Category Archives: the Reformation

Hide Fox and all after

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Shakespeare hid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems of understanding the period

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renaissance vs. Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of the commercial media

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

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

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

Hunger for entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groups or coteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry-making

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who were they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then can I state without equivocation?

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

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

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

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Why Queen Elizabeth remained a virgin

In studying the Elizabethan period a few things have come clear that were not before, among them the peculiar nature of the Reformation focus on Sin, or to be more precise, on sins related to sex. In fact, in Reformation tracts the word sin alone may be taken as a synonym for sex, for none of the other cardinal sins. Greed, for example, which expanded exponentially at that time, while labelled sinful, while deplored by writers of government policy and lashed from the pulpit, was not, as was sex, the inevitable route to the fiery furnace. And not just illicit sex, but all sex. According to Calvin, any pleasure from sex, even between husband and wife, was considered Lust, making those who found pleasure in it, even in just thinking about it, ripe for damnation.

This is truly bizarre. How on earth did these reformers expect to persuade humans that desire, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is something that humans, or any earthly creatures, can do without? Not only is sexual climax one of the greatest (and easiest) pleasures offered by nature––one that, because it alone brings life into existence, should be considered sacred, and was considered sacred from the Stone Age well into the medieval period––how did the religious reformers of the 16th century manage to persuade so many that it was something to be feared and hated?

More to the point, what led them to this bizarre, even dangerous, position––dangerous considering that without sex, or more particularly, without desire, there would eventually be no more Protestants? The Catholic Church was less enthusiastic about sex than its pagan forbears, but did agree that procreation at least was sacred, though only when it took place within the bonds of holy matrimony. Perhaps because the Church understood that “no sex meant no little Catholics,” what it regarded as sin were chiefly sexual practices that prevent procreation: masturbation, homosexuality, coitus interruptus, and most forms of birth control.

Though it reached its peak during the Reformation, the seeds of this anti-sex campaign had been sown long before by the Hebrew bible in which Adam and Eve “fall” into sin when, having eaten the apple, they realize that they have genitals and then figure out what to do with them. Throughout the centuries dominated by the Church, unmarried men and women were segregated into communities of monks and nuns. This did not prevent desire, but at least it made consummation more difficult. The Church was also largely willing to care for the unwanted children that were the result of illicit sex, bringing them up in convents as loyal servants of the Faith. But once Luther and Calvin got hold of the Church, all forgiveness was impossible; even infants who died shortly after birth went straight to hell unless they had been baptized first. As Calvin put it (1536)––

Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it–such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings–he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21).

Apparently murder was less distressing to Calvin’s God than either theft or sex.

Nor was the Reformation the source of this pan-European anti-sex campaign, for at about the same time that the Reformation took up the fight, the Catholic Inquisition, instituted to weed out religious heresy, erupted in an hysterical pogrom directed against women, burning them at the stake as often for witchcraft or “misleading their children” as for practising pagan or Jewish rituals. “Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed.  About 80% of those killed were women.  Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France [and] 1,000 in England . . . .”

Why women? The only plausible answer is that because they arouse desire in men they were seen as tempting them to engage in sinful acts and thus leading them to damnation. We may see this as a perverse belief system and something that our culture has (largely) outgrown, but just because we don’t follow this line of thinking today, doesn’t mean we can ignore its long terms effects.

That back around the dawn of history the Patriarchy managed to eliminate women from the hierarchy of all the modern religions, and gradually from all positions of authority, can be attributed to simple male animal territoriality. However sweet and reasonable they can be as individuals, as a group men are competitive beasts, so relegating women to the kitchen and laundry was a simple matter of eliminating one big chunk of the competition. What happened in the 16th century was different. This was hacking at the roots of the tree of life while rendering desolate millions of addle-headed believers. (Those interested in the realities of this terrible belief system, still very much alive and functioning today in evangelical churches throughout the mid-west, will get an insight by viewing videos of current evangelical preaching on You Tube.)

The question is not just why did Luther and Calvin believe such terrible things, it’s even more perplexing why on earth so many people accepted them. However radical, the answer is simple enough: one word: syphilis.

Disease a factor in history

Understanding the diseases rampant at a particular time is necessary if we’re to see it clearly, particularly when certain aspects remain hidden as is true with the authorship question. The diseases rampant in 16th century England were, in no particular order: the bubonic plague, the ague (malaria), the small pox (smallpox), and the great pox (syphilis). Though there were certainly others, these seem to have had the most consistent influence on the culture, though, the plague excepted, their effect on history is generally ignored.

Although the plague was no less terrible than when it first struck Europe in the 14th century, by Elizabethan times it hardly affected the lives of those prepared to avoid it, for its habit, if not its cause, was understood so well that those who could would simply pack up and head for the country, where they would remain until it died out.

