Category Archives: the Court Stage

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.

Shakespeare and “the wobble”

For want of a better term, I’m calling it “the wobble.”  This is the period we’re in right now, the one we call the winter stolstice, that goes from, roughly, the 21st of December to the 6th of January, during which the earth changes its orientation to the sun.  Life on earth experiences this as the return of light, sun and warmth.  Days, which until now have been getting shorter, will begin to get longer, a process that will continue until the 21st of June, the summer solstice, when they will begin to shorten once again.

The interesting thing about this period, or one of the interesting things, is how the change occurs.  Like so many changes, it does not happen all at once.  If you check the times of sunrise and sunset you’ll see that as the day begins to expand on December 21st, it’s only the sunset that stops happening earlier and begins to happen later, while sunrise actually continues to take place a little later each day, as it has been doing since June, only changing to earlier on January 6th or 7th, when sunrise and sunset together begin the six month process of expanding the day at both ends, sunrise getting earlier each day while sunset gets later.  It’s as though the morning continues on its downward path for another two weeks while the afternoon and evening are already turning towards spring.

Humans and animals experience this as a time of instability.  With the planet undergoing the stress of a change of direction, everything on earth experiences a slight sensation of going too fast around a corner.  This sensation is too slight to feel or see, but it is constant from the 21st of December until the 6th of January, known to the folk as Twelfth Night and to the Church as the Epiphany.

That the forces that pull and thrust the earth in its path around the sun (forces that are still very poorly understood by science) are in something of a conflict during this two-week period is reflected in the symbol of Janus, the Roman god of transitions for whom January is named, which shows a head with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction.  This is said to represent this period as both looking to the past and to the future.  It can also be seen as looking to the Spring, the springing up of life, while continuing to mourn the Fall, into dearth, that is, seeming death.

The European peoples tradition has set the turn of the year, New Year’s Eve/Day, at a midpoint during this process.  While the traditional solstice point is the 24th of December, opposite to the 24th of June, in ancient tradition the summer solstice, or Midsummer’s Day (note that for centuries it was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and that it is also the date in 1604 when the Earl of Oxford is supposed to have died).  Because the actual moment of transition can occur anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours out of step with the dates assigned by the calendar, the 24th was the earliest that the ancients could be certain the transition had begun.

Ten lords a-leaping

Some readers may already have connected this period with the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which demarked, as the old carol describes, the period of holiday gift-giving, beginning on the day after Christmas and completing on the sixth of January, the twelfth night after Christmas.  It cannot be coincidence that this period conforms exactly to “the wobble,” the two week period when the forces that drive the planet are in conflict with each other, with the earth pulled one way from midnight to noon and another from noon to midnight, until the dayward pull completes its takeover on January 6th or 7th.  That Shakespeare, and the ancient astronomers and astrologers, were  acutely aware of this process cannot be denied.

That the two faces of Janus, the source of the name January, are turned away from each other, suggests that these two forces––if conscious of each other, are in some conflict with each other––fits with the fact that wherever we have history of other times and in other parts of the world, this period has always been an upside-down time of reversal, a two week period during which social and religious conventions are turned around, when the everyday face of law and social propriety is forced to acknowledge humanity’s need to cut loose, as in the Roman Saturnalia.

During prehistoric times, before records were kept, there must have been rituals associated with this period that, in Christian times got turned into those holiday rituals of which we do have reports, such as the Boy Bishop in the parishes, or the Lord of Misrule at the colleges, and the Feast of Fools in France.  In the rural areas it was the time when mummings and disguisings allowed the folk to drink and carry on like sailors “on liberty,” misbehaving in ways that normally would not be tolerated.

There were several other moments of the year when such license was allowed: Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, also known as Shrovetide and Carneval; May Day, May first;  Midsummer’s Eve, June 23rd; and  October 31st, All Hallows Eve (our Halloween); but most of these were but a single day or night, nor did they carry the upside-down quality of reversal.  These rituals were, at least in retrospect, an effective way of allowing groups to blow off steam before situations got so desperate that they led to riot or murder.

Apart from the merry-making, the quality of reversal that marked the twelve days of Christmas gave the meek a chance to pretend they had already inherited the earth while authorities were reminded that their superiority was merely a temporary, or temporal, condition.  It was preeminently a time when satires were rife, whether impromptu performances by mummers, or, in the cities, effigies of authorities to be mocked by the crowd.  Unfortunately, the Reformation, that saw these “may games” first, as something conjured up by the Devil to drag mankind into the fiery furnace, and second, dangerous to authority, was so successful in eradicating them that very little information has come down to us about their nature, leaving folklorists just bits and pieces here and there with which to put together a scenario.  As Shakespeare put it,  twice: “For O, the Hobby Horse is forgot!”

Enter Shakespeare, laughing

Once the academic bonds to Stratford are broken so scholars are free to seek the poet and his works as they actually appear in history, it will  become clear that the literary revolution he inspired by way of the London Stage was Nature’s way of providing the unhappy English, bereft of their beloved holiday traditions, with a viable substitute.  As is clear from the record when we allow ourselves to read it directly, the London Stage was born as an outflow of the Court Stage, which is obviously where he began his career in the late 1560s to early 1570s.  The plays that most agree are his earliest are the comedies with which the Master of the Revels began replacing masques as the primary winter holiday entertainment for the Court in the late 1560s and early 1570s.

Masques, the Court’s version of the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages, were inclined to get rowdy.  With plays the audience remained quietly in their seats, transported to Prospero’s Magical Isle, to Illeria or Athens, through the magic of genius storytelling (these plays would not be labelled as by William Shakespeare until the late 1590s when the actors, forced to publish, needed a name for the title pages).  Thus Elizabeth was able to provide her Court and its foreign visitors with a more intellectual version of the pleasures of an old-fashioned winter holiday while maintaining the dignity required by an unmarried female monarch and the first Reformation Court in Europe.

When these comedies began migrating from the Court to the London theater inns, the public, starved for entertainment, responded with such enthusiasm that entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe saw the creation of yearround public stages as a viable business opportunity.  By replacing the uncertainties of passing the hat or the promises of patrons with a box office at the door, Burbage, a member of the Carpenter’s Guild and a part time actor with the Court-based company known officially as Leicester’s Men, hoped to guarantee a professional living for himself and his fellow amateurs.  Thus did the first versions of  Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado and Twelfth Night, migrate from the Court to the London Stage, opening the door for the great histories and tragedies that would follow in times to come.

“No more cakes and ale”

All of these comedies show traces of their origins as Court entertainment for one or another of these periods of festal license, some containing stage directions that show breaks for music and dancing, even, as in The Tempest, for a possible feast.  Most notable is Twelfth Night, where the subplot follows the traditions of this anomalous holiday period in the antics of Sir Toby, Maria, Feste and Fabian, while their battle with Malvolio reflects the war the actors were fighting with the London mayors and those Court officials who wanted them shut down.  The “reversal” involved shows their success in getting the Countess to have her steward, Malvolio, incarcerated as a lunatic, and in Feste’s undoubtedly hilarious imitation of a Reformation prelate.

But the solemnity of Feste’s question, directed at Malvolio, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?’ is posed, if not so directly, by all these holiday plays.   Malvolio’s curse, with which the play ends: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” seems astonishly prophetic, considering how a few decades later the puritans would succeed in shutting down all the theaters in England, and that even after they reopened two decades later, Shakespeare would not be seen again in the form in which his plays were originally written for another 200 years!  Perhaps by the time another benchmark arrives in another century we’ll have begun to accept the fact that the plays were written by a courtier, and not the illiterate William who gave nothing to the enterprise but his wonderfully punnable name and twenty years of sturdy silence.

Twelfth Night on Broadway throughout January

Although it’s most likely that it’s through serendipity alone and no occult design that this play in which the ancient reversal tradition is perhaps the strongest of all Shakespeare’s plays, is playing on Broadway during this year’s “wobble.”  With that genius of the Shakespeare stage, Mark Rylance, in a starring role, this is one of those theater events that, for those of us who like our Shakespeare authentic, is not to be missed.  Done to perfection in a sort of faux-sixteenth century style, nothing could be more “reversed” than the fact that Rylance has chosen to play Olivia rather than Sir Toby or any other of the male roles (with the marvelous Stephen Fry as Malvolio).  This, plus the fact that all the female roles are played by males, however attributed to authenticity (all female roles were played by male actors in Shakespeare’s England), does not explain their Kabuki-like makeup or perambulation .  For what’s most “authentic” about Mark’s approach is that, like Shakespeare,  he takes what the past has to offer and by mixing it with something unexpected, achieves effects that no one else would dare to attempt.

