It’s been almost four months since I’ve blogged or added anything to this site. Why? Because I’ve been in the final throes of finishing the book I’ve been working on for the past eight years, and have literally had no time, or room in this tired old bean, for anything else. Of course it’s not totally finished––polishing, fact-checking, eliminating redundancies, are yet to be done––but thankfully the heavy lifting is over and the bloody albatross cast free, to be trussed and roasted more or less at leisure, hopefully for your eventual reading pleasure. While beating my brains to custard, I’ve been grateful that readers have continued to read and even to comment. Many thanks for that.
Back in 1987, when Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William first gave rise to the question of “Shakespeare’s” identity in my not yet quite so old and tired thinking, I was left with two questions that he had not addressed: first, the Earl of Oxford’s learning: by what means did he acquire the vast Renaissance education that the Academy has been at such pains to deny for four centuries? Second: is it really possible that he was the only writer of that interesting time who managed to create whole canons by publishing under the name of an illiterate nonentity?
It’s taken 30 years to find satisfactory answers to these questions, and many of the pages on this blog, added since its beginning in 2008, address specific aspects of one or the other. But handfuls of clusters of connected puzzle pieces, floating in isolation, do not suffice when what is needed is a narrative, one that explains how such things could have happened, and why they happened as they did.
The question of Shakespeare’s identity is actually only the first of so many questions that have yet to be answered that a full century after Looney’s book we still find ourselves teetering on the brink of a dark, chaotic landscape. Is this merely the normal detritus of history as left by the passage of time? Or has there been a determined effort of some sort to prevent the truth from emerging? On page 123 of TMW Ogburn lists several areas in which a paper trail would disappear at a certain point, sometimes to reappear once the period in question is past. Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of similar anomalies, too many to ascribe to any sort of natural entropy. Yes, there can be no doubt, there has been a great deal of finagling throughout the history of Shakespeare scholarship, beginning with its very inception. The important question is why, and by whom. And although we don’t yet know the full answer to “by whom,” we do now finally have a sufficiently trustworthy answer to “why?”
Despite these breaks in the record, what I like to call “literary forensics” provides us with tools that, much like DNA and infra-red photography, work apart from what standard history deigns to allow. This approach allows us to broaden our examination of those areas where primary data is missing and so to project with some security what it might contain were it intact. Although history pretends to eschew conjecture, restricting itself to deal only with what facts remain, Science knows that where hard facts are not available, conjecture, which it dignifies with the term hypothesis, is not only acceptable, it is a necessity, for without it physics would never have arrived at Probability, Relativity, or a thousand other stepping-stones to our present understanding of the universe.
Thus by acquiring enough “proxy data” to project the most likely nature of the missing content, we can create bridges of conjecture solid enough to connect those areas where established facts provide secure footage, and thus, finally, to a narrative that makes sense. Once established, such a narrative, I do believe, will be the final nail in the Stratford coffin. This of course takes a great deal of time, but where history is concerned, time is not an issue. In fact, however much be lost, Time tends to clear away the inevitable fog of political maneuvering to which History, despite its solemn demeanor of dispassionate rectitude, is uniquely vulnerable. And so let it be with the Authorship Question.
Much has come clear during this process, some of it only over the past twelve months. In reading around the question I’ve tapped into what appears to be a new wave of younger historians of the Tudor and Jacobean periods who seem to be chipping away at some of the darker areas that broach on the AQ. While Oxford remains the violent pet wastrel of historians like Lawrence Stone and Alan Nelson, it would seem that further study, plus a few blasts of refreshing common sense, are blowing the dust off the period when the works in question were being produced. Knowing more about Oxford’s surroundings at the time, the issues and personalities with which he had to deal, we can project with some confidence the reasons why he wrote particular works, thus bringing a new measure of exciting enlightenment, not only to the studies of Early Modern Literature, but to the history of the entire period, which at present lies stifled in layers of ancient political dust.
The present book began as the answer to the first question, where did Oxford get his learning, but in peeling away layer after layer of the truth about the period, his education was so obviously bound up with the politics of the period––and the continuing politics of the Academy––that the story simply had to be carried through to the end––that same End that, as Shakespeare has it, “crowns all.”
Despite all efforts to keep to the barest and most select minimum of evidence per point, trusting to the interested reader to follow up with the titles mentioned and the ample materials available now on the internet, the darned book has become so long that it looks like it will have to be divided into two, first: Educating Shakespeare; second: Shakespeare and the London Stage. (As for my other original question––were there others who used the same tactics to get published?––that must wait for a third excursion into the labyrinth of 16th-century literary politics.)
Will there be a publisher willing to publish such a lengthy report, and, not least, to provide it to those who care about such things, in hardback? Not that paperback or Kindle are out of the question, but for readers like myself, who need a hardback edition of any book that requires space for marginal notes, I simply can’t see it solely in “perfect bound” paperback. Since I desperately need to give some attention to my pocketbook after so many years of scraping by, I’m even thinking of bypassing book publishing altogether, selling it through Amazon a bit at a time. In so doing I would only be following in the footsteps of those heroic creators of the English commercial Press, pamphleteers Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.
Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?
Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same. Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.
From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out. Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.
Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability. Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines. The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.
At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London. During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through. In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies. Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience. This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.
The Lords Chamberlain and the records
Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment. It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.
Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle. There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder. Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two. And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.
All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.
As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”
Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage. These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.
Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time. When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place. Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.
By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies. Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses” in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines. For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.
The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties
Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability. Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.
The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys. Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.
The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record. Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies. For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.
Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys. There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII. The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand. That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.
Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.
Oxford and the Court Stage
This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley. Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each. Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries. One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.
The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents. On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain. A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party. Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.
Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary. At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex. All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.
Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games. For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.
That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons. One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men. This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.
The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem. Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.
Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.
Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin. Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis. Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources. Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?
Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies. The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed. It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.
Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage
It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born. In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne. In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.
Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London. Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.
It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC). Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566. As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.
It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.) Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.
Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars
By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars. The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.
An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.
Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End. The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer). Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.
The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.” Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.
The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589
Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season. Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign. Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.
Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names. All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.
Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy. Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience. A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s. Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library. On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.
On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest. (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?) Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius. On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.
1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests. On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy. On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank). Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English. No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.
Trouble in Illyria
Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament. Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel. In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.
Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays. Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to. The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.
Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings
Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw. The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber. Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.
Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles. Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.
Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something. From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three. The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests. Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.” The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style. Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.
So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court? What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns. Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.
The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created. Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85. As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range. He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.
Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it. He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.
Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them. So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters. Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself. As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.
Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham
Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return. What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.
For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point. In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders. Who but Oxford could write such plays. Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).
Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died. For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage. In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year. The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment. After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded. From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.
Another turn of the screw
In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.
Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity. Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.
London in the 1590s
Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign. With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.
As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.
As described by Lawrence Stone in TheCrisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End. That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.
The Cecils attack the Stage
That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.
Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils, made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over. Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.
Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.
Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City. In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies. Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men. Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
So where was Oxford?
In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto. Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.
In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son. This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.
While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.
Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s. Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.
In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.
Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.
Poor Ben Jonson! What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup. Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church. Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.
Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.
But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority. It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever. Mary was dead. Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church. It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it. It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.
The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End. Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them. But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.
The printer was waiting. He stared at the blank sheet before him. This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language. It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus. Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?
How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education? Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks. They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature. Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadstsmall Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.
The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished. But this was a flat out lie. Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek. Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek. Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it. Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.
Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet. Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death. It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career. Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.
Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument. The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?
This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.
One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.
For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.
We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth. Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.
Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.
Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference. Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.
Enter Paul’s Boys
Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.
Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.
While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.
At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays.
The Children of the Queen’s Chapel
Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.
The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports. But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.
Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name. In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.
These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.
Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?
It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.
These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:
Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?
Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.
It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.
Here’s another must-have for your Oxfordian book collection. From 1998-2011, Noemi Magri, Professor of English at the ITIS School in Mantua Italy, published a series of articles on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy in the British Oxfordian journal, the De Vere Society Newsletter. Now the German publisher, Verlag Uwe Laugwitz, has collected these in an affordable paperback that adds a host of details to what we learned from Richard Roe in his Shakespeare in Italy, details that leave no doubt as to Shakespeare’s, and Oxford’s, first-hand knowledge of Italy. While Roe adds to the information he provides the pleasures of accompanying him on his investigations, a sort of literary whodunit, Magri, as a professor of literature and a native Italian, provides citable material in a scholarly format that writers of articles and lectures for professional journals can turn to without reserve when addressing Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy. Her abundant end notes add detailed flesh to the bones of fact
For centuries, academics, aware of the importance of Italy and Italian works to Shakespeare, have focused, not on his knowledge of Italy, but on what they believed was his ignorance, one more instance of the disassociative thinking forced on them by the Stratford biography. Since the humble provincial could not possibly have known Italy without leaving some record of his travels, ergo to wit: Shakespeare must have been ignorant about Italy, just as he must have been ignorant of Greek, Latin, French, etc..
The gulf that separates university studies of history from studies of literature is also to blame, for as Magri clearly shows, this ignorance of Italy is all theirs, for in every instance we find that it was Shakespeare who knew what he was talking about, not his critics. Our Strat-watchers will report on any apparent response to Magri’s evidence, but the likelihood is that they will do as they’ve always done with the evidence provided by authorship scholars, simply pretend it isn’t there. After all, who cares about a truth so arcane as who created the language we speak, in which we think, with which we communicate and in which all the great works of English have been written since the Bard first put pen to parchment?
Magri covers just about everything in Shakespeare that requires personal knowledge of Italy, its language, its geography, its history, its customs and its laws. Major articles deal with his awareness of Italian paintings by Titian and Giulio Romano and the part these play in Venus and Adonis, Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew. She provides the history behind The Merchant of Venice, his knowledge of Portia’s Belmont, of the precise distances and modes of transportation involved in getting from one place to another, and his knowledge of Italian law as demonstrated in the trial scene. That he knew more about the geography of Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast than his critics she shows in articles on Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale.
She clears up the eternal confusion over his seeming ignorance of the geographic locations of Verona and Milan in her article on Two Gents, providing a great deal of useful background on the two cities. She makes the point that Oxford, after visiting the German scholar Johannes Sturm, would have entered Italy via the St. Gotthard Pass rather than, as previously conjectured, by the Brenner Pass, since the St. Gotthard Pass was “the route usually taken by travellers coming down the Rhine valley into Italy” (111-2). Stopping briefly outside Milan (he would only have encountered problems with the Inquisition had he lingered inside the City), he would have learned all he needed for the adventures of his two gentlemen. [At the time of Oxford’s visit, Milan was experiencing an horrific outbreak of the plague.] These are but hints of the important information to be found in every article in this book, and in the end notes.
Evidence from Orazio Cuoco
One of the most important additions to our store of precise knowledge about Oxford is the evidence Magri provides of the Venetian Inquisition’s examination of Orazio Cuoco recorded in 1577, a few days after his return from the 11 months he lived with Oxford in England. Magri provides a verbatim transcript of the original manuscript, located in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (201), in which the questions and answers are in Italian, the rest in Latin. Facing this on the opposite page is her word-for-word translation.
