Category Archives: Shakespeare

Hide Fox and all after

In the second scene of Act 4, we find Hamlet alone in a room in the castle, where he’s discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been sent to bring him to the King, who’s just been informed of the death of Polonius. After taunting them with their servility, Hamlet agrees to go with them and, as they exit, he mutters “Hide Fox and all after.” Notes tell us what we could have guessed, that this is the name of a children’s game, the one we know today as Hide and Go Seek.  Why does Hamlet say this?   What does he mean? He isn’t saying it to his former schoolmates, nor to the audience. They won’t know what he means any more than we do. From this point on Hamlet talks in riddles a great deal of the time.

In Hide and Go Seek, the child who is “it” plays the role of a hunted animal, a fox if you will, who is sought by the dogs, the rest of the children. To evade the dogs, the fox must be silent and crafty. When one of the hunters tracks him down, the hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the fox, becomes “it.”  Since no harm comes to the fox in the children’s game, this role is more glamorous than that of a hunter, so there is competition to be “it.” To be the best dog, the one who finds the fox the quickest, then to be the best fox, the one who can outfox the dogs for the longest time––this is the motive force that drives the game.  Hamlet is a prince, born to rule. Refusing to see himself as a victim, he finds a way to cast himself as a winner––in his own mind at least––one who can outfox the dogs.

Hamlet is no longer a child, but until now he has lived a pampered existence.  Blissfully unaware of the murderous animal energies that drive the politics of Court society, he has, like Prospero, spent his life immersed in books and things of the mind.  It has taken his father’s murder to awaken him to the realities of power politics.  Unwilling to believe the ghost without some evidence of his uncle’s guilt, he sets a trap, a play, to determine the truth.  This works, yet it also puts him in serious jeopardy.

Now that Claudius knows that he knows who murdered the Old King, Hamlet, formerly just an irritation, has become a deadly threat.  Further, by killing Polonius, he has given his uncle a legitimate reason to get rid of him. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hamlet needs to get the hell out of his intellectual ivory tower and engage on the level of animal energies with all his wits about him.  Knowing how fear can paralyze action, to encourage himself he summons up a game from his childhood, so that he can act freely, with the élan of a child at play.  Thus it is to himself that he speaks when he mutters “Hide fox, and all after.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is full of clues about the author, but these have led nowhere since there’s nothing to be found in Stratford.  There was no prince in Stratford, living in an Ivory Tower.  This author felt safe in childhood, and what does he do as an adult?  How does he deal with the cruel realities of life?  He plays.  He plays the lute, and he writes plays, in which, as in children’s games, the victims rise when the curtain falls and the show is over to play again the following day in a world of make believe.  This author was someone who felt powerless in the real world of power politics, who found his strength and power in the world of the theater, the world of play.

The fox is safe as long so he remains hidden.  There is nowhere Hamlet can hide his physical self from the King and his henchmen.  But what he can hide are his intentions.  From now on, Hamlet, who is of an open disposition by nature and inclined to reveal his feelings, hides them behind a mask of foolery.  Like Hamlet, his author too hides himself behind a mask––the one we call “Shakespeare.”

Why Shakespeare hid

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was a genius.  We may not agree on who he was at this point, but surely we all agree that he was a genius.  There’s something else we know about him now, something we didn’t realize until recently: he was not only a genius at writing plays and poetry, he was also a genius at hiding.  We’ve been playing Hide Fox and All After with Shakespeare for roughly two hundred years, and still he remains elusive, dim, half––if no longer completely––hidden.  But why?

Hamlet hid his intentions because he was in mortal danger.  Is this a clue to Shakespeare’s hiding?  Was he in mortal danger?

Authors frequently hide behind pseudonyms when they publish works that might get them into trouble with the authorities.  (The list of famous writers who have done this is too long to include here.)  Is this why Shakespeare hid his identity?  Would he have been in trouble with the authorities had they known who he was?

Writers often use pseudonyms when they branch out and try something different, so that they won’t turn away faithful readers used to a different style or genre.  (Again, the list of famous writers who have done this, and are doing it today, is too long to list here.)  Could this be part of the reason Shakespeare hid his identity, so he’d be free to change style and genre whenever he felt like it?

Many writers in the past have hidden their identities because they wished to protect their class status or some professional identity.  Was this the reason, or part of it?

Writers hide from family, friends and fans behind unmarked doors and unlisted phone numbers because they need extended periods of unbroken time to get into the creative zone and stay there long enough to make something happen.  Was this why he hid?   To insure his privacy?

As so many great writers have agreed, great writers create out of their own experience, some of it potentially scandalous and embarrassing to their families, friends and lovers. Did Shakespeare hide to protect his family and friends from a posterity that might connect their private secrets with the plots of his plays?  With his villains and fools?  With the passion of his sonnets?

The early modern period was a time when poets were ashamed to put their names to the poetry they published.  In Shakespeare’s day, poetry, particularly love poetry, was regarded as a “toy,” a foolish pastime that healthy-minded adults gave up with maturity.  Is this why he hid?  Because, once past his twenties, he was ashamed to be known as a poet?

This was a time of fierce criticism of all innovations in word usage, spelling, syntax. The messy experiments of a language getting born led to ferocious condemnations of all attempts to do something new. Is this why he hid? Because he didn’t care to hear himself condemned by ignorant fools?

Another reason has been suggested in an article by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, published some time ago in The New Yorker, titled: “What is a Novelist?” In an effort to explain what motivates a serious novelist, Kundera makes the very interesting point that great writers are haunted by a demon unique to their craft, the awareness that their audience may well be posterity, that their name, unlike that of mere generals and tyrants, may last forever, and in fact, that the fame of generals and tyrants depends on writers, for no one will remember the greatest hero unless some writer preserves his deeds in words. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this when he promised the Fair Youth that so “great was his pen,” that the Youth would be remembered “when tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass are spent.” By separating himself from his name, did he wish to keep his inspiration free from the psychological burden of future fame?

Are any of these the reason? Are none of them the reason? Are all of them the reason? Why do we do anything important in life, marry, divorce, start a family, move to a different town or country, change career paths, go back to school? Isn’t it always for more than one reason?

Problems of understanding the period

To find the fox it is necessary to understand him, how he thinks, what motivates him. Those of us who reject the Stratford biography are forced to deal with several problems that complicate our search for Shakespeare, problems that we must address before we can understand him, before we can feel certain that we’ve found the man himself and not just another one of his colleagues, rivals, patrons or proxies. Most of these problems relate to the immense differences that separate our time from his.

Humans share a great deal across the boundaries of time period, nationality, class, language, skin color, etcetera. We share the need to eat, sleep, be protected from cold and heat, communicate, find work, love, companionship, and so forth, but there are also a great many differences between our time and earlier times, differences between classes and the ways in which we regard class differences, between word usages, between expectations with regard to security, privacy, opportunity, responsibility to family and community, differences between our belief systems today, our views on sexuality today, and those of Shakespeare’s time. Some of these differences bear close examination.

For instance, there were far fewer people then. There was only one real city in England, with a population of less than 200,000, while the larger towns were more like what we consider villages today, and the villages hamlets. Although a wave of restlessness and movement, fueled by economic troubles, was rising, most people still tended to stay in one place and keep to one occupation for their entire lives, resulting in much smaller communities with fewer opportunities for change or advancement. Few people outside the Court community were literate.

The high death rate meant that changes such as transfers of offices and property were brought about more by deaths than anything else, usually causing those who lived longer to have as many as three or more marriage partners. The extremely high death rate among infants caused a set of very different attitudes towards children than what we know today, which in turrn must have affected their attitudes as adults. It also caused women to have as many children as they could so that at least some would live to maturity, which had a great effect on the lives, the health, and the attitudes of women.

The high death rate also made religious tolerance next to impossible. With death an ever present factor it was simply too important to feel secure about what happens afterwards to allow any room for differences of opinion. Today most of us are existentialists who accept uncertainty as the price of living in peace with neighbors of differing beliefs, but that was not yet the case in Shakespeare’s time. Where so much was uncertain, certainty of belief was a necessity.

Apart from religion there were other things we routinely question today that were not yet matters for discussion––at least, not open discussion, including the need for strongly-defined social classes, that prestigious bloodlines should be the determining factor in choosing a leader, and that the political system should reflect a particular religion. Differences like these must be seen as absolutely necessary to our effort to understand both the fox we call Shakespeare and the background wherein we seek him.

There are plateaus in history, long periods where change occurs very slowly. Sooner or later these come to an end, giving way to periods of extremely rapid change, often triggered by a discovery of some sort, or a series of discoveries. This was one such period. For several hundred years following the fall of Rome, change had occurred at a relatively slow and even rate, but with the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance, change began to pick up speed.

As is the case in our own time when immense leaps in technology have shrunk, and continue to shrink, our planet while expanding our concept of the universe, the Elizabethan era saw similar leaps in technology bringing about an equally rapid, changing and expanding world view. Considering how long their world view had remained at the level it held throughout the middle ages, there is no doubt that this process was hugely disturbing to most. Awareness of these changes was spread by another factor, the expansion of literacy.

As a response to the Reformation, beginning in the 1550s and reaching a peak of expansion in the 1580s, an upsurge in the creation of grammar schools and colleges at the universities, an expansion of their teaching programs and rapid increase in their student populations, plus the addition of Renaissance humanist subjects to their curricula, created a supernova of learning. People of all ranks and both sexes were learning to read and write in far greater numbers than ever before while at the same time, the language itself was experiencing rapid change and expansion, a phenomenon that was occurring in every European nation.

That this supernova of learning was as intense as it was, and that it lasted at that level of intensity for only a short period of time, roughly fifteen years, can be seen by corelating the pertinent records with the relevant dates. Change and growth continued after this, of course, but at a far slower rate. Since Shakespeare is one of the two great creators of our modern English language that lived at this time, this supernova of language and learning must be taken into account as we seek his identity. Where does he fall on this steep bell curve of development? Reason should tell us that it must be neither too early nor too late.  Finally, because this authorship question involves the writing of poetry and poetic prose, we need to consider the place that poetry occupied in European minds at that time.

Poetry, so important to antiquity, has lost its significance today because it’s no longer needed as it was then. In Shakespeare’s day, although the need was already gone, centuries of habit continued to regard it with respect as a legacy of the aeons that we dismissively term the “oral tradition.” Before people could read and write, poetry and song were the means with which they preserved their cultures in memory, the vehicles whereby an immensely rich culture was passed from each generation to the next.

Poetry is language woven together through the use of mnemonics, tricks of sound that make things easier to remember because they stick in the mind. There are three major mnemonics: rhythm (or meter), rhyme, and alliteration. These, with the addition of song, are the means with which all peoples who do not write keep their cultures alive.  With the development of writing, people no longer had to keep everything, their history, their traditions, their stories, their wisdom, in their memories, they could simply write them down and refer to them when necessary. Nevertheless, although mnemonics, and eventually poetry itself, were no longer necessary, for the centuries preceding printing, tradition kept poetics alive, so that most ancient works of philosophy, religion, history, science, and medicine continued to be written in some form of poetry. Today we think of poetry as a vehicle for personal and emotional themes, but in ancient times, everything was written in poetry if it was to be kept in memory.

Although it wouldn’t be until our own time that schoolchildren––in America at least––would no longer be required to memorize a handful of poems, Shakespeare’s period, due to the Reformation attitudes towards art and the rapid increases in printing and education, saw the importance of poetry being seriously questioned for the first time.

