Category Archives: the London Stage

Did Shakspere write Shakespeare?

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

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

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

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

Why Shakespeare, not Shakspere?

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

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

Why did the London printers add the e?

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

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

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

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

Punishing Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

The worm turns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford, Vitruvius, and Burbage’s “round” Theatre

So far as I know, Shakespeare scholar Frances Yates (1899-1981) was the first to attempt an explanation for how a working class bloke like James Burbage came to know the classical Latin of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, since to her it seemed questionable that in constructing his big public theater in 1576, Burbage, all on his own, could have come up with something that matched so closely with ancient Roman theater designs from the first century BC.

Noting the similarities between Burbage’s round theaters (the Theatre in Norton Folgate and the Globe on Bankside), as depicted in 16th century illustrations, to the round designs

elizabethan-theatre

Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch

globe-contemporary-2

The Globe on Bankside

of ancient Greek and Roman theaters, Yates attempted to connect the apparent shape and scale of these buildings, so utterly unique for the time, with the precise measurements and designs prescribed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in his work in classical Latin, de Architectura. This is not an easy task, since Vitruvius, so far as we know, was not translated into English, or at least published in print in English, until the late 18th century.

Roman theater

Round Roman theater illustrated in Vitruvius.

In 1969, Yates stated a thesis in opposition to the common opinion, which was that the designs of the theaters built by Burbage developed out of earlier English forms, either the temporary seasonal structures of the Middle Ages or the theater inns of Burbage’s youth. She points out that the round shape of Burbage’s theaters were nothing like either of these, but that, however anomalously, they do conform closely to principles of theater construction as outlined by the great Roman engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio back in the first century B.C.

The shape of these theaters, six- or eight-sided on the outside and circular on the inside, suggest Burbage’s and his builder’s attempt to create the

Interior of an Elizabethan theater

Imagined interior of the Theatre

acoustical ideal described by Vitruvius, so that, due to their size and round shape, they would allow words spoken from the stage to reach every seat in the auditorium. Since Burbage’s round theaters were made of wood, which, as he notes, vibrates and resonates much like a lute or a violin, rising and expanding sound waves produced by the voices of actors and singers would have been heard clearly in all sections of the auditorium.

We can be as certain of this round shape as we can be of anything about the theater from that period due to a comment made by Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs. Thrale, whose husband purchased the land on which the Globe once stood, and, in which, she noted, “the curious remains of the the old Globe Playhouse, which though hexagonal in form without was round within” (qtr by Chambers TES 2.428).

Yates notes that these outdoor Elizabethan theaters, unlike the indoor procenium stages designed later by Inigo Jones, placed the accent on the actors and their playwrights, since there was next to no scenery with only the barest minimum of furniture or props.  This suggests that, apart from the costumes and body language, Shakespeare’s public audience necessarily relied more on what they heard than on what they could see.  Because there was nothing but language to conjure up a scene, Shakespeare had to do it with language: “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill . . .”  So it was extremely important to the actors, and their playwright, that the words be heard as clearly as possible by everyone in the audience.

Having studied in depth the great English Renaissance scholar and magus, John Dee, Yates was aware that versions of Vitruvius in both Latin and French were among the thousands of titles listed in a 1583 inventory of his library. That Dee was familiar with Vitruvius is clear from comments he made in his Preface to Henry Billingsly’s translation of Euclid’s Elements published in 1570, six years before Burbage built his Theatre.  Yates, bucking the establishment, felt pressed to connect Burbage and Dee:

This theatre initiated the theater-building movement of the English Renaissance and was the direct ancestor of Shakespeare’s theater, the immortal Globe. I believe that out of Dee’s popular Vitruvianism there was evolved a popular adaptation of the ancient theater, as described by Vitruvius, Alberti, and Barbaro, resulting in a new type of building of immense signifcance for it was to house the Shakespearean drama.” (Theatre of the World, 41).

It’s unlikely that knowledge of the mechanics of sound waves and how to magnify and contain them was common knowledge among 16th century carpenters like Burbage and his builder, Peter Street.  Yet to Yates, and to us, the apparent design of Burbage’s stage conforms so closely to the plans of the ancient sound engineer, that they must have been privy to his book, despite the fact that it would not be fully available in English until the 18th century. Most signficantly, she suggests in an aside, that it’s possible that these round theaters may have been the first of their kind in all of Europe (41); possibly also the last.

Since it’s unlikely that Burbage could read Latin, and since there would be no complete English translation, none published anyway, until the late 18th century, for Burbage to have benefited by Dee’s knowledge of Vitruvius he would have to have known him personally. To connect them, Yates must needs attribute to Burbage (and his fellow artisans) character traits that don’t match with what else we know about the rugged actor/entrepreneur, traits that seem less like those of a student of ancient architecture and more like those of gangster Bugsy Siegal when he set out to build the first gambling casino in the deserts of Las Vegas.