As she reveals, the sole issue concerning the Holy See was whether or not Cuoco had been suborned by Oxford into giving up or ignoring his religion. Clearly they were satisfied that he had not. When asked “What made you go with him” to England, the record states that Cuoco replied, “He heard me sing in the choir in Santa Maria Formosa and he asked me if I wanted to go to England with him.” When asked if he had asked anyone for advice on whether to go or not, he replied, “I asked my father and my mother and both advised me to go.” Since both his parents died of the plague while Orazio was gone, it seems that Oxford (unwittingly) may have saved the youth from a similar fate. Beyond that the primary concern of Orazio’s inquisitor appears to have been whether or not he ate meat on fast days; he did not, or at least, so he said.
Of most interest to Oxfordians in Cuoco’s statement is the evidence it gives of Oxford’s religious tolerance and his interest in Greek. According to Orazio, while Oxford himself ate either meat or fish, on fast days he provided his household only with fish, and he also had “an attendant and a manservant who were Catholics.” To more particular questioning on religious matters, he answered that he never was required (or desired) to hear “sermons of heretics” (Protestants), and that he was allowed to attend Mass “in the house of the Ambassadors of France and Portugal” (207, 209). When asked if Oxford ever tried to convert him, he answered “No Sir. He let everyone live as they wanted.” When asked “Who associated with the Earl in this town (Venice)” he replied, “No one here from this town. He used to go to Mass at the Church of the Greeks, and he was a person who spoke the Latin and Italian languages well.” Well-acquainted with the church in question, Magri describes it as “the most important Greek Orthodox church in Europe” and “a center of Greek and Renaissance learning.” Inaugurated in 1573, Oxford would have seen it “in all its splendor.” Nearby was “one of the first printing presses” in Venice, one that printed books in Greek (214).
Magri vs. Nelson
In comparing the truth about Cuoco’s deposition to the version in Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, Magri reveals Nelson’s egregiously sloppy scholarship. For some reason the good professor had a hard time getting right the spelling of Cuoco’s name, spelling it either Coquo or Cocco (and Cogno in an earlier article on the internet), all meaningless; Cuoco means Cook in English. Although Magri had sent him the right spelling, Nelson continued to misspell it. Where Nelson reports that Cuoco claimed that Oxford was a “great lover of music,” it’s clear from Magri’s word-for-word translation that the youth never said any such thing. Where Nelson claims that “he attended churches,” Cuoco actually spoke of only the one church. Where Nelson reports that the Service at the Greek Church was in Latin, Magri corrects: “The Mass (not the service) was, and still is, said in Greek” (215). Magri was particularly peeved by Nelson’s description of the Greek Church as “notorious for attracting religious dissidents, a statement she labels “false, arbitrary and defamatory.” The church was “a cultural center,” its location in Venice “a meeting place for literary men” (215).
These are only a few of the six pages worth of mistranslations and arbitrary inventions that Nelson has foisted off on his readers as genuine scholarship, some of them obviously based on his need to represent Oxford in as dim a light as possible. For those who desire to stick to the truth, anything Nelson has to say on Oxford’s time in Italy must be rejected in favor of Magri’s version. His insinuation that Oxford’s motive in taking Orazio to England was sexual is replaced by something far more likely: that having heard him sing in the church choir, Oxford, in his capacity of prime provider of entertainment to the English Court, hoped to dazzle the Queen and the Court with Orazio’s singing . Indeed, when asked, “Did you ever speak with the Queen?”Orazio responded, “I sang in her presence” (210).
Although Roe is unparalleled in his role as tour guide to Oxford’s travels in Italy, for those who dream of the day that rigorously-researched authorship articles and books will be accepted by mainstream academic publishers, it’s Magri’s standing as a PhD and a native whose deep roots in Italian culture and history will best provide the kind of support required for scholarly exegesis. Unfortunately, both books lack an index. For those who forsee the need to use her evidence as support for your own work, I suggest you keep a record of important points and pages numbers as you go. You’ll be glad you did. (British Oxfordian Richard Malim has put together an index of Roe’s book.)
Don’t let too much time pass before getting this book. Libraries don’t buy paperbacks (when they do they have to pay to have them properly bound so they can shelve them), and hard experience has taught me the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow nature of the publishing business. As long as we remain a fringe discipline, we need to do what we can to keep the most important books available. Orders can be made through Magri’s editor, Gary Goldstein, at his website The Elizbethan Review, or through amazon.com. If the latter, don’t forget to add your own review or at least, click yes on the good ones.
Can we please stop calling him Lord Oxford?!
I have only one criticism of Magri’s excellent book, or any other in which he’s referred to as “Lord Oxford.” Once or twice is understandable as it helps to identify him, but more than that is not only a bore, it’s actually detrimental to our cause. Sure it’s a fact that “lordship” was his inheritance and that his contemporaries called him “Lord Oxford,” but his contemporaries were referring to him in his social role, not to his role as a playwright and a poet, which is what makes him important to us and, hopefully, to the entire world someday, once we can get past that dratted word Lord! It would have been appropriate to call him Maestro, but that was impossible for the very reason that a lord back then couldn’t be a maestro, or anything but a lord.