Renaissance vs. Reformation

The great cultural revolution known as the European Renaissance, imported from Southern Europe, came late to England, and when it arrived it was almost immediately modified by another great cultural revolution, the Protestant Reformation, imported from Northern Europe. They reinforced each other in some respects, particularly in encouraging education, but in others they clashed, creating a tension that continues to exist in the English-speaking culture today. This tension was at high voltage during Shakespeare’s time. While the Renaissance craved art, music and poetry, the Reformation tended to frown on the arts as, at best, a waste of the Lord’s precious time, at worst, tools of the Devil.

Following the period of the most intense growth of education came a second period of rapid change, one that also lasted a fairly short period of time, roughly the two decades that spanned the 1580s and 1590s. During this period language and style developed at a breathless pace.

It began at a pathetically low level. Try reading a few pages of Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Baldassare Cortegiano’s The Courtier. Hoby’s attempt to translate this Italian masterpiece into English is so turgid, so stilted, so convoluted, that over and over, the editor finds it necessary to translate so the reader can understand what the Italian original had intended. Or try some of the jog-trot poetry of Thomas Churchyard or George Whetstone. C.S. Lewis called this the “drab era.” Although education was increasing during this period by leaps and bounds, most teaching was still done in Latin, while English remained as stark and awkward as ever.

But by 1600, two short decades later, the standard had climbed to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached either before or since, that set the bars for every writer of English to come later. This was a bell curve of change so steep it’s almost vertical. While the previous generation saw a supernova of education, the era of Marlowe, Sidney, Bacon and Shakespeare created a supernova of culture.

What caused this abrupt and rapid change? Certainly the preceding upsurge in printing and education had a great deal to do with it. But was there more to it than that?

Birth of the commercial media

This cultural supernova was fueled by an extremely important event in English history, one that, so far as I can see, has not been given its due. This momentous event was the birth of the commercial stage and the commercial press in the mid-1580s. Historians haven’t rated this in proportion to its importance in the history of the English-speaking peoples, not just their literary history, but a far more important development in the grand scheme of things, namely the history of Democracy. As the people of London began to make their will known by the plays they supported and the pamphlets they read, a new branch of government was born: the Fourth Estate, the voice of the people, the vox populi, what today we call the Media, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before the mid-1580s.

Before that, plays and books were dependent on wealthy patrons to get produced.   Following the Edwardian Reformation, when printing took off, roughly 90 percent of everything published were sermons or translations of religious tracts, with five percent how-to books or other works of self-improvement. But with the popularity of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, and of pamphlets like Robert Greene’s romances, a wealthy patron was no longer necessary––for these paid for themselves. Now theater owners and publishers could produce works based purely on their appeal to the public. From this point on, writers began to write what they believed readers and audiences would want to read, rather than what someone thought they ought to read.

This was the beginning of democracy in action, a bloodless revolution––well, relatively bloodless––and, perhaps because it was relatively bloodless, it hasn’t been seen in its true light.  So why did it occur at this particular moment in time?

Hunger for entertainment

For centuries the Church had filled all the entertainment needs of the public at large. Almost every week some Saint’s Day provided an excuse for a feast, while at least once per season there would be a full blown festival lasting for several days, offering an excuse to dress up, dance, feast, drink, play games and make elaborate processions to the local parish church. These gave the people something to look forward to throughout the days and weeks of the year. With the Protestant Reformation, most of this came to an end. Such carryings-on were seen by the early reformers as papistical pandering to pagan disorder. Yule logs were banned––may poles torn down.

For centuries certain inns in London and the larger towns had doubled as theatres when acting troupes came to town. With the loss of the Church calendar, people began to spend more time and more money in the theater inns, to the point where business entrepreneurs like James Burbage and his brother-in-law thought a building dedicated solely to plays might be able to support itself.   This they just barely managed to do until the mid-80s when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine showed that with the right play and the right performers, significant profits could be made from the enthusiasm of an audience willing to pay its penny, not once, not twice, but whenever the play was performed.

As for the commercial press, the same scenario held, though on a considerably smaller scale, since pamphlet sales were limited to the reading public, which at that time was probably roughly five to ten percent of the population. And while a pamphlet might eventually reach 500 readers, a play could reach thousands. According to Thomas Nashe, by 1592, 10,000 people had seen Henry the Sixth.

Later historians may have missed the significance of this revolution, but the Crown, the City and the Church certainly did not. Throughout this period they made continuous and frantic efforts to stop or at least control their growth, and even to banish them altogether. But as a poet once put it: “stop running water and it will rage”––once a revolution has been launched in full force, there’s no stopping it.

By the end of the ’90s, the booming commercial theater and press began to produce a small corps of professional writers. By professional we mean that they could live, or at least hope to live, on the proceeds of their writing­­––something that is difficult at any time, but was, until then, so impossible that no one bothered to try. Point being, there simply were no commercial writers at the beginning of this revolution. There were scriveners who made their living acting as secretaries to the illiterate public at large, who, for a small fee would read to them the letters they received and write letters for them, but this trade was not an art.

In the end it was a small community of university-trained secretaries and tutors to the well-to-do that would provide the budding media with professional writers, but that did not happen until the very end of the century.

As for the actors, until the 1580s most performers had a trade that kept them going between holidays. Once the stage went commercial, and there was work year-round, talented actors simply gave up their “day gigs.”  But the situation was different for the writers who would provide the material that actors and theater owners relied upon. Until the professional writers began to appear in the early 17th century––Jonson, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher––who was doing the writing on which the actors and theater owners––and audiences––relied for their entertainment? The answer is, we really don’t know.

This is a mystery of much greater proportions that just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Who wrote these early pamphlets and plays? Who kick-started this literary revolution? If we go solely by the records, Shakespeare played no part in the production of these first commercial plays from the 1580s. There must have been several hundred plays written by the beginning of the nineties for the various boy companies, the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men. Apart from the occasional one-timer like Udall or Wilson, for all of these we have authors for no more than 17 plays and for these, only four authors: 4 plays from Christopher Marlowe, 9 from John Lyly, 1 from Thomas Kyd, and 3 from Robert Greene [Orlando, James IV, Friar Bacon, ]––and two of the four authors, Kyd and Greene, are no more than conjectures. Since pamphlets required names on the title page, we have a few of these, but for genuinely literary pamphlets, only two names stick out, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

Groups or coteries

First: no lasting revolution was ever engineered by a single individual. Revolutions are always created by groups. They may center around a single inspiring leader, but it requires a group to accomplish any set of common goals or to create an accepted standard. By the same token, great artists, who are almost always revolutionaries of a sort, do not create out of a vacuum. Invariably they have colleagues and rivals, if not equal in genius, then close enough to stimulate them to reach for greater heights.

Second: nothing is so powerful in stimulating human action as competition, whether for food, power, or recognition, even if the recognition is only from a handful of others of like mind.

Third: writers and performers need audiences. And no artist finds a better, more stimulating, audience than that provided by his or her peers. That we see no evidence of any connection between the artists who stand out from this period: Shakespeare, Philip and Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, etc., does not mean, as the academics seem so strangely willing to accept, that they had no connection with each other. Of course they did. Birds of a feather flock together. Just because we don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What does a bear do in the woods? Do we need an affadavit?

So here’s another dog that didn’t bark in the night, another anomaly in the orbit of the visible planets.

And the fact that there is no evidence of what common sense demands––should tell us something else––namely that such a connection was hidden––that concern with each other or time spent together was not something to spread about or refer to in print. What behaviors are acceptable in public and what are acceptable only within the privacy of the family or private coterie is something that every child learns very early, if not at his mother’s and father’s knee, then at the knee of his tutor or her governess.

This can hardly be considered a “conspiracy,” as least not as the Stratfordians derisively term it. Is it a conspiracy when a man and a woman who are married to other partners have lunch together in some out of the way bistro, and then simply don’t tell anyone about it?   Or when politicians from opposing parties get together in private to discuss a sensitive issue and neglect to inform the newspapers?

Very little of what was done and said in those days wound up in the records if the letters that survived with the legend “burn this” inscribed at the bottom are any indication. There’s no reason why writers who were members of different and sometimes opposing coteries would leave any record of their connections with each other, or why those who worked for them would reveal relationships that their employers preferred to remain hidden. There were no paparazzi in those days. Not only was there no yellow journalism in those days, there was no journalism period.

There was not just one fox in this game of hide and go seek, but several. Why? Because this was a revolution and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Were they aware that they were creating a revolution? Maybe, maybe not. But what they were surely aware of was that as soon as the fox was caught the game would be over. This was not a conspiracy, it was a game! At least, that’s what it was at first.

Merry-making

To banish his fears of the horrors of an adult reality, Hamlet strives to return in his mind to a childhood world of play. In the effort to understand Hamlet’s creator, one of the prime factors that has been missed by the so-called experts is this quality of playfulness, or, to use an old English term, “merry-making.” In English we call dramas “plays.” Sixteenth-century audiences called actors “players,” reflecting the source of modern theater in the games and rituals of “merry-making,” the English term for the age-old response of the human animal to the changes in the seasons.

At particular moments during the year, the English of all classes and callings donned costumes and masks and stepped out of their humdrum workaday world into a holiday world of fantasy ritual. These moments occurred most significantly on May Day, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and on several occasions during the winter holidays from November 30th, All Hallow’s Eve, to January 6th, Twelfth Night, then to Shrovetide in early February, also known as Fat Tuesday or, on the Continent, Carneval, the last big blowout before the beginning of Lent. This was part and parcel of the Church calendar as it had been pursued around the year from time immemorial.

But, though they were loosely connected to Christian holidays, these festivals were not Christian in origin. They had grown over the centuries out of pagan festivals, which themselves had grown during even earlier ages out of grim Stone Age rituals––rituals whose significance had been forgotten long before the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s early plays reflect their origins in these rituals. Authorship scholars are proving that the sexual greenwood adventures of May Day, as reflected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the traditional wedding chivaree, as in Taming of the Shrew, were, in fact, written for two such occasions. The teasing and tormenting of authorities or obnoxious neighbors through satires, burning of effigies, breaking of windows, chanting of naughty jingles, which, combined with a hearty consumption of ale, could lead to real trouble, were sublimated and refined by Shakespeare into the vicarious tormenting of stage characters like Malvolio and Falstaff.  Thus were the crude animal energies that were so feared by the reformers sublimated into a the genteel theater event of the present.

In other words, for the first decade of this revolution, the 1580s, this uprush of expression through plays and pamphlets was done, most of it, in the age-old holiday spirit of merrymaking. Quashed by the evangelical reformers, now it was spilling over the ancient time boundaries that until then had kept it contained within the traditional holiday periods, much to the horror of the Church that had created the problem in the first place.

In any case, these folks whose identities we are tracking did what they did in a spirit of good clean fun, or fun at least. Brilliant minds met to create moments of exhilarating hilarity, the tensions and fears of the regime blown away in gusts of laughter, first among themselves at Court gatherings, then spreading to the public theaters and bookstalls. That we can still hear that laughter echoing in the scenes with Falstaff, Nym and Pistol, with Hal and Poins teasing Francis the drawer, is due to Shakespeare’s comic genius. And when Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, saying “dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” we are hearing Shakespeare confront a rising tide of humorless Calvinists that half a century later would shut down his brilliant, funny, witty theater, leaving it cold and shuttered for two long decades. He must have seen what was coming, having given the last word of the play to the puritanical Malvolio: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

These young Court writers were not out to change the world, not at first. Like kids in school, they were just out to have a good time and were not about to let anyone stop them. There’s your conspiracy––a gang of gifted mischief-makers out to torment the self-righteous, a conspiracy among the real Marias, Sir Tobys, Fabians and Festes, between the real Oberon and Puck, between the real Prospero and Ariel, the real Mistresses Page and Ford, the real Hal and Poins.

