terms of her power over her all-male Privy Council, but what would have been even more frightening for her as a woman was the awareness of what having sex, and the pregnancy that would follow, might mean, not only to her own health and well-being, but also to her partner and ultimately to the nation she was born to serve. She could not have been blind to her sister’s symptoms or to the agonizing death of her little brother. That she herself suffered for a full decade from a suppurating fistula on her leg and another on her shoulder (Chamberlain 57-59, 67) would have been a warning that, despite the charade of her many official romances, she must never be tempted, not just to marry, not just to become pregnant, but primarily never to have the kind of sex that might threaten her partner.

As for Burghley, who was surely aware, through his father and his father-in-law, of the King’s condition and therefore of its implications for his royal Mistress, that despite his apparent interest in a marriage that would protect England from its Catholic enemies, through it all he remained secure from any fear of what such a marriage with a foreign prince might mean for himself.  This must cast his position on her highly publicized attempts to find an appropriate husband as another example of how his private views remained separate from his public stand on a variety of issues. When we see these highly advertised marriage negotiations with the princes of Europe, all fondly imagining that they could conquer England simply by marrying its Queen, and how this helped to keep England’s enemies at bay for the the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, we can see her highly publicized romances as political maneuvers that gave her and her ministers time to build the nation’s military strength to where by 1588 it could survive the eventual attack by the great and supposedly invincible Spanish Armada.

There was only one other political reason why Elizabeth never married, namely the fact, and fact it certainly was, that she would have lost a good deal of her power to whomever she married, for no matter how restrictive might have been the limitations set on a potential cohort’s status, men are always more inclined to deal with other men if they can.  As for other issues related to sex, there were a great many besides her father’s disease to discourage her.  If her own mother’s fate and that of her father’s other wives weren’t terrible enough, there were the equally grim fates of Mary Queen of Scots, tossed aside by her ministers as soon as she produced the necessary heir, or Elizabeth of Valois, dead from childbirth at age twenty-three after producing one baby after another every year since her marriage to Philip II.  Even greater than these would have been her own first experience with desire in her teens, when the man who wooed her in hopes of marrying a future queen was tried for treason, condemned and beheaded, partly for having dared to make love to her, while she herself lived for a year under the threat of a similar fate had her persecutors been able to prove that she had encouraged him.

Still, nothing could approach the fear inspired in her by her father’s insanity, the illnesses and early deaths of his wives and her sister, the gruesome death of her beloved brother, and her own repeated symptoms.  She must at least have had the satisfaction of knowing that the Tudor line, with its doomed etiology, would be ending with herself.

A “rage to master”

One of the most depressing results of the Academy’s philological dissection of literature’s golden goose is the almost total removal of his genius. After centuries of being told that, lacking any evidence of formal education it was genius alone that allowed William of Stratford to grasp recondite elements of the Law, Medicine, Astronomy, etc., the English Departments flip to the opposite pole with Shakespeare learning enough at his local grammar school to get all he needs to know about ancient Greek drama from mediocre Latin translations, while anything that appears to be too early for him gets assigned to a nameless ghost writer.

Fitting the horse to the shoe, the great creator is transformed into a plagiarizer, the great original into a hack, the fountain of Renaissance creativity into a tight-fisted and squeamish little dealer in land and properties. No artistic genius ever behaved like the Shakespeare bequeathed us by the Academy. Rejecting him as opposed to common sense and human experience, we must begin with the reality of what the author knew and what that vast trove of knowledge might suggest about his origins.

Ellen Winner’s prescription

In 1996, Boston College Professor of Psychology and Harvard Senior Research Associate Ellen Winner published a book that can help to define what to look for in the origins of such a genius. In Gifted Children; Myths and Realities she examines the elements that are invariably present for that unusual child who will become what she calls a “creator.” With conclusions based on clinical trials, the biographies of some extraordinarily talented children plus those of historic geniuses, Winner’s credentials, her evidence and her field, the Psychology of Creativity, give her the kind of authority that are so obviously absent from anything offered by our 20th-century History and English Departments.

What then, in Winner’s terms, should we expect to find as the background of the genius we call Shakespeare? Rather than paraphrase or condense and so risk misinterpreting what she has taken pains to clarify, we must quote her at some length. She begins by describing the characteristics of gifted children, only a handful of whom will rise to the level of creator. Atypical of ordinary children, these children

are precocious. They begin to take the first steps in the mastery of some domain at an earlier-than-average age. They also make more progress in this domain than do ordinary children, because learning in the domain comes easily to them. By domain, I refer to an organized area of knowledge such as language, music, mathematics . . . .

Second, they insist on marching to their own drummer:

Gifted children not only learn faster than average or even bright children but also learn in a qualitatively different way. . . . they need minimum help or scaffolding from adults in order to master their domain, and much of the time they teach themselves. The discoveries they make about their domain are exciting and motivating and each leads the gifted child on to the next step. Often these children independently invent rules of the domain and devise novel, idiosyncratic ways of solving problems.