Enter the Earl of Oxford

Yates was forced to turn to Dee because she knew nothing of Oxford’s involvement in the creation of the London Stage, his connection to Smith’s library, or his interest in music and musical instruments. She didn’t know (or didn’t care to know; Looney’s book was published 50 years before hers) that Burbage’s innovative new Theatre was begun within weeks of Oxford’s return from a year in Italy, that it was built on land recently controlled by his boyhood companion, the Earl of Rutland, that Oxford would soon be living in Shoreditch himself during which time he (briefly) held the lease to the other new commercial stage built that same year, the little rehearsal stage at Blackfriars.

Yates was also seemingly unaware that Oxford had been raised by the great Latin scholar, Sir Thomas Smith, who, fascinated by Italian architecture, built himself a house in 1558 based on Vitruvian concepts.  Four years after Oxford’s departure from his household, Smith’s library was listed as containing four versions of de Architectura, one in Latin, one in French, one in Italian, and one in

globe-interior-sketch

Imagined interior of the Globe.

Spanish, in at least two of which were complicated drawings showing the exact proportions of a stage built to create maximum sound amplification.

While it’s evident that John Dee regarded Oxford as a patron (Ward 50), and that Smith must also have known Dee very well––both at Cambridge at the same time; both astrologer/astronomer/mathematicians; both living near each other on the shores of the Thames in the 1550s––there’s no need to involve Dee or his library in the planning of Burbage’s theaters. The simplest and most direct line for the development of the Elizabethan commercial stage begins with Oxford’s time in Italy, where he could easily have observed the temporary stages built by the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in his home base of Vicenza, a stone’s throw from his birthplace, Padua, both within the Veneto (the neighborhood surrounding Venice) where Oxford was based throughout 1575, and where most of his Italian plays take place.

These temporary outdoor stages were forunners of the permanent indoor stage Palladio would design, the Teatro Olimpico, built five years later (1580-85) on a design based on one by Vitruvius. Known as the first permanent indoor stage in Europe, it is still the main tourist attraction in Vicenza.

The Theater after Oxford

Developments followed fast and furious during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. From 1576, when the first outdoor public commercial theater was built by Burbage in a northern suburb of London, by the late ’80s there were at least eight, also located in various London suburbs.  Of these, only those built by Peter Street were based on the Vitruvian model. With the Jacobean era, influenced by England’s first professional architect Inigo Jones, indoor theaters developed into the theaters we know today, with the action taking place in elaborate sets that were separated from the audience by a proscenium arch.

As Yates comments: “No one has quite explained where the proscenium arch came from, but it is certainly not in Vitruvius. . .” (124). Inigo Jones, England’s first genuine architect and promoter of the designs of the Italian Renaissance architect, Palladio, may have adapted the procenium arch from the famed “Palladian window,” with its straight sides, often decorated by a bas relief column, topped with an arched lintel.  Of Jones’s theater design, Yate’s concludes: “It ended by suffocating and destroying the wonderful actor’s theater described by Vitruvius” (124). This was, after all, the Little Ice Age, and for most of the year, playgoing would have been a lot more comfortable indoors.

She notes that Elizabethan England was a ‘backwater” so far as the new, i.e. Renaissance, architecture, based on Palladio’s translation of Vitruvio was concerned. She notes that the English literary Renaissance was not matched by an architectural Renaissance (nor one of painting or sculpture as in Italy).  She did not know about Hill Hall, where Smith’s knowledge of Vitruvius is evident in its design and in his library inventory, but surely it was known to Oxford, whose arrival back from Italy in 1576 doubtless set the in motion the creation of Burbage’s Theatre, built, so Yates affirms, on Vitruvian principles.

Yates argues that Dee’s work influenced not the nobility or wealthy merchants, but the “middle-to-artisan class, the new race of eager mathematicians and technologiest whom he did so much to encourage by his work and example.” Not to quibble, these men were worthy in many ways, but again, like Charles Nicholl with his bluster about poets being ripe for spy work, she’s making hay where there is no grass. This “middle-to-artisan” class was backed in almost every instance by the money and, yes, the education and creativity, of patrons of the very class that she, like so many historians of the Stage, attempts to negate.  Why can’t she see this?  Because, as we keep pointing out, the patrons did not want to be seen. Why not?  For the very reasons that Dee had his laboratory smashed.  Prejudice and fear, fostered by the Swiss (Calvinist) Reformation, which held that both Science and Art were tools of the Devil.

According to Yates, though Dee writes in English, not the Latin of Continental scholars, on purpose that he can explain Vitruvius to the handicraftsmen she would promote to brilliance, Yates herself, so well read in the documents of the period, is forced to admit:

Yet there is an aristocratic side; there are mysterious noblemen behind him. There is a secret or courtly sphere for his activities as well as the popular side. He is both extremely exoteric and practical, and at the same time esoteric among some vaguely defined inner circle.

So well read in the documents of the period, realizing that there are elements to her story that lie beyond her immediate understanding, she adds:

It is this type of situation which makes the Elizabethan Renaissance so peculiar, as compared with Renaissances in other countries, where there is neither this new social situation with rising new classes who participate in the Renaissance, nor this mystery about patrons and inner groups of cognoscenti.  I do not think that it is sufficiently realized how very peculiar the Elizabethan Renaissance was, both socially and intellectually” (18-19).

More on this:

Shakespeare’s small Latin

Poor Ben Jonson!  What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup.  Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church.  Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.

Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.

But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority.  It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever.  Mary was dead.  Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church.  It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it.  It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.

The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End.  Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them.  But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.

The printer was waiting.  He stared at the blank sheet before him.  This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language.  It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus.  Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?

How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education?  Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks.  They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature.  Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.

The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished.  But this was a flat out lie.  Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek.  Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek.  Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it.  Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.

Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet.  Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death.  It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career.  Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.

Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument.  The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?

This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.

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.

Oxford’s life reflected in Shakespeare’s plays

That events in Oxford’s life so closely match the plots of Shakespeare’s plays is a chain of evidence that those who deny his authorship can only ignore, as the connections are so obvious that denial is impossible.  It seems that everything he wrote, everything that’s lasted at least, grew out of a current social or political situation with which his audience was concerned, plus some event in history, literature or folk tale, plus some circumstance in his own life.  By investing the protagonist with his own emotions, brought about by something in his personal life, whether earlier or ongoing, he invested the play with life.

Some of the evidence for this comes from additions he made to his source material, like Arthur in King John, the little prince who fears that Hubert, his tutor, will betray him, and who then dies in an attempt to escape, perhaps a reflection of his situation when Smith left him with Fowle at Cambridge for five months when he was eight years old, probably with no indication of where he’d be sent if Smith got what he was after, a place on Elizabeth’s Council.

Next he’s Romeo, the 15-year- old who yearns for 13-year-old Juliet, but is denied access to her by social barriers, as so many young people were then by the differences in their parents’ religions, and as Oxford at 15 was from Mary Browne, daughter of one of the most conservative members of Elizabeth’s Court, shortly before she was forced to marry the somewhat mad 2nd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s County Paris. Then comes Palamon whose friendship with Arcite is stressed by their common desire for Emilia, as is Euphues with Philautus and Oxford with Rutland over their relationship with Ann Cecil .

Into his late teens and early twenties he’s Hal, the prince who spends too much time hanging out in bad company and playing pranks as he waits for something important to do.  Having finally gotten his Grand Tour in Italy in 1575, he’s those cads, Bertram and Proteus, cruel to the good girl who loves him while chasing trollops around Europe.  Arriving home to a pile of debts and angry creditors, he’s Timon, who, naive at first, goes ballistic when he realizes he’s been taken for a ride by sycophants he had thought were his friends, and who now refuse to help him in his time of need.  Then, following his 1580 confession of having plotted treasonably with Howard and Arundel, he’s both Coriolanus, furious with his community and himself, and Brutus, who committed regicide for what he believed was the good of his people.

In his hotheaded thirties he’s valiant Hotspur and witty Mercutio, both dangerously quick to take offense.  He’s both Benedick (Mercutio overtaken by love) and Claudio, another Bertram-like cad.  As Oberon, he’s “King of Shadows,” the shaman in charge of the ancient holiday rituals that not all that long ago used to take place on May Day and Midsummer’s Eve in the sacred groves of the great Royal forest.  In his mid-thirties he’s Hamlet, Prince of Thoughts.  His world turned upside down by the cold realities of medieval power politics, he makes the Court Stage his personal Star Chamber.  Heart-broken over the death of his mentor and patron, the Earl of Sussex, he accuses Elizabeth of being Gertrude, Leicester of being Claudius, and Burghley of being Polonius, whom he kills in effigy for spying on him.  Deeply in debt, he writes The Merchant of Venice, in which he dramatizes the argument that the Chancery Court of Equity be given precedence over the Court of Common Pleas, where he was being screwed.

With the ’90s comes the attack on the Stage by Robert Cecil and the assassinations of Marlowe and Lord Strange.  Forced to call a (temporary) halt to his play-making and publishing, his credit cut off by Lord Burghley, he spends his days writing sonnets to his new patron, the young son of Mary Browne.  When Southampton turns from him to join up with the Earl of Essex, the sonnets become mournful, but in the process, a new and more powerful style develops. As Mark Antony, once again he loses the world for the love of a beautiful woman, one with curly black hair and dark eyes who represents all that he loves and misses about Italy and the Mediterranean culture.  The intense feelings that he suffers over these relationships get poured into sonnets, where they develop a new, more powerful, and more modern style.

When troubles with the Cecils continue to increase with the appointment of Robert Cecil as Secretary of State, followed by the deaths of his patron Hunsdon and the manager of his company, James Burbage, along with the loss of both of Burbage’s theaters, he fight back by revising his Henry IV plays to include a nasty caricature of Robert Cecil’s inlaws, a character eventually named Falstaff, a play on the name Shakespeare.  Now in his forties, weary of the struggle, for the marriage of his oldest daughter he revises The Tempest. With her as Miranda and himself as Prospero, king of the magical isle, banished from his true place at Court by wicked schemers, with the help of his Ariel he befuddles them with “rough magic,” which, he assures his royal audience, he intends to give up now that his daughter is safely married (though sadly not to the one he wanted).