So who were they?

None of them are unknown to us. All are known to us today, at least for their reputations if not for their actual works. Most of them were courtiers. Courtiers were the only people in Elizabethan society with the leisure to play such games, games that, like cards, dice, dancing and singing madrigals, could only be played by a group. They were also the only ones with an awareness of what was being done by their counterparts at the Italian courts, by Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Tasso.

How did they do it? By using proxies on their title pages.

How are we to tell who was a proxy and who was a real writer?

Because the real writers have genuine writer’s biographies, their works match their life experiences, and we know them today, not just for their works but also by their proven presence in society where they were acknowledged for their writing.  The proxies show only that they lived and died; they show no evidence of a writer’s life; and their purported works do not match their life experience as projected by their biographies. This is not the case only with Shakespeare, but with all but two of the major writers during this two.decade period.

To understand how the creation of the Fourth Estate in Elizabethan times by the emergence of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press attracted the energies of six or seven tremendously gifted individuals who created lift-off for an industry that by the 17th century saw professional writers emerging from the population at large, it’s important to make the point that this was done at the beginning in the spirit of a game, of play, of a new kind of “mumming and disguising,” of new and more respectable forms of “merry-making” to take the place of the old May games that, along with the Church calendar, were being driven into disrepute by the Reformation.

In my view, which is of course, subject to change with the arrival of new facts and insights, there were six major figures in this revolution that came from the Court community: these being Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his cousin german, Francis Bacon (we don’t call him Sir because he wasn’t a knight yet, during this early revolutionary period), Philip Sidney (for most of this period, Philip was not a knight yet either), his sister Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (she was a countess during this revolutionary period), and Sir Walter Raleigh. In addition to the Court writers, there was a commoner who belongs in this top category, Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury.

Just as the history of the Trojan War requires the story of the combatants, their personalities, their goals and ambitions, and their relationships with each other, to understand this revolution of language, we must know the stories of the revolutionaries and of their relationships. Just listing them won’t be enough. The proof is in the story. But we can’t examine their stories, we can’t put them together in a single story, or in a single blog. What we can do in this time, is identify them, affirm that obviously they knew each other’s work, affirm that they must have known each other personally, and that by their works they drove each other to reach for the heights. It was simply too small a community for any other scenario to be possible.

Who were the proxies then, the so-called writers who lent or sold the use of their names so the Court writers could publish anonymously? Whose biographies lack the necessary factors that we must see in a writer’s biography to give it credence?  The men who, I believe, rented their names to the Court writers purely for cash or other forms of remuneration were: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, William Shakespeare, and John Webster.

Other men for reasons of friendship lent their names for one or two publications: among these were: George Gascoigne, George Pettie, Barnabe Riche, and Thomas Lodge. There may be others, but of these we can be fairly certain, for all of them show similar problems with their biographies and with the fact that the nature of the works that they are supposed to have written does not match the nature of their lives as revealed in their biographies.

Scholars tend to be a serious lot. For centuries they’ve managed to ignore the obvious clues that the death of Robert Greene was a joke. Of these clues, the most glaring is that he was said to have died of a “surfeit,” or overdose, of “pickle-herring.” “Pickle-herring” at that time was a traditional name for a clown or comedian, similar to Harlequin or Punch. So the reader is being told, of course, that Greene’s supposed death was due to an overdose of foolery. You’d think that this would have alerted scholars to the game-playing nature of his work, but so far as I know, for over 400 years it has failed to alert a single one.

Much is yet to be puzzled out, much reading of early works is left to do, many word studies created that may now give us some real results since we have better questions to propose, much time spent in thought, yet I believe that it’s fair to state that the most important of these writers was responsible for, in chronological order: the Gascoigne plays, the Pettie canon, the Lyly novels, the Robert Greene canon, and the Shakespeare canon. The second most important was responsible for most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon. And a third is responsible for the John Webster canon and perhaps a handful of plays attributed to other, later writers. That they are grouped this way can be shown, I believe, first, by noting similarities of approach, basic habits of expression, and unchanging personal concerns that transcend all changes in style and genre. And second, through their dates. For instance, it is of utmost significance that the appearance of Shakespeare follows so closely on the demise of Robert Greene and, for another, that Nashe follows almost immediately on the final works of Edmund Spenser.

Finally, the point must be made, that while three of these writers published under other names than their own, the works of the other two were published under their own names. Philip Sidney himself wrote everything, with a few very minor exceptions, that was published under his name, while Marlowe’s plays are all his own. It should also be noted that both of these writers died young, before they were published, while those who published under proxies all lived fairly long lives and all published long before they died. Where Raleigh fits into this picture is hard to tell at this point. Perhaps the few poems that we believe to be his, his marvelous reports and tracts on naval matters, and the history of the world that he wrote towards the end of his life are, in fact, all he ever wrote. Hopefully what poetry was his will become more clear as we investigate his cronies. These are the main players, the authors of most of the important works of the imagination during this earliest period. Others there were without doubt, with possibly equal talent, who chose, for personal reasons, not to develop it in later life. But these six had a passion for writing that could not be silenced, even if for their own good.

What then can I state without equivocation?

First, that the English Literary Renaissance was launched by, not one, not two, but at least six individuals, five courtiers and one commoner, five men and one woman; that they knew each other and inspired each other; and that a number of important and not so important works attributed to other writers are, in fact, the works of three or four members of this group. Second, that their impulse to write and publish grew, at least at the beginning, out of the game-playing spirit of holiday merry-making, and that the hiding of their identities grew out of the same tradition, that of holiday mumming and disguising and that the game turned deadly roughly halfway through this period when “Maxwell’s silver hammer” fell down on Marlowe’s head. From then on the mumming became serious and the disguising a necessity.

Finally, we will not know the full truth about Shakespeare until we’ve unraveled the truth about all the writers of this period, both those who did the writing, and those who took, or have been given, the credit for it. This is the story of, not just one individual, however great, but a group. And it’s a darned good story, and well worth the telling.

[The above is a slightly modified version of a lecture given at the Globe Theater in 2006 for the first of what has become the annual Shakespeare Authorship Trust lecture series.]

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We need a new paradigm

There are several factors that continue to block our access to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and until these have been overcome, or better, simply bypassed, we will continue to be without the kind of access to archives and established publishers that we deserve. What are these factors? First there’s the age of the mystery: 400-plus years is a long time, and, however absurd it may seem to us, the Stratford paradigm is so deeply rooted in the English-speaking mindset that attempts to chop it down leave little more than scratches.

Second: there’s the missing evidence. As all come to realize who research the infancy of the Stage and Press, whenever a particular paper trail reaches the point where it should have something to tell us, it tends to disappear––sometimes permanently, sometimes to reappear once the crucial moment has past. The conclusion is inevitable: someone got to the records before us, someone who didn’t want anything to remain that could connect the rise of the London Stage and the periodical press with the patronage and activities of government officials.

Third: there’s the religious nature of the argument: Shakespeare has become an icon (as Shakespearean Harold Bloom puts it, “the secular Christ”). Icons are sacred and cannot be questioned, no matter how absurdly irrelevant to human nature and common sense. Winston Churchill spoke for many with his response to those who wanted to know his take on the problem of Shakespeare’s identity. Said he, “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with.” And there’s Charles Dickens, who wrote: “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery. . . . I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”

Finally: there’s the attitude of the universities, who­––however grudgingly––acquired their present authority over all things Shakespeare when the first English Lit departments arose from within their departments of Philology at the turn of the 20th century. Having opted to treat him as they would an ancient artefact where its author was impossible to identify, these have continued ever since to refuse to consider any discussion of Shakespeare’s. While not stating openly that authors don’t matter (a stand promoted by Laputians Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Paul de Man and their students, and their students’ students, and their students’ students’ students) the universities and their co-conspirator, the Birthplace Trust, continue to (silently) adhere to the commonplace: “We have the plays; who cares who wrote them.”

We can, of course, continue to confront these and similar hoggish attitudes with reasonable arguments, but since none but a small percentage of born contrarians are likely to pay any more attention to us now than they have already, it might profit us to take a look at how we’ve been approaching the issue.

Rival candidates or Shakespeare’s coterie?

First, not unlike the academics, we tend to see only what we want to see, ignoring everything else. We read a book that awakens us to the Authorship Question by promoting one or another of the Shakespeare candidates––Bacon, Derby, Oxford, Marlowe, Raleigh, Philip Sidney––and from then on our interest settles only on facts that support him (or her: Mary Sidney and the Queen have also been nominated). Here we tend remain, gathering in conferences and online groups, writing articles for newsletters, journals and blogs dedicated to examining our particular candidate while studiously ignoring the others. This is easy due to the fact that along with no evidence for the creation of the London Stage, there is almost no evidence that these candidates had any contact with each other.

Take Oxford, for instance. The only evidence connecting him with another candidate is his spat with Philip Sidney on the royal tennis court, which was followed by some masculine huffing and puffing over a duel that both knew the Queen would never allow. His handful of appearances in the record point only to his activities as a patron of the Stage with only a poem here and there in the early anthologies to indicate his status as a poet. Were it not for the Meres comment in Wit’s Treasury (1598) that he, along with Richard Edwards, was once “best for comedy,” we would have no evidence at all that he had ever been a playwright.

As for the second greatest literary genius of the age, Francis Bacon, not until 1596 when, at age thirty-five, he published the first edition of his Essays, is there anything to show that he was in any way involved with the literary community surrounding him at Gray’s Inn. The only evidence of any connection with Oxford is found in a letter from Oxford to Robert Cecil (Oct 7 1601) in which he refers to his “cousin Bacon,” not as a writer, but as his lawyer. (Meanwhile, Bacon’s undeniable involvement in the Shakespeare phenomenon is evident from the survival of the file known as the Northumberland Manuscript.)

The Earl of Derby’s connection to the theater community is based on his patronage of the second company of boys at the Second Blackfriars Theater, 1599-1601, and that apparently he continued to patronize his brother’s traveling company well into the 17th century. The isolated comment that he was “penning plays” found in a letter from one nonentity to another in 1599 [Chambers 2.127) is hardly sufficient to take him seriously as a Shakespeare candidate, even though he was certainly closely connected to Oxford from 1595 on by virtue of his marriage that year to Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth.

Gabriel Harvey, never a candidate himself, but a writer whose name can be found here and there throughout the period in question, is hard to connect in any real way with any of the candidates that he mentions in the marginalia with which he garnished his books. He does at least have a potential connection to Oxford in that both were tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, a neighbor of the Harvey family in Saffron Walden, where, after Oxford was off to London, Smith took young Gabriel on as his protégé, helping to get him a fellowship at Cambridge. Oxford and Harvey were definitely in each others company on the occasion of Harvey’s grand faux pas, the interminable speeches he wrote to introduce himself to Court society at Audley End in 1578.