These children have what Winner terms a rage to master. “They are intrinsically motivated to make sense of the domain in which they show precocity. They exhibit an intense and obsessive interest, an ability to focus sharply. . . . They experience ‘states of flow’ while engaged in learning––optimal states in which they focus intently and lose sense of the outside world. The lucky combination of obsessive interest in a domain along with an ability to learn easily leads to high achievement” (3-4). Later she defines “the right personality structure for mastery”: these

children are highly motivated to work to achieve mastery, they derive pleasure from challenge and, at least by adolescence, they have an unusually strong sense of who they are and what they want to do as adults. . . . [They are] fiercely independent and nonconforming . . . [and] they tend to be more introverted and lonelier than the average child, both because they have so little in common with others and because they need and want to be alone to develop their talent. These qualities of thought and feeling add up to a kind of subjective experience that is both more pleasurable and fulfilling, and more painful, isolating, and stressful than that of the average child. (212-3)

She addresses several common myths regarding giftedness, among them:

the commonsense “folk” psychology . . . that giftedness is entirely inborn: you either have it or you don’t. The abilities of Mozart, Picasso, Newton, or Einstein are so unfathomable to us that we explain them by saying that these individuals were just born geniuses. The environment has no interesting role to play if talents are inborn and fixed. . . . Psychologists like to attack folk psychologies in general . . . but psychologists have their own myth: that giftedness is entirely a product of the environment [and that] the right kind of training, begun at an early age, is sufficient to account for even the very highest levels of giftedness. (143)

She shows that both expectations are unrealistic, that in fact, both factors must be present for gifted children to excel in any domain. They must be born with talent, in her terms, with a “rage to master.” At the same time they must also have the support of caregivers who value their efforts, who can provide them with what she terms an “enriched environment,” one in which education is valued and which includes “opportunities for reading, playing and talking” (185). Without these, no matter how great the inborn gifts, nothing can develop. Says Winner: “There are undoubtedly many children never identified as gifted because of their disadvantaged environments” (186).

But giftedness in childhood can only go so far. Only a few go from gifted child or prodigy in a domain to a creator in that domain––“a pattern exemplified by Mozart and Picasso”––and, we would add, by Shakespeare. Says Winner, “Those who traverse this route must make the profound transition from being an expert in an established domain to being someone who disrupts the domain and remakes it, leaving it forever altered.” Moreover, they must be born when the zeitgeist is right––when a domain is ready for the kind of change that the creator envisions. A domain can change only so much and thus can accommodate only a very few creators. So the factors that predict who will become a creator include not only the traits of the individuals in question but also historical and cultural factors (281).

In her final pages Winner goes into detail on the characteristics of creators as they have been determined by numerous tests and studies. To follow the route she has outlined “requires not only extreme early ability but also a rebellious personality, a desire to shake up the status quo (281). Creators are

hard driving, focused, dominant, independent risk takers. They have experienced stressful childhoods and they often suffer from forms of psychopathology. . . . Creators must be willing to sacrifice . . . [They are] workaholics. The most creative people are also the most prolific. . . . [They] must be able to persist in the face of difficulty and overcome the many obstacles in the way of creative discovery. They must persist because of what has become known among creativity researchers as the “ten-year rule”––the dictum that it takes about ten years of hard work in a domain to make a breakthrough. (293)

Winner details the research that led to the formulation of this “ten-year rule”:

Even Mozart did not produce his first masterpiece until after about ten years of composing. A willingness to toil and to tolerate frustration and persist in the face of failure is crucial. . . . Creators are strong, dominant personalities with an unshakable belief in themselves. They must be able to believe in themselves, for otherwise they would be felled by the inevitable attacks that come when one goes against the established point of view. (293 fn)

The only-child syndrome

Several times in the course of the book Winner describes the need creators have to be alone. Prodigies are often “only children,” raised in the company of adults, allowed to go their own way to a much greater extent than ordinary children. Such children often suffer from being so different from their peers, feeling odd or out of place among them. Even so they prefer being alone to being bored in the company of children who don’t share their interests.

They set challenging goals for themselves and believe that they can achieve what they aspire to. Those who would be recognized must also be able to tolerate competition––some even thrive on it. . . . Creators are independent and nonconforming. . . . Caring about pleasing everyone cannot be a priority for anyone who is going to challenge an established tradition. . . . Creators must be willing to sacrifice comfort, relaxation, and personal relationships for the sake of their work. They are often ruthless and destructive of personal ties. . . . Creators have to be willing to risk failure, since anything new is likely initially to be denounced. [Those] who produce the most works are most likely to produce a masterpiece, but they also produce the most failed works. Perhaps the most important of all is the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up the established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view; they are oppositional and discontented. (292-298)

Winner examines the typical family life of great creators:

The future creator seems to grow up in a family that is much less child-centered and supportive, and far more stress-filled than does the gifted child not destined to become a creator. Three-fourths of the eminent creators studied by [leading researchers] experienced some kind of extreme stress in their early family life: poverty; death of a parent; divorced or estranged parents; rejecting, abusive or alcoholic parents; fathers who experienced professional failure or bankruptcy; and so on. They came from atypical families––irritable, explosive families, often prone to depression or to large-scale mood swings. . . . Particularly shocking is the frequency with which eminent individuals have lost a parent in childhood. . . . In [one] study of major creators, over a fifth had lost one or both parents in childhood . . . the only other groups with such high levels of parental loss are delinquents and depressive or suicidal psychiatric patients. . . .

As she continues she approaches our area of inquiry:

Family trauma is more often characterized by those who became writers, artists, musicians and actors in comparison to those who became scientists, physicians and political leaders. . . . [In one study] of eminent twentieth-century figures, 89 percent of the novelists and playwrights, 83 percent of the poets and 70 percent of the artists had difficult family lives, while this was true for only 56 percent of the scientists. . . . The same distinction was found in a comparison between Nobel Prize winners in science v. literature; those in literature were more likely to come from unstable family environments. Literature winners were also eight times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood. (298-300)

Winner draws a number of conclusions from these studies, all pertinent to our quest. Though all are interesting, we’ll quote only the most apposite. Regarding family trauma:

Trauma could make a child feel different from the start and thus lead to a willingness to be different. The perception that one’s environment is unpredictable may lead to the desire to achieve in order to gain control over one’s destiny. . . .   Loss of a parent may also lead to a kind of compensation––desire to replace the lost object by creating one’s own object, whether a work of art or a scientific theory. A horror of the void left by death could stimulate a child to create an ideal world and to lose [him]self in its creation. The desire to replace emptiness and the lost object with an ideal created world may be so strong that [he] is not overly critical. . . .