For all the good it did him, for all the freedom, the time, and the credit with money-lenders that his rank provided, making it possible for him to write, produce and publish what would have been utterly impossible had he been born a commoner, it also did him and generations of readers a serious harm in the very area governed by his name, for it is largely due to his rank that his identity had to be hidden behind a pseudonym borrowed (for a hefty consideration) from the son of a provincial wool dealer. It’s the very thing that for four centuries has made it so difficult to identify him as the author of the greatest works in English literature.
His given name, “de Vere,” is appropriate for his childhood, but as a constant term it lacks the power and strength of Oxford. It’s also mispronounced: in a letter to Burghley the Countess of Southampton spelled it “de Vayer,” which, no matter how it was spelled, is surely how it was pronounced by himself and those who knew him personally. (Consider how much Shakespeare liked the word “fair,” or that vert in French, meaning green, is pronounced vair unless the following word begins with a vowel, or, most telling, ver in Latin, which means truth and is pronounced veyr, as shown by the pronunciation of Latin words like veritas. ) As it’s invariably pronounced today, de Veer, it has no such associations.
Let’s call him Oxford. It’s short, it’s easy, and by now everyone knows who is meant by it. Apart from the town and the university, there’s no other Oxford with which he can be confused. The earls of the second creation are more easily identified by their birth name of Harley. Lord Byron, who certainly identified himself with his role as poet far more than with his rank, called himself Byron, as did all his friends, associates, readers, enemies and admirers. There may be some who pursue this study because they have a thing for English lords, just like there are some who pursue it for the purpose of writing soap opera romances and screenplays, but let’s hope that there are at least some among us whose primary interest remains in seeing him established in history as the author of the Shakespeare canon.
By calling him Lord Oxford (and, the ultimate of damning him at the outset––introducing him as “the seventeenth blah blah blah”)––we are buying into the very mindset that has been keeping us from getting him accepted as Shakespeare, as immediately it places him, not with the writers of his era, but with the aristocrats! As an introduction, all that need be done is to call him Edward de Vere (pronounced de Vayer), Earl of Oxford (dropping the totally unnecessary four-syllable phrase, “the seventeenth”), and from then on call him plain Oxford.
In his role as playwright, author of Venus and Adonis, Hamlet, and the other works that are the only reason we want to know anything about him, Oxford’s socio-political rank has about as much importance as the fact that his hair was auburn, that he was married twice, and that in later life he probably walked with a limp. These are facts that belong to his biography, and however interesting, and however much they may bear on the attitude and subject matter of his works, they have nothing whatsoever to do with where he fits with Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley in the pantheon of English literary greats. Their social status has nothing to do with their greatness. Neither should his.
That events in Oxford’s life so closely match the plots of Shakespeare’s plays is a chain of evidence that those who deny his authorship can only ignore, as the connections are so obvious that denial is impossible. It seems that everything he wrote, everything that’s lasted at least, grew out of a current social or political situation with which his audience was concerned, plus some event in history, literature or folk tale, plus some circumstance in his own life. By investing the protagonist with his own emotions, brought about by something in his personal life, whether earlier or ongoing, he invested the play with life.
Some of the evidence for this comes from additions he made to his source material, like Arthur in King John, the little prince who fears that Hubert, his tutor, will betray him, and who then dies in an attempt to escape, perhaps a reflection of his situation when Smith left him with Fowle at Cambridge for five months when he was eight years old, probably with no indication of where he’d be sent if Smith got what he was after, a place on Elizabeth’s Council.
Next he’s Romeo, the 15-year- old who yearns for 13-year-old Juliet, but is denied access to her by social barriers, as so many young people were then by the differences in their parents’ religions, and as Oxford at 15 was from Mary Browne, daughter of one of the most conservative members of Elizabeth’s Court, shortly before she was forced to marry the somewhat mad 2nd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s County Paris. Then comes Palamon whose friendship with Arcite is stressed by their common desire for Emilia, as is Euphues with Philautus and Oxford with Rutland over their relationship with Ann Cecil .
Into his late teens and early twenties he’s Hal, the prince who spends too much time hanging out in bad company and playing pranks as he waits for something important to do. Having finally gotten his Grand Tour in Italy in 1575, he’s those cads, Bertram and Proteus, cruel to the good girl who loves him while chasing trollops around Europe. Arriving home to a pile of debts and angry creditors, he’s Timon, who, naive at first, goes ballistic when he realizes he’s been taken for a ride by sycophants he had thought were his friends, and who now refuse to help him in his time of need. Then, following his 1580 confession of having plotted treasonably with Howard and Arundel, he’s both Coriolanus, furious with his community and himself, and Brutus, who committed regicide for what he believed was the good of his people.
In his hotheaded thirties he’s valiant Hotspur and witty Mercutio, both dangerously quick to take offense. He’s both Benedick (Mercutio overtaken by love) and Claudio, another Bertram-like cad. As Oberon, he’s “King of Shadows,” the shaman in charge of the ancient holiday rituals that not all that long ago used to take place on May Day and Midsummer’s Eve in the sacred groves of the great Royal forest. In his mid-thirties he’s Hamlet, Prince of Thoughts. His world turned upside down by the cold realities of medieval power politics, he makes the Court Stage his personal Star Chamber. Heart-broken over the death of his mentor and patron, the Earl of Sussex, he accuses Elizabeth of being Gertrude, Leicester of being Claudius, and Burghley of being Polonius, whom he kills in effigy for spying on him. Deeply in debt, he writes The Merchant of Venice, in which he dramatizes the argument that the Chancery Court of Equity be given precedence over the Court of Common Pleas, where he was being screwed.