Thus Rylance, whose brilliant treatments of Shakespeare were the major contribution to the success of the New Globe Theater while he was presiding as its Artistic Director for its first ten years, during which he used his, and its, popularity to awaken the public to the authorship question, shows himself again to be the grand master of reversals during this winter holiday wobble.  On nights when he’s not playing Olivia he’s playing Richard III as a sort of royal Mr. Punch.

Here I am backstage at the great and beautiful Belasco Theater with this dear, generous, and incredibly gifted friend (photo taken by my daughter). God bless great actors, especially those who can make us laugh!Me and Mark Rylance

Passing the hat

As this time of year has always been devoted to requests for donations by worthy causes, I hope mine qualifies with some of you as worthy of support.  I’m asking those readers who believe what I’m doing is contributing to the world’s knowledge (politicworm gets hits every day from all over the world), not only about Shakespeare and his works, but about the history of the period when he lived, I would be most appreciative of a little help in getting  books that I need to have available for reference that I can’t get online, and that the library won’t let me keep longer than a month.

Should you feel inspired to help in this way, you can do so by purchasing a gift card through Amazon.com for politicworm at gmail.com.  Any amount is greatly appreciated.  You can take the option of putting your name on it, which means I can thank you personally, and if you wish, include you in the acknowledgements in the book that hopefully will be done this coming year.  If you wish to remain anonymous, whether to me or to my readers, you just leave the name space blank (but of course I’d much prefer to know who you are).

Meanwhile I’m grateful to everyone who subscribes to this wobbelog.  And to all who comment on my posts, who give me encouragement, inspiration, and food for thought, a fun and exciting winter wobble and a healthy and prosperous rising year.

Why was Shakespeare never at Court?

So many things about Shakespeare make no sense.  Droeshout bloggie-2Constantly repeated in the traditional history of the British Stage is the notion that he showed no interest in his plays once they were performed.  That his name appears nowhere in any record of publication apart from title pages, that there’s no record that William of Stratford was even in London for almost a decade before his death in 1616, suggests to those attempting to explain this unique behavior on the part of a theatrical impresario that he was somehow “above” dealing with publishers.

In fact, as more recent studies have emphasized, nothing could be further from the truth.  As one of the literary giants of all time, Shakespeare understood very well the importance of getting his work published.  The idea, put about by biographers, that he took no interest in the publication of his plays, or by Walter Greg and company that they were utterly dependent on the whims of various actors and reporters who rewrote them for publication, violates common sense.

First, all but one or two of Shakespeare’s plays as published, whether in quarto or in the collected works known as the First Folio in 1623, are much longer than could be easily fitted into the traditional two hours “traffic” on the stage.  Why write so much more than what can be produced?  The answer is simple: while actors may have had no more than two hours, readers had as much time as they required.  From 1594 on, Shakespeare had two venues for his stories, the stage and the press, and prepared for both according to their differing requirements; if all we have are what he prepared for publication, in some cases with changes added by later editors), well, that’s the nature of publishing (some of the so-called “bad quartos” may in fact be the texts that the actors used).  If the print quality of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are far beyond that of most of the quartos, it simply argues that he had more control over the publishing of his poetry than he did over his plays.  It does not mean he sat back while––per Greg and countless editors––the actors rewrote and published his writing.

Second, the commonsense explanation for the many differences between the quartos, or pamphlet versions of his plays published between 1594 and 1619 and between them and the 1623 Folio versions, is that the varying qualities of the quartos testify to the period when they were written, the worse the earlier, the better the later.  Why replace this commonsense explanation with elaborate theories of reprehensible printers and unidentified spies and actors?  Because the dating scheme forced on the academy by the Stratford biography won’t allow for texts that reflect styles as early in some cases as the 1570s.

This is not to say that no play text was ever pirated or rewritten by later playwrights.  The effort by intelligent scholars like Brian Vickers to prove that other hands are to be found in a few of the plays can’t be discounted.  But it should be noted that none of these are among Shakespeare’s best, or even his better plays.  If the explanation for the variations in style in Titus Andronicus are due to later revision, not by the author but by some other writer, well, so what?  The importance of Titus has little to do with its value as a performable play, more in what it tells us about where Shakespeare began, a question for literary history based on text and publication, not on whether or not we would enjoy seeing it performed today.  While Vickers suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, his evidence works equally well as the later addition to an early original once Shakespeare was gone to his ancestors.  There’s no need to think, as he seems to, to see them sitting down together and discussing who will write what scene.

The same is true of Two Noble Kinsmen, what value it may have coming chiefly from the fact that Shakespeare’s name appears on its title page.  That TNK tells the same story from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as was told by a play titled Palamon and Arcite performed for the Court at Oxford University in 1566 (during which Oxford got a Master’s degree), and that a (lost) play by the same name was performed by the Admirals’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose Theater several times in the fall of 1594, the first time labeled “ne” for “newly emended,” are facts that to someone under no pressure to conform to the Stratford dates might suggest point to a single play, one written in 1566, revised by its author in 1594, and again in 1613 by John Fletcher, rather than three separate plays based on the same source.   This desire to break up a work based on a particular story involving the same cast of characters into a series of works by a series of early (unnamed) writers is based, not on any hard evidence of such a process ever having actually taken place, but purely on the need to limit Shakespeare’s terminus a quo to the 1590s before which time William of Stratford was simply unavailable.

The importance of the Court

Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe, the Court and courtier patrons stepping in to protect them only that the Queen might have her “solace” over the Christmas holidays.  According to this scenario, plays performed at Court by the adult companies were, as are plays today, written for the public as commercial ventures, some enjoyed by the Queen and her minions, but none written specifically with them in mind.

Why this should be true of the adult companies when it’s obvious that plays were being written specifically for the children’s companies to perform for the Court isn’t addressed.  It’s clear from the Revels accounts that what the Queen preferred for her solace were comedies performed by her young choristers.  Eight of these survive, written for the chorus boys from Paul’s Cathedral and attributed to John Lyly.  For the dozen or more plays performed by other boy companies throughout this period we have but one text and no authors.  The Court was also the souce for a great deal of poetry that if the academics are to be believed, developed in a vacuum apart from what Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing.  Prof. Stephen May’s 2002 The Courtier Poets ignores the fact that London was a small city and that the plays of both poets were not only popular with the public, but were also frequently performed at Court.

Common sense should also tell us that in a culture like the England of the sixteenth century, nothing could prosper without noble patronage, certainly nothing on the scale of the three-story theaters that dominated the landscape and that faced the kind of violent opposition that Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage describes.  The idea that Burbage and Henslowe could build their theaters where they did and keep them going for as long as they did without more assistence from their Privy Council patrons than simply the occasional letter of support is absurd.  That the obvious battle over the London Stage was connected with a similar battle within the Court community and the Privy Council over its identical twin, the Court Stage, should be obvious, and would be if the English Departments who are supposed to be the guardians of truth about our literary past kept so much as half an eye on its history.

Accompanying this astigmatism is the even bigger blind spot relating to the close proximity of the Blackfriars theater to the politically influential West End.  With the perfectly located public theater on the major thoroughfare into and out of Central London, one might think that this location too was the result of careful planning.  But such gaps are endemic in a study that either cannot or will not see the connection between the works of Shakespeare and the politics of Elizabeth’s Court.  Literary critics continue to chase their tails around Stratford while evidence of Shakespeare’s connection to the Court lies unobserved in open view.

That Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Baron Hunsdon, whose job it was to oversee Court entertainment, next to the Queen and the Principal Secretary, the most powerful man on the Privy Council, his fingers in every political pie, his hand close to if not actually on the rudder of the Ship of State, that this was just another acting company, its popularity the only factor in its importance, is the result of Hunsdon’s efforts and those of other powerful men and women, to keep his company’s connection to the Crown as hidden as possible for political reasons should be obvious to anyone with any grasp of the history of the period.