Finally in his fifties, driven mad by the mistreatment of his two oldest daughters, he’s Lear, who, like Timon so long before, runs naked and raving into the wilderness.  But then, cheered by the advent of King James, whose young favorites, the Pembrokes, have taken him under their wings, like the vanquished hero in the old mummer plays, he leaps back to life as Duke Vincenzio, escaping the burden of his inherited responsibilities by retiring to a safe haven in the forest where he’s the courtier Touchstone who having fled the wicked Court to live freely in the forest with other Court escapees, grieves that he must spend his days courting that “unpoetic slut,” the public audience.

All these are metaphors for Oxford’s life.  As for being the real Shakespeare, those who knew, knew they had to keep the secret; those who didn’t know, didn’t need to know.  Who would have wanted to exchange so many wonderful fictions for the sad reality, a lonely man, crazed with longing and remorse?

The authorship question is not whether Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, etc. wrote the Shakespeare canon, it’s what each of them actually wrote!  Oxford wrote all the works we know as Shakespeare, plus Lyly’s novels, Greene’s tales, and a lot of earlier works published under the names of his secretaries and friends. Bacon wrote most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon, while Raleigh wrote that part of the Spenser canon that’s not by Bacon.  Sidney’s canon is valuable because it was never published as anyone’s but his (although it’s likely his sister made some changes and additions so it could be made public). Marlowe’s plays are all his own, but not the translations published after his death, the true authors Oxford, Bacon or Raleigh (or Buckhurst), who made use of Marlowe’s vacant name and persona to get them published.  Mary Sidney used her coachman’s name, John Webster; everything published as by Webster is by Mary Sidney. These are the great artists who, against all odds, created the English Literary Renaissance.

Shakespeare ignored by the Academy

It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him.  As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”

The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!

When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?

If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.

They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.

In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.

In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.

But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.

Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?

It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.

We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.

It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”

Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?

Did Shakespeare die on the 24th of June?

Highly unlikely!  We’ve just passed one of the two major turning points of the ancient festal year, June 24th, Midsummer’s Day.  The modern world pays little attention to this annual event, but that was not the case in Shakespeare’s day, as we see from the title of one of his most festal plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As with several of the ancient festal holidays, the solemn, or sacred, aspect of this annually-recurring moment (the summer solstice) was traditionally preceded by a day, or in this case a night, of merry-making.  How likely is it that the death of the greatest literary artist ever produced by the West occurred on this of all days?

Just as the ancients assigned its opposite, the 24th of December, to the eve of the birth of Christ, they assigned June 24th to the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist.  Whatever may have been the true role played by John in the advent of the Christian Messiah (something that has caused a good deal of controversy and will probably never be settled), there’s no doubt that he was a hugely important figure in his time and for centuries afterwards.  Da Vinci for instance is thought to have been a member of an underground society dedicated to his worship, which has been connected by modern mythologists with the Greek god Dionysos, whose power was dramatized by Euripides in 405 BC in The Bachae.  The Templars, whose beliefs, acquired from Arab mystics during the Crusades, survived annihilation in the 13th century to resurface four centuries later as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, held John as their patron saint.  The first English Masonic Grand Lodge was formed on June 24, 1717.  Rosicrucians trace their English roots to Francis Bacon, whose candidacy as Shakespeare owed a good deal to the hints they found in Shakespeare’s works of similar beliefs. In particular Sonnet 125 reflects the language and images of a Masonic ceremony.

One of the problems with both the Stratford myth and the attempts by Oxfordians to displace it is that everyone seems to forget that with Shakespeare we’re dealing with a genius!  The Stratfordians have tied him down, like Gulliver, to a level equal to their own: a hack who sold his craft for money, a plagiarizer of lesser writers who began by revising the works of earlier unknowns. Oxfordians, not much better, remain tied to their argument with the Stratfordians, unable to let go of what bits and pieces were bequeathed us by the Cecils and the historians who clung to the paper trail they so artfully manipulated, so that, using our native common sense together with a broader historical background, one that surpasses what the Cecils could control, allows us to see him for who he really was.  The fact that that he, and only he, could possibly have done what the orthodox have assigned to dozens of other writers, innovators, patrons, publishers, theater builders and managers, many of them nothing more than figments of their own seriously limited imaginations.

As one of the greatest dramatists of all time, as well as greatest of historians and philosophers, Death stalked almost everything Shakespeare wrote, just as it stalked everyone in his audiences, from courtiers to printers’ devils.  All of his tragedies and many of his dramas deal in one way or another with death, with its role in life, and––most subtly due to the religious constraints of his time––with what comes after.  As for his own death, the deaths of geniuses are almost as significant as their lives.  Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah by coming to Jerusalem when he did?   Lord Byron, whose life so closely parallels that of Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer), certainly orchestrated his own death as a call to arms to the intelligensia of Europe to free Greece, ancient parent of the English culture, from centuries of Turkish tyranny.

The evidence

None of this would matter had there been sufficient evidence that de Vere actually died on the date that history assigns him.  That he happened to die on a day central to the worship of John the Baptist, aka Dionysos, god of merry-making, whose festal date was the occasion for most of the ancient Greek dramas that we see as fundamental to our theater today; this would simply be a coincidence, however astonishing.  But evidence is lacking!  What there is is only what could easily have been patched together by family members and patrons in high places, out to give him a few years of peace and privacy, safe from those who wanted to kill both him and his great work, so that he could finish what we know as the Shakespeare canon, foundation of the language we speak and all the great works of literature that have followed.