With the ’90s comes the attack on the Stage by Robert Cecil and the assassinations of Marlowe and Lord Strange. Forced to call a (temporary) halt to his play-making and publishing, his credit cut off by Lord Burghley, he spends his days writing sonnets to his new patron, the young son of Mary Browne. When Southampton turns from him to join up with the Earl of Essex, the sonnets become mournful, but in the process, a new and more powerful style develops. As Mark Antony, once again he loses the world for the love of a beautiful woman, one with curly black hair and dark eyes who represents all that he loves and misses about Italy and the Mediterranean culture. The intense feelings that he suffers over these relationships get poured into sonnets, where they develop a new, more powerful, and more modern style.
When troubles with the Cecils continue to increase with the appointment of Robert Cecil as Secretary of State, followed by the deaths of his patron Hunsdon and the manager of his company, James Burbage, along with the loss of both of Burbage’s theaters, he fight back by revising his Henry IV plays to include a nasty caricature of Robert Cecil’s inlaws, a character eventually named Falstaff, a play on the name Shakespeare. Now in his forties, weary of the struggle, for the marriage of his oldest daughter he revises The Tempest. With her as Miranda and himself as Prospero, king of the magical isle, banished from his true place at Court by wicked schemers, with the help of his Ariel he befuddles them with “rough magic,” which, he assures his royal audience, he intends to give up now that his daughter is safely married (though sadly not to the one he wanted).
Finally in his fifties, driven mad by the mistreatment of his two oldest daughters, he’s Lear, who, like Timon so long before, runs naked and raving into the wilderness. But then, cheered by the advent of King James, whose young favorites, the Pembrokes, have taken him under their wings, like the vanquished hero in the old mummer plays, he leaps back to life as Duke Vincenzio, escaping the burden of his inherited responsibilities by retiring to a safe haven in the forest where he’s the courtier Touchstone who having fled the wicked Court to live freely in the forest with other Court escapees, grieves that he must spend his days courting that “unpoetic slut,” the public audience.
All these are metaphors for Oxford’s life. As for being the real Shakespeare, those who knew, knew they had to keep the secret; those who didn’t know, didn’t need to know. Who would have wanted to exchange so many wonderful fictions for the sad reality, a lonely man, crazed with longing and remorse?
The authorship question is not whether Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, etc. wrote the Shakespeare canon, it’s what each of them actually wrote! Oxford wrote all the works we know as Shakespeare, plus Lyly’s novels, Greene’s tales, and a lot of earlier works published under the names of his secretaries and friends. Bacon wrote most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon, while Raleigh wrote that part of the Spenser canon that’s not by Bacon. Sidney’s canon is valuable because it was never published as anyone’s but his (although it’s likely his sister made some changes and additions so it could be made public). Marlowe’s plays are all his own, but not the translations published after his death, the true authors Oxford, Bacon or Raleigh (or Buckhurst), who made use of Marlowe’s vacant name and persona to get them published. Mary Sidney used her coachman’s name, John Webster; everything published as by Webster is by Mary Sidney. These are the great artists who, against all odds, created the English Literary Renaissance.
It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him. As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”
The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!
When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?
If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.
They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.
In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.
In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.
But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.
Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?
It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.
We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.
It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”
Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?
Highly unlikely! We’ve just passed one of the two major turning points of the ancient festal year, June 24th, Midsummer’s Day. The modern world pays little attention to this annual event, but that was not the case in Shakespeare’s day, as we see from the title of one of his most festal plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with several of the ancient festal holidays, the solemn, or sacred, aspect of this annually-recurring moment (the summer solstice) was traditionally preceded by a day, or in this case a night, of merry-making. How likely is it that the death of the greatest literary artist ever produced by the West occurred on this of all days?
Just as the ancients assigned its opposite, the 24th of December, to the eve of the birth of Christ, they assigned June 24th to the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist. Whatever may have been the true role played by John in the advent of the Christian Messiah (something that has caused a good deal of controversy and will probably never be settled), there’s no doubt that he was a hugely important figure in his time and for centuries afterwards. Da Vinci for instance is thought to have been a member of an underground society dedicated to his worship, which has been connected by modern mythologists with the Greek god Dionysos, whose power was dramatized by Euripides in 405 BC in The Bachae. The Templars, whose beliefs, acquired from Arab mystics during the Crusades, survived annihilation in the 13th century to resurface four centuries later as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, held John as their patron saint. The first English Masonic Grand Lodge was formed on June 24, 1717. Rosicrucians trace their English roots to Francis Bacon, whose candidacy as Shakespeare owed a good deal to the hints they found in Shakespeare’s works of similar beliefs. In particular Sonnet 125 reflects the language and images of a Masonic ceremony.
One of the problems with both the Stratford myth and the attempts by Oxfordians to displace it is that everyone seems to forget that with Shakespeare we’re dealing with a genius! The Stratfordians have tied him down, like Gulliver, to a level equal to their own: a hack who sold his craft for money, a plagiarizer of lesser writers who began by revising the works of earlier unknowns. Oxfordians, not much better, remain tied to their argument with the Stratfordians, unable to let go of what bits and pieces were bequeathed us by the Cecils and the historians who clung to the paper trail they so artfully manipulated, so that, using our native common sense together with a broader historical background, one that surpasses what the Cecils could control, allows us to see him for who he really was. The fact that that he, and only he, could possibly have done what the orthodox have assigned to dozens of other writers, innovators, patrons, publishers, theater builders and managers, many of them nothing more than figments of their own seriously limited imaginations.