However modest its origins were made to appear, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was in fact England’s Crown company, following the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1589, the second ever to be created, its official status reaffirmed when, following Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King James, it was renamed the King’s Men.   Their sharers included James Burbage head of the first company ever to get a license, his son, plus the top players from both leading companies of the time.

How can the so-called critics be so obtuse as to miss the connection between the most celebrated plays of the day and the politics that raged around them and their audiences?  How can they fail to understand that the London Stage was the sixteenth century equivalent of America’s John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, England’s Chris Morris?   Forced by the Stratford bio to date the plays ten to fifteen years out of sync with events, they continue the mystification that was first conceived by men like Hunsdon and Burbage, Howard and Henslowe, to hide the connection between the London Stage and the Crown.  How can they fail to see that the elimination of Marlowe was the act of an angry Crown towards one who brazenly and wantonly violated its unwritten agreement to treat the Crown and its religion with respect.  If not the English Departments, who will write the true history of this period during which poets, one in particular, stood at the forefront of a groundswell moving inexorably towards not just talking about, not just demanding, but actually getting, freedom of speech.

While Moliére was the intimate friends of the French King’s brother, a member of French Court society; while the Poet Ronsard was born into French Court circles, the intimate of three French kings; while the Italian poet Tasso, a nobleman at the Courts of the Princes of Urbino and Ferrara, was the familiar of their highest circles; while the playwright Ariosto was the familiar of the Cardinal d’Este and the Duke of Ferrera; while the playwright Machiavelli was the familiar of the Medici; the orator Cicero the colleague of Caesar and Mark Antony; the poets Ovid and Virgil known at the the Court of Caesar Augustus; Lord Byron the intimate of the highest members of Regency society––why was the great Shakespeare never seen at Elizabeth’s Court?  Why was he never even introduced?

Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court?  Yes, there are Court figures who feature in the story of the birth of modern English literature: Sidney was an important writer as was Raleigh and Bacon, Harington and Donne.  But what about Spenser?  Wouldn’t it make sense that he was brought to Court, like these others, and not left to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Irish kerns in the wilds of County Limerick?

And what about the great master, the greatest of all, Shakespeare, whose plays were performed at Court for decades?  Why is Shakespeare never found at Court?

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Acts I through III

One of the reasons why it’s been so hard to convince the world that the Stratford story is a sham is that no one’s ever come up with a single strong reason why the true author’s identity had to be hidden.  Those who first drew the public’s attention to the subject in the 19th century pointed to his obvious knowledge of Court life, claiming that courtiers of stature would have hidden their involvement in the then déclassé public stage.  Certainly this is true, but for most it doesn’t explain why the cover-up had to continue so long after the author’s death.  Sir Philip Sidney’s work was in print, over his name, six years after his death.  Oxford’s uncle, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, was similarly published over his within ten years of his death.  So why not Oxford’s?

Most of the bigger things in life occur for more than one reason.  If you look at your own life, you’ll see that you went to college for more than one reason, that you picked a particular college for more than one reason, that you married a particular person for more than one reason, changed jobs, bought a house, divorced, always for more than one reason.  Nations go to war for more than one reason, and resist going to war for more than one reason.  Just so, the Shakespeare authorship got hidden for more than one reason.

Had this not been the case, had it not been first to one person’s advantage (his own), then his tutor’s advantage, then to his guardian’s advantage, then to an entire community’s advantage, and ultimately to the advantage of the company he started, one that initiated an industry that has come to be seen as the fourth branch of government, the voice of the people, the truth would surely have been revealed somewhere.  But it wasn’t, it didn’t, and some of these reasons have not faded with time.  For the fact is, that there never was, during Oxford’s lifetime, any advantage to him, to his family, to the theater companies he created and those who profitted by them on into succeeding centuries, for the truth to be revealed to the public; never any advantage to any of these, and plenty of disadvantages.

Not everyone who knew the secret knew it in its entirety, that is, some knew one thing, some another, but the likelihood is that no one knew all that he was writing, or later, all that he had written.  Even to this day there is disagreement over what was his and what was by some other writer or editor.  The committee that produced the First Folio could collect versions of the plays from the various friends, actors, and printers who held them, but how sure could they be of what was and wasn’t his?   Nothing was signed, and because like most men of his class, he dictated to secretaries, nothing was in his own handwriting.

Certainly the Queen knew that particular plays were his, at least since 1598, when the Meres book was published, at least of those plays named by Meres and most likely a dozen more, but it is very likely that of the 38 accepted plays and the 15 to 20 suggested early plays, there were some that she knew nothing about, and those she knew may very well have differed from the versions we know, because it was not advisable that she know the versions played for the West End audience, or on the road, or for a particular private gathering.

As Secretary of State, Oxford’s guardian (then his father-in-law) William Cecil/Ld Burghley had oversight over the press, so he knew all  about using both the stage and the press for propaganda; it’s a fact that he made use of both in his early years as Elizabeth’s first Secretary of State.  Burghley was instrumental in bringing printers over from the Continent to publish those works he considered essential to a reformation education.  Though unfortunately his biographer, Conyers Read, does not elaborate, he refers to the press as “the weapon Cecil knew best.”  Since Oxford lived with Cecil during the years he first began to publish, years when Cecil was doing his own propaganda, it was from him that he learned how to publish on the sly.  Knowing him as well as he did, he also learned how to work around him.

ACT I: Hidden in plain sight

When he first began to write, no one, including the boy himself, had any idea where it would take him or how important his work would turn out to be.  In fact the field in which he would flourish so luxuriously, English literature, hardly existed before he began transforming it.  Given the intense, bustling environment at Cecil House, surrounded by poets and translators in that important age group for a young artist, six to ten years his seniors; then in his late teens at Court, with a ready-made audience hungry for sophisticated, educated entertainment; what would end as the most important body of work since Chaucer two and a half centuries earlier began simply as a lark, a folie, a bit of “pickle herring,” something to entertain the lads at Cecil House, then the ladies at Court.

The authorship issue was never about writing anyway, it was always about publication.  So long as he wrote just for the Court community via the traditonal handwritten manuscript exchange there was no problem.  But creating hundreds of printed copies for sale to all comers meant making public what the Court saw as its own private pleasure, making it available, if to a far smaller public than today’s where almost everyone can read, yet it meant revealing it to the same 15 to 20 percent of the population most eager to pry into Court secrets.  And it was publishing that interested Oxford.

Writing was no big deal, everyone he knew did it.  It was creating books that fascinated him; books, those magical vehicles of culture, that could carry a man’s life and reputation for hundreds, thousands of years into the future so that readers would come to know someone like Alexander the Great, or even the mythical Achilles, as though they had lived with him; knowing him better in some ways than they knew their own families. Publishing was also the best means of hiding his identity as author.  While handwritten manuscripts could be traced back, if not to directly to himself, then to someone who knew who wrote it, typeset print was anonymous.  All that identified the author was the name on the title page, or registered with the Stationers, and that could be faked a lot more easily than handwriting.

Taking advantage of the traditions of his class as patrons of the arts, Oxford began a long career of publishing what he regarded as important works, some by  his friends, some his own, some translations of famous foreign works, , some about science, or music, or psychology, or  but mostly works of the imagination, stories and poems.

In this he was also following in his guardian’s footsteps, although most of what he considered worth publishing differed considerably from Burghley’s view of what was important.  Reformation ideologues, William Cecil and his in-laws occupied the legal and social center of a deadly serious, extremely repressive Reformation culture that saw adherence to Protestant beliefs as paramount.  They also saw sex as filthy and satire as rebellion.  So Oxford’s first step in what would become the long and complex process of hiding his authorship began by persuading pals like George Gascoigne and his uncle Arthur Golding to let him use their names so he could get his plays and poems published without Burghley’s permission, possibly even without his knowledge of their source.