These two pieces of the Shakespeare puzzle: the anomaly of his death and the nature of the date he supposedly died, taken together, were a trumpet call to examine the possibility that, like Byron, knowing his mortality was nigh, he chose to die in his own way and in his own time.  Added along the way have been other puzzle pieces, the strange behavior of Robert Cecil as soon as the word went out that Oxford was dead, arresting Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) on June 25th so that he could examine his papers in case he was holding some of the plays; the plot of Measure for Measure, performed the night of Oxford’s daughter’s marriage to the Earl of Montgomery (one of the patrons who had secured his safety), in which Duke Vincentio, the “duke of dark corners,” retires from his official duties in exactly the same way we’re suggesting that Shakespeare retired from his, in the only way he could; and finally the fact that one of his ancestors, an Earl of Oxford, had “died to the world” in a way that was no longer available to de Vere, by joining a monastery.  And there are a number of other, if lesser, puzzle pieces that fit with this scenario that otherwise have no place and must be left aside.

Why do I call him Shakespeare and not de Vere?  Because Shakespeare is not just a pseudonym, purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from William of Stratford so that the plays could be published.  Shakespeare the playwright is a being with his own history, an entity as real as Dionysos was to the Greeks or John the Baptist to da Vinci, or Jesus to Christians today.  Half human (de Vere), half fiction, Shakespeare (the Poet) had, and still has, a life of his own.  He is an immortal that, if anything, was for his creator more like one of the personalities that manifests in people with multiple personality disorder.  When de Vere took up his pen, the “spear” that he “shook” in defense of merry-making and platonic love, he was, while engaged in the pursuit of the dramatic truth that he shared with his admired forbears, Euripides, Plautus, and Terence, another, and better, being.

This is the epiphany, the satori, the ecstasy that draws all artists.  Scorning the banal cruelties and mediocrities of ordinary life, this is the “zone” (or “vein” as the Elizabethans termed it) that, when an artists achieves it, however briefly, makes worthwhile all the suffering they cause, not only to themselves, but to those who love and protect them.  Anyone who has ever been patron or handmaiden to a gifted artist will understand what I’m talking about.  As the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson wrote in Eros Turannos:

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
   That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
   Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
   Where down the blind are driven.

Here’s an idea

Taking a break from my normal writing schedule, I just got a book from the library on a subject that I need to know more about, the Roman Stage.  It’s called The Roman Theatre and its Audience, by Richard C. Beacham.  Published in 1992 by Harvard U Press, it’s available from Amazon in paperback for $21, but doubtless is also freely available through local libraries (Interlibrary loan) in the original hardback edition.  Written in a comfortable and accessible style by an expert in the field of theater design, Beacham can help answer questions about Oxford’s knowledge of the Roman Stage and its playwrights.

If three or more of you are interested, perhaps we could have a sort of online reading group.  We could set a deadline for finishing the book, and then begin a series of discussions here––much like the comments that follow one of my blogs, only this time without a blog––about the Roman Stage and its relevance to the public stages that came into being with Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and what plays may have been written for them rather than for the Court.  This way we would all have the same frame of reference.

If some of you have teaching or other commitments that will ease in June, we could agree to begin at a particular time as well.

How does this sound?

 

1597: The Showdown

Orthodox Shakespeareans are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end, with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s, for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain Gray’s Inn in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy, or the two narrative poems on sex he published with the help of the Earl of Southampton, Venus and Adonis, comic (it was not consumated), Lucrece, tragic. However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

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

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

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.  At a Court that worshipped tall, handsome men, himself shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who (literally) looked down on him, men like Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves. Most of all he hated his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford. Partly because Oxford was a leading member of that hated class, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and partly because his father loved and admired him. Luckily for Oxford, out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.

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

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction. If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed it to occur. If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could. Whether he acted with complete complicity with his father or to some extent acted on his own is a question that we probably can’t answer.

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

Theater of Blood

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

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 3 instead.)

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

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen and the Council to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil had been on the Council since 1591.) We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that Catholic gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, his granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the 6th Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage.  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, as a client of Leicester’s, he too had inherited the hatreds of their rivalry.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in the early 70s, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Ferdinando’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been a motive to do something to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

The crisis that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put an author’s name on their plays  is best summarized with a timeline:

  • June 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594: The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signals the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s and Queens.
  • Apr 4 1594: The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning. Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company returned to the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594: The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally-licensed companies, what Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly” that from then on had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • Feb 4, 1596: The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential MPs the following winter.
  • July 5, 1596: The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council and the most powerful man in England. Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596: The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons. Four months later . . .
  • Nov 1596: The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, accedes. Two months later . . .
  • Feb 26, 1597: The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Four months later . . .
  • Jul 28, 1597: The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.”
  • June-Aug 1597: The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson. The LCMen take to the road. Two months later . . .
  • Oct 1597: The opening of Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation. Immediately before or shortly after . . .
  • Oct -Nov 1597:  the production of a new version of The True Tragedy of Richard the Third somewhere in the West End (since the Company now has no theater of its own) where the MPs can see it, in which Richard Burbage, by his dress and body language, makes it clear that the play is intended as a stab at Robert Cecil, who, as Secretary of State, is playing a new and important role in the Parliament then in session, and the publication of the anonymous first edition of the revised play, now named Richard III, which allows the MPs to share the play with others who haven’t seen it.
  • Jan-June 1598: The publication of a second edition of the play, now with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it has appeared on any play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did so seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time. Fired with fury by the deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.  We can also imagine the “tall men” stationed at each entrance, with an eye out for troublemakers.

Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue.  Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside early in 1599.

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

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

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, with the management of Oxford’s son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, this was allowed for a newly-formed company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapels, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  After 1608, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, its rise to a level of success had never before been seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

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

Who was Hamlet?

Hamlet has always been seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, his most fully realized character.  In calling him “the secular Christ,” Yale professor Harold Bloom makes the most extravagant comparison that a Christian culture can offer.  In fact, it may be that more has actually been written (in English) about this fictional being than has been written about the Savior.

Those who’ve looked into it have found it impossible to locate anything in the life of William of Stratford that corresponds in any way to Hamlet’s life and situation.  He would have had to get all of it from books, but all the literary sources tracked by Bullough and others were in Latin or French in his time, most in volumes that, even had he the Latin promised by T.W. Baldwin would have required connections to private libraries that academics can only assume, since there’s no hint in William’s real biography (as opposed to the fictional versions conjured up by academics) of any such connections.  The one possible reference to William’s personal life, the son named Hamnet that died at age 11, was obviously named after his friend, Hamnet Saddler, while the character in the play is just as obviously based on the life of a Danish prince named Amleth, whose story, far from popular, lay buried in a Latin history of Denmark written in the 12th century.

This and other primary souces for Hamlet Prince of Denmark are found in Oxford’s tutor’s library: the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, not translated into English until 1608; the Roman history of Titus Livius, Latin, not translated into English until 1600; Valerius Maximus (used in schools), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (both Latin rhetoricians).  Others connect with Oxford’s years at Cecil House: Beowulf, probably translated from Old English into Latin and/or English by Laurence Nowell for the benefit of his students at Cecil House c.1563; Seneca’s plays, the Agamemnon and Troas, translated by members of the Cecil House coterie in the mid-1560s and published by Thomas Newton in 1581. The plot of the play within the play, “the mousetrap,” based on the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was still a matter for Court gossip in 1575 when Oxford was traveling from one Italian Court to another.  Della Rovere having been Castiglione’s patron for many years, in his youth he formed one of the group whose conversation makes up the major portion of Castiglione’s book, The Courtier, also in Smith’s library in the original Italian (translated into miserable “drab era” English by William Cecil’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby while Oxford was at Cecil House.

While most of Shakespeare’s protagonists can be matched more or less easily to some phase of Oxford’s biography, the version of Hamlet as we have it from the First Folio (1623) seems to be a sort of overview of his entire life, a figure made up of his most personal view of himself, with a plot compounded of the central experiences of his life, the loss of his Earldom through the early death of his father; the loss of the Court Stage through the death of his patron; his troubled marriage; the enemies who were out to shut him up.  It is a tragedy much like the one that overtakes Oedipus, the unfolding of a dire situation into which he was born and from which he cannot excape.  But unlike Oedipus, whose tragedy turns on his ignorance of the past, Hamlet’s much-vaunted indecision seems more a stoic determination to see how things will play out.  Having confirmed what he has guessed by Claudius’s response to the enactment of the murder of Gonzaga, he senses that any further intervention on his part will only make things worse: “Let Hercules himself do what he may; the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”

Like Hamlet, Oxford was born into a troubled dynasty. It’s clear that his father, the sixteenth earl, though termed “the good earl,” was not up to the task of sustaining a feudal domain that was so obviously doomed by the political and economic forces assailing it.  Like Hamlet, Oxford was more interested in literature and science (returning to Wittenberg) than life at Court.  Like Hamlet, he was romantically and sexually involved with the daughter of the monarch’s primary court official, Polonius/Burghley.  Like Hamlet, he was jealous of her relationship with her father.  Like Hamlet, he used the Stage to explain himself to the Court while claiming to entertain it.  A thousand years of history had put the Earl of Oxford in the position he was in, one from which his only escape was to create two brand new arenas where he had free rein, the Stage and the Press.

In Hamlet Oxford dramatized his attitude towards William Cecil Lord Burghley, his father-in-law: “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”; his attitude towards his wife, Burghley’s daughter (Ophelia): “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny”; his bitterness over the Queen’s business-as-usual attitude while the Earl of Sussex was dying: “a beast, that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer”); his disdain for the Earl of Leicester (Claudius): “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; his astonishment at his brother-in-law’s (Robert Cecil’s) hatred: “What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever”; his disgust at how his unscrupulous friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), are conspiring to destroy him: “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”  Only the end differs, but when he first wrote it of course he had no idea how it would end.  Nor do we, 400 years later.