It tended to strike every ten years or so, first appearing with warm weather in the funky areas around the docks where ships brought it from abroad (exactly how was still a mystery), and from whence it spread, again by unknown means, to the poorest and most crowded areas of the city. It was most virulent in the heat of mid-to-late summer, dying away with the coming of cold weather. Plague years were sometimes preceded by an outbreak in the summer of the preceding year, to return more destructively the following year, after which it died out. Or it could return the year following a particularly harsh outbreak for a lesser outbreak.

Property was particularly vulnerable during a plague year since it was difficult to adequately protect unguarded manors. It was hard to get workers to dig graves and otherwise help get rid of the bodies, so the air stank of rotting corpses, which was blamed for spreading the contagion. Bodies buried in churchyards were put into common graves as soon as they came in each day, five or six at a time, covered with a sprinkling of lime and dirt to prevent contagion. The Court spent the worst part of plague years holed up at Windsor Palace.

Malaria

The English were also used to malaria, as is seen by how often their letters mention the ague. It’s worth suggesting that only those who lived far from wetlands, sluggish streams or stagnant ponds were entirely free from the periodic attacks of joint pain, chills and fever, which as yet had no cure. Once bitten by the anopheles mosquito, rife in England at that time, he or she would be subject to attacks off and on for the rest of their lives. A severe attack could mean death to a child or someone already ailing from another disease.

Smallpox

This highly contagious disease was also well known to the English of the 16th century. It occured sometimes occasionally and sometimes in epidemics, always by direct or airborne infection through contact within 6 feet or so of someone who was sick. The progress was rapid, over a period of three days or so, and and often fatal. Pox, an alternate spelling of pocks, identifies a disease most notable for a rash or pimples, which, with smallpox, covered the face and other parts of the body, often leaving them disfigured, “pockmarked,” for life. The Queen had a bout with smallpox in 1562 which caused her ministers to fear for her life, but she recovered, apparently without scars. The one who did get scarred was her faithful lady-in-waiting, Lady Mary Sidney, mother of Philip and Mary, who was infected while attending her mistress. It’s said that her face was so badly scarred that she never again appeared in public without a veil over her face.

Syphilis

While these were all familiar to the English and had been for centuries, a new and virulent strain of what later came to be called syphilis appeared in Naples in 1495, from whence it spread fairly rapidly throughout western Europe. Concentrated in the port towns where sailors from Italy and the Far and Middle East indiscriminently exchanged bodily fluids with English prostitutes (first noted in England in 1497) who then spread it to clients who took it to their wives and mistresses throughout the nation. By this means, within a generation it had arrived at the doors and the beds of the great as well as the humble.

Unlike smallpox or the plague, which struck suddenly, death occuring within days, syphilis was slow; slow to appear; slow to develop. Understanding of its deadly nature must also have been slow. Even today arguments continue regarding its symptoms, which are often hard to diagnose. Where smallpox appears openly on the face and hands, the great pox first appeared in those areas most hidden from view, on the genitals. Following an early outbreak, these lesions would appear to heal, so the patient would consider himself or herself cured of one of the lesser STDs, and so continue to have sex, not realizing what they were doing to their partners, or what it could do to their families, since a man could infect his wife, who would then bear children with the inherited version of the disease.

Due to its varying symptomology, the Pox, as it was most commonly termed, could well have masqueraded for years as one of several other venereal diseases for which there were folk remedies, so its devastating nature would have become apparent only gradually over time. For while smallpox and the plague come fairly quickly to a crisis after which the patient is either dead or gets well, the bacilli that cause syphilis continue to spread deep within the cells of various parts of the body where they proliferate, gradually over the years bringing about the more obvious symptoms, the stinking, suppurating sores that won’t heal, or the deterioration of the bones of the face, most notably the nose. The only cure that was at all effective, ingesting mercury, was almost as devastating as the disease.

Because the symptoms could vary so widely depending on what organs had been compromised, because the disease could appear to have healed, going dormant sometimes for years, and because the effect it had on childbirth (the miscarriages, the stillbirths, the sickly infants, the children who only got sick later in life) were slow to be understood, it would have taken time for the pox to have shown itself in all its horror to the religious leaders who could only explain it in terms of original sin, that sex itself was the curse, God’s punishment on Adam and Eve for aspiring to forbidden knowledge. It also explains why their congregations, shocked and terrified, were so willing to follow Calvin and his fellow reformers down the path of stringent self-denial.

It was also why Queen Elizabeth had not only a dislike of sex, but genuine horror, fearing as she certainly must have what was the true cause of her father’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s terrible illnesses and what the results might be should she become pregnant. Much as the English historians continue to deny it, seeking ever more arcane explanations for Henry’s insane behavior towards the end of his life, no one who researches the matter can fail to agree that the disgusting nature of his illness, the troubles all his wives had conceiving and if they conceived, giving birth to healthy infants, were all due to the disease that all the Court either knew for a fact or guessed, was due to syphilis contracted during one of the many sexual peccadilloes with which he entertained himself in his youth. And even as the delicate sensibilities of the historians continue to prevail, there can be no argument that most of the Court under Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth would have believed the cause of the king’s insanity and his wives failures to produce a healthy heir to have been syphilis. This then, was the true cause why Elizabeth not only never married, but also why, despite her obvious delight in surrounding herself with handsome men, she would never have allowed herself to have sex (that is exchange bodily fluids) with any of them, taking refuge in the Greek myths of virginal goddesses like Diana and Phoebe.