Though not aware of everything Oxford wrote, William Cecil must have been aware of his ward’s talent.  That would have been impossible to hide, and, as a propagandist himself, he probably saw the boy’s gifts as something he might put to future use.  The ward, however, was destined to take a different path in life, one he wanted his guardian, and his guardian’s wife, and her family (and perhaps even his own wife), to know as little about as possible.  In his teens, his writing was just a lark, something to entertain his friends before settling down to––as he would often term it––“a graver labour.”

By his late teens, when he was more or less on his own at Court, there was no need to hide from the other members of the Court things like his madrigals and interludes written for holiday performance.  On the other hand, satires or poems that touched dangerously on intimate matters, however discreetly distributed within his own circle, must inevitably have spread further, raising eyebrows along with the question of their authorship.  So long as none of this escaped the confines of the Court community there was no real harm in it.  But when, just before taking off for a year on the Continent, in a first of many anthologies, he published along with love poems by himself and his friends, a “tale” that dwelt too obviously on the sex lives of certain courtiers, it released a firestorm of furious retribution.  This did nothing to prevent him from publishing, but it did help to make him more cautious about what and how he published.

ACT II: Birth of a professional

Then in 1572, when the Earl of Sussex came on board as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, what had begun as a lark began turning serious.  At that time it was still the Earl of Leicester who ran the Court Stage, but Sussex, who hated Leicester, was determined to get the oversight of Court entertainment back where it had been for centuries, in the Lord Chamberlain’s hands, that is, under his own control.  And unlike Leicester, whose taste ran to more old-fashioned stuff, Sussex understood how important the Court Stage could be in winning hearts and minds, not only at Court, but with the influential West End community that lived and worked within walking distance of Whitehall.  Quickly bored by the constraints of what he could and could not produce at Court, it was this audience he was most eager to reach.  Thus it was that the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral, known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, began performing Oxford’s plays, first at Court, then for a week or two after, at the little theater connected to the Cathedral.

If a professional is defined as someone who works to a schedule, who provides for a public demand, who competes successfuly with others in the same line, as opposed to someone who merely hangs out a shingle, frames a certificate, and earns a living wage, then by age 25 Oxford was functioning as a professional dramatist.  Not that that was his ambition; not at all.  His ambition from childhood had been to follow his ancestors as his nation’s foremost military leader.  Fate, however, had other plans.  The times were not right for someone of his station to risk his life in dubious battle––not while the British Media was straining to be born.  Paul’s Boys were only one of a number of companies that sprang into being at that time, foremost among them the men who wore Leicester’s livery, but who were free to play for anyone who could pay.

As competition for space at the theater inns became intense, trouble with the City officials increased.  For them it was one thing to deal with the rowdy holiday crowds for a few weeks in December and January,  a tradition too old and too ingrained to stop, even for determined Reformation puritans, which is what most London mayors were at that time––but to allow it to continue on into the spring and summer was, so far as they were concerned, simply out of the question.  Their escalating demands to “pluck down” the theaters drove the Privy Council to seek solutions.  Thus it may well have been Sussex who persuaded Burghley and the Queen to finally let Oxford have his much desired tour of the Continent, particularly to Italy where he could see at first hand how the Italians did it.

To Sussex and his relatives on the Council, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard, the Stage as a factor in English society was obviously not going to be suppressed.  Rather than fight it, they must join it, regulate it, and use it to promote Crown policy.  That this was in any way the motivation for Oxford’s trip would have to be kept to themselves, since any sign to the City or the Clergy that the Council’s interest in the burgeoning London theater went beyond the Queen’s right to her “solace” would cause even more trouble than was already the case.  For Burghley this may have seemed like a way to keep his wayward son-in-law in the fold.  For enemies like Leicester and Hatton it meant getting him out of the way, at least for awhile.

Oxford had a lot of reasons for wanting to visit Italy.  Not only was it the source of the Italian Renaissance, of the western world’s most dazzling art and architecture, home to painters like Titian, scholars like Jerome Cardan and poets like Tasso, it was also where the immensely popular comedia dell’arte troupes were performing on the streets and in the halls of princes, and where the great architect Andrea Palladio was constructing experimental theaters of the sort that he and Sussex and Hunsdon thought might be the answer to their greatest need.  They had the actors, with Oxford they had the scripts, they certainly had the audiences, and in James Burbage they had both an actor and a builder who had already built one public theater that, unfortunately, had failed.  What they needed were better locations and better theater designs.   It may be that while Oxford was in Italy, they were already at work on plans for these.

That this was one of the most important reasons for Oxford’s trip seems obvious by how the first two commercially successful, yearround, purpose-built stages in England (possibly in all of Europe) began taking shape within weeks of his return.  With two theaters, several adult companies and three companies of boy choristers hungry for scripts, Oxford was now a fully fledged theater professional, duty bound to keep them satisfied, and desperately in need of assistance.  This came with his acquisition of the manor known as Fisher’s Folly located in the heart of the theater district.  With the financial assistence of patrons like the Italian banker Benedict Spinola, the music of artists like the Italian Bassano brothers, and the transcription skills of secretaries like John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and eventually Francis Bacon, Oxford was off and running.

It’s hard to see where he found time to write the first two novels in English history, Zelautoand Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit.  With these he performed the first of his great upward leaps in style.  What we call euphuism may already have been a fad at Court by the time that he both raised it to an art form and dealt it its death blow, for having taken it to its peak, there was nothing left but to turn it to satire, some of it his own.  It does give us an idea of what some of his plays from this period were like.  In any case, now that he had secretaries he no longer had to beg the use of their names from friends or family members.  And since no one at that time saw any point in publishing playscripts, the issue of their official authorship had yet to appear.

ACT III: Banished: The second leap

Court life was never easy for Oxford.  He tended to drink more than was healthy and spend more on clothes and luxuries than was wise.  He got caught up in dangerous intrigues and overreacted to the rivalries that surrounded him.  Young and handsome, the temptations of sex and the hungers of his heart got him involved with too many women, none of them his wife.   His Catholic cousins played on his sympathies and on his bitterness towards Burghley and Leicester for their use and misuse of his estates.  Believing himself to be in love with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor, he dreamed of escaping with her to Spain where he’d been promised military action and a decent income.  It all came crashing down when the dishonored Maid gave birth to his bastard in the Queen’s chamber, and he found himself in the Tower for two months, then banished from Court indefinitely.

However wounded his pride, exile gave him the space he’d been craving and rage gave him the impetus to take the second of the three great quantum leaps in self expression that would ultimately place him in the pantheon of the world’s top creators.  No longer bound to produce lighthearted comedies for the Court, he turned to writing tragedies for the West End, both the classic Greek and bloody Senecan varieties.  With Sussex dead and Walsingham pressing for history plays for the newly formed Queen’s Men, he took refuge in the familiar preoccupations of his childhood, studying the papers that Richard Field and others were preparing to publish in Holinshed’s name, some of which came from his old tutor Smith.  Reading and translating Roman poets and Greek plays, his style deepened.  Trimmed of euphuistic artificialities, the old fourteeners replaced by iambic pentameter, the most natural rhythm for English, he spoke more simply, directly, and powerfully to the audience he cared most about.

Although by June of 1583 he’d been accepted back at Court and had returned at least to the appearance of living with his wife, he was by then too deep in the production of the works that meant something to him, and to the lifestyle that allowed him to produce them, to ever go back to full attendance on the Queen.  She craved a return to the early days when he was always around, dancing attendance and producing the kind of entertainment he’d taught her to prefer, but there was no privacy at Court, and he had to have privacy to write.  So there developed a neverending tug of war between them, him straining for freedom, which she would continue to dangle before him but with no intention of giving him anything that might mean losing him.  He was the goose that laid the golden eggs that made her Court so popular, and at so little cost to herself.

Restless, seeking new outlets, it was during this period (1582-92) that Oxford launched the English periodical press with the series of pamphlets he published as by Robert Greene.  After 1589, when Bacon joined him with their joint attacks, first on Martin Mar-prelate, then on Marlowe and Alleyn, they kept the fun going with a phony pamphlet war in which Bacon’s fictional persona, Thomas Nashe, and Oxford’s fictional version of poor Gabriel Harvey (very much alive but in no position to do any kicking), taunted each other with hilarious abandon, thus establishing the first audience for what would evenually become the British tabloid press.  Unfortunately for the lads, neither the Cecils nor the Bishops saw the humor in this, and with Robert Cecil approaching an age where he could enter the fray, the stage was set for the final act in the birth of the English Stage, the creation of the fictional author, William Shake-speare, poet, playwright, actor and sharer.