As for the University Wits, the ghostly writers whose pamphlets circa late 1580s through early ’90s deserve recognition as harbingers of what was becoming the London periodical press, recognition of them as a group did not come until centuries later with the scholars who studied their works.   The only personal connections from their own time are the complimentary mentions of each other in their pamphlets. Later evidence of their activities and whereabouts rarely show them involved in each other’s lives to any notable extent.

Last but hardly least, while Christopher Marlowe is occasionally associated with the Wits, his rise to fame occurred without hints of a personal relationship with any writer other than the scrivener Thomas Kyd, whose own claim to authorship rests on the shaky provenance of a single early play. By the mid-to-late ’90s, a second generation of poets, playwrights, and pamphleteers––Jonson, Marston, Hall, Harrington, Barnes, etc.––would reveal their mutual awareness through the epigrams with which they taunted each other, but since they used phony names it’s impossible to establish their identities with any certainty.

The result of this lack of certainty is that academics, trained to go only where the recorded facts lead, have provided us with a worldview wherein none of these writers have any connection with each other. Whatever form their lives may have taken, as portrayed by their biographies in the DNB or on Wikipedia, it would seem that, apart from suggestions that they were copying each other’s style, they were almost totally unknown to each other in any more intimate way than through their writing.

Well of course they knew each other!  Writers write as much for their fellow writers as they do for their community of readers. Hints are rife that particular works were written with friends “figured darkly forth” so that only the author’s coterie will understand who is being praised or ridiculed. Why then are attempts to see “through the glass darkly” to the truth about the authors and their relationships with each other dismissed by the Academy as useless, without value, a waste of time? Is it because that truth might turn out to be something that the Stratford defenders, fearful of the consequences to their own reputations, not only don’t want to know, they don’t want anyone else to know?

Surely, if we are ever to locate the truth about the period in question, so much is missing from the record that it can only be by creating a convincing scenario, one based on human nature and on the nature of other writers, actors, audiences and publishers as demonstrated throughout time. Though Shakespeare himself was hidden, not all of his associates are so impossible to unveil. Sooner or later it will be by discovering and community that will define, by outlines suggested by those who were most involved in creating the London Stage and periodical press, where the Master ends and the others begin.

We can bypass the problems listed above by creating several levels of study. First, a description of the political history of the Elizabethan era and those that preceded and followed accompanied by a timeline of important events. Second, the literary history of the period, with a timeline of important works, plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, Lyly, Greene, Spenser, Sidney, anonymous and others. Finally, biographical sketches of the candidates, their rivals, patrons, and enemies with descriptions and dates for the major events of their lives. When these layers are aligned with each other in time and place, a believable narrative will simply emerge like an image in the photographer’s developing bath.

The necessary narrative

Until now we’ve focused almost entirely on arguing with the Academy, on pointing out the absurdities in their scenario. Forgetting that the best defense is a good offense, we’ve allowed them to define the grounds for argument. This of course has not sufficed. Because there’s no brilliant rabbit poacher escaped from the clutches of a local knight; no horse-holder cum play-patcher shooting overnight to theatrical stardom at age twenty-nine, inevitably we find ourselves tilting with windmills, and imaginary windmills at that. This exercise in futility has us going in circles, repeating the same arguments over and over. We need to move to an arena of our own choosing, one where logic, not hindsight, prevails.

The greatest weakness of the Stratford paradigm is not its absurdities, but its utter and total lack of a believable narrative. Provide a compelling narrative, one that accounts for the creation of the Stratford fable, one that is close enough to the truth to lead researchers into areas where there might be meaningful evidence, and we will win the day, if not with everyone, then with enough intelligent readers that Authorship Studies will continue as a viable, honorable, and necessary branch of English Literature, one that mends the rift between literature and history, and that eventually will lead to a much needed rebirth of humanism at the university level.

As far back in history as the Greeks and Romans, the Stage has always been a political forum, both for those working for the government, and those seeking to improve it, or to replace it. The Stratford paradigm ignores the political realities of the Elizabethan and Stuart period for the very good reason that it was created to mask what otherwise would have been far too obvious to Shakespeare’s public audience. That public is gone. It’s time to do as I believe the true author did, to reach beyond the defenders of the Stratford biography just as he reached beyond the Court audience that his evasions were intended to protect to the public audience that, ignorant of the political issues that so concerned his enemies, were free to respond to his deeper messages , the humanism that is what has created the great and lasting audience of which we are members.

Yes, it’s true that we have the plays, thanks to the true author’s willingness to sacrifice his identity to the political necessity of separating himself from them. And yes, it’s obviously true that to the academics for whom the Stratford biography has become a religion, it does not matter who actually wrote them. But for those of us today afraid that humanism may be dying, largely due to the refusal by the Academy to allow the human element, the story of how they came to be, it does matter who wrote them. It matters a very great deal. And we should work together to find a way to tell the story as it happened historically, and forget about trying to convince those who, in an earlier time, would have had us burnt at the stake for refusing to believe that it’s the earth that circles the sun, not the other way round.

Did Shakspere write Shakespeare?

One of the ongoing word battles between authorship scholars and academics turns on the spelling of the name Shakespeare. It’s a rather odd name, actually, when compared with most English names from that period. Attempts to link it to medieval nicknames like Breakspear or Longspear have mostly failed to catch on with either side (perhaps merely shaking a spear just doesn’t seem sufficiently impressive to rate a cognomen). Then why when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided, finally, to put the Stratford playwright’s name on the plays, was it not spelled like it was in his “hometown” of Stratford?

It may be that no one pays much attention to the spelling issue since English spelling in William’s time was all over the place, particularly when it came to proper names. So the fact that it’s been spelled in as many as 83 different ways in Warwickshire, according to E.K. Chambers (Facts and Problems: 2.371-4), hasn’t raised many eyebrows. Still, even in Renaissance England 83 different spellings might suggest a particular uniqueness about this name and its origin. And since Warwickshire is centrally located within the geographic area known as “the Norman diaspora,” it’s more likely than not that the name originated in northern France, from whence it came over with the Norman Conquest along with William’s ancestor, a laborer named Jacques-Pierre (a frequent given name for French Catholics since both James and Peter invoke the apostolic founder of the Roman Church). This would explain why, in Warwickshire, before the 1590s, the name was invariably spelled so that it would be pronounced with a short a, Shaks-peer or Shax-pyeer, or Shagspyeer.

In a recent article in the online authorship journal Brief Chronicles, journalist and independent scholar Richard Whalen, editor of a series of Shakespeare plays richly annotated with Oxfordian data, examines the question of why generations of Stratford scribes spelled William’s surname Shakspere when it was spelled Shakespeare on the title pages of the plays, an issue that academics generally deal with, as they do with so much else, by simply ignoring it. Those who have dealt with it assume that the two spellings are variations of the same name, meaning that both represent the same individual and therefore the illiterate William of Stratford and the genius who wrote Hamlet must, ipso facto, be one and the same.

One Stratfordian who has given the spelling issue his attention is David Kathman, a securities analyst cum Shakespeare scholar, who explains how he arrived at this conclusion on his website: The Shakespeare Authorship Question (which he “dedicates” to the delicate sarcasm that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare”). Whalen finds, not surprisingly, that Kathman’s methodology is skewed. While sounding impressive, it seems that it’s yet another case of we used to call GIGO, Garbage In­­––Garbage Out. Data itself is neutral; if a question is asked in the right way, it provides an appropriate answer, solid, reliable; like the house of the third little pig, it’s made of bricks. Like that of the first little pig, Kathman’s house is made of straw, and Whalen goes far to blow it away. Readers interested in following Whalen’s arguments (and Kathman’s) in full can read them online where they present them better than I can here.

Why Shakespeare, not Shakspere?

For purposes of comparison, Kathman chooses to separate the various spellings of the name into two groups defined by whether or not the letter k is followed by an e. This is an obvious division since the spelling used by the London printers on the plays of Shakespeare, always includes an e after the k, while in all the earlier Stratford spellings there is no e in the first syllable. While Kathman terms those with the e “literary” and those without the e, “non-literary,” a more precise designation would be those derived from London (with e) and those from Stratford (without e); this because the London spelling has been exactly the same ever 1598 when it first appeared on the title pages of the second editions of Richard III and Richard II, while every version found in the Stratford archives up to that point, however extravagant the spelling, shows the s (or x or g) followed immediately by the k.  These variations, suggest that the Warwickshire scribes may have been attempting to reflect how the name was spoken. Here we have another aspect of the spelling issue, one not discussed by either Kathman or Whalen.

The cloud of misunderstanding that surrounds the crazy spelling of that early period does offer today’s scholars a bit of silver lining: it can help to ascertain how words were pronounced. Spelling tends to follow pronunciation––where it doesn’t, which is often the case with English, it’s usually because some bit of an earlier pronunciation has remained stuck in it, like flies in amber. For instance, we can be certain that the Earl of Oxford and his friends did not pronounce his name Veer, as it’s pronounced today, but Vayer, as it was spelled in 1590 by Sir Thomas Stanhope in a letter to Lord Burghley (Akrigg Southampton 32). As a homonym of Vair, the way the French pronounced the name, and as they also pronounce vert, meaning green, (the French don’t pronounce a final consonant unless it’s followed by a word that begins with a vowel), it’s a name that would carry meaning to all speakers of French and also Latin, for the Latin root word ver, meaning truth, virtue, and the springtime of the year, is also pronounced vair.

Why did the London printers add the e?

Like all vowels, e has a great deal to do with how a word is pronounced, and since the process known as “the great vowel shift,” was almost finished by the time in question, it seems that our present rule was already observed, that is, that an e at the end of a syllable means that the preceding vowel is pronounced long rather than short; thus establishing whether a writer means to say mat or mate (met or mete, mit or mite, mut or mute). Attempts to ascertain the meaning of a word can be confusing where a 16th-century writer has forgotten (or scribbled) the e, leaving the pronunciation to context. But scribes would certainly have known how the terminal e on a syllable affected an earlier vowel, as would the compositors who set the type for the Shakespeare plays, and as, without the slightest doubt, would the actors and patrons of the Company whose decision was, finally, after four years of publishing the plays anonymously, to add William Shakespeare to the title pages of Richard III in a form that required that it be pronounced with a long a, not the short a of Shakspere. In fact, perhaps to make it as clear as possible that this was the desired pronunciation, someone decided that the first time it appeared in print, the e would be separated from the s with a hyphen!

Why then did it matter to the actors, their patrons, and the playwright himself, that as it was published in 1598 on the plays––and in the Meres Palladis Tamia that was published at about the same time––the name be pronounced with a long a?  Why must it be pronounced Shake instead of Shak?  The only possible reason for the change in spelling, and for the otherwise inexplicable hyphen, is that it turns the otherwise sober name of a real individual into a pun: “William Shake-spear,” like “Doll Tear-sheet.” What then could be the reason why the actors who owned the play, and who we must suppose first saw it into print in October 1597, turned William of Stratford’s name into a pun that so perfectly describes the true author as one who shakes a spear (his pen) at fools and villains, and who fills the stage with the great warriors of the English past.

A more obvious pun name in a Shakespeare play generally denotes a clown or a fool.  Of the two servants in Two Gents, Launce is given to pointless responses while Speed is slow; in Henry IV, while Mistress Quickly describes how, as proprietress of the Inn, she is required to address the needs of Falstaff and his pals, the name of her associate, Doll Tear-sheet, suggests how differently she addresses their needs.  Malvolio can be read as “ill will to E.O.” with Benvolio suggesting the opposite.  Even Fall-staff, derived from the medieval general Sir John Fastolfe, can be read as a pun rich with implications for the middle-aged Oxford and his Lord Great Chamberlain’s staff of office.