This is the primary reason why sex was forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court; why the word “filthy” was inevitably used whenever reformers referred to sex; why books of sexy stories like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure were condemned as dangerous filth by Reformation pedagogues like Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor; and why those who transgressed her anti-sex edicts were punished so severely. This is also largely why the men (and women) who translated these works and had them published invariably hid their identities and why printers and publishers used ambiguous language on the title pages and in the front material of these and , so that the reform censors would pass them without reading further.

It also explains how the sexuality of young, vital Court poets, repressed by the dangers of yielding to impulse and intensified by the frustration of repression, burst forth in long sequences of sexually-charged poetry, long narrative poems about love and sex like Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and why during the decade of sonnet cycles addressed to cold disdainful dames, some, like Astrophil and Stella and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, exceeded 100 verses! Repressed by the sex hatred of the reformers and the fears of the Queen, desires that could not be allowed expression in any other way found release in reams of verse, some of it glorious––the lotus flowering from the heap of dung that was the terror inspired by this horrible disease.

Shakespeare and “the wobble”

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

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

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

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

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

Ten lords a-leaping

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Shakespeare, laughing

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

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

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

“No more cakes and ale”

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

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

Twelfth Night on Broadway throughout January

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

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

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

Passing the hat

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

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

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

To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

How Shakespeare saved Christmas

What has Shakespeare to do with Christmas? Falstaff bloggie  He only mentions it twice by name, and then only in passing.  It’s clear from the name that Twelfth Night takes place during the Christmas holidays, but nothing in the play itself connects the behavior of Sir Toby and his friends to a particular holiday, at least not to us today.  Yet of all the paths that lead to our present celebration of Christmas, the one forged by Shakespeare is the widest and surest, leading as it did through the barren desert of the puritan Reformation to give back to the English, not the feudal style of merry-making, but through his creation of the London Stage, the joys of Theater and all that has developed from it, school plays and amateur theatricals, films and television.  While the Stage began as a compensation for the loss of the old processions, it shows its origins through the furnishings of many of his plays.

No more cakes and ale

The puritans who represented the more extreme beliefs that were brought to England in the 1540s with the Swiss Reformation did not condone the kind of merry-making that had always been associated with Christmas and the period after it leading up to Lent.  With their insistence on a lifestyle and a form of worship that adhered to what they believed came directly from the Bible, they regarded all festivity as evidence of papistical excess, a backsliding into the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the worship of Baal, of witchcraft, sorcery.  Following Calvin, the reformers eliminated all but four of the scores of feast days associated with the Catholic saints.  While Christmas was one of the four, it was a Christmas sadly bereft of its pagan trimmings––no decorating of trees, no burning of yule logs, no St. Nicholas, no mistletoe, no wassail bowl, no filling the halls with boughs of holly––no fa la la la la.

The church itself, once their beautiful and beloved halfway house to Heaven, was no longer festive.  Painted walls were whitewashed over.  The gorgeously carved rood screens and statues of the saints were broken up and burnt in bonfires in the streets.  The stained glass windows that portrayed the lives of the saints were smashed to smithereens.  The gold and silver candelabra were appropriated or stolen; the use of candles for anything but necessary light was denied.  The raised altar was replaced by a plain table in the center of the nave.  Priests were not allowed to wear anything but black.  Processions were forbidden.

Difficult as this was to bear throughout the year, it was hardest of all during the holiday period that included Christmas, for centuries the major moment when the laboring classes got a much-needed break from the year-round struggle to wrest sustenance from the soil and the sea.  Most of northern Europe was frozen from mid-November through mid-March.  Forced indoors, farmers and fishermen spent the winter months mending gear, visiting friends and relatives, eating, drinking, dancing and singing––in other words, making merry.  Beloved traditions reflected origins in Stone Age rituals, in particular the processions that circled through the parish, from and back to the church again: mumming and disguising, the Boy Bishop, the Hobby Horse, the Morris Dancers, the Green Man––all forbidden.  Bishops who sided with their parishoners ended up in the Tower.

Although the rural districts far from London were better able to keep some of the old antics, Londoners, closely watched by a series of die-hard puritan Mayors, could not get away with anything that hinted at a return to making merry.  When the boy king’s death in 1553 put his Catholic sister on the throne there was a brief reprieve.  But with Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the reformers returning from their exile stepped directly into important political positions, their determination to see reform strengthened by having spent the years of Mary’s reign in Frankfurt, Strasburg or Geneva, listening to the most adamant creators of the Protestant Reformation.