Coming:  Act IV: Shakespeare: The third and final quantum leap

Oxford’s three audiences

Modern readers of Shakespeare come to the plays through the First Folio, the versions of the 36 plays published in 1623 by the patrons of his company, known by then as the King’s Men.  Publication then, and ever since, has performed a cleansing process on the plays, providing texts without any of the baggage, attitudes or complications that history attaches to important works of the past.

In Shakespeare’s case, partly because they were written so long ago (though, as it turns out, not entirely) it’s been next to impossible to place the plays in history in any meaningful way.  Roughly half had previous publication in quarto format, the other half were never published until the First Folio.  Some were registered with the stationers, others not.  Some were mentioned in letters or publications by contemporaries, most were not.

Although we have a few holographs (handwritten versions) of other plays from around that time, none are by Shakespeare.  Unlike their sister company, the Lord Admiral’s Men (later Prince Henry’s Men) documented by the diary of theater owner Philip Henslowe and other papers retained at Dulwich College by his stage manager Edward Alleyn, if anyone in Shakespeare’s company ever kept any records, they didn’t survive.  The only records to survive are mid-17th century court cases over ownership of the by then lucrative company shares.  Whoever or whatever we mean by Shakespeare, he or it created one of the most successful businesses of the period, at least for those who ran it in London.

One result of this has been that even those who should know better tend to approach the plays as though they were more or less all written under the same impulse, to make money for both the writer and his actors, and for the same public audience––the only issue being when.  Because the Stratford biography forces them all into a decades late 15-year time-frame, efforts to see genuine connections to current issues and events have failed, creating a Shakespeare who plucked his subjects more or less out of thin air, and all for the same audience, an amazingly well-read  public, with the Court little more than an adjunct, as it is today.

With Oxford as author, all of this changes; the process becomes at once much more complicated and also much more interesting.  The unspoken assumption that everything that Shakespeare wrote could have been seen by anyone in his time who came to London or who had a penny to spare falls by the wayside.  The fact is that different audiences saw very different kinds of plays, even in some cases, different versions of the same play.  The illusion given by the First Folio, that all the plays share a sort of equality of presence, fails as well.  As with the works of every other great artist, each play has a history of its own, and all are closely connected to events in the life of the author and of the communities, the nation, and the world in which he lived alongside his fellows.

With a solid historical framework in place, it shouldn’t be nearly so difficult to place each play within a relatively narrow and realistic time-frame, even in some cases down almost to the very day.  In attempting to set dates for a particular play, it helps to determine for which of his three audiences did he write it originally:  the Court, the Inns of Court, or the public?  Eventually all of his plays ended up as public entertainment, but few (if any) were written originally with only the public in mind.

His Court audience

As a member of the Court from probably around age 17 until he was banished at 31, Oxford’s energies were chiefly directed towards entertaining his own community.  He was not unique in this, or rather, he was unique only in the quality of his work, for all of the upwards of 40 or 50 individuals who formed the core of the permanent Court community, those who had suites of rooms at Court where they lived yearround, were expected to contribute their particular skills for the support and/or pleasure of the group.  As the crème de la crème of English society, they were expected to sight read music notation, to sing complicated vocal arrangements, play the lute or the virginals, and perform the latest dances.

Oxford’s dancing was obviously admired by the Queen; of the handful of his poems that come down to us, many, perhaps most, are song lyrics (madrigal lyrics often sound like complicated poems), while in later years he was praised by a fellow composer as being as accomplished musically as any professional.  So we can assume, based on what evidence remains, that he quickly rose in the Court’s estimation for his contributions to musical and dramatic events.

His writing for the Court may have begun with interludes, witty dialogues exchanged by two or three of the boy choristers, interspersed with musical offerings by the boys, the Court’s permanent staff of musicians, or courtiers with pretentions to expertise.  These interludes soon expanded into full length plays like Love’s Labor’s Lost, that were made up of a series of comic or romantic interludes interspersed with songs and sometimes dances, even, as in The Tempest, with the company taking time in the middle of the show for a feast served by the cast.  E.T. Clark has identified several of these from their early listings in the Revels records.

Most of the plays termed comedies in the First Folio began as entertainments for the Court community.  Over time, some of these became standard entertainments, revised every few years by adding new topical material and characters, or revising old material to fit new situations.  In this way a character like Armado in Love’s Labours Lost represented a different Court figure when the play was first written than he does in the 1623 version, in which he represents Antonio Perez, whose presence at Court can be easily assigned to a few years in the mid-90s.  This has confused scholars who would otherwise place the play as early as the late 1570s when Elizabeth was contemplating marriage to the duc d’Alençon.   It may be that the play was originally very early, but once it became a favorite at Court, he would update it every few years for the winter holidays.  How many versions survived, and what dicing and splicing the First Folio editors may have done with them we can only guess.

When writing for the Court Oxford was of course always aware that the core of his audience were the Queen and her entourage of ladies, the wives and daughters of leading Court officials.  In writing to please them he learned early that what entertains men is not always appreciated by women, particularly the sort of well-bred, educated women who were welcomed by Elizabeth into her private circle.  That this was Oxford’s primary Court audience can be seen from his early published works (attributed to Petti, Lyly or Greene) that were specifically targeted toward female readers.

Although there’s much to suggest that Oxford preferred to write for the West End, he never ceased to entertain his home community, providing plays for Court weddings until his final days.  Among his final revisions were those produced for the 1604 wedding of his youngest daughter, Susan Vere, to the Earl of Montgomery.  The Folio version of The Tempest comes largely from the 1595 version he wrote for the marriage of his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to the Earl of Derby, which he further revised as The Spanish Maze for Susan’s wedding.  The Folio version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for the wedding of his old flame, Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton, to Sir Thomas Heneage in 1594.  Taming of the Shrew was written originally as a wedding roast for the 1579 marriage of Lord Strange to Alice Spencer.

His West End audience

Outraged at his banishment from Court and by the way he and his men were being threatened by his lover’s relatives as Elizabeth sat by and did nothing, Oxford wrote nothing for the Court for the two years that he was ostracized (1581-’83), turning instead to his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.”  For them he could unfurl the full power of his rhetoric on the kind of issues that would never have passed the Court censors.  The West End (more accurately the city of Westminster) was where the legal colleges, the Inns of Court, were located.  Further west, between the Strand and the Thames, stood the great City mansions where the most prestigious courtiers and government officials lived.

For Oxford and his patrons, this was the most important audience in London, particularly during the relatively infrequent moments when Parliament gathered to vote on a subsidy for the Queen.  Once we can begin to focus on details, it will be helpful to use these times as moments when he was most intent on reaching this audience with plays relevant to current issues, for it was then that the most influential men in England gathered together at one time and in one place.  Plays that deal with national issues, like treason (Julius Caesar), colonization (The Tempest), or the Law (Merchant of Venice) are most likely to have been first written for this audience, and the only possible stage where they would have produced these plays was at the little stage in the chorister’s school at Blackfriars.   The big public theaters were located in suburbs far from Westminster, while the Blackfriars stage was a mere hop and a skip to the west along Fleet Street, or, if coming by water from one of the mansions on the Strand, just footsteps from the elegant old Blackfriars watergate.

Happy finally to be writing for adult actors (no more little eyeases!) I believe that it was for this audience that he produced the first version of  Timon of Athens, the first version of Troilus and Cressida (written before he discovered that Ann Vavasor was not the Cressida he had so unkindly assumed), of Romeo and Juliet (after discovering that she still loved him), of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus (written to explain his urge to desert England and fight for Spain), and of The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet (written out of anguish at the death of his patron, the Earl of Sussex, and suspicion that he’d been poisoned by his enemy, the Earl of Leicester).  The only one of these that we have today in anywhere near the original version is The Spanish Tragedy (attributed to Thomas Kyd); all the others were rewritten for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men during Oxford’s final Shakespeare period (1593-1608).