By tweaking William’s surname so that from the anglicized Jacques-Pierre of his hometown it can be read as a pun on Spear-shaker, they are replacing what would otherwise have been taken for granted as the real name of a real person––which it was, of course, but one that also suggests that the author is nothing but a provincial clown, a mere “spear-carrier,” the timeless theatrical term for one who has no lines and who appears onstage only to give the appearance of a crowd, as William of Stratford is listed with the Court payments office as an actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later a share-holder, when in fact his true role was only to provide the Company with a name for the published plays.  With the kind of equivocation that was so richly distributed throughout the works of both Shakespeare and his editor, Ben Jonson––who termed this sort of meaningful wordplay in his own plays “glancings”––the Company was able to launch the authorial name that within a few months would be the key to their astonishing financial success under James I.

Punishing Shakespeare

“So it’s a pun, so what?”  So everything!  That the name that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men chose to put on these plays is a pun should be a factor of major importance to those interested in advancing the truth about the authorship!

Unfortunately, that Shakespeare is a pun is something that, for Oxfordians as well as academics, tends to be ignored as a rather silly distraction, a foolish fetish of the otherwise pure-souled and high-minded Grand Master of English Literature. Shakespeare’s penchant for puns and other wordplay is ignored, or treated as a side issue, not only by the buttoned-up bean-counters, but also by the authorship advocates, partly because they continue to be so locked in combat with the academics that they can’t see beyond the walls of their bunkers, but also perhaps because puns have been objects of scorn for so long that to attribute importance to any pun, even to this one, crucial though it may be, is to invite yet more disdain than the poor questioner is willing to bear.

This might be more easily understood were English literary history to be considered. Following the grim and humorless decades of Puritan dominance of the English culture during the middle decades of the 17th century, as Shakespeare’s beloved theaters were shuttered and torn down and a scorched earth policy directed towards every threatened outbreak of old-fashioned “merry-making,” the English seem to have lost any desire for Shakespeare’s (and Chaucer’s and Skelton’s) enthusiastic wordplay.  As the 18th-century “Augustans” sneered at Shakespeare for his bawdry, most famously, in the Introduction to his edition of the plays, the venerable Samuel Johnson took aim at Shakespeare’s addiction to what he called quibbles:

A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller, he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

Society has never returned to the level of appreciation that Shakespeare and his fellows had for puns, relegated today to tabloid headlines (and Cole Porter lyrics), but then society may never again have had so many pressing reasons for resorting to the frisky thrusts of Shakespearean wordplay.  Since Oxford was largely acceptable to both the Court and the public in his role as theater patron, a traditional role for men of his class, he and his actors and patrons managed to keep hidden the fact that much of what they performed was not the work of his secretaries––Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Anthony Munday––whose names ended up on the published versions, but their Master’s creations.

The worm turns

His enemies, of course, were not fooled by this, so when, as time went by, and their efforts to rid themselves (and the world) of his precious London Stage came dangerously close to success in the mid-’90s, Oxford turned, like a cornered animal––a wild boar?––lashing out with the venomous play that succeeded in winning them their right to perform, but that also forced the Company to put a name on the plays.

With the production of Richard III during the Queen’s ninth Parliament in 1597-’98, Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tarred and feathered in effigy their bitterest and most dangerous enemy, the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Oxford’s brother-in-law.  As portrayed by the 30-year-old Richard Burbage, dressed in the garb and affecting Cecil’s manner of speech and body language, the news that the Crown’s own company had dared to portray the most powerful official in England as history’s most wicked king silently swept the nation as the MPs returned to their constituencies with the play in their pockets and their fingers on their lips.  Apparently young Burbage had given a stellar performance; for the rest of his life it would be known as his most famous role.

Following their attack on Robert Cecil, there must have arisen a great popular demand, lost to history but certainly not lost to common sense, that the name of the play’s author be revealed. Forced to respond, doubtless out of fear that the truth would escape before they had time to counter it, the Company yielded to necessity. Using the name that their manager had had ready and waiting for a good two years, the Company quickly brought out a second edition with the name William Shake-speare on the title page. Those blind to the pun continued to regard the author as someone unknown previously but obviously worthy of respect, while those who did see the pun understood that the name of the true author was not something that was going to be revealed anytime soon.

Thus, what may have been rushed into print as a quick fix to the furore aroused by Richard III, the author’s pen name was cast in stone, never to be altered for the duration of either Oxford’s or William’s life, or the life of the Company that continued to flourish for decades after their deaths, or in fact, for the following four centuries until the early 20th century when the Academy took up its defense out of some sort of misplaced knee-jerk professionalism, which today they mostly leave to outsiders, to the hirelings of the Birthplace Trust, and the trolls who beset cyberspace.

The Company’s production of Richard III was something from which Cecil, whose reputation, never very rosy with those who knew him at firsthand, never recovered. The Queen, who undoubtedly had been imperfectly acquainted (by Cecil) with the situation before it erupted during Parliament, was the only one at that time who could have put a stop to this contest between her playwright and her Secretary of State.  She was not about to see her Secretary of State further demeaned, but neither was she about to give up her holiday “solace.”

Exactly how she did this may not be possible to cite, but it’s not impossible to guess, for Cecil, who once in total power under James became so adept at destroying those who caused him grief seems to have left Oxford, and his company, alone from that point on. And while it’s unlikely that they continued to perform Richard III until after Cecil’s death in 1612, the published play would continue to appear in one edition after another every few years, whenever Master Secretary got another title or high office.

By the time of his death, Cecil held all the major offices of State, more than ever had been held or ever would be held at one time by any other official in English history.  And, as Secretary of State with total control over the State records, he had plenty of time and opportunity to eliminate all references to Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, as creator of the London Stage and English periodical press, and in fact as anything but the ungrateful son-in-law of the great Lord Burghley.

Shakespeare and Christmas

One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.

For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.

We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth.  Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.

Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep  surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.

Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference.  Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.

Enter Paul’s Boys

Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.

Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.

While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.

At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays. 

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel

Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.

The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports.  But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.

Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name.  In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.

Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?

It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.

These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:

Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.

It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.

Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks.  Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories.  Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire.  Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.

The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages.  Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect.  Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature.  Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.

In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him.  Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.”  He continues:

They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes.  Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . .  His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . .  He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature.  He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)

Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.

In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness.  One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone.  He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain.  We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances.  Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art.  When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control.  (xiv-xv)

All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them.  “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today.  There also seem to be many similarities in syntax.  Fennell continues:

Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers.  On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)

Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing.  As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .”  We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.

As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare.  As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.

Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life.  Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.

Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events.  Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus.  Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music.  Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.

Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, had Pindar in Greek on his 1566 library list.

A hollow “Hollow Crown”

Did anyone see the BBC series “The Hollow Crown” on PBS?  If so, what did you think of it?  Unfortunately I missed the first two, Richard II and Henry IV Part One, but did manage to see a fair amount of 2HIV and Henry V.  “Fair amount” since sleep, which generally overcomes me shortly after 9 PM, took me captive, despite the charms of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  What did I miss?  From what I saw I thought both productions were good in some ways, but truly terrible in others.

The good was largely Hiddleston as the prince.  A product of Eton and Cambridge where he majored in Classics, he has a princely accent and attitude, a wide range of expression, and is the right age for the character.  Moving easily from moody pensiveness to rage to hilarity, he finds in Hal the depth of character and range of emotion that are the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s greatest characters.  This carries him through the complexity of the speeches––though some could have used cutting: I cringed to think that, as King, Hal would have kept the Mayor of Harfleur on his knees through that long pompous threat of what would happen to babes and daughters if the Mayor refused to yield the town.  But we must remember that this is very early Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons is a good Henry IV; the action is interesting and well-conceived, the camera-work expressive and unobtrusive, and the costumes remarkable for achieving a blend of period authenticity and what a modern viewer can relate to, at least for the courtiers.  Unhappily however, this last does not extend to the inhabitants and setting of the Boars Head Tavern, for what’s truly awful about this production––and  recent film versions as well––is the way Falstaff and his friends are portrayed as the scum of the earth, dirty, disheveled, dressed in rags, hanging about in a filthy tavern overseen by a slovenly madam who keeps a company whore even more ragged and slatternly than she.

Most awful is what this bucket-load of grunge has done to the image of Falstaff that has accrued over the centuries.  Here is the blurb with which Sparknotes online promotes the series: “A fat, cheerful, witty, aging criminal, [Falstaff] has long been Prince Hal’s mentor and close friend.  He pretended to have killed Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal–the actual killer–agreed to go along with the lie.  For this reason, everyone gives Falstaff much more respect than he deserves.”  Obviously this is what the author of this blurb has gotten from watching the series––Falstaff is a criminal and Hal is a killer!

Why on earth would the Prince of Wales, soon to be crowned as the great Henry the Fifth, choose to spend so much of his time with this unpleasant old rascal, dressed and directed as though he were a drunken Salvation Army Santa Claus.  His seedy surroundings, immense bulk, fusty beard, and rapid delivery distract from Shakespeare’s text, which tells a very different tale.  Unfortunately the audience, unless it already knows the play, will not find it easy to catch the import of the text, since the current practise of running lines at an unnatural speed in film productions, where action must replace the precision and clarity of a traditional stage performance, turns Falstaff’s wicked tongue and wit to the mutterings of a crazy old fool.  The idea that the Prince of Wales would prefer to spend his time in such a setting and with such an “old criminal” is so absurd that the viewing audience is more or less lost from the start.  What were the producers thinking?

If it was to create a contrast with the Court, that fails, due to two other bad things, namely the dull color palette and the choice of a vast empty hall as the King’s presence chamber.  Just about everything in the film, whether in the Court or the Tavern or on the battlefield is either brown, black, or gray; there isn’t a spark of bright color anywhere.  Where is the splendor with which the late medieval royalty surrounded itself, the purple, carnation, scarlet, gold and white, the “peach-color” of Poins’s stockings, the sun shining through stained glass windows?  Shot in the winter, with the trees bare and the sky gray, the outdoor scenes are just as bleak as those indoors.  As for the crew gathered in the Boars Head Tavern, it would seem that modern directors seriously mistake the intense teasing and rude familiarity of  people who have no fear of seriously offending each other as the brawling of thieves and streetwalkers.

Ignorant of the times, the ambiance they seek to recreate has caused Shakespeare’s meaning to escape them.  Why does it never strike them to wonder why Falstaff is so revered?  If he’s the shambling old nonentity he’s portrayed, why does the royal prince, with his princely education, desire his company?  Why does the hostess of the tavern pressure him to marry her?  Why does Doll Tearsheet demonstrate such love for him?  How can Falstaff dare to consider himself the Prince’s “true father”?  Bereft of the stature and bearing that the text suggests, missing the meaning of the rapid fire delivery, how are we to take Falstaff’s claim that he is not only witty in himself, but is the cause of wit in others?