As one of the greatest dramatists of all time, as well as greatest of historians and philosophers, Death stalked almost everything Shakespeare wrote, just as it stalked everyone in his audiences, from courtiers to printers’ devils. All of his tragedies and many of his dramas deal in one way or another with death, with its role in life, and––most subtly due to the religious constraints of his time––with what comes after. As for his own death, the deaths of geniuses are almost as significant as their lives. Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah by coming to Jerusalem when he did? Lord Byron, whose life so closely parallels that of Edward de Vere (pron. d’Vayer), certainly orchestrated his own death as a call to arms to the intelligensia of Europe to free Greece, ancient parent of the English culture, from centuries of Turkish tyranny.
None of this would matter had there been sufficient evidence that de Vere actually died on the date that history assigns him. That he happened to die on a day central to the worship of John the Baptist, aka Dionysos, god of merry-making, whose festal date was the occasion for most of the ancient Greek dramas that we see as fundamental to our theater today; this would simply be a coincidence, however astonishing. But evidence is lacking! What there is is only what could easily have been patched together by family members and patrons in high places, out to give him a few years of peace and privacy, safe from those who wanted to kill both him and his great work, so that he could finish what we know as the Shakespeare canon, foundation of the language we speak and all the great works of literature that have followed.
These two pieces of the Shakespeare puzzle: the anomaly of his death and the nature of the date he supposedly died, taken together, were a trumpet call to examine the possibility that, like Byron, knowing his mortality was nigh, he chose to die in his own way and in his own time. Added along the way have been other puzzle pieces, the strange behavior of Robert Cecil as soon as the word went out that Oxford was dead, arresting Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) on June 25th so that he could examine his papers in case he was holding some of the plays; the plot of Measure for Measure, performed the night of Oxford’s daughter’s marriage to the Earl of Montgomery (one of the patrons who had secured his safety), in which Duke Vincentio, the “duke of dark corners,” retires from his official duties in exactly the same way we’re suggesting that Shakespeare retired from his, in the only way he could; and finally the fact that one of his ancestors, an Earl of Oxford, had “died to the world” in a way that was no longer available to de Vere, by joining a monastery. And there are a number of other, if lesser, puzzle pieces that fit with this scenario that otherwise have no place and must be left aside.
Why do I call him Shakespeare and not de Vere? Because Shakespeare is not just a pseudonym, purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from William of Stratford so that the plays could be published. Shakespeare the playwright is a being with his own history, an entity as real as Dionysos was to the Greeks or John the Baptist to da Vinci, or Jesus to Christians today. Half human (de Vere), half fiction, Shakespeare (the Poet) had, and still has, a life of his own. He is an immortal that, if anything, was for his creator more like one of the personalities that manifests in people with multiple personality disorder. When de Vere took up his pen, the “spear” that he “shook” in defense of merry-making and platonic love, he was, while engaged in the pursuit of the dramatic truth that he shared with his admired forbears, Euripides, Plautus, and Terence, another, and better, being.
This is the epiphany, the satori, the ecstasy that draws all artists. Scorning the banal cruelties and mediocrities of ordinary life, this is the “zone” (or “vein” as the Elizabethans termed it) that, when an artists achieves it, however briefly, makes worthwhile all the suffering they cause, not only to themselves, but to those who love and protect them. Anyone who has ever been patron or handmaiden to a gifted artist will understand what I’m talking about. As the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson wrote in Eros Turannos:
Those who have purchased, or who plan to purchase, Richard Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and its Audience so we can read it together, please begin reading if you haven’t already, and taking notes, if you wish. I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this and everything else in my life, due to a stream of events that has kept me on my feet for days, but I have been reading the book, and will be happy to respond to comments on the BOOK ROOM page. I hope this works out. If not we’ll try something else.
Having accepted the fact that Oxford had access to a number of the Latin works discussed by Beacham, we may find solid reasons for believing that these played a part in forming the London Stage in the mid to late 1570s. Could Oxford have been thinking about how to create such a theater as early as his childhood? What do you think? What other questions does the book raise for us?
Francis Bacon and the University Wits
It’s clear from the stats I get from WordPress that the pages here on the Wits have the most interest for readers. Years ago, when Ogburn’s Mysterious William first got me interested in the authorship question, I came away with two unanswered questions: first: what was Oxford’s education and does it fit the extraordinary knowledge revealed by Shakespeare in his works? Second: who were the other writers publishing when he began, and do any of them show the same anomalies in their biographies that we see in Shakespeare? Having done my best with the question about his education and childhood, I hope to do the same with regard to the other writers, who for the most part can be grouped under the scholar’s rubric of “University Wits.”
Dry runs for this will no doubt appear here as the work takes shape, but there is little room in a blog for outlining a particular chain of evidence, particularly one that has been so damaged by both time and the purposeful elimination of anything that might connect the Cecil family to the works of Shakespeare or the birth of the London Stage. Nevertheless, as (ironically) Polonius puts it, the truth is the truth “though it were hid indeed at the centre.” A perpetrator may wear gloves, but his fingerprints will always be found somewhere, that is, if one is looking for the right things and in the right places.
The major factor in our effort to revise history according to basic common sense is getting the authorities to accept the fact that during the period that Shakespeare and other writers were creating the English Literary Renaissance, they found it necessary to hide their identities. Because they will not accept this, we are stuck at the very gate, for every phase of this argument is determined by this fact, which is fairly easy to prove, and certainly far from unusual in human history, that is, of course, if attention is paid to enough historical facts, which sadly in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question has not been the case.