The public plays

Last, and in many ways least, at least so far as his personal interest was concerned, there was the public audience that, through their far greater numbers would make his works “popular” as neither the Court nor the Inns of Court ever could, something that gave a great deal of power to the company that produced them.  When Oxford first began producing plays at Court in the late 1560s and early ’70s, the various children’s companies that performed them were allowed to supplement their sparce Court stipends by performing the plays they’d rehearsed for the Court a few times at the little theater at Paul’s Cathedral school for choristers.  These early comedies migrated rapidly to both the public and private theaters.  Because their subjects were popular and easily understood and no deep knowledge of history or philosophy was required to enjoy them, they pleased the public, and because any satires of known Court personalities would be lost on a public audience, there was no reason for the Privy Council to get in the way.

By 1583, with the creation of the Crown company known as the Queen’s Men, Oxford found himself writing for the provincial audiences that, as McMillin and Maclean show, were the new company’s primary focus.  It’s possible to see in these early plays, most of them termed as “apocryphal,” his attempts to deal with local or at least popular issues as in Arden of Faversham, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, The Birth of Merlin, James IV and Edmond Ironside.  Responding to Walsingham’s desire to teach the provincials something about their history, he also wrote the early versions of what, as Shakespeare, he would turn into the great history plays: The Famous Victiories turning into Henry V, the Contention between York and Lancaster into the Henry VI series, and so forth.

Early in James’s reign, towards the end of the Shakespeare period, perhaps in exchange for stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, Oxford consented as his share of the bargain to provide updated versions of what early Court plays remained for the now royally established King’s Men, versions that would make them one of the most successful commercial enterprises of the Stuart period.  It seems he was embarrassed about this.  Feeling called upon to explain to his community why he was turning plays that they regarded as theirs into public works,  he produced at a great welcoming get-together for King James at Wilton or Salisbury the summer of  1603 a new version of As You Like It in which, as Touchstone, he explains his need to marry the provincial and unpoetic public audience he personalizes as Audrey (audire, Latin for to listen).  A man must marry and a playwright must have an audience.

Of course many plays migrated across these boundaries and although not everyone could see a play at Court nor could a poor apprentice afford one of the expensive indoor private theaters, members of the first two audiences could always see a play at one of the public theaters should they wish, and probably did quite often––all but the Queen, that is. It’s so unlikely as to be impossible that she ever ventured outside her Court confines for any purpose; every venture from one arena to another was in the nature of a state occasion.  Her dignity could not be impeached by being seen in anything less, and her person had to be protected from the lunatics and drunks that were constantly threatening to do her in.  In Tudor and Stuart times, the theater came to the monarch, not the monarch to the theater.

This of course was a boon for Oxford and his patrons, for they could trust that some of the material would never reach her ears.  We know what happened a few times when that occurred.  She would never come to them, and no one in his or her right mind would tell her things that might stir her anger enough to allow the theater’s many and determined enemies to “pluck it down.”  It also made it easy for him to hide from her how much of what came from his literary circle came directly from him.  Those darn secretaries, always publishing things behind his back!

Was Shakespeare a woman?

From time to time I’ve stated my opposition to the idea that Shakespeare could have been a standin for a woman.  In response to a request from a reader (Howard Schumann), I’ll go into a little more detail.

One can’t argue that “Shakespeare is such an obviously masculine voice,” because many women have written believably as men.  The best evidence for this is Mary Shelley, who once beat two very masculine writers in a three-way contest to tell the best horror story––her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron––when she created the still popular Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in 1816.  So it’s not because a woman can’t write believably in a male voice or create believable male characters.  They can, and do, every day.

Shakespeare has given us interesting women, but they are all seen from a male point of view.  It’s a thoughtful view, but it is still an outsider’s view.  Had Shakespeare been a female, she would have revealed more deeply the inner workings of a woman’s mind. Her women would have been as witty as her men, and been given as memorable speeches,  One would think that in her 38 plays she would have featured at least one major female protagonist or told at least one woman’s story.  Apart from giving them good lines, true of most of his characters, Shakespeare did none of these.

Good lines and understandable motivations are true of most of his leading female characters, but even plays that derive all or most of their thrust from a woman’s predicament, plays like As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well, or Measure for Measure, show little more than one side of their characters, however attractive (or repellent) that side.  And some behave in most unnatural ways, like Lady Anne who allows herself to be won over by her husband’s murderer, Richard III, in a matter of minutes, or Kate, whose anti-feminist speech at the end of Shrew continues to make problems for modern directors.  In contrast to the finely tuned portrait of Hamlet, a masterpiece of character development, Ophelia got short shrift from her creator.  Possibly the result of several revisions, or even posthumous editing (though some tempting hints remain in her mad speech), Ophelia is an almost impossible role for the young, still inexperienced actress who’s required to give it a coherence that’s not in the text, something that would not be true had she been created by a woman who had teenage griefs of her own to draw on.

Shakespeare’s stories

The question of story goes a little deeper.  There have always been stories that speak most clearly to one or the other sex.  We see this in fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk for boys, Cinderella for girls, and in folk tales like the Iron John stories for men, as noted by poet Robert Bly, and for women, stories like Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady or the Thousand and One Nights of Sheherazade.  Had Shakespeare been a woman, one would think that at least one play would be told from a woman’s point of view as Chaucer did with his “Tale of the Wife of Bath” and Christopher Morley did with Kitty Foyle.

But although the Bard created a few strong, multi-dimensional female characters like Juliet, Kate, Rosalind, Beatrice and Cleopatra, all but Rosalind are paired with an even stronger male character, and like most female characters created by men, in terms of the story being told, most are largely adjuncts to their lovers’ stories.  The exceptions, Rosalind, Imogen (from Cymbeline), Julia (from Two Gents), Helena (from All’s Well), and Viola (from Twelfth Night), are basically all variations of the same persona, and while it is how they deal with their predicament that drives the action in either the main or the subplot, they do most of it pretending to be men.

All of Shakespeare’s plays are in fact gender specific, the gender being that of a 16th-century male aristocrat.  Ah, you say, although 16th-century London was a male-dominated society, since women can write like men, a talented woman could have faked a male voice.  But Shakespeare’s first audience was the Elizabethan Court audience , which was dominated by women; the Queen of course, plus her corps of female attendants, set the tone for all the entertaining done at Court.  In fact, most, perhaps all, of Shakespeare’s comedies were written originally for this audience, which helps to explain why so many of them have girls or women as important characters.  The tragedies were written for the masculine West End audience known as “the gentlemen” of the Inns of Court.

Shakespeare’s male bias is quite evident in his two long narrative poems.  Though both are focussed on a woman’s predicament, both are clearly written from a male viewpoint.  Unless our female Shakespeare was a lesbian it’s hard to see a woman describing the goddess Venus in so enticing a state of sexual arousal.  It’s also hard to see a female writer suggesting that, following her rape by Tarquin, Lucrece’s only decent option was suicide.  Even today, when roughly one out of five, four, possibly even three women suffer rape at least once during their lives, if all since Shakespeare had taken the course suggested by his “graver” effort, the human race would have vanished long since.

The Jacobean playwrights

Ignoring the skewed dating of the plays preferred by academics and listening only to his voice, it’s clear that Shakespeare was an Elizabethan first, last, and always.  Nor was the revising that he did for his Jacobean audiences after 1603 a great deal different in tone from the nature of his earlier work.  By 1603, the (53-year-old) leopard did not, could not, change his spots.  But, Shakespeare––and Ben Jonson––aside, the rest of the Jacobean stage was much different from what it had been in Elizabeth’s time, and interestingly one of the ways that it differed most obviously was in this very area, for a number of Jacobean plays look at life from a woman’s point of view.

The subject deserves the kind of detailed treatment that I can’t give at this point, not having given it sufficient study.  Suffice it to say that the trend is most obvious in John Webster’s two masterpieces, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), both so obviously written by a woman that when I first read them back in 2002 I was astonished that no one, so far as I could see, had ever noticed it before.  Having been inundated with male literary notions of women for most of my life, the realization that this, whatever the name on the title page, was the work of another woman hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  That that woman had to be Mary Sidney became evident as soon as I began comparing the plots and characters of the two plays to incidents and situations in her own life.