If we pay attention to the text we find that this old stumblebum speaks to those around him with the arrogance and self-importance of a courtier (more notably in Part Two) , an attitude rendered ridiculous here by the seedy setting, his short stature, unkempt hair and undistinguished garb.  No more than a knight, where does he get the aristocratic attitude that he deserves to have whatever he wants?  Attempting to purchase satin for a suit, he curses the system when told he hasn’t the necessary security (credit).  Ignoring the Lord Chief Justice, he invites this high official’s companion, the poet Gower, to dine, despite his obvious inability to pay the bill.  Nor is this attributable to a lunatic’s Napoleonic complex, for were he the lowlife he’s portrayed, the Lord Chief Justice would hardly take the time to seek him in person, but would send a constable to fetch him for questioning (about the Gad’s hill robbery).  Confronting him, he would hardly waste words in one of Falstaff’s wit battles––he would simply have him arrested.

If Falstaff is in fact what his name tells us he is, someone who has carried the staff of high office and who has failed that office, then everything falls into place.  It makes sense of Hal’s interest in him.  It makes sense of the scene in Part One where, before the battle, Falstaff joins readily in easy conversation with the King.  It makes sense of  Mistress Quickly’s eagerness to marry him, for, however poor in cash, someone in high office would have estates to support him.  If Falstaff doesn’t see to his estates the way he should, that’s another aspect of his failure.  It makes sense of Hal and Poins’s devotion, the sort that rebellious youths are often inclined to give a fallen idol.  As for Poins, depicted here as only the best of the bad lot that congregate around the depraved Falstaff, as Shakespeare suggests, he’s Hal’s close and intimate friend––if not a peer himself, then close to it.  Ned Poins, named for a leading family of the day (usually spelled Poyntz) would not be hanging about in the Tavern, waiting for the Prince to appear, he would accompany him, going and coming.

As for Bardoph and Nym, Shakespeare does not intend them to be taken as Falstaff’s equals; it’s clear they are his servants.  A captain himself, Ancient Pistol is his sergeant, Peto his lieutenant.  All rely on his patronage, however uncertain.   Falstaff claims that he “bought” Bardolf at Paul’s Cathedral, where masterless men were known to gather in search of employment.  The little page treats Bardolph rudely, like one on his same level.  That Falstaff is meant to be elegantly dressed is clear from the comments by Hal and Poins on how Falstaff has turned the page into his “ape,” that is, he has dressed the boy like himself, and has encouraged him to join in the verbal fencing that they call wit.

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

The settings

Along with the anomalously huge and empty presence chamber, there’s the anomaly of the Boar’s Head Tavern.  Where did the directors of this production get the model for this dilapidated, low-ceilinged dump, tucked behind a battered old door like one of the blind pigs of Prohibition, lacking any touch of decoration or charm.  Don’t they bother to read any history at all?  The Boars Head Tavern was famous in its time as the finest inn in London.  Where is there any evidence of the “plate” and the “tapestry of her dining rooms” that Mistress Quickly fears having to pawn unless Falstaff pays his bill?  When she says, protesting the presence of his “swaggering” servant, “I must live among my neighbours: I’ll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best,” what could be “the very best” in such a place, and why should her wretched neighbors care, or she care what they think?

Of course, there were “stews” in London, neighborhoods where gangsters and their molls held sway (as Robert Greene depicted in his “renunciation” pamphlets), but this would not have been the sort of hostel where one might rub elbows with the Prince of Wales and his friends.  When, joking, Falstaff says he’ll get a wife from “the stews,” meaning the slums, would that make sense if his tavern was located in a slum?  Would Shakespeare waste the opportunity to adorn Doll Tearsheet with the finest up-to-date attire, or an exaggerated version of it, rather than what the BBC has given us, a beautiful actress made to look worse even than the lowliest streetwalker, who at least would be doing her best to dress in a way that she hoped would attract men.  This Doll, her hair uncombed, her colorless dress torn and unmended, qualifies for nothing better than an inmate of Bedlam.  What happened to the “fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta,” with which Hal teases Falstaff?

Far from the grungy dive it’s depicted here, the historic Boars Head Inn, located in central London in a neighborhood dominated by the halls of the powerful and wealthy trade guilds, was a classy establishment, probably from the very first.  History informs us that it was in the reign of Richard II, shortly before the period of the Henry IV plays, that one William Warder gave a tenement called the “Boar’s Head” in Eastcheap to a college of priests, founded by Sir William Walworth, for the adjoining church of St. Michael’s in Crooked Lane.  According to John Stowe, during Shakespeare’s time Eastcheap was “butcher’s row,” where the public houses had the most delectible roast meats to offer, and where, as Mistress Quickly suggests, it was  possible to order meat during Lent.  Lasting well into the 18th century, the Boar’s Head, that is, the one that replaced Shakespeare’s after it was destroyed in the great London fire, was noted as, “the chief tavern in London,” frequented by the likes of Alexander Pope and his brilliant coterie.

Who was Falstaff?

As for the historic Falstaff, unable to locate a model in history or literature that fits the Stratford biography, academics usually attribute this greatest of all his comic characters solely to Shakespeare’s imagination, but we heretics have a wider fund to draw on.  For instance, since we can accept that Shakespeare was fluent in French, the idea that the relationship between Hal and Falstaff was inspired by the violent and scatalogical wordplay of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel––while rejected by the academics because Rabelais wasn’t translated into English until the mid-17th century––works well for us.

The first character to play the role of Hal’s quarrelsome foil was Dericke, the clown from the very early play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.  Since documentation shows that members of the Queen’s Men, Richard Tarleton and William Knell, played Dericke and Hal respectively, we know that Famous Victories dates back at least to the 1580s (historian Ramon Jiménez puts it as far back as the 1560s).  But while Dericke is a standard vice figure left over from medieval times, Falstaff is clearly one of Shakespeare’s departures from tradition.  Among these departures was his method of creating important characters by conflating the traits of persons familiar to his Court audience with figures from literature and history.

That the Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV and V plays was originally Sir John Oldcastle is clear from, among a number of other clues, the appearance of “Old” as a character in the sloppily printed 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part Two, the phrase “Old Lad of the Castle” that remains in Henry IV Part One, and the Oldcastle (also known as Jockey) who joins the Gads Hill gang in Famous Victories.  Since there is also clear evidence that the Falstaff of Merry Wives was originally the same Sir John Oldcastle, we can assume that both plays were written (rather rewritten) at the same time, and that both saw the character’s name changed from Oldcastle to Falstaff in the mid 1590s (more precisely, late 1596 or early 1597) and for the same reason, because the Queen insisted that it be changed.

We have no reason to doubt that Her Majesty (and the entire Court audience), saw Shakespeare’s Oldcastle as a satirical character intended by the actors and their playwright to embarrass their newly-appointed patron, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, William Brooke Lord Cobham.  As Alice Lyle-Scoufos demonstrates in convincing detail in her Shakespeare’s Topological Satire (1979), Shakespeare combined damaging traits and events from Cobham’s life (including the true incident of the robbing of the Spanish courier by his sons during Oxford’s time at Cecil House) and the life of his renowned ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle (burnt at the stake as a traitor by Henry V) on purpose to demean Lord Chamberlain Cobham and show his son-in-law, Secretary of State Robert Cecil, that he (Oxford) wasn’t about to be bullied into silence.

As a character in the Henry IV and V plays, Sir John Oldcastle is historically accurate.  The historic Oldcastle had in fact been a friend to the historic Prince Hal, one who, for reasons of religion, turned on his former friend once he became King.  It was Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a braggart, liar and thief that was taken by all, including the Queen, as a blow aimed at Cobham, whose appointment to the office of Lord Chamberlain was understood by the actors and their playwright as a means of restraining them from engaging with the parliamentarians due to gather in the West End in the fall of 1597.   The truth about the historic John Oldcastle is still a problem for historians since early Crown historians saw him as a heretic traitor while early Reformation historians saw him as a saint, a precursor of the martyrs who inspired the Reformation.  Shakespeare obviously preferred the former interpretation.

Not only was Cobham the unwanted intruder who, following the death of their original patron, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, had replaced him, he was the previous owner of the rooms in the Blackfriars that had been the first Blackfriars theater and that had for a time included the great Parliament Chamber.  It was this chamber that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had just rebuilt as a large indoor theater with which they planned to entertain the parliamentarians who would be gathering the following October, the theater that Cobham, his son-in-law Robert Cecil, and Cecil’s father, Lord Burghley, now the dominating force on the Privy Council, had ordered closed.  Furious, the Company responded with rewrites of the plays in which Oldcastle, now a leading character, combined traits of Cobham, his troublesome heir and their treacherous ancestor.

By renaming the character Falstaff, the Company may have created a disconnect with the likeness to Cobham, his ancestor, and his heir, Henry Brooke, but they did nothing to reform his character.  As detailed by Scoufos, that Falstaff’s more despicable characteristics, his cowardice, his taking bribes so only the poorest and least battle-worthy recruits were taken up for the army, derive from the Oldcastle character, seems undeniable.

However, there is a side to Falstaff that doesn’t seem to fit with these aspects of his character.  His cowardice and lies, for instance, don’t fit with the respect inherent in Hal and Poins attentions; they tease and mock him, but something keeps them coming back.  Despite his inability to live up to his promises, the women continue to support and care for him.  Despite his penury and choleric temper, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol show no desire to find another patron.  His craven cowardice on the battlefield doesn’t fit with his reckless courage when confronted by authority, or his contemptible lies with his monumental self-opinion.  There seems to be a disconnect between his meaness on the one hand and his largeness of heart on the other (more noticable in Part Two than in Part One or Merry Wives).  Such contradictions may add to our fascination when properly acted and directed, yet they raise questions about his models.  Perhaps Falstaff is the result of Shakespeare’s conflation of the Oldcastle personality with yet another individual from the period.

Oxford and Falstaff

For answers we turn to historical dates and the biography of the Earl of Oxford.  We know that Milord was in trouble in the early 1590s, as were his actors and all the acting companies, due to the death of Sir Francis Walsingham and the rise of Oxford’s dangerous brother-in-law, Robert Cecil.  We can assume that during 1592 and ’93, Oxford was busy revising his earlier works for the benefit of a new company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, launched in June of 1594 under the auspices of Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon.  We know that the Henry IV and V plays are among the earliest of these, reformed and expanded from disassembled scenes from the extremely early Famous Victories (or perhaps later versions now lost).  In seeking who might have been the first personality to transform Dericke into a modern character, the one who immediately comes to mind is the intemperate and profane Sir John Perrot.  So perfectly does Perrot conform to those qualities in Falstaff that don’t fit the Oldcastle image that the identification seems without question.

A younger Sir John Perrot

Perrot was a major figure at Court from his first arrival during Henry’s reign to his final quietus in the early 1590s.  Tall, handsome, with the strength of a bull and the will of a lion, his likeness to the king helped strengthen the common belief that he was Henry’s byblow as reported by Sir Robert Naunton (though denied by his ODNB biographer).  Since Naunton was married to Perrot’s granddaughter, he would seem to have more authority than the ODNB biographer (the author of the old DNB bio accepts Perrot’s royal patrimony.)  From Perrot himself, when incarcerated and facing charges of treason, comes the quote: “God’s death!  Will the queen suffer her brother to be offered up as a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversary?” Described by a recent academic as “a bluff, heavyset man with a reputation as a hell-raiser,” the old DNB notes that he “held various offices under Elizabeth” and “united great physical strength to a violent and artibrary disposition.”  This sounds like the Falstaff beloved of Hal and Poins, of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet.