D Day 1588
The revisiting seen on television over the past few days of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe by the British and American forces in 1944, the true beginning of the end of the Second World War, brings to mind the situation England found itself in the mid-to-late 1580s as it faced the certainty of an invasion by Spain’s great Armada in its crusade to keep all of Europe contained by the Roman Catholic power structure . When we hear academics scoff at the idea that writers were able to keep their identities a secret, what about the fact that D Day, the greatest naval invasion in the history of the world, was kept a secret, not only from the enemy, but also from everyone else, including the international media.
In times of war and revolution, keeping certain matters a secret becomes a deadly serious necessity. By disdaining to reference history, the academics have ignored the fact that when the writers who later took names like Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Nashe first began writing, they were locked in deadly combat with the Calvinist Reformation, that held that such works were the tools of the Devil. It has also escaped them that Shakespeare was dealing, sometimes with passion, with the realpolitik of his time. This misapprehension, largely due to the misplacement in time forced on the academics by the Stratford biography, is the heart of our problem, and until we get it unravelled, and get the word out by publishing, online if not in print, we will continue to “perne in a gyre” for another 100 years of getting nowhere with the authorship question.
Tolkien and Beowulf
The article by Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorkeron Tolkien and his immersion in Old English, written to acknowledge the publication, finally, of his translation of Beowulf (Houghton Mifflin), is one of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to this one magazine (the other major reason for an artist and page designer is the stylish and generally reader-friendly layout and their continued dedication to publishing the work of wonderful artists).
Thoughtfully Acocella recounts briefly the plots through which Beowulf defeats three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon. Like the Reformation ideologues of Oxford’s time, Grendel, monster #1, hates the music with which the ancient Geats would make merry into the night, though his technique for stopping them––tearing them into pieces which he then eats––is rather more ghoulish. Certain artists during Shakespeare’s time did have their heads removed by rope or axe, but nobody ate them.
By defining the prosody of the poem, what makes it distinctive as a style, for us this article raises the question of what Oxford may have taken from the opportunity he was given to study the Old English manuscript of Beowulf that Alexander Nowell had in his keeping during the period he was tutoring Oxford at Cecil House. There’s no indication that Nowell himself translated Beowulf into either Latin or English, but how likely is it that Oxford and his translator friends at Cecil House would have passed up the opportunity to do exactly this, or at least some sections of the manuscript?
I have pondered at some length the comment by Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’em) in his Scholemaster that he preferred the Greeks to the Gothians, wondering just what he meant by the latter:
But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surely, to follow rather the Goths in Rhyming, than the Greeks in true versifying, were even to eat acorns with swine, when we may freely eat wheat bread among men. Indeed, Chaucer, Th. Norton, my L. of Surrey, M. Wyatt, Th. Phaer, and other gentlemen, in translating Ovid, Palingenius, and Seneca, have gone as far, to their great praise, as the copy they followed could carry them, but, if such good wits and forward diligence had been directed to follow the best examples, and not have been carried by time and custom to content themselves with that barbarous and rude rhyming, among their other worthy praises, which they have justly deserved, this had not been the least, to be counted among men of learning and skill, more like unto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians, in handling of their verse.
If by this, written in 1563, he was describing a current fascination with the forms discovered in Beowulf and other texts by Nowell, first modern scholar to recover the sounds and meanings of Old English, a fascination that has escaped the world of letters, this might resolve what it was that Ascham was condemning at the time that Nowell and his students were delving into the mysteries of Old English prosody. One would think the appropriate term would be alliteration, since these Anglo-Saxon poems did not depend upon rhyme, at least as we use the word, but on a particular kind of alliteration, as described by Acocella.
Hope to hear from some of you shortly in THE BOOK ROOM.
Many who read this blog are themselves involved in researching the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon and writing about it. For you, I have a suggestion, forget the academics. Stop trying to convince them. Stop using what you believe to be their talking points to communicate what you’re discovering or thinking. Why? First, because it’s a waste of time. In fact, the better and more cogent your argument, the less likely it is that they will pay any attention to it. Why should they? Clearly they don’t really care who wrote the Shakespeare canon or we would no longer have a problem.
Second and more important, it’s going to keep you from arriving at anything substantial yourself. Acknowledging the academic viewpoint, wasting time and energy on testing or confuting it, has only one result, it keeps us going in circles. Like desperate peasants we lob facts over the castle walls, where they fall to earth without having any effect. Do we bother to argue with people who believe that the earth is flat or that it was created in six days? Such people invariably come up with arguments that mean something to them but that make no sense to those who have a broader view. Just because the flat-earthers and the Darwin-deniers no longer run the world doesn’t mean that the Stratford syndicate operates from any greater logic. We can argue until the cows come home that their story makes no sense, nothing will change until we replace what doesn’t make sense with what does. And we won’t have that until we turn away from their story and build one of our own out of documents and facts (ironically, many of them courtesy of these same academics).
This is difficult, of course, because a stronger hand has been at the record than ours is or will ever be, but no hand could eliminate everything. The truth is there to find. The story of how these great works of literature got written is a wonderful story, just as good as any its author ever wrote. In an anthropological sense it’s his greatest story, the story of his life. Gleaned from the most obscure of records, this will be an exercise performed as a great intellectual adventure by a lucky handful who are properly placed and financially supported so they can examine the records in the archives of England, take notes, and write up the results of their effort. This will involve not only a great deal of time on the computer, but also on foot via London’s underground and on English trains to the various archives in the shires. Since this is very expensive, backing by a patron is required. A corps of undergraduates from one of the English universities (not necessarily Oxbridge) would be the perfect outfit.