The style of these plays, and other works attributed to Webster, are so idiosyncratically Mary Sidney’s that there’s simply no possibility that she could also have written Shakespeare.  No one in his or her right mind could suggest that the same person wrote both canons.  I do hear the Webster style in a play attributed to John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize, one that, as George Swan shows, was written as a satire on Oxford.  I also think it’s likely that Mary did some editing of Shakespeare’s plays before her sons got them published, but like most accomplished writers she would have been a sensitive editor and so refrained from tampering with what, by then, the rascally author being long departed, she must have realized were masterpieces of English literature.

Throughout 2003 I devoted all lectures and articles to showing why these works had to be, not only by a woman, but specifically by Mary.  Coming to know her as I have, I feel certain that she would be furious to think that she was being “accused” of writing the works of Shakespeare, and not the ones she actually did write.  Her credentials as a writer have probably been well-covered by those who promote her as a candidate for Shakespeare, but even with only the few things that she published under her own name to go by, it should be obvious that her very unique style is so unlike his that such an identification is, or should be, moot at the outset.

Where Shakespeare is copious in his poetry, she’s spare, reflecting the puritannical nature of her upbringing.  In fact her verse can be so condensed that it’s hard to grasp her meaning.  Shakespeare’s style in his plays is a magnficent blend of the styles admired by his tutor with, probably, street talk from his early years.  Mary (Webster) on the other hand, speaks in a kind of London slang that must reflect the kind of talk she heard around her, both at Court and in the streets surrounding her London establishments, a style that had changed considerably, as styles tend to do, since Oxford began writing.  It’s almost as though she purposely set out to write in as opposite a style to his as she could,  a motivation that could have sprung from the long-standing literary antagonism between her brother and the Earl of Oxford.

Mary Sidney played a hugely important role in the creation and development of the Elizabethan/Jacobean Stage, one I’ll go into detail about in a separate essay, but it was not to write the plays of Shakespeare.  Much like Francis Bacon, her friend and near contemporary (he was her elder by only nine months), she played a dangerous game, contributing for 30 years to the underground English Literary Renaissance, using her prestige to remain well under the radar of official repression.  Her sons carried on the work she began in the 1590s, culminating in the publication of her own work as John Webster (possibly her coachmaker’s son) and of Oxford’s work under the name Shakespeare.  The two families, though at odds under Elizabeth, came together in 1604 with the wedding of her son Philip Herbert, EArl of Montgomery, to Oxford’s daughter Susan Vere.

Mary was probably not the only woman writing plays during the Jacobean period.  The Yorkshire Tragedy, c.1608, is in a woman’s voice, though not in Mary’s style.  In 1611, Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the Dark Lady of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published the first book length poem in English by a woman, its introduction giving her the added distinction of the first Englishwoman to publish a feminist tract.  Elizabeth Carey, another member of the Court community, is known for the first play written by a woman (published under her own name) in 1613.  In 1621, Mary’s niece, Mary Wroth, published the first English novel by a woman.  These may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Much needs to be done to sort out who wrote what during this period (1612-1640) not only by women but by male courtiers as well.  Protected by the theater-loving Queen Anne, the great patron of the period, Lady Lucy Bedford, and by Mary’s oldest son, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, after 1615 when he took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, female courtiers had opportunities to write and publish that they did not have under Elizabeth nor would in later times, though almost always, of course, under a masculine name.  Who were they?  Hopefully time will tell.

Merkel’s view of Titus Andronicus

Hi Marie: Having promised to read your material online (The First Mousetrap) and consider your theory that Titus Andronicus is an allegory for the fate of the Howard family, I am half convinced that you’re right, even more than half.  I have to hold off a bit because I don’t see the kind of clearcut connections between the play and the Howards, the kind we can see with some of the other plays, but that doesn’t mean you’re not right, or at least on the right track.  An early version of the play may well have been more clear.  As with plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, plots and characters were sometimes revised to fit later situations, so the version of Titus that ended up in the First Folio could also reflect such revisions, not necessarily by Shakespeare.

I don’t see that you claimed anywhere in your chapters or introduction that the author was the Earl of Oxford (did you and I missed it?).  In fact, you make a few comments that seem to connect its creation with William of Stratford.  Once Oxford is seen as the author, a possible connection with the Howards becomes much stronger.  They were his family, he was in their camp from his early 20s to his early 30s, and with Sussex and then Hunsdon as his patron (1572-’82) he had every reason to write in their defence.  Also, with Oxford as author, he would have had no need of Holinshed, for his primary source would be his Howard cousins, whose family history lay at the tips of their tongues.

You ask (rhetorically) if it’s possible to see Titus as Sir Thomas Smith.  Of course not, but it’s certainly possible to see in young Lucius’s notalgic wish to sit again on his grandsire’s knee a reference to how de Vere may felt at times during the five months he was left alone at Queens’ College.  In his first year or two with Smith, at age four and five he would still have been young enough to be taken onto his tutor’s lap for comfort or instruction.  I believe that the five months at Cambridge must have been a very lonely and stressful time for a little eight-year-old.  I think it’s entirely possible that when he wrote the part about Lucius he was recalling this moment.  I believe he was recalling this same period when, in King John, he visualized Prince Arthur living with a man who had been ordered to kill him, begging for his life, then trying to escape.  Not that de Vere’s Cambridge tutor, Thomas Fowle, had any such wicked intention, but it wasn’t his tutor he was recalling, only his own childish fears.  (It’s clear from Fowle’s biography that he was a hot-head.)

You point to the family relationships among the early patrons of the Court Stage, something worth repeating.  All three of the patrons who worked to get control of the Court Stage in the 1570s (and to keep it from then on) were direct descendants of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, your candidate for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.  To repeat: these were the Earl of Sussex, Ld Henry Hunsdon and Ld Charles Howard.  Howard relations of lesser rank were also the first and second Masters of the Revels, Edmund Tilney and Sir George Buc.  In short, almost everyone in charge of what got produced, both at Court and beyond, until the Pembrokes took over in 1615, were men descended from the 2nd Duke of Norfolk.

Most place Titus early, but in my view never early enough.  I’ve long seen it as the one early play that made it into the canon unrevised (at least, unrevised by Shakespeare).  We have other unrevised plays from that time, but they’re considered anonymous or are attributed to other writers.  The stilted, pompous language of much of it, the unreal female characters, the exceedingly  impressionistic treatment of history and use of Senecan horror tropes all suggest a very early origin.  These factors suggest that it was written by Oxford no later than his early 20s and possibly even in his late teens.  If written when he was 17 or 18, the reference to Lucius’s mother giving him Ovid would have been in time for Oxford’s mother to have seen the play.

It’s been suggested (by others?  by you?) that Tamora, Queen of the Goths, represents Mary Queen of Scots.  If this is about the Howards I don’t see how she could be anyone else.  Black Aaron could represent Bothwell and his baby represent the future James I.  Mary’s marriage to Darnley, the birth of James, the murder of Darnley, her marriage to Bothwell and flight to England all took place when Oxford was 17 and probably still spending most of his time at Cecil House where Mary was feared, hated and demonized, possibly to an extent that doesn’t come through in the records.  (English history is still confused about Mary;  as of now, the most detailed and trustworthy version of her life and fate is John Guy’s 2004 biography.)

It was what to do about Mary Queen of Scots that was the over-riding subject of political concern just as Oxford entered the adult world of Court politics and Inns of Court theater (The Supposes and Jocaste at Gray’s Inn 1566-’67).  So it makes sense that among his first attempts to entertain this community with something original would have been this effort to present the Howard case in Senecan technicolor.  That his close connection to Cecil House reflects William Cecil’s embroilment in Scottish affairs at this time, not only in Titus, but also in first versions of Macbeth and James I, also makes sense.

Other parts of the play may reflect later events.  Oxford’s writing for the Court and Inns of Court went into high gear in 1572 when Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain and began his push to take the Court Stage away from Leicester.  A rewrite of Titus may show his reaction to the execution of  his cousin Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk that same year.