An Elizabethan Christmas

When it came to Christmas and other holidays, Queen Elizabeth was in something of a hard place.  She owed her throne to the reformers, yet personally she was drawn to the Old Faith and its lavish celebrations, in particular music and dancing.  She was also bound to provide a festive atmosphere for the visitors and ambassadors from countries that still kept holidays in the old style.  A compromise was achieved early in her reign by switching from the expensive masques that had been the Court’s version of mumming and disguising to the more sedate, seated observation of holiday plays, interspersed with musical interludes, mostly provided by members of her staff and paid for by her courtiers.  The acting and singing were done by the boy choristers who sang for her and her entourage in the palace chapel during devotions, then entertained on a dais in the dining hall , the instrumental music provided by her staff of England’s most accomplished musicians.  With costumes provided by the Revels department, it was all done on the cheap.

All elements of this entertainment came from within the Court and its circle of providers.   Where then did the plots and characters, the text of the plays come from?  Though plays consist of nothing but talk, and talk is cheap, these plays were not all that easy to write.  They had to be entertaining without overstepping the bounds of Court etiquette or offending a laughter-loving but hypersensitive female monarch.  Plays require conflict to be interesting, but for these plays the conflict could not reflect the grim religious and political issues that were what she dealt with day to day.  They had to be funny without being bawdy.  In short, to succeed, they had to be written by someone aware of what would please and what would not, in other words, an intelligent and sensitive Court insider.

Unfortunately the strictures of the Reformation had left the English literary community at one of the lowest points in its history.  Known to historians as “the drab era,” the poetry was crabbed and dense, its themes morose and depressing.  This was not surprising considering that the Reformation tended to see poets (playwrights were called poets) as liars, and poetry (anything that qualified as imaginative literature) as an instrument of the Devil.  As with most Renaissance courts, all good courtiers wrote poetry just as they played the lute or virginals and could sight-sing complex madrigals, but these were pastimes and unfortunately writing witty plays requires rather more than an hour or two snatched from running at the ring or playing Primero.

Along came Shakespeare

Of course he wasn’t known as Shakespeare then, in fact he wasn’t “known” at all.  He was a member of one of the Court coteries that prided itself on its writing, but which member wasn’t always clear, except within the coterie itself.  Fearful that being labeled a poet would mean loss of any hope of advancement, at least one gifted young writer openly condemned it as a “toy,” vowing to give it up.  But the youth who would someday be published as Shakespeare had that ineffable gift that time and again meets the moment with just the right stuff.  Protected by his high estate from the slurs of the less able, he began providing the kind of dramatically exciting and witty entertainment for the winter holidays at Court that would someday make it one of the most famous in Europe.

The talented boys who performed these plays came from the middling levels of society.  Usually discovered by their grammar school teachers, they were brought to Court or to Paul’s Cathedral, given the equivalent of a basic grammar school education, and trained to work with her musical consorts, singing the complex works of composers like William Byrd so that the Queen and her entourage could move through the day accompanied by music, as we do today by means of ipods and radios.

Clever lads, the boys easily memorized the lines given them to perform these early comedies.  Enchanted by their little satin suits and mammoth ruffs as they trilled the witty lines that they themselves may not have fully understood, they would continue to be the favorite entertainers of the childless Queen throughout her reign.  However, since she was also a tightwad with everyone but her male companion of the moment, she and her ministers looked aside when the boys and their masters would continue to perform a play written for a Court holiday in the halls of wealthy householders whose donations helped to defray the cost of the boys’ upkeep.

Thus it was that the great breakthrough occured.  What began as a few holiday plays in the London homes of the wealthy spread, bit by bit, to more public venues like the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers trained to sing the Service were allowed to entertain the public during the holidays.  There’s nothing more exciting for a theater company and its patrons than an enthusiastic audience, so the temptation to go commercial was hard for these financially struggling music masters to resist.  That, plus the fact that Londoners were desperate for entertainment, plus the most important fact of all, that the plays were so good––so much better than the silly antics that in former years had been provided by amateurs recruited from the City guilds to provide holiday entertainment for the City.

Birth of the London Stage

Starved by the Reformation for the merriment they craved, the London public had begun to frequent the theater inns in ever-increasing numbers.  City inns built on a square, surrounded on three sides by two or three stories of rooms accessed by an open passage that faced the central courtyard, were able to show plays performed on the second level overlooking the courtyard.  Performances at the inns lasted through the winter holidays, ending with the beginning of Lent, and beginning again in June.  By adding this to travelling on the circuit to the bigger towns, actors began to get the kind of work that they could count on throughout most of the year.

Seeing this, patrons of the major companies, some of them members of the Queen’s Privy Council, began to plan how to take advantage of this growing public audience and the growing mastery of their acting companies.  Politicians at heart, they saw the advantage of going with the flow, working it to their own advantage.  The Church on the other hand hated it, and fought the growth of the London Stage with every weapon it could muster, but it had only itself to blame for denying its parishoners their beloved season of good cheer.