One would think that identifying Polonius as Burghley would lead, automatically, to the identity of his daughter, and from her to the identity of her lover/husband, i.e., Hamlet, but one would be wrong, for to the so-called literary critic, history is just another form of literary fiction, something to be trimmed or amplified as needed to fit their theories, leaving the truth to the historians of wars and political coups who, equally culpable, pay no attention to literature.  For who but the Earl of Oxford, England’s Lord Great Chamberlain by seventeen generations of inheritance, would have dared to describe the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”––and lived to write again?

Screwing with history

Hamlet is a prime example of how the Lestradian stupidity of the officials in charge of interpreting Shakespeare has skewed the history of an entire era.  While Nashe’s 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon gives clear evidence of a version of Hamlet from before that date, this must needs be seen as an “Ur-Hamlet,” written of course by one of their anonymous pre-Shakespearean ghost-writers who provided the lazy Bard with so much of his material.  And because no proper niche can be found for Hamlet in current events of the 1590s––where the Stratford biography has forced all dates of composition––nothing can provide anything either personal or popular that might have inspired the playwright to write the play, so the commonplace is that Shakespeare, despite his obvious connection to the Crown’s own company for forty years, never bothered his artistic head with what was going on around him.  Thus is historic accuracy set aside, a thing of small importance.

Moving even further from the particular to the general, this has led to a general agreement among the Lestrades of the 20th century English Departments that there is no such thing as a compulsion among, not just Shakespeare, but all the world’s greatest writers of fiction to base their creations on aspects of their own lives.  That this won’t work with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henri Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, etc., makes no difference.  One must never allow dull reality to get in the way of theory.

Recall George Orwell’s interpretation of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in his 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four?  Recall Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who scoffs at Alice’s inability to believe in the impossible, while she herself has managed to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Recall as well that her creator, Lewis Carroll, that is Charles Dodgson (his real name), was a math professor at Oxford, whence cameth most, perhaps all, of the characters Alice encountered in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Recall Alice’s ultimate response, which we should all take to heart, when she cries out at the end of Looking Glass, “Who cares for you, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

The play’s the thing

History records that throughout his twenties Oxford was riding high at Court. “The glass of fashion,” he was promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, rapidly assuming the role of Queen’s favorite: (Gilbert Talbot wrote his father May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other.”)  He was the essence of Renaissance nonchalance, of sprezzatura.  He refused the Queen’s order to dance for the French envoys.  He called Sir Philip Sidney a puppy.  He turned the tables on his Catholic friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, for attempting to suck him into dangerous treason plots as they had the Duke of Norfolk.  But this ascent came to an abrupt halt when his lover, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, gave birth to his illegitimate son in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, sending the jealous monarch into a prolonged tantrum.  Playing the humiliated goddess for all it was worth, the infuriating revelation that her charms were not sufficient to keep her favorites in line meant the Queen must needs turn her erring Actaeon into a villain and sic the hounds upon him.

After two months in the Tower, commiserating with the ghosts of the kings who had preceded him, some perhaps in the very same room in which he found himself; after months of house arrest and an edict banishing him from Court for an indeterminate period, the notion that once back at Fisher’s Folly Oxford would simply sit on his hands for two years while the Queen got over her hissy fit is so unlikely, well, who but the White Queens of the university English Departments could possibly swallow such a notion?

Feeling abused and unappreciated, bored with writing comedies for children to perform for the unappreciative witch on the throne, he threw himself into creating plays for Burbage’s adult team, the kind of plays he would never have dared to produce at Court.  Some versions were created primarily for this team to perform for the public at Burbage’s big open air stage in Shoreditch (Romeo and Juliet); some were aimed at provincial audiences (King John, The Spanish Tragedy); most were aimed at the West End audience, the gentlemen of the inns of Court, performed by Burbage’s men on the little stage he and Lord Hunsdon had created in the Blackfriars complex shortly after his return from Italy in 1576.

Hamlet: the backstory

Having been appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1572, the Earl of Sussex had named as his vice-chamberlains Henry Hunsdon, later (1594) the patron of Shakespeare’s Company, and his son-in-law Lord Charles Howard, later (also 1594) the patron of Marlowe’s Company. Sussex was determined to replace Leicester, whom he detested, as leading member of the Privy Council, which meant, among other things, taking the Court Stage under his own jurisdiction, where by long tradition it belonged. The Revels account for the early 1570s suggests that this was when Oxford, backed by Sussex, began providing plays for the various children’s companies to perform during the winter holidays.

A decade later, during the period that Oxford was banished from Court (1581-83) the Earl of Sussex began to weaken from what has since been diagnosed as consumption. As Sussex faded, Walsingham, by then Secretary of State, moved to take control of the Stage before Leicester or one of his clients could take it back. In all of England there was only one playwright who Walsingham could be certain could charm the provincial audiences into backing the Crown against the Spanish Church. For this he had to have Oxford back at Court. History relates that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who persuaded the Queen to allow Oxford to return, though what is more likely is that Raleigh was acting more in Walsingham’s interest than in Oxford’s. If I’m right about the kind of plays he was producing at the Blackfriar’s Theater during his banishment, members of the Privy Council, including Oxford’s father-in-law, may have preferred, as the saying goes, to have the rascal inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.