Although Perrot’s holdings in Wales and his various military and naval commands frequently took him away from London, he was enough of a figure at Court during Oxford and Rutland’s time at Cecil House and later at Court for them to have played the same role with Perrot that do Hal and Poins with Falstaff.  Oxford would have been attracted to Perrot for several reasons.  For one, he would have been the very sort of bad example that was attracting him in his teens and worrying Burghley.  For another, while in his teens, Perrot had lived for a time under the same roof with Oxford’s father, the 16th earl, so he had the kind of personal knowledge of his father that would be precious to a youth in search of an identity.  When first at Court and residing with the King’s Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, Earl John, then in his early 30s, had been remanded into Paulet’s keeping, doubtless as punishment for his reckless treatment of his (first) wife and his finances (DNB).

Then, in the early 1590s, while Oxford was suffering the slings and arrows of Robert Cecil’s rise to power, Perrot too fell victim to the Cecil roundup and destruction of their rivals.  Taking seriously the complaints of Perrot’s enemies, in 1590 they saw to it that he was incarcerated in the Tower and convicted of treason, where he died in 1592 from what many believed was poison (ODNB).  Thus it makes sense that in reaching for a replacement for the out-dated Dericke and other clownish characters from Famous Victories, Oxford did for Perrot what he did for his old tutor Sir Thomas (in Romeo and Juliet, Woodstock, and The Tempest), he brought his bombastic wit and defiance of authority to life for an audience that knew him very well.

So which came first, Oldcastle or Perrot?  Certainly it would have been Perrot, conceived in 1592 or ’93, shortly after his assassination.  The character thus created was altered for the worse in 1596 when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to use the Merry Wives and the Henry IV plays as a means of attacking the hated Cobham, causing the Queen to demand that the name be changed.  It would have been at this time that the weight ascribed to Falstaff was added, most likely a characteristic of Lord Cobham (in the only portrait I could find he is hidden behind a phalanx of women and children).  As for the Falstaff of The Merry Wives, it’s unlikely that he ever had anything of Perrot in him.  Merry Wives was most likely revised in 1596, when the Company used it to satirize Cobham’s cheating and conniving and his heir’s scandalous mistreatment of the women of the Court.

In questioning the source for Falstaff, a third influence can also be detected, the intrusion of the author’s own feelings and attitudes.  By the 1590s, although Oxford was only in his forties, it’s clear from the Sonnets that he was beginning to feel his age.  While in his twenties and thirties he would not have felt much compassion for the aging roysterer.  But with the loss of Fisher’s Folly and his crew of writers and secretaries in 1589, the loss of the credit that enabled him to produce plays and publish poems, even, if the evidence offered by Alan Nelson and Mark Anderson is accurate, that for at least a year or two from 1589 to 1591, before the Queen arranged for his marriage to one of her ladies in waiting, he was living in much the same circumstances as Falstaff, in an upscale boarding house in London with Julia Penn as his Mistress Quickly––he must have felt a kinship with his fallen protagonist.

There’s not enough room here to detail all the factors that put these identifications beyond doubt.  That will have to wait for another venue.  But at the least we can assure the readers that someday, if all goes well, and a new generation of Shakespeare scholars are finally on track towards the truth, they will find the clues to these identifications thick on the trail.

Did Shakespeare write The Spanish Tragedy?

There they go again!   Several days ago the New York Times announced that a Texas U English prof has “discovered” Shakespeare’s hand in the early modern play by Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, with the British newspaper, The Guardian, adding its tuppence.  And so the world watches (well, some of it watches) while a gaggle of academics and media geese chase each other around yet another well-worn track in the race to identify Shakespeare’s hand, as though it hasn’t all happened so many times before.

Yet each time the trail gets more muddied, and things once known now seem utterly forgot.  Since when, for instance, did the British Library succeed in proving that Hand D in the manuscript “The Play of Sir Thomas More” is in fact Shakespeare’s own?  Through what new discovery or process of analysis has this now been determined?  The media perps don’t say, of course, probably because they don’t know that neither this nor anything else in any play manuscript is in Shakespeare’s hand because, first, except for this and one or two others in manuscript, there simply aren’t any manuscript plays from that era for comparison; and second, there’s no existing document of any sort confirmed to be in William’s hand with which to compare them even if there were.

So professor Bruster’s great discovery, as with most of the Shakespeare discoveries that emerge from Academia, is based on something that is based on something that exists only as a theory.  To rely on Dover Wilson’s notions about Shakespeare’s handwriting, again, based not on any solid evidence of his handwriting (which again, does not exist), only on the results of several levels of transmission, from author (or his amanuensis) to stage manager (who created the stage director’s copy) to editor to typesetter, is, frankly, absurd.  Only someone in Wilson’s position, regarded as an expert and so desperate for conclusions (and certain that anything he says will be believed) would attempt to state as fact anything based on such a shaky foundation.

In fact, the common assumption by scholars who have spent their lives studying the matter has always been that the additions to the 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy were created by Ben Jonson for stage owner Philip Henslowe, as noted twice in Henslowe’s Diary: on the 25th of September 1601, Henslowe lent Edward Alleyn 40 shillings to give Jonson for “writing of his additions in ‘geronymo’” (Hieronymo was Henslowe’s term for what today we call The Spanish Tragedy); and again on June 22, 1602, more money for “new additions for ‘Jeronymo’” (R.A. Foakes, 182, 203).  As for Shakespeare, neither here nor anywhere else in his diary does Henslowe ever use the name, or anything that sounds remotely like it, even though it’s clear he produced several of his plays.

In fact, although it’s clear that Ben Jonson, not Shakespeare, made those additions to the play in 1602, the play itself was not only NOT WRITTEN by Thomas Kyd, it was surely written by Shakespeare, that is, by the man who used the name Shakespeare, and who then went on to write Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and so forth.  The attribution to Kyd is based on a pun made by Thomas Nashe in 1593 and a statement made by Thomas Heywood in 1612, in his Apologie for Actors.  Only a couple of other published works bear Kyd’s name, equally questionable, none of them worthy of the term literature.  By the time the twenty-something Heywood began working for the Lord Admiral’s Men in the mid-90s, Kyd was dead, destroyed by the same government sting that rid the Crown of Christopher Marlowe.  Attributing works of literature to the dead was a standard means of getting questionable works into print.

For those who have steeped themselves in the master’s language and how it grew from early (Titus Andronicus) to late (King Lear), there can be no doubt that The Spanish Tragedy was one of Shakespeare’s early plays, one that is, or should be, tremendously valuable to scholars since it was never rewritten as were most of his other plays from the 1580s.  A number of reputable analysts have noted the many similarities that place it close to Hamlet, probably just preceding it.  The only reason that Academia refuses to admit this is that it’s too early for the Stratford biography.

Whatever the reason, if this should lead to a major company introducing a good production of Spanish Tragedy it will be worth the kafuffle.  For no matter what nonsense gets written about Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still “the thing.”

Shakespeare: an experiment gone wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How old is the Authorship Question?

The standard answer to this is the late nineteenth century, when Delia Bacon’s book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, claimed that the Shakespeare canon was not written by William of Stratford, but was the result of a collaboration of a team of courtly writers led by Francis Bacon.  This, however, was only the moment when the issue was opened to the reading public at large, for the issue itself has been there ever since the first peeps of Shakespeare criticism.  As Albert Feuillerat explains in his Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays (1953), the question of the authenticity of the Shakespeare canon

has been raised with more or less insistence ever since the eighteenth century. . . .  Pope conjectured that in Love’s Labor’s Lost, the Winter’s Tale, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus there was nothing authentic except a few scenes and some characters (1725). . . .  Similar doubts were expressed by Theobald regarding Henry V (1734), by Hanmer regarding the Two Gentlemen of Verona (1744), by Samuel Johnson regarding Richard II (1765), and by Farmer regarding The Taming of the Shrew (1767).  Ritson found some disparities so evident that in The Two Gentlemen, Love’s Labor’s Lost and Richard II he claimed he could distinguish Shakespeare’s hand as easily as one could recognize the brilliant brush strokes with which a Titian might have sought to touch up a mere daub.  Malone in 1790, in his often quoted dissertation on Henry VI, did not recognize Shakespeare’s hand except in some passages of the second and third parts and thought that the first part came entirely from one of Shakespeare’s predecessors. (32)

The difference between these early questioners and Delia Bacon is that they never disputed the existence of a William Shakespeare as author, however sparing his touch.  As lawyers and doctors began openly questioning the Stratford biography, Frederick Fleay and the so-called disintegrators got ever more severe in limiting the evanescent Shakespeare’s involvement in the production of the canon.  Clinging like drowning survivors of shipwreck to that crumbling bit of flotsam, the name itself, academics and their groupies continue to defend what, if one takes the long view, never really existed.  The first public attribution, by Francis Meres in 1598, is hardly solid since it stands alone while the book that introduces Shakespeare’s name to the reading public  was his only connection with the world of poetic literature.  The other attribution, that found in the First Folio of 1623, is fragile in the extreme, and nothing since has done anything to solidify it, quite the reverse.  We’re left with Authority’s age-old pronunciamento: “It’s so because I say it’s so.”

That someone wrote the magic and that during the 1590s the name William Shakespeare got attached to it along with a good deal else that’s questionable is all we can be certain of, and all that anyone could be certain of for a very long time.  Beginning with Delia, the search began to replace the name with that of a writer whose biography made more sense, keeping Shakespeare only to identify the canon, as in A.W. Pollard’s article of 1917: “Shakespeare’s fight with the Pirates,” in which by Shakespeare he meant, not the author, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their precious playbook.

The questioning has taken new turns over the years.  At the beginning it must have been about who was writing the plays that began to be performed in the early 1590s.  This was answered in 1598 when three of the most popular plays were published as by William Shake-spear (Richard III) or Shakespeare (Richard II and Romeo and Juliet), the same time that it (the name) was introduced to the reading public via the Meres book as the author of several other plays as well, no doubt popular plays, and of  certain “sugar’d sonnets.”  Some readers were already familiar with the name from the title pages of two narrative poems published four and five years earlier, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Thus towards the end of the 1590s, long after the first versions of some of the plays had been seen by audiences (the Contentions and True Tragedies), they had a name for the author, but they never had the man himself.  The lack of any solid history of William’s presence in London, of letters to him from other writers or from him to other writers or from anyone to anyone else about him, suggests that the questioning must have continued, which the ambiguous wording of the front material in the First Folio was intended to put to rest.  That this wording continued through later editions suggests that the questioning continued until, as Feuillerat reports, the emphasis began to shift to questions about what seemed to be other hands of far less ability.

Long story short: the authorship question has been around from the beginning, it has simply shifted focus repeatedly from one aspect to another.  Where it rests at the moment, on which of several candidates actually wrote the works attributed to the Stratford money-lender, is only one stage in the long ongoing question of who actually wrote the canon, and, perhaps most important, why it’s taking so long to come up with an answer.

Did Oxford translate some of Plutarch’s Lives?

Can the crossovers between North’s Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus be explained by Oxford translating this section of North’s book?

It’s a set piece of literary history that for the Greek and Roman plays, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s main source was Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Greek Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.  Having found similar repetitions in other supposed sources and apocryphal works where the likelihood is that Shakespeare, i.e., Oxford, was not stealing, but was simply repeating what he himself had written earlier, when years ago I read that in certain places, Shakespeare repeated North’s language word for word, it struck me that he might have prepared himself to write these plays by reading and translating Amyot’s Plutarch into English, then publishing it as someone else’s who could use the money.