In 1575, royal permission was finally granted to the young lord with the golden pen to travel to France and Italy where he could discover methods of theater production along with ways that it might work for, not against, Authority.  Persuaded by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Elizabeth and her chief minister, Lord Burghley, saw an advantage in promoting a theater that could be monitored and controlled as opposed to fighting the one that was growing helter skelter without their consent.  Within days of the young lord’s return in 1576 the first purpose-built year-round commercial stage began rising on a well-travelled road just outside the City in an ancient Liberty where the puritanical City fathers had no control.  That summer the adult company that gathered around the builder of the theater, James Burbage, began entertaining the public, two to three thousand at a sitting. And whose plays do you think they were performing?

Six months later, a little stage in a school created to train the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in their holiday entertainments for the Court opened in the old Revels offices in the Liberty of Blackfriars, also outside City control, at the edge of the most important audience in England, the lawyers and parliamentarians who spent their days in or near the law courts of Whitehall in what today is known as London’s West End.  And whose plays do you think the boys were performing there?  And possibly also––occasionally, advertised only to a select few through word of mouth––by Burbage’s adults.

Thus it was that the youth with the gifted pen whose plays would someday be published under the name Shakespeare, began gathering the audiences that would make the London Stage the wonder of the western world, spreading his magic first to Germany, then to all of Europe, then to the world.  Born from the Queen’s need for cheap entertainment at the winter holidays, “speaking daggers” on government policy at the little stage at Blackfriars to the members of parliament during their Christmas break, Shakespeare brought to a nation starved for happiness in the winter holidays the London Stage and with it the English Literary Renaissance.

That Shakespeare understood and rebelled against the Reformation’s idea of what constituted good writing is clear from Oxford’s prologues to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte.  The ideal held out for writers by the Reform community was Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Castiglione’s Courtier.  Try reading a bit of it, or something by George Turburville, and you’ll see what Oxford was confronted with by his contemporaries as he came of age.  Luckily he had been trained to a higher level by his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  Luckier yet he had that adventuresomeness of spirit that allowed him to fly free, not only of the turgid style of his contemporaries, but of the ancient styles learned at his tutor’s knee, ever seeking a fresher vision, a more direct and immediate means of communication.

For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot!

Did Shakespeare see his career as saving Christmas and all holidays for a people beaten into submission by a heartless, sin-obsessed Authority?  Perhaps not, but it seems likely that among the various forces that drove him over the years, one was the need to save for posterity some of what was good about the feudal culture that was under such severe attack by the Reformation, if not merry-making specifically, then the kind of hospitality, the noblesse oblige, that saw to it that widows and orphans were not forgotten, that everyone shared in the holiday, no matter how poor, when the true spirit of Christ, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” was not just cold words preached from a lofty pulpit, but actively lived at all the major turning points of the year.

In the upper Thames valley, where as a boy he had lived with Smith during Mary’s reign, the wild antics of the Hobby Horse and the Green Man could still have been seen in nearby towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday, May Day and Midsummer’s Eve.  Before Hamlet sits to watch the play that will catch the conscience of the King, his otherwise pointless cry, “For O, the hobby horse is forgot” must refer to the role of the Hobby Horse, some rural Robin Hood dressed in a horse costume, whose joyous duty it was to whinny as he charged at the homes and businesses of local evil-doers (bullies, wife-beaters, malicious gossips, avaricious money-lenders, loose women) as the rowdy procession passed them, to roars from the jeering crowd.  Was Hamlet using the play as in former times Oxford had seen when the Hobby Horse, given license by the ancient tradition, took the opportunity of the procession to  humiliate persons whose behavior was causing trouble within the community?

As the provider for so many years of the plays that took the place of the ancient forms of public merry-making, it’s not surprising that many show their origins in the old holiday folkways.  The sub-plot of Twelfth Night reflects what must have been a frequent situation during this time in many wealthy households, the battle between a widow’s overly rightous steward, and her old party dog of an uncle, with the jester, Feste––in Shakespeare’s position––caught between the two.  As Sir Toby puts it to the “baffled” Malvolio, “Dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?”  The Merry Wives’  torments of Falstaff end with what Oxford must have seen as a child in the villages in and around the Forest of Windsor near where he lived with Smith, a holiday ritual associated with the running of the stag, a relic of England’s Celtic origins.  That Shakespeare loved these holiday rascals is clear from how often they appear on stage and how long they stay there.  Falstaff and Sir Toby, if not based on the same individual, are certainly cut from the same cloth, as is Mine Host, and Bottom with his merry shout: “Where are these lads!  Where are these hearts!”

With his constant focus on love, many of the ancient traditions touched on by Shakespeare were courting rituals.  In As You Like It, the love poems Orlando pins on branches of trees would seem to reflect a courting tradition, though on what occasion remains a mystery, possibly St. Valentine’s Day.   The forest adventures of the couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect a similar tradition from ancient celebrations of May Day when girls would go into the wooded meadows alone, ostensibly to gather flowers for “Mary’s Day,” whence they would be pursued by the young men of the village.  This tender means of providing courting couples with an opportunity to meet privately in a romantic spring setting, was of course abhored and forbidden by the reformers, represented in the play by one of the fathers.  Other Reformation figures include Malvolio and Angelo from Measure for Measure.  Angelo’s message seems to be that it’s better to let the Old Nick come out in company for a few weeks a year than to keep it bottled up for years, finally to explode into some gross indecency with its aftermath of remorse.