“Ideal created worlds”

Such a world is a good description of the island of Ephesus where the shipwrecked family is reunited in A Comedy of Errors, or the magical isle of The Tempest, where father and daughter are wafted to safety out of the grasp of evil relatives, or Illyria in Twelfth Night where brother and sister wash ashore following yet another Shakespearean family shipwreck.

Based on Winner’s detailed analysis, and Shakespeare’s erudition, what sort of biography should we be looking for? Certainly we would expect to see at least some of the following: a rage to master, an enriched environment, a stressful home life, a solitary childhood, a painful childhood trauma, a parental failure, the early death of a parent, an indomitable will, an oppositional and discontented nature.

Except, perhaps, for the fact that his father suffered some sort of business failure when he was twelve, little of this is apparent in anything we know about William of Stratford. It must be for this reason that despite the genius attached to his name and its immense importance to our culture, among the upper tier of creators whose biographies and careers she discusses, creators whose “rage to master” led to “altering their domains,” Winner never mentions the one who created the language we speak; she never mentions William Shakespeare. Is this because nothing in the life of William of Stratford matches the guidelines she and her colleagues have unearthed from thousands of reports on gifted children and biographies of geniuses? Which is at fault here, Winner and the Psychology of Creativity, or the Stratford biography?

Note: The above is excerpted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Shakespeare and the Birth of the London Stage.

“Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, modern imaginative literature (poetry, novels and plays) erupted out of feudal darkness at the courts of European kings and princes, for nowhere else was there the leisure to create it or the literacy to enjoy it. This is not to say that the uneducated and illiterate did not have a rich heritage of spoken and sung story and verse, one shared by educated and uneducated alike, it’s that it was not until the Renaissance that it was combined with the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East into elegant national literatures.

In England, however, where, unlike the other nations of Europe, the Renaissance got preempted by the Reformation, the Renaissance urge to create got so thoroughly and completely forced underground by Calvinist fears of damnation and the Devil, that it took on a most peculiar appearance. This doesn’t mean that nothing got published––though necessarily much was suppressed––what it meant was that the process of getting it published forced writers and publishers to assume an obscure and defensive posture, pretending that the work was something it wasn’t, and seemingly written by persons who apparently had nothing to lose, who were utterly unknown at Court or to anyone in London.

There was a lot more hiding going on in 16th-century English literature than just the hiding of Shakespeare’s identity. In fact, it might be stated without fear of exaggeration that the entire canon of Early Modern English literature was one long exercise in hiding––authors, central figures, publishers, patrons, printers, dates of publication, and most of all, messages, for the Reformation didn’t like the kind of messages that were emerging from the push for intellectual freedom that was the repressed English response to the European Renaissance. If the message was too obviously Catholic, too ornate, too passionate, too sexy, too ironic, too satirical, the English ministers of State wanted it toned down or better, squashed. As we puzzle out the truth about these early works of the imagination, we need to keep this in mind. There were two major issues for the censors, if it (the play, the poem, the story) was “lewd” (naughty, dirty) it encouraged audiences and readers to take serious matters like sex and hellfire too lightly; if it was too political it encouraged heresy and rebellion.

For instance, take the tag “No less pleasant than profitable” found in one form or another on almost every work of imagination published between 1540 and 1640. What on earth does that mean? If it’s got you puzzled, you aren’t alone. What it seems to be saying is that what you are about to read is not only “profitable,” that is, it will leave you wiser than you were before, it is also “pleasant,” that is enjoyable, entertaining.  In other words, it looks like a promotion, it sounds like a promotion, but it doesn’t really promote. In fact, if anything, it sounds like the kind of modest inversion for which the Brits are famous, as when a billionaire confesses that he’s not “doing too badly,” or a beautiful woman is described as “not unlovely.”

Titles can be just as confusing. As William Roberts put it in 1889: “Whether the title had an immediate or remote reference to the subject-matter does not appear to have been considered material, or, in fact, whether it had reference to anything at all in particular” (An Early History of Bookselling, 67). He’s right about the title, but this isn’t true of this or similar tags, which did have a meaning, however obscure to present day literary historians. The message it conveyed to the silent seekers of reading entertainment was that this was a work of the imagination.

It’s said that during this time, the Jesuits were training their missionaries in a sort of double-speak known as equivocation, so that if grilled by the Protestants in northern Europe or the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, they could find ways of answering without condemning themselves to their inquisitors on the one hand, or to God on the other. Many in those days believed the fate of their souls was bound up with what answers they gave under oath: if they lied to the Man they’d get burnt at the stake; if to God, they’d still get burnt, only later, and for eternity.  Equivocation was simply a more serious form of the kind of wordsmithery that was the intellectual bread and wine for an educated, progressive Elizabethan.

Where did it come from?

Usually it was not the author but the bookseller or publisher who composed a book’s title page and front matter. His primary objective, of course, was first to get it past the censor, and second to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible. Over time, much experimenting led to a formula that worked. A tag like “No less pleasant than profitable” met the Reformation requirement that everything, even joke books, had better advertise itself as having a serious purpose or it was in danger of getting a closer look and potential rejection. So for the publishers of the 1590s, t’were best to take the easy way: give the work a confusing name, then use the front matter to distract the censor from taking too great an interest in the content.