In any case, his involvement with the play, and with the Howards, would necessarily have ended in 1580-’81 when he broke with Norfolk’s brother, Henry Howard.  This fight was no tiff between friends, but a deadly duel in which Oxford accused his cousin of treason and Howard accused Oxford of murder and pederasty.  Once Oxford saw his cousin as the Iago who had broken up his marriage and so deeply damaged his wife’s reputation, most of his nastiest villains would be based on Henry Howard, something that could not have escaped the man’s acute paranoia.  Even if we could somehow account for the old-fashioned style, it’s unlikely that ever again he’d write anything that might seem in any way to promote the family that seemed determined to destroy him throughout the early ’80s.  (The dedication of Robert Greene’s Tritameron of Love (printed 1587, but probably written two years earlier, may have been a deliberate effort to show that Philip was not included in Oxford’s blacklist.)

I do not believe this play was written for performance at Court.  If it was, then it was not about the Howards.  To have performed such a crudely violent play before the Queen, one that ripped open unhealed wounds, would have been sheer lunacy.  It is said that no one ever mentioned her mother in Elizabeth’s presence.  No one, least of all Oxford, would have dared to touch her deepest and most personal anxieties in this way.  Most likely he wrote it for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.”  Many early versions of his best plays can be seen as pleading a particular case to this audience of lawyers.

I don’t agree that a great dramatist like Shakespeare would ever change character personas in midstream, with Titus representing Thomas Howard at one point and Henry VIII at another.  If this is what’s happening it must have been done by some later reviser.  No doubt Shakespeare did sometimes conflate historic noblemen with their descendants, not only for dramatic purposes, or because peers and their heirs were known by the same titles, but because, at that time,  men and women were still seen less as individuals than as limbs of a single ongoing entity, the Family.  In this way kings could be addressed as “England,” or “France.”  However, to conflate a character with his enemy  or his moral opposite would be to utterly lose the message, something no dramatist would ever do, not even one still learning the ropes.

The problem may be with rewrites.  In my view, Oxford would not have cared about this play after 1581, but anything by him would have been valuable later.  It may be that Henslowe had one of his writers do some surgery on it that left it making very little sense in terms of finding the original source.  If the original reflected the kind of political dynamite that you suggest, there would have been more than one reason for such a revision.

Your material is very well-written and easy to follow, difficult where such a complicated story is concerned.  I know how hard it is to make a complex narrative clear for readers.  Shakespeare turned to drama, but we can’t do that, can we?  My hope is that someday we’ll be able to see how and where every play fits into the true story, not only of Oxford, his tutors, patrons, and the other writers, but of the entire Elizabethan period.  So I’m happy to see that you are on the case.  More power to you.

Shakespeare’s patrons-who were they?

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

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

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

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

The Fight for the Court Stage

The Court Stage fell under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  A sort of super-butler in charge of everything “above stairs,” he was important enough to be guaranteed a seat on the Privy Council.  Elizabeth’s  first Lord Chamberlain, Lord Admiral William Howard of Effingham, an inheritance from her sister’s reign, was not only kept on but was given several lucrative posts by the grateful Queen: a close relative, he had been her staunchest protector on Mary’s Privy Council.  Later, his oldest son, Charles Howard, would play an even more significant role at Elizabeth’s Court as Lord Admiral, Privy Councillor, and patron of the company that made Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn superstars.

It was the Lord Chamberlain’s job to decide what kind of entertainment to provide for each event, great and small, daily or for grand occasions, and to make sure that they went off smoothly.  If properly used it could be a powerful political tool since it was the nearest equivalent to a Royal Public Relations office.  Such may not have been to Howard’s taste, however, for from her coronation, Elizabeth had allowed her favorite, Lord John Dudley, to have charge of it.

How much Dudley was actually involved with the entertainers, most of whom were also inherited from previous reigns, remains to be seen.  He was probably much more involved with the military aspects of his duties as Master of the Horse.  We can guage what kind of entertainments he favored while he was in charge by the bash he threw at Kennilworth in 1575 (the summer that Oxford was away in Italy)––lots of old-fashioned masking with skits where actors pretending to be spirits came out of the woods to sing or recite long dull poems to the Queen filled with lavish comparisons to goddesses along with the not so subtle suggestion that she ought to marry Leicester.

Oxford’s earliest contributions to Court entertainment most likely consisted of musical numbers and interludes, brief comic turns that led one song or dance to the next for the various children’s companies to perform on holidays.  These, the Children of the Windsor Chapel, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and Paul’s Boys, were the Queen’s favorite performers.  Each little troop consisted of eight to twelve boys whose chief job during Catholic times had been to sing the Royal Mass, but who were also taught by their masters to dance and enact “dumb shows” (pantomimes) and comic “interludes” for special occasions.  Both the London prep schools performed plays as well, sometimes for the Court.

Enter the Earl of Sussex

But Leicester’s (Dudley’s) control of the Court Stage was threatened when the Earl of Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain.  History ignores this, as it ignores most of Stage history, but we can be certain that Sussex was determined to return jurisdiction over the Court Stage to his office, that of Lord Chamberlain, where it belonged by long tradition.  Leicester and Sussex had hated each other for years, and neither was going to let the other have any more power than he could help.  As noted by McMillin and Maclean: “What happened to Leicester’s Men after 1574, when they would seem to have had the future in their hands, is one of the mysteries of theater history.  Leicester’s Men lost their dominance at Court during the middle 1570s. . . .” (15).  I hope to take a close look at some point at the probable scenario behind this mystery.

In any case, to facilitate his effort to resume the office that was his by tradition, I believe that Sussex invited Oxford, well known to him from the 1569 war with the border earls, to expand his contributions to Court entertainment to include full scale plays and probably also concerts, dances, and poetry readings.  As a result, 1573-79 was certainly Oxford’s heyday at Court.  By 1579 he would have been writing for both the boys and for the adult actors who in five years would be heading the Queen’s Men.  They were termed Leicester’s Men in the record books, but in reality at this early time they were simply the actors who provided most of the adult entertainment at Court.

Literary historians have been limited by their adherence to the names of acting companies, derived from their patrons.  To see the reality it’s necessary, whenever possible, to look past the names to the individual actors, particularly the lead actors, their patrons, and the always changing circumstances.  The continual focus on the company names by historians has caused no end of confusion.  History is made by individuals, not names.

Enter Walsingham

In 1581, shortly after the winter holiday season, the Queen banished Oxford from her “Presence” for getting her Maid of Honor pregnant and (not least) attempting to escape to Spain.  This left no one to write the witty holiday plays that she had come to expect.  The various children’s companies, some from local schools, filled in that December with old plays and material by their masters––Gurr calls it “the quiet season of 1581-82” (Companies 175)––but everyone involved in Court entertainment knew something had to be done to improve the situation before the next holiday season rolled around.  Since that was about the time that Sussex began to fail, Walsingham, the Queen’s Principal Secretary, may have already have begun to consider a solution.

Walsingham was living at that time at The Papey, a manor just inside the Bishopsgate Wall and just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly on the other side of the City Wall.  Plans to create a Crown company, the Queen’s Men, came to light early in 1583, but, like most things, they would have originated earlier, possibly from conversations between  Oxford and Walsingham at The Papey, at Fisher’s Folly, or even at The Pye, the inn that lay between the two houses.

This was the period when Walsingham was beginning to get special funding for the anti-papist campaign he and Burghley were urging on the Queen and Parliament.  New funds would have enabled him to privide Oxford with money to hire secretaries and apprentices.  This would explain why these writers, later known to literary history as “the University Wits,” dedicated their works to Francis Walsingham, calling him their Maecenas, a traditional term for a patron.  From the Wits at the Folly Walsingham hoped would come plays both for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen, and for the Queen’s Men to take on the road as a public relations maneuver, winning hearts and minds in advance of the attack from Catholic Spain that he knew was coming (McMillin).

With fears of the newborn commercial theaters rising among Church and City officials, with the excitement surging through the acting community from the power this was giving them, Walsingham may have feared that he was about to ride the whirlwind.  A nervous man, in constant pain from an ulcer or other painful condition, his need to keep everything as hidden as possible has also hidden the courage with which, much like Churchill three centuries later, he faced one of England’s most crucial showdowns with Continental power.

Why was it so hard to protect the newborn commercial stage?  Why such need for secrecy?  Read on.