True to the spirit of the masque, of the mumming and disguising that accompanied not only Christmas, but several of the ancient festivals, the great English Lord of the Dance hid his identity from the Blatant Beast, Spenser’s personalization of the Reformation, behind a sober mask contributed by a “prudent” burgher from the midlands, until his Book of Gladness, published in 1623 by the patrons who loved and cherished his work, spread it throughout England and from there to all the nations of the world.

Passing the plate

Those readers who enjoy these comments on Shakespeare, his identity, and how the English Literary Renaissance managed to find its way to the light despite the efforts of Reformation politicians to stamp it out, may find it in their hearts and pockets to help with this effort.  Unsupported by any organization or university, I’m sometimes at a loss to get the books I need or an occasional month’s membership to the online DNB.  If you’d like to make a modest contribution towards this effort, here’s how.

Thanks for your interest.  It’s what keeps me going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACT I: Hidden in plain sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACT II: Birth of a professional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACT III: Banished: The second leap

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

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

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

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

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

Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

In a book titled Shakespeare, Puritan and Recusant, published in 1897, author Thomas Carter makes a convincing argument that the apparent troubles brought on the Shakspere family beginning around 1576 were due neither to Catholicism nor debt, but to John Shakspere’s adherence to the radical Protestant line.  In other words, John Shakspere was what in the 1590s would be described as nonconformist or dissident.  In other words, he was the opposite of what we’ve been told.  Although this may leave a few problems unresolved, it makes a lot more sense than the Catholic theory.

Certain that Shakspere’s son was the great playwright, Carter also believes that John must have been literate, and even holds that certain fees paid him were to send him to London to observe a session of Parliament.  We needn’t go this far; greater certainty would lie with evidence from other towns of the literacy of men like Shakspere Sr. during this period of rapid change in levels of literacy.  The most likely may be the middle view, that the glover’s mark he used as a signature was an artisan’s tradition, not a symptom of illiteracy, so that Shakspere Sr. could read enough to manage his affairs, something according to Carter he did well enough throughout.  As for John’s son William, it’s evident that, whether or not he could read at any level, he was unable to write his own signature with ease, which would seem to put him out of the running as the author of Hamlet.

From the beginning, John Shakspere’s career path followed that of the rise of Protestantism and fell with the rise of government anti-Puritanism.  He came to Stratford in 1551, possibly on a wave of Protestantism when John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Warwickshire’s Protestant overlord, came to supreme national power.  Dudley lost it when the Catholics came back in in 1553, but then in 1558, with the pendulum of power swinging back to the reformers, came Shakspere Sr.’s first steps up in Stratford town government.  His lifelong friend Adrian Quiney was the town’s first Bailiff under Elizabeth, while in 1564 “Chamberlains” Shakspere and friend Robert Wheler were paid to rid the town chapel of its Catholic symbols, the cross, the rood screen, and the images and pictures of the saints (69).

For twenty years John Shakespeare and his friends continued to serve in one capacity or another as leaders in the Stratford Council until the mid ’70s when it appears he lost interest in civic service, either from debt or recusancy.  Although his recusancy is a matter of record, Carter shows that Shakspere was neither bankrupt nor was he even in serious debt.  The land transaction that scholars have interpreted as a sale by a desperate bankrupt were, as Carter explains, standard moves made by recusants to shift ownership of land to a friend or family member to avoid having their property confiscated should they be condemned by the Ecclesiastical High Commission (94-106).

The word recusant is usually taken to mean Catholics who refused to conform, but in fact it simply means one who abstains from attending church out of protest.  It’s true that the majority of recusants were Catholic, but right from the start it was clear that for the Queen and many others, the complaint was less with the Catholic service than it was with Catholic politics.  As for religion, once the Armada was defeated and the Crown was no longer so worried about Spain, Elizabeth’s attention turned to the English dissidents who, if anything, were even more offensive to her personally in their demands, whether for a reformed Church or the freedom to worship as they pleased.

Having been made the Head of the Church by the actions of her father, Elizabeth took seriously the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament shortly after her coronation that demanded allegiance to the (once again) reformed Service and Book of Common Prayer.  Seeing the empty churches as a personal affront, she put her “little black husband” Archbishop Whitgift in charge of forcing them back to church and the machinery of repression under the High Commission swung around toward the dissidents.  Thus was the Church of England born.  Shorn by the Star Chamber of opposition at both ends of the religious spectrum, it settled into what the proto-Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, etc., saw as a Catholic service in every respect but that Latin was replaced by English and the clergy were allowed to marry.