While some works could withstand such an examination, many, in particular those that “darkly figured forth” real persons and politics, could not. And that there was a growing audience that fed on such works is evident from the complaints by writers of attempts to read into their innocent tales personal and political comments that were simply not there. Among those who complained the loudest was Thomas Nashe, the worst offender of all, whose complaints have to be taken with the same grain of salt required by almost everything he wrote.

Human nature being much the same in every age, by the 1590s when publishing had become a commercial industry generating a considerable volume of submitted manuscripts needing to be read by the censors, what could be more likely than when the stack got too high, the junior official in charge of weeding out problematic submissions was likely to give each a quick once-over, initial and return it to the publishers, only holding out for a closer look the one or two whose title and front matter forced him to look more closely. Thus by the nineties, publishers would have been well aware that as long as the title page, introduction and first few pages looked kosher, a book had every chance of making it past the censor. Those who enjoyed these works were unlikely to blow any whistles, unless the material got so raw they they feared for their souls, or more likely were offended by satires about themselves or their friends. Some such scenario is undoubtedly behind Stephen Gosson’s attacks on the playwrights of Fisher’s Folly following the rash of plays for the Children of the Chapell, the Queen’s Men, and Paul’s Boys in the early 1580s.

Profit and pleasure

That nothing during this era was ever published purely for entertainment, but all must be utilitarian (even the most lascivious and violent, for these taught readers what to avoid) can be found in everything from the title page to the preface by the printer, to the introduction and poems by the author and his friends, to the dedication to some important figure and the various complimentary letters to the author, all meant to be taken as guarantees of the book’s legitimacy. Take it as a given, the more questionable the work, the more equivocal the introductory material, and the more likely that the names and dates on the title page might be less than 100 percent on the level.

While efforts to obscure the real nature of a work appear to get briefer and more formulaic as time went by, we can see from the preachy tone of the earliest examples the author’s, or more likely the publisher’s need to steer the censor toward acceptance. We see this clearly in this excerpt from the “Letter to the Reader” that introduces what may be the first of these early works of the imagination, Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem, Romeus and Juliet, where the theme of passionate desire would surely have caused a problem without this robust caveat:

The glorious triumph of the continent man upon the lusts of wanton flesh, encourageth men to honest restraint of wild affections; the shameful and wretched ends of such as have yielded their liberty thrall to foul desires teach men to withhold themselves from the headlong fall of loose dishonesty. So, to like effect, by sundry means the good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. . . . And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death. This precedent, good Reader, shall be to thee, as the slaves of Lacedemon, oppressed with excess of drink, deformed and altered from likeness of men both in mind and use of body, were to the free-born children, so showed to them by their parents, to th’intent to raise in them in hateful loathing of so filthy beastliness. Hereunto, if you apply it, ye shall deliver my doing from offence and profit yourselves.

It’s clear that whoever wrote this preface either had no idea what Brooke’s long narrative poem was really about, or he was deliberately describing it in ways that might ensure its publication. Rather than “thralling themselves to unhonest desire,” the love Romeus feels for Juliet is portrayed as a natural force over which neither the boy himself nor the Friar’s advice have any power. As for the Friar, not only is he not “superstitious” or a “naturally fit instrument of unchastity,” he is loving and wise, a genuine spiritual counselor, whom the poet describes as “beloved well, and honoured much of all.” Nor is there any “loathing of filthy beastliness” in his description of the young lovers’ wedding night, nor moral drawn against their desire for each other. Instead the poet admits:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in;
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin,
But that I might as well with pen their joys depaint,
. . . . .
If Cupid, god of love, be god of pleasant sport,
I think, O Romeus, Mars himself envies thy happy sort.
Ne Venus justly might, as I suppose, repent,
If in thy stead, O Juliet, this pleasant time she spent.

The only possible reason for such a dishonest preface is that either the author or the publisher wrote it to distract the censor. Published in the early 1560s, when such works were only a trickle, the same scenario continues to play out on title pages and in introductory material in almost every work of the imagination published throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. As the trickle became a flood in the eighties and nineties, these red herrings got briefer and more automatic, but also more cleverly worded. Finally the reference to poetry or any sort of fiction as a frivolity appropriate only for young men before the serious matters of adult life banished such time-wasters from their minds, was a judgment heard not only from conservative Reformers and older members of society but also from the poets and storytellers themselves, who were ever wont to apologize for what they invariably describe as “childish toys” written for no other purpose than simply to pass the time.


Dating the Plays

From Titus to Lear: when was it written?

If, as we believe, Shakespeare’s plays as we know them from the First Folio of 1623, are the product of at least one revision, some more than one over the years, and, as we also believe, that they are a compound of the author’s experience at the time each was written, the political reality of that moment in time, and the particular audience for whom they were originally written, then one way of establishing the most likely moment when, is to seek for a time when these elements overlap.  Keeping in mind that the play as we know it from the First Folio would most likely have been altered over time by revisions, particularly the comedies, which required that outdated topics be replaced by current topical references, we must also keep in mind that the First Folio version may well have been revised by its editors, chiefly to expunge anything suggesting a scandalous connection to certain real Court individuals with whom the author had a bone to pick.

In general, the earliest, written at some point between the early 1560s to the mid-70s while he was in his teens or his early twenties, were written for a Court audience, with the Queen as a (silent) patron. Mainly comedies, pastorals styled after Greek Romance, at least one was a blood and guts dramas styled after Seneca. They tend to have a youthful protagonist, unrealistic female characters, are enthusiastic about honor acquired on the battlefield through war and killing, and were originally written for Paul’s Boys, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, or the students from one of the local prep schools.