We know from Burghley’s records that Oxford owned a copy of Amyot’s French translation since it’s one of the books he bought from Seres in 1569. He would have been well-acquainted with Plutarch even then, from eight years with his tutor’s library where it’s listed in both the original Greek and Latin translation.  In all probability, Smith followed standard procedure by using Plutarch to teach young de Vere good language use and ancient history.  Himself a Platonist, Plutarch’s Platonism would have been another plus for Smith.  Geoffrey Bullough, in his chapter on Coriolanus, includes the ancient Titus Livius and Dionysius of Halicarnasus as possible sources, both on Smith’s library list: Livy in the original Latin and Dionysius in the original Greek as well as Latin translation.  Because there was no English version of the latter in Shakespeare’s time, Bullough has to dismiss it as a direct source except as it influenced Plutarch, though he does include it, I suppose for that reason.  He attributes Shakespeare’s knowledge of Livy to a 1600 translation by Philemon Holland.

Plutarch was one of the major voices for the European Renaissance.  As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:

His Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, translated in 1579 from Jacques Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, has been described as one of the earliest masterpieces of English prose.   Shakespeare borrowed from North’s Lives for his Roman plays—Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus—and, in fact, he put some of North’s prose directly into blank verse, with only minor changes.  (2006)

And as North’s ODNB biographer puts it:

North’s fame, since Samuel Johnson’s contention that Shakespeare had read Plutarch in North’s translation . . . has rested in the dramatist’s having, among very much else, thrown “the very words of North into blank verse.”  Shakespeare’s acquaintance with North’s translation probably derived from the printing house of Richard Field, whose presses may have been at work on a 1595 edition of [North’s] Plutarch at the same time that they were printing Shakespeare’s Lucrece in 1594 . . . . North’s translation influenced profoundly not only the larger narrative structures of Shakespeare’s Roman plays but innumerable local shapings of their language . . . .

Jacques Amyot’s 1559 translation of Plutarch came from studying manuscripts in the Vatican.  North’s English translation, published by Vautrollier in 1579, was based on Amyot’s third edition, published in 1574.  Richard Field, Vautrollier’s former apprentice, published the second edition of North’s verson in 1595, and a third in 1603.  As we know, it was Field, whose print shop was spitting distance from Oxford’s Blackfriars theater school, who, two years earlier, had published Venus and Adonis, the first published work to bear the Shakespeare name.

Nothing directly connecting Oxford with North has come readily to light (although it’s clear the author of his ODNB bio found their names linked in a 1591 document with that of Sir Julius Caesar).  The younger brother of the first Baron North, Thomas North (his knighthood came later) appears to have struggled throughout his life with that bane of a second son, poverty, which is not to say that he wasn’t a genuine translator, though according to the author of his ODNB bio, his influential 1557 English translation of de Guevara’s Diall of Princes did have some authorship issues:

It seems likely, . . . from comments made by North in the second, revised, edition of The Diall (1568), that the first edition was not altogether well received for more literary reasons: “detracting tongues,” he wrote, had given out that the translation “was no work of mine, but the fruit of others’ labor.” (Lockwood)

If North was not the real  or sole translator of Diall of Princes, published in 1557, the real author could not have been Oxford, who at age seven was still living with Smith in Buckinghamshire.  (If nothing else this comment shows the kind of suspicions that were rampant at that time about the authorship of so much literature of the imagination.)  During the period that the Diall of Princes was translated, North was enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, where he remained until sometime before 1568, where, like so many other Inns of Court gents, he may have crossed paths with Milord during Oxford’s years at Cecil House (1562-68).  Oxford’s senior by 15 years; North’s nephew, Lord North’s son John, was Oxford’s contemporary, but he died before his father so the title passed to his son, North’s grandson, in 1600.

Lord North was a client of Leicester’s, and therefore not likely to have been particularly concerned with the young Earl of Oxford’s interests or welfare, but that’s not to say that his relations followed suit.  His grandson, Dudley, 2nd Baron North, was a member of the literary circle surrounding Prince Henry.  It’s worth mentioning that, during the Elizabethan era, Lord North owned the most gorgeous of all Chaucer manuscripts, the Ellesmere Chaucer, created in the 14th century as a gift for the 12th Earl of Oxford.

Shakespeare and Coriolanus

One of the Plutarch biographies from which Shakespeare borrowed most heavily, Coriolanus was probably written originally for the winter holidays, late 1582 to early 1583, the period when Walsingham and Sussex were engineering Oxford’s return to Court.  This required that he make amends to the Queen and his in-laws, for which the story of Coriolanus must have seemed ideal, providing a graceful mea culpa for the Court while for the public it functioned as a moral tale addressing the current civil unrest over rising food prices and the increasingly harsh punishments being meted out to followers of the Old Faith.

This would not be the first time Oxford had used Plutarch.  Following his return from Italy in 1576, freaked out by the realization of just how much trouble he was in financially, he had turned to Plutarch’s biography of Timon of Athens, pouring his bitter disillusionment with the Court and his fair-weather courtier friends into the earliest version of what someday would be known as “Shake-spear’s” most angry protagonist.  Then, following his banishment, aware that some were still contented to believe he was a two-faced traitor, he turned again to Plutarch to explain himself via Coriolanus.

Because Oxford’s enemies wanted him seen as a traitor, they promoted the story that he had been planning to run away and fight for Spain.  Coriolanus is evidence that this may be true, or at least, that he had talked rather recklessly about doing it.  Recall that following the untimely birth of his son, he was stopped on the road to Dover in an obvious attempt to flee the country.  To Spain, they said, where he intended to take advantage of an offer to lead a contingent of the Spanish army.  Though not in exactly the same situation as Coriolanus, he too was being charged with treason, something that, unlike the ancient Roman general, he had no means of confronting openly.  Like Hamlet and Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy (both first written about the same time) a play was his way of explaining himself to the Court and his West End community, with the onstage murder of the protagonist in the final act a form of symbolic suicide.

In the inevitable effort to place Coriolanus as late as possible, Bullough tries to connect public unrest in Republican Rome with that of 17th-century England, not all that convincing, public unrest having been endemic throughout the reigns of both Elizabeth and James.  Because the time period he’s chosen, 1605, falls just when England finally made peace with Spain, Bullough makes no effort to make the most obvious connection, namely the similarity of the threat to England from Spain  throughout the 1580s and ’90s to the fears of the ancient Roman authorities over the threat from the Volscians.  He also ignores the startling relevance of the martyrdom of the aristocratic Coriolanus at the hands of the hoi polloi to the calls for more freedom of speech from puritan members of Parliament.  The skewed dating forced on historians by William’s biography won’t permit even the most logical and obvious questions to be given consideration.

It struck me long ago that the role of Menenius could easily be one of Oxford’s more benign depictions of Burghley, while the realistic family scenes with Volumnia and Virgilia just might be snapshots of life at Cecil House.  If the militant Volumnia was meant to represent Mildred Burghley, it reinforces Peter Moore’s take on Oxford’s relationship with his mother-in-law.  Perhaps she represents a combination of all four of the Cooke sisters, including the ferocious Elizabeth Russell, whose proximity to the little Blackfriars theater school gave Lady Russell the power to torment Oxford during the period he was fighting to keep the little stage going, the same period when this play was probably written.

All of this is just the most cursory glance at what seems to me to be an important area of inquiry.  Has some scholar compared North’s biographies with each other to see if they display the same high level throughout?  Are some better than others, those perchance that were the ones used by Shakespeare?  Has anyone capable of the French involved compared the French of Amyot with the English of North to see how much North’s skill depends on Amyot, and how much was his alone?  We’re told the 1595 edition varies in some respects from the 1579 original.  In what way ?  What has been added, and to which of the biographies?  Shakespeare refers to incidents in a number of the Lives in his works, but only these four were the basis for individual plays.

Finally, there are two prefaces to North’s Plutarch, both signed Thomas North, January 1579, one dedicating it to the Queen, the other the traditional letter “To the Reader.”  Both sound for all the world like Oxford’s dedicatory letters, the one in English to Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, and the one in Latin for Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of  Castiglione’s The Courtier.  The same kind of points are made, the same opinions about what is important in literature, even his daring use of the word love.  I’ve read an awful lot from this time––in my opinion, no one else writes like this:

To the Reader

The profit of stories and the praise of the Author are sufficiently declared by Amyot in his epistle to the reader, so that I shall not need to make many words thereof.  And indeed, if you will supply the defects of this translation with your own diligence and good understanding, you shall not need to trust him; you may prove yourselves, that there is no profane study better than Plutarch.  All other learning is private, fitter for universities than cities, fuller of contemplation than experience, more commendable in students themselves than profitable unto others.  Whereas stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books as it is better to see learning in noblemen’s lives than to read it in philosopher’s writings.  Now, for the author, I will not deny but love may deceive me, for I must needs love him with whom I have taken so much pain, but I believe I might be bold to affirm that he hath written the profitablest story of all authors.  For all other were fain to take their matter as the fortune of the countries where they wrote fell out; but this man, being excellent in wit, in learning, and experience, hath chosen the special acts of the best persons, of the famousest nations of the world.  But I will leave the judgement to yourselves.  My only purpose is to desire you to excuse the faults of my translation with your own gentleness, and with the opinion of my diligence and good intent.  And so I wish you all the profit of the book.  Fare ye well.  The four and twentieth day of January, 1579.

To the Most High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth
By the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland
Queen, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Under hope of Your Highness’ gracious and accustomed favor, I have presumed to present here unto Your Majesty, Plutarch’s Lives translated, as a book fit to be protected by Your Highness and mete to be set forth in English.  For who is fitter to give countenance to so many great states than such an high and mighty Princess?  Who is fitter to revive the dead memory of their fame than she that beareth the lively image of their virtues?  Who is fitter to authorize a work of so great learning and wisdom than she whom all do honor as the muse of the world?  Therefore I humbly beseech Your Majesty to suffer the simpleness of my translation to be covered under the ampleness of Your Highness’ protection.  For, most gracious Sovereign, though this book be no book for Your Majesty’s self, who are meeter to be the chief story than a student therein, and can better understand it in Greek than any man can make it English, yet I hope the common sort of your subjects shall not only profit themselves hereby but also be animated to the bettter service of Your Majesty.  For among all the profane books that are in reputation at this day there is none (Your Highness best knows) that teacheth so much honor, love, obedience, reverence, zeal and devotion to princes as these Lives of Plutarch do.  How many examples shall your subjects read here, of several persons and whole armies, of noble and base, of young and old, that both by sea and land, at home and abroad, have strained their wits, not regarded their states, ventured their pesons, cast away their lives, not only for the honor and safety, but also for the pleasure of their princes.

Then well may the readers think, if they have done this for heathen kings, what should we do for Christian princes?  If they have done this for glory, what should we do for religion?  If they have done this without hope of heaven, what should we do that look for immortality?  And so adding the encouragement of these examples to the forwardness of their dispositons, what service is there in war, what honor in peace, which they will not be ready to do for their worthy Queen?

And therefore that Your Highness may give grace to the book and the book may do his service to Your Majesty, I have translated it out of French and do here most humbly present the same unto Your Highness, beseeching Your Majesty with all humility, not to reject the good meaning but to pardon the errors of your most humble and obedient subject and servant, who prayeth God long to multiply all graces and blessings upon Your Majesty.

Written the sixteenth day of January, 1579.
Your Majesty’s most humble and obedient servant,
Thomas North.