Carter sees this wave of repression, sparked by the uproar caused by the Queen’s threat to marry the Catholic French prince and her brutal treatment of John Stubbes for writing against it, as sweeping through Stratford in 1579, bringing strict reprisals from Westminster and forcing Shakspere Sr. and his reformist friends to retreat from the kind of involvement in civic affairs that could lead to serious trouble for them and their families.  As the records show, John was willing (and apparently able) to pay a heavy fine for not taking Episcopalian communion (118).  That John Shakspere retired from public life for twenty years, not because he was a Catholic, but because he was a dissident, makes a good deal of sense in almost every respect.

One issue that it doesn’t resolve is the matter of the Catholic handbook found by roofers in the eaves of the Henley Street house in 1757 (Schoenbaum 41).   This has been taken as evidence that John was a devout Catholic who hid the book out of concern that it might be found by some delegation of church commissioners.  Surely we can let go of this one.  It doesn’t affect the authorship thesis in any direct way.  Anyone could have hidden the book, such as an apprentice with rooms in the attic, concerned that his Master find him with such a dangerous item.  Another issue is the reason why William’s daughter Susannah was listed in 1606 by an ecclesiastical commission as a recusant (234-5) which Schoenbaum attributes to her being “popishly affected,” though it can just as easily be interpreted as an attempt to keep track of persons who failed to show up for communion so that they could be fined.

It does resolve other things.  There’s the problem of why John Shakspere’s neighbor, tanner Henry Field, clearly a staunch Protestant (having placed his son as an apprentice with the Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier), would name a devout Catholic in his will to act as his executor.  When seen as fellow Protestants, Shakspere and Field’s relationship makes better sense (even if John did take Henry to court once over a debt).

But the best proof comes from the plays, where advocates of a Catholic Shakespeare have a hard row to hoe.  Some of Shakespeare’s many Biblical references could have come from any Bible, but the prevalence of quotations, some almost word for word, from the 1560 Geneva Bible far outnumber them.  The very fact that there are so many Biblical quotes in Shakespeare while the Inquisition taught that it was a sin for a layman, not just to read the Bible, any bible, but even to own one, should be enough to quash the Catholic Shakespeare theory.  (The ability of theorists to cling to a notion, no matter how utterly it’s been proven false, never ceases to amaze.)

This prevalance in Shakespeare of quotations from the Puritan Bible, as Carter calls it, helps him with his Puritan Shakespeare theory, but not nearly so much as it helps Oxfordians with ours, for the Earl of Oxford spent the first eight years of his school career being tutored by one of England’s leading reform theologians, one who helped to create the also frequently quoted Book of Common Prayer, while the very Geneva Bible that Oxford purchased when he was nineteen, when presumably he was off on his own and no longer reliant on the books in his guardian’s library, is still to be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.

The King’s Speech

What a terrific movie! One Oxfordians can enjoy on more levels than most viewers.  For one thing, it’s full of Shakespeare references.  The King’s speech therapist is an amateur actor who’s memorized a great deal of Shakespeare, as have his sons.  He has the King, “Bertie,” aka George VI (played by Colin Firth), struggle against his disabling stutter by reciting “to be or not to be.”  The whole film is a riff on how very “uneasy” lies the head that wears the crown, and how uneasily a nation is ruled by men who inherit the role, but who are not leaders by nature.  In king after king, from Edmund Ironside and Lear to Henry VI, Shakespeare shows that none are without weakness or flaw: Edmund too trusting, Richard II too self-indulgent, Richard III wicked, Henry VI weak-minded, Lear naive.  Even the greatest, Henry V, must struggle to overcome a mispent youth.

Of the older sons of George V, none are truly capable of leading the nation.  The eldest, Edward, Prince of Wales, is appallingly weak, his attachment to his unpleasant American mistress and her Nazi friends a threat to the nation.  So when destiny calls, it falls to his younger brother, who, unprepared for the role of national leader, must battle his particular disability, a terrible stutter that makes it not just difficult to speak in public, but impossible.

Is this just bad luck, a perfectly normal result of a throw of the genetic dice?  No!  It’s the inevitable result of the unnatural upbringing still perpetrated on the children of the English aristocracy.   As Lawrence Stone shows in his Marriage, Sex and Society in England: 1500-1800, for centuries the traditions governing the raising of children were harsh beyond belief.  Parents were constantly being warned that to show any leniency would end in disaster.  Raised by nannies and governesses, children saw their parents briefly on occasions more like a drill sergeant’s review of his troops than a family get-together.  By the age of seven or eight, girls were often sent to live and work as maid-servants with well-connected friends or family members, while boys were sent to boarding schools.

This kind of childhood was meant to prepare them for the hardships of adult life.  Yet even as adults, children were still often not allowed to speak to their parents until spoken to, and when they did, would address them formally, bowing or curtsying like servants as they asked for their blessing. They were told who they would marry and were expected to toe the family line on everything.   This would continue until the death of the father, at which point his heir would take on the same set of behaviors.  (For more on this, see Born in sin.)  The results of this kind of treatment were, to say the least, not always what one might wish.