Those written between his return from Italy and his two-year banishment from Court (1576-1584), mostly under the patronage of Lord Chamberlain Sussex, generally take place in Italy or some other location in the Mediterranean, involve characters and events from ancient Roman history and more interesting female characters. Most of these were written for his own company of adult actors variously identified as Lane’s Men, Clinton’s Men, or Warwick’s Men, with one or another of the Dutton brothers as lead actor.

Those written during the 1580s under the patronage of Secretary of State Walsingham are the first aimed as much at the public as the Court or the Inns of Court. Many of these are based on incidents in English history, often with slapstick turns for a comedy duo.

Those written between 1590 and 1598 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, chiefly under the patronage of Lord Henry Hunsdon, were written (or revised) with all three audiences in mind, the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public, with at least two aimed specifically at the Parliament of 1597-98 (Richard II and Richard III). From 1603 through 1609, he wrote or revised earlier plays for the same company, now under the patronage of King James and known from then on as the King’s Men. These were aimed at a broad-based London audience, while some of his older plays continued to be performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men at the Rose and by Worcester’s Men at the Boar’s Head in Whitechapel.

Taking them in what seems as the most likely moments when first produced:

Titus Andronicus
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Two Noble Kinsmen
As You Like It

Mid-70s to 1580
Two Gentlemen of Verona
A Comedy of Errors
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
A Winter’s Tale
Twelfth Night

Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida

For Burbage’s Men
Romeo and Juliet
Tne Spanish Tragedy
Julius Caesar

For the Queen’s Men
King John
Richard II
Henry V

For the Court audience
All’s Well that Ends Well

for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Edward III
Henry VI Part One
Henry VI Part Two
Henry VI Part Three
Antony and Cleopatra
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Tempest
The Merchant of Venice
Henry IV Part One
Henry IV Part Two
The Merry Wives of Windsor

Measure for Measure
Henry VIII
King Lear


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 to readers 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 spying, in Shakespeare’s time it was a metaphor for any kind of copy or reflection. You saw your shadow in a mirror; painters created shadows of reality 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 our narrow 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 his 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 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 prolong 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 Cecil’s 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 allowed herself to be seduced; one more bit of evidence that he was considered good-looking; also testimony that he was not the 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 to his taunts) because he is “wedded” to (totally involved with) something he calls “that shadow of thine” that prevents him from doing his duty as a nobleman and answering Vavasor’s challenge. Nelson states as fact that by “that shadow of thine” Vavasor is referring to “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, many of his retainers having dropped away with his banishment from Court. Just recovered from two years of exile and so most likely exhibiting extreme caution with regard to unseemly companions, “that shadow of thine” must refer to 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 continue to engage in these street fights, Oxford has done something else to provoke the “unwitting” Vavasor. What did 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. (The reference to Oxford’s “forlorn kindred” is intriguing; who might that be?) This also shows that Milord’s 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, possibly after holding onto it for some time.

Romeo and Juliet

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 would publish under a series of pseudonyms, he was 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 Thomas Vavasor meant by “that shadow of thine” must be the the London Stage, which was certainly considered an “unworthy instrument” by many of their contemporaries, particularly by those who’d been skewered by one of his satires.

As for the recent “provocation” mentioned by Vavasor, what else could he possibly mean but 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 in 1581, or early ’82, while under house arrest at Fisher’s Folly, having received her beautiful explanation, the poem “Though I be strange,” compelled to make up for his initial loss of trust, he pours his heart into what has become the world’s favorite romantic tragedy.

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 as demonstrated by actors in the play. (The famous actor Richard Tarleton was reputed to be a master of the defensive art). Impelled by the added passions of relief and desire to make amends for having portraying Ann as Cressida, Romeo and Juliet expresses the feelings that got them both into so much trouble, not so fatal as what doomed the Veronese lovers, but still trouble. 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 literature.

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 those between the Montagues and the Capulets, or Oxford’s wound with Mecutio’s, “Not so deep as a well . . . but t’will serve.” 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 far too much that connects the play and the events of 1581-’85 to brush off their 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 was to be done with her. At some point she ended up as the wife of 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 the poem she wrote to explain the reason for her silence. Other interpretations and attributions have been placed on this poem, but why not accept 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. Beautiful, witty, filled with feeling, it remains the sole evidence for whatever it was about her that had Oxford so fascinated. His later attachment to another female poet, Emilia Bassano, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, plus witty female characters like Beatrice and Kate, suggests that a woman’s wit was as important to him as her looks and her sexuality.

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:

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 may have been reckless, but he was not insane.

A close look at Ben Jonson’s Dedication to Shakespeare’s First Folio

At some point in the early 1620s when Ben Jonson set himself to write the “Ode to Shakespeare” with which he and the Pembrokes launched the First Folio, part of the daunting task he faced as lead editor was the need to make a more solid connection between the plays and the putative author, William of Stratford. Twenty years of promoting the plays as by William Shakespeare had made it impossible ever to attribute them to anyone else.

When “Mr. William SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES, HISTORIES & TRAGEDIES” was finally published in 1623, although William himself was beyond interrogation (seven years dead and buried beneath the Stratford church floor), older courtiers and theater folk who had known the real author were still around, so however Jonson approached the delicate matter of Shakespeare’s identity, he was going to have to to find a way to suggest that there was more to it than what met the eye. The ability to  skillfully equivocate, must have been one of the reasons why the Pembrokes knew Jonson was the right man for the job.