Since 1572, when the Pope first issued the bull that guaranteed God’s forgiveness to whoever would rid Christendom of that Whore of Babylon, the heretical Queen of England, Walsingham was preparing for the inevitable attack by the Spanish Armada. Having spent years on the Continent, he was deeply aware (to an extent that Her Majesty and Burghley were not, neither having spent any time abroad), of the inevitability of a military attack. Having had a sophisticated humanist education at Padua, where the Roman theater had never completely died, Walsingham was also aware, as had been Sussex, of the power of the stage to win hearts and minds to a cause, in this case, patriotism over religion––for the coastal towns where the Spanish were certain to strike first, were still largely wedded to the Old Faith.

“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue”

Oxford had every reason to detest the Earl of Leicester. Not only was he a rival for the Queen’s favor, it was Leicester to whom she had given the use of his estates while he was underage; Leicester who had rudely cheated his mother of her portion of his father’s will while he was still too young and powerless to defend her. While his banishment from Court extended from months to years and his enemies were elevated in importance and allowed to attack him in the streets without reproof, Leicester, who had not only impregnated one of the Queen’s ladies but had married her in secret, was returned to favor while he had still to go about incognito in fear for his life.

From July to the end of October 1582, while he was still under banishment from Court, his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), 27-year-old Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), aka Lord Willoughby, was in Denmark to bring the Order of the Garter to the Protestant King, returning to England by November. Then again, in 1585, with the renewal of hostilities in the lowlands, Bertie was sent as special ambassador back to Denmark in October to urge the Danish king to contribute aid to the Dutch in their fight against Spain. This took some time. As the DNB puts it: “He filled his spare time with visits to Tycho Brahe’s observatory to examine the new comet the astronomer had just discovered, evidence of an enduring scientific interest.”

Having finally succeeded in getting a promise of troops, Bertie arrived at Amsterdam in March 1586, where Sidney got him a command, ultimately taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces when Leicester departed in December 1587. Oxford and Bertie were friendly enough that Oxford spent time with him and his sister in June 1582 (Nelson 281), and though no letters have turned up, it makes sense that, with Oxford’s interest in the stars, his brother-in-law would have discussed with him what he saw in Denmark after his first four-month visit in 1582, and would have written to him of more recent developments during the five months in 1585 that he waited around at the Danish Court for the King to respond to his request.

This then is the backstory to the first version of Hamlet. Out of the death of Sussex; the unseemly return to favor of the Earl of Leicester whom he and many others suspected (probably unfairly) of having Sussex poisoned; Saxo’s report on the mad prince Amleth of Danish history; the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had certainly been poisoned; his own dilemma with his wife and her family; the interest raised by Thomas Digges’s publication in the mid-1570s of evidence that the universe, rather than bounded by the ancient Ptolemaic nutshell, was actually an infinity of space filled with stars; plus reports from the Danish Court on Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Oxford created the first version of Hamlet, the one mentioned in passing by Nashe in such a way that suggests its popularity as early as 1589.

Returned finally to Court in June 1583, a week before Sussex’s death, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, contemplete life at Court without his major patron, Milord’s temper on his return was pretty much identical to Hamlet’s as the scene opens at the Danish Court, and that he too continued to dress, and act, as though in mourning. The “inky cloak” that shows Hamlet’s grief over the death of his father, mirrors Oxford’s refusal to show an interest in the holiday festivities that until his banishment had been his primary function at Court.

Just as Hamlet, while preferring to continue his studies at Wittenberg (the reading and translating in which Oxford had been immersed since his return from France and Italy), having yielded to his mother’s wish that he remain at Court, remains disaffected until, inspired by the actors, he creates a play that puts him at risk of assassination. Returned to Court by the efforts of Raleigh and Walsingham, having tasted the freedom of writing what he pleased, Oxford had no intention of churning out the kind of comedies that pleased the Queen. Enrolled by Walsingham in creating history plays that would help to turn the mood of the coastal towns away from religion and towards patriotism, he writes The Troublesome Raigne of King John, launching a series in which, encouraged by Walsingham, Smith’s close friend during their days together in the Secretary’s office, he finally gets to engage with genuine policy issues.

The version of Hamlet that we know from the First Folio is not, of course, the version that Nashe referred to in 1589 in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon with the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches,” or even the one Thomas Lodge referred to in 1596, referring to the ghost that cried at the theatre, “like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Nor even the one published in 1603, which suggests its publisher, Nicholas Ling, had waited until the Queen was gone.

The one we know is the one published the following year 1604, when the original models for all the principals but Laertes were no longer capable of being wounded. The Hamlet we know was revised from the perspective of later life, in full knowledge of the curve of events, and how “the end crowns all.” If the original “antique Roman” was Rutland, the name Horatio suggests that Hamlet’s plea to tell the truth about his “wounded name, things standing thus unknown,” was directed to his cousin Sir Horatio Vere, who in 1604 was achieving distinction on the battlefields of Europe. But not Sir Horatio, nor any other member of Oxford’s family or audience, had the audacity to broach the subject openly in print, then or for generations after. As Shakespeare put it, “the rest is silence.”