That by the third decade of the 20th century, royal children were still being raised in much the same way is clear.  Born left-handed, George was forced to use his right hand instead.  Forced to wear a painful brace, he was not allowed to make the model airplanes that interested him, but must instead collect stamps, that being a more appropriate hobby for royalty.  His father, George V, boasts of how afraid he had been of his father and how right it was that his sons should be afraid of him.  The film also portrays the ways in which the supernumeraries that surround the younger royals subtly bully them into staying within the bounds of the age-old traditions they are determined to uphold.

The movie touches briefly on the sorrow attending George’s younger brother John.  A sweet but simple-minded child who suffered from epileptic fits, the family was probably concerned that John would be used by the press to humiliate the family, so at twelve he was sent to live apart in the country with a nanny.  No one was allowed to discuss him except among themselves.  (An award-winning 2-part TV docudrama from 2003, The Lost Prince, tells the story.)

Although changes have taken place over the centuries, and today most English children of the middle classes are raised in a more relaxed fashion, for the children of aristocrats it seems the pattern of harsh or absent parenting––being raised by nannies and sent to boarding school at an early age––persists to this day.  There is a poignant anecdote about Princess Diana.  One day while at Sandringham with the Queen and family, when her boys’ nanny was taken ill, she rearranged her schedule so she could spend the day with her sons.  When the Queen heard of it she told her that that wasn’t her job and instructed her to let the servants take care of the boys.

If drama consists largely of portraying contrasts, this movie is stuffed with them: We watch a man with the most desperate performance anxiety prepare himself to perform before the most appallingly vast public audience one can imagine on the grimmest of all subjects.  Desperate to conquer his weakness, we watch as the daunting protocols of rigid royal tradition are bent to allow him to participate in the wildly creative gambits necessary to overcome his disastrous fear of speaking.  We see the overprotected aristocrat, speechless with anxiety, forced into verbal contest with the most dangerously compelling guttersnipe ever born to shriek into a microphone.  And this while the most distressing possible private family situation is made public against the backdrop an oncoming world war.  All so beautifully and lightly presented; flawlessly sequenced; perfectly cast; creatively shot; each situation masterfully enhanced with appropriate music.

And one last commendation: it shows the gifted amateur, the ad hoc speech therapist, succeeding where a phalanx of “highly accredited experts” have failed!

Now for a movie as good as this one that tells the truth about Shakespeare!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . ?

And so we come to the end of the second full year of this blog.  Many thanks to those of you who’ve continued to pursue it thus far.  For the past six months you’ve actually been more attentive than I have, having been preoccupied with moving and other personal situations.  I’m gratified to see how, even without much input from me, many continue to read the blogs and pages that have accumulated over the past two years.  Much remains to be investigated, and much that’s been investigated remains to be told, so we’re far from done.

Actually my silence over the past two months has had more to do with time taken to research areas that I’ve spent less time on in the past, primarily the 1590s, which is, after all, when the name Shakespeare actually began to appear in print.  They aren’t nearly as much fun to put together as the 1580s, when our heroes––Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon and Mary Sidney––bursting with youthful zest, launched the London Stage and commercial press.  Nevertheless, the ’90s are the crux, the very heart, of the Gordian knot that is the story of the English Literary Renaissance.

Many sorrowful strands make up this knot, each twisted into and overlapping the others: Oxford in his forties, down on his luck, looking to the young Earl of Southampton to put him back in business; Mary Pembroke defining and publishing her dead brother’s work; Marlowe’s assassination and Lord Strange’s murder; Bacon gnashing his teeth at the Establishment that kept refusing to hire him; the great Queen aging and lonely, while above, tracing its astonishing trajectory and casting its shadow on everything else, the amazing story of the young Earl of Essex continues to unfold as his supporters and enemies alike hold their breath, waiting to see how it will end.  It’s taking time to work through this material, and will take even more to condense it into a few sufficiently cogent blogs and pages.

Meanwhile I’ve managed to get a few pages up on other topics.  There’s now some background on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the English Renaissance.  In anticipation of more detail on Fisher’s Folly, there’s a paragraph on each of the names that make up most lists of the University Wits and also a brief summary of the major events and personalities of the 1580s.  Added to the list of lectures and articles from former years I’ve added Southampton’s Hair.  Written originally to deal with the idea put forth by some Oxfordians that the Earl of Southampton was heralded with unusual vigor at Court, something that now seems less certain (most of it based on Peele’s “Honour of the Garter,” which when examined seems not all that exceptional).  In any case, it touches on an area of some interest to those readers focussed on Southampton.

And for those who might wish to make it easier to continue my research I’ve come up with a way that you can help.  Should you wish to do so, I do thank you with all my heart.

Finally, for our memories of those “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,”  we paid a heavy price this year.  Remembering Robert Brazil, Richard Roe, Verily Anderson and Elliott Stone, let’s hope that wherever they are, they’re learning things still hidden from the rest of us, and that in that grand and glorious library in the hereafter, young and healthy once again, that they run into each other from time to time and remind each other of the good old days here below.

And for those of us yet remaining, a most happy and healthful 2011.

Stephanie