For the group that published the First Folio, a primary concern would have been how to address the more highly educated members of London’s audience, who as soon as they read certain of the plays, would understand immediately, if they didn’t already know, the nature and extent of the author’s education. Concerned that anyone who might have pursued the putative author to his Stratford environs (three days ride by horseback on dangerous roads) would have find out that poor William of Stratford could not so much as write his own name, Jonson was forced to flat out lie. Following the odd negation of his opening phrases (attributed by his biographer, Richard Dutton, to the style of his popular epigrams) Jonson groups Shakespeare with the earliest of the Elizabethan writers (where he belongs), then, before comparing him to the greatest of the Greek dramatists, he states flatly that the great playwright could not possibly have read the ancient works that his plays suggest because his learning was limited to “small Latin and less Greek.” (Apparently he didn’t dare say “no Greek”).

With both the true author and his proxy dead and gone, the audience that Jonson was addressing in the First Folio, probably the only one still concerned with the truth about the authorship, would have been the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers’ clerks and scriveners who made a living writing letters for illiterate gentlemen and fair copies for the legal community of Westminster, London’s West End. Since “small Latin” was roughly the learning level of much of this audience, youths apprenticed to trades like printing and bookbinding, students from the nearby Law colleges, actors and writers looking for opportunities, educated women, the close connection between the writing of plays and the selling of cheap pamphlets should be seen as the actual first step towards what today we know as the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the people. By turning gossip into stories and plays into literature, these quickly produced and cheaply sold publications were responsible for launching the English popular press at about the same time that Shakespeare and his actors were creating the London Stage.

Ben Jonson had known both Oxford and William from the mid-to-late nineties when he began his theatrical career with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (It’s very likely that following Jonson’s 1596 incarceration for his part in creating the scurrilous Isle of Dogs, he was rescued from the wiles of Secretary of State Robert Cecil by Oxford and his actors.) Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare as expressed during his conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19) were largely based on his relationship with Oxford.  These (plus certain of his more dignified characters, such as Know-well in Every Man in his Humour or Puntarvolo in Every Man Out of his Humour), while Jonson’s take on William is shown by the character of Sogliardo in Every Man Out. It may be that Oxford and Jonson (and one other) also collaborated on Cynthias’s Revels, at a time when Milord, weary of entertaining the ungrateful Queen, was seeking someone to whom he could pass the baton of Court Impresario––much as Propero attempts to train Caliban in The Tempest. (Like the ungrateful Caliban, Jonson soon repaid Oxford and his company for having saved him by writing for their rival companies at Henslowe’s Rose and the new Children’s company at the Second Blackfriars Theater.)

Jonson’s subversive messages

With the accession of King James in 1603, Jonson found himself in a tight spot between the former supporters of Essex, who were his best audience, and the recently empowered Earls of Northampton and Salisbury (aka Henry Howard and Robert Cecil), Oxford’s ancient and most bitter enemies. According to Dutton, during this period, 1603-1615:

Jonson found himself in trouble with the authorities over his plays on at least four occasions: over the lost Isle of Dogs, for which he was imprisoned; over Sejanus, for which ‘he was called before the Council’ (and perhaps accused both of popery and treason’; over Eastward Ho, when he and Chapman ‘voluntarily’ imprisoned themselves and ‘the report was that they should then have their ears cut and noses’; and over The Devil is an Ass, ‘upon which he was accused. (136)

Although Jonson managed to get off without being cut or hanged (doubtless due to friends in high places like the Pembroke brothers) what Dutton does not discuss until his last chapter, subtitled with a quote from Bartholomew Fair, “Covert allusions: state decipherers and politic picklocks,” where he examines what Jonson called “glancings,” what today we might call “equivocations.” These were statements worded in such a way that they conveyed––to those members of his audience who appreciated such maneuvers––messages that can be read to contradict what they appear to state on the surface (as in his statement that Shakespeare was NOT buried in the Abbey between Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser). Thus it may behoove us to examine a little more closely Jonson’s statement that––“though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”––Shakespeare was just as great as Plautus or Euripides.

Was Jonson equivocating? Does though have meanings other than although? Indeed it does. The OED, after lengthy details on the evolution of the word though from AD 800 and up as it evolved into more recent uses, first states in #1 its standard usage, which is to introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a fact.” However, under #2: we learn that it can also introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a supposition or possibility: even if; even supposing that; granting that.” Under #4 the OED goes even further: “In more or less weakened or modified sense, often nearly coinciding with if, but usually retaining some notion of opposition”!––this followed by a further support for Jonsonian equivocation with, “After negative or interrogative phrases with wonder, marvel . . . where if or that is now substituted.”

Therefore, as the OED suggests, if we read “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” as “even if thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, I would not seek for names (like Lyly or Kyd) but call forth thundering Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.” Under #5, where the use of that with though is discussed, the OED has chosen a line from King John as its example: “Though that my death were adjunct to my act, by Heaven I would do it!” (Act 3 Scene 3)––meaning, of course, in today’s English, “I will do it even if it kills me!”

Make of this what you will, it should be obvious that the OED backs the suggestion that Jonson, renowned for his ability to equivocate, that is, to state something in such a way that it allows for another very different, even opposite, interpretation, was dealing with the delicate issue of Shakespeare’s education. If this kind of tinkering (something that’s second nature to lawyers, then and now) seems beyond the pale to today’s so-called Shakespeare experts, it’s only because they still haven’t a clue as to what the poets were up to in the good old bad old days of the seventeenth century.

[Updated from an earlier blog of September 9, 2018, titled “Once More into the Breach, dear Oxfordians.” It’s useful to repeat certain important elements of the argument from time to time.]

All for the want of a horseshoe nail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Shakespeare Problem”

Shakespeare Studies as taught in the universities today relies largely on the lifetime effort of E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, published in four hefty volumes in 1923. Based largely on the earlier collecting efforts of W.W. Greg and his cohorts, it comprises everything located up until then that can be considered relevant to what (expanding coverage from Henry VIII through the early Stuarts) I prefer to call the London Stage. Chambers’s method in his great masterwork was to group the facts as he found or inherited them into sections based on the names of acting companies, theaters, actors and stage managers, and what titles of plays have remained.

Forced to ignore the glaring anomalies with which the official narrative is peppered, problems that by Chambers’s time had long since given rise to The Authorship Question, Chambers deals with these (some of them anyway) in a subsequent two-volume account, published seven years later, titled William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Among the many problems that he describes (but can’t resolve) is the weak biography of William of Stratford, which––in over the 1000 pages of these two volumes together, comes to a mere 27 pages. Despite the efforts of numerous authorship scholars to resolve these by means of locating the author’s true identity, among them J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, the first convincing biography of a genuine candidate, Edward de Vere (pronounced d’Vayer), Earl of Oxford, published in 1920, the Academy continues to leave “the Shakespeare problem” on the cutting room floor where Chambers left it back in 1930.

Fast forward to the late 1980s when I first set about to resolve for myself the two questions about Oxford that remained unanswered in Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William. I could not have foreseen how deeply what seemed then as just another passing enthusiasm would lead me into a whole slew of seemingly unrelated historical mysteries. Again and again, I would find that information about Oxford, his great tutor, the statesman and scholar Sir Thomas Smith, had simply vanished, along with all records that must, at one time, have touched on the creation of the London Stage.

Even more disturbing was the glaring fact that in the 1970s, a group of Cambridge University trained Tudor historians had conspired to destroy the career of an innocent (female) historian who had, all unknowingly, supplied a crucial piece of evidence for Oxford as the most likely recipient of Shakespeare’s incredible education. So my book, intended to unearth what history had to say about Oxford and his fellow writers, evolved into a sort of cold case forensic aimed at resolving who was responsible for the obliteration of Oxford’s story, of his creation of the London Stage, and why on earth they would do such a thing.

Thus the book, which began as a simple examination of Oxford’s education, has turned out to be a reconstruction of much of what we thought we knew, not only about English literature of the 16th and early 17th centuries, but its political history as well. To understand what happened to the real Shakespeare, the dark side of the English Reformation has to be examined for its longlasting effects, not just for our better understanding of the literature that survived that period, but equally for the culture that then fled its racks and jails to start a new life in America and Australia, and that has repercussions that have lasted until today.

Perhaps the place to begin this effort to come to terms with our beginnings is with the truth about this great champion of human rights and the arts, and why he and his supporters found it so necessary to hide his true identity. That the Academy that has so successfully blocked our efforts to recover the truth about Shakespeare was formed by the very culture that Oxford attacked, again and again, in his plays, that turned on him in an all out attempt to destroy the plays, their actors and their theaters, had not there been a huge if silent audience that so loved his works that his enemies, fearing to provoke it to a dangerous level of public outrage, were forced to be satisfied with the great lies about the Stage, its primary author, and its origins.

Long story short, the search for the truth about Shakespeare has led to the examination of several other historic and literary puzzles that, as it turned out, stem from, and lead back to, the question of his identity. When, by the mid-1590s, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under pressure to protect their playbook from being pirated by other companies, were forced to demonstrate ownership by having his plays registered and published, they found themselves in a quandary with regard to what name to put on their title pages. Constrained by the need to continue to hide the identity of their brilliant and popular playwright, it had to be something that that would pass muster as belonging to a real person, while containing enough of a clue to the author’s identity that the questioners would be satisfied, or at least, silenced.

As Fate would have it, Oxford had already used just such a proxy a few years earlier when faced with the need to publish his great narrative poem, Venus and Adonis. Pressured to claim ownership of the plays that were turning London into a national entertainment center, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men did what they could to secure the use of William’s remarkable name (it formed a pun, “Will shake spear,” a clue that would alert the audience that meant the most to Oxford that he was the true author).

Desperate to protect this new power, that of the Fourth Estate in its earliest form, it’s unlikely that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had any idea in 1598, when they published the second editions of Richard III and Richard II as the work of “William Shake-speare,” how this act of expediency, driven to escape the crushing political disaster that was even then threatening to destroy them and their means of survival, would redirect not only the course of English Literature from then on, but the course of English politics and all that has gone with it ever since, so bound together were the plays with the political situation at that moment in time.

Faced for so long by a publishing establishment totally dedicated to promoting only what the Academy will allow, perhaps the continuing collapse of the old publishing establishment brought about by the recent rise of the Internet, blogging, and, will clear the way for books like this to reach their natural audience. One of the effects so far has been the rise of independent publishers like Forever Press, which has just made available a very readable edition of J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, the book that back in 1920 first brought Oxford’s claim to authorship to those with ears to hear (and unfortunately also to those determined to do whatever they could to destroy what remains under their control). Available through Amazon for a modest $22, not only was it the first giant step on the path to the truth about Shakespeare, it’s a great read, one anyone who loves good writing can enjoy.

As for my book, we’ll see.







Why I don’t argue with academics

I certainly have argued with them in the past, quite often in fact, and at length: in debates at conferences, online on HLAS (before the mud-slinging made any effort at communication impossible), and during the nineties on Hardy Cook’s SHAKSPER (before he banished the subject, and even, valiantly, for a year or so afterwards), and in print. I’ve gone rounds in person with Ward Elliott and Alan Nelson, and online with Mike Jensen, Gabriel Egan and Tom Veal, sometimes just to see how long they would keep the “he says-she says” going (in Jenson’s case, forever, it would seem). Egan, having risen to the ultimate in academic status, is now one of the worthies on the team that, under the august auspices of the OUP (Oxford University Press), claims that parts of the Henry VI plays were written by Christopher Marlowe!

For a long time I argued just to hear what they had to say, like the optimist in the old joke, thinking there must be a pony in it somewhere. (Nope, no pony, only pony-poop). Then I got curious about the mind set that prevented these otherwise intelligent beings from seeing the problem with their scenario. Rather than argue to arrive at some sort of understanding, which was obviously not working, I kept it going to see where it came to a halt, whether with a burst of ill humor, a slammed (virtual) door, or a silence followed by a retreat to a familiar position of safety. I recalled the saying: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table!” The table where the academics who draw their status and their livings from the Stratford myth have addressed the question of who was actually capable of writing the plays, has been pounded into splinters.

Over time it’s become clear that the major problems derive from blind spots, blank sections in the record, some of an amazing scope, many occurring just where there should be evidence of literary or theatrical activity. Why did/does the Academy ignore these obviously missing puzzle pieces? It seemed as though such things, things so glaringly obvious to me, were/are simply invisible to them. They ignore them for the simple reason that they simply can’t see the blanks. The academic ability to reason moves along a single track; it does not, because it cannot, recognize where the track vanishes, but moves right on to the next item without noticing that there’s a hiatus. I can only attribute this to a total reliance on left-brain thinking. Having observed the right brain-left brain syndrome at work in American society since early childhood, only later did I learn enough about the differences between these two sections of the brain, separate but entwined, to see how modern education has rendered literary studies impervious to anything but left brain thinking. Understanding began when my mother had a left-brain stroke, with what I could see that meant in terms of what she could still do and what she she was no longer able to do.

I see that American society, at least at the levels of control, derives largely from the same rather rigid formula that gave us the Protestant Reformation. Education in both America and Britain, inherited from a formula developed by Erasmus in the early sixteenth century, whatever it may have been originally, has become dominated by left-brain thinking.

While this is appropriate in areas like math and science (though without right-brain oversight, they too can wind up on some awfully unproductive tangents), it’s seriously misplaced in history, literature, and the arts, where it can turn them into piles of dry facts, drained of their fire and life, their human interest, their emotion, their stories.   I am reminded of an old Southwest American Indian saying passed around during the 1960s regarding the Native-American use of peyote, “White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus; Indian goes into his teepee and talks to Jesus.” With Shakespeare, English audiences weren’t merely informed about Henry V, they heard him speak, they experienced his life. Soon, adopting tricks learned from watching (and writing) plays, novelists began to create the periodical press by writing and publishing stories for what till then had been chiefly devoted to sermonizing.

As I began to see how dominated were the Academy and the Shakespeare Establishment by left-brain thinking, I saw the other side of what happened to my mother. Sure, these people have functioning right brains, otherwise they couldn’t make it to work in the morning, but they don’t use them once they get there. They were discouraged from using them as children in grade school, and by the time they reach PhD level, the ability to communicate, even to think, with anything but the left brain is simply gone. It wasn’t through a single stroke, but a series of itty bitty little stroke, dealt every day, by teachers who fed them answers, rubrics, terms and forms, never asking them what they themselves thought or felt. After awhile the ability to think for oneself simply dries up, and so anyone who incorporates right-brain cognition into his or her worldview is considered a radical, a heretic, a lunatic, or, less pejoratively though still dismissively, someone who “thinks outside the box.”

Following the stroke that damaged her left brain, my mother, an actress and a great talker by nature, could no longer express her thoughts in words, but she could understand everything that was said to her, and her laugh was still spontaneous and appropriate. These left-brainers can talk a blue streak, but they don’t get half of what we’re saying, certainly the most important half, and in an arena where humor was and still is a leading factor, they don’t get the jokes. Tell them that William Shakespeare of Stratford was chosen to stand in for the real author because his name could be read as a pun––“will shake spear”––and they stare in disbelief as though you had just said something so embarrassingly off the wall that they’re at a loss for a response. I recall that of one Stratfordian prof years ago during one of our rare television debates; all he could do was splutter, over and over, “Preposterous! Preposterous!”

Tell them that these writers delighted in puns, that puns were not only vehicles for humor, for laughs, for lude (in Latin simply fun, in Reformation English: lewd), they stare, thinking “so what?” Tell them that puns were also shorthand for subliminal messages, as with Doll Tear-sheet, whose name signals the audience what manner of creature she is, there being no room for a rumpled bed on the Shakespearean stage, and they stare. Tell them the name Will Shake-spear signals the fun-loving, pun-loving 16th-century English audience that he’s a writer who will shake a spear, a being no more substantial than Doll herself, a boy in tart’s clothing, and they stare. Like those who don’t understand puns, and who simply smile and wait for the grins and giggles to vanish, they don’t get it.

Most authorship scholars get it. Shakespeare’s audiences got it. But the descendants of Holofernes who’ve inherited the keys to Shakespeare’s kingdom don’t get it, even when it’s spelled out for them, left-brain style, one word at a time. They are the literary color blind who, constitutionally unable to distinguish between left brain based black and white facts and right brain poetic color, simply can’t get it, which is why I simply won’t argue with them anymore.