This is literary forensics, and it will yield results. The efforts of other scholars have shown the way. Help us go in that direction, either with your own efforts or willingness to support a London team and you’ve contributed a great deal to our study of this hidden genius, who sacrificed his identity that the English language might develop as freely as possible in the direction in which it has continued ever since.
Until we can show beyond the shadow of a doubt what does make sense, why Oxford must be accepted as the author, why his actors were forced to hide his identity, and why this great fib has continued to be perpetrated on a willing public for so long after his death, we will simply continue to spin helplessly within the academic orbit. They are not the last word, they never have been, and until we learn to ignore them and address a totally different community, one of independent thinkers, lovers of Shakespeare and his works, one that has been in existence ever since the 1570s (while the university-based English Departments date only to the turn of the 20th century) we will be forced into fringe areas. Let us simply change fringes, moving from the one where we are deemed absurd, to the continually growing fringe that exchanges information by way of the internet, and thus create a new Shakespeare Studies, one where history rules and the author is present both within and along with his text.
The need for an end run
One ploy has been to get important information about the works published by leaving the author out of it. Hoping that by focusing on some aspect of the question that can be argued without reference to a particular candidate readers can begin to see the authorship issue from a more rational viewpoint, this was the route taken by Diana Price in her Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography and more recently in Richard Roe’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy. When Roe decided to make the book more accessible to the general reader by leaving Oxford out of it, do you think that brought his book any closer to genuine acceptance? Or even more recently, Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky’s book on the dating of The Tempest, where they too, doubtless for the same reason, chose to leave out any discussion of authorship, focussing only on the issue of the date.
Do you think that means that any of these important works is shelved in bookstores or libraries with mainstream works on Shakespeare? Not so. While phony biographies or books on the authorship question by apologists like Shapiro get shelved with the classics, Roe and Stritmatter are stuck in some corner where they’re surrounded by books on UFOs and crop circles. On Amazon they’re grouped, not with books on Shakespeare’s Italian plays or The Tempest, but with other authorship books, some unworthy of notice. So many of the articles published in authorship newsletters fight over again old battles with the academics, articles that may interest newcomers to the issue, but that never touch the minds of academics because it’s still so easy just to ignore them.
This is all very sad, not only for authorship scholars who can’t reach our audience, not through print publishing at least, but even more so for the English departments who purvey the academic line on Shakespeare. True, they get their ideas published, and in hardback, but who reads what they write? At close to $100 a pop, only the biggest university libraries can afford to buy their books, and no one but fellow academics who need to know what else has been said about Robert Greene or Thomas Kyd, have the energy required to plow through the turgid reams of fieldspeak in which these books and articles are cast.
University English Departments are in serious trouble today, and it’s no mere whimsy on the part of a frustrated outsider to state with some authority that much of the problem can be laid to their attitude towards the authorship question. As William Chace, President and Professor of English Emeritus at Emory University, informs us in his article from 2009, now online (and any question about University English or the curriculum will bring it up among the first first links on Google, which shows how deep the concern he voices):
During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history. As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land.
Chace gives a number of reasons for this, chiefly the shift to business degrees by students facing hugely expanded tuition fees, but also “the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.” How are students to see the “human good” in the garbled story they tell about the birth and spread of modern English? He complains that they’ve “dismembered the curriculum.”
What he doesn’t address is the effort, in America at least, to use English Lit, first in the universities, then in high school English classes, as a means of indoctrinating diverse populations into what was once the dominant White Male Protestant world view. How else are we to see the continued focus on books like Moby Dick, while books like Charlie Russell’s marvelous stories of the American West, Trails Plowed Under, remains ignored, or the focus on the depressing Lord of the Flies while Nordhoff and Hall’s masterful history Pitcairn’s Island, is threatened with loss. Why Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter rather than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the most popular book in America for decades during the 19th century, still meaningful for teenage girls, and what is more, entertaining as well as instructive?
Most deadly of all where English Lit is concerned is the invasion of fieldspeak from “scientific” language studies like linguistics and semiotics, that threaten to overtake the language of Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats and Eliot with gibble gabble. Nothing wrong with this, boys must have their intellectual toys, but for God’s sake keep this intellectual poison out of the undergraduate classroom, where arcane theories that should remain at the postdoc level have been allowed to invade, turning several generations of undergraduates and even high school AP English students, off for life, from anything labelled “literature.”
Not so serious, though equally awful, are the works labelled by publishers as “literary fiction” in which no ending is acceptible unless it panders to the current addiction to existentialism in which the ending seeks to prove, for the zillionth time, the notion that life is pointless. Not only boring, but really bad medicine for what ails most teenagers, who need to be told that life is meaningful, which of course it is, everywhere but in the high school and university classroom. Stop telling them what it means, let them find that out for themselves, just give it to them. Fight for a meaningful, flexible, and life-affirmative curriculum, where laughter plays its ancient and necessary role.
What is English? What is Literature?
The failure to share an understanding of what is meant by these terms has led, not only in English Lit, but all the humanities that, in English-speaking cultures, are taught in English (as opposed to math), is the primary factor in this unhappy loss of interest. Certainly students who have been turned off by AP English classes in high school are going to think twice about focussing on English Lit in college. Pehaps most deadly of all is the separation of Literature from History, a problem from the beginning that has only gotten worse over time, for without History, Literature lacks context, while without Literature, History, the record of events caused by the thrust and clash of human passions, lacks what should be its most compelling and informative voice. It is not the series of dates or tags like “Manifest Destiny” that makes history compelling, it’s the stories it tells, and how better than in the literature written at the time?
How did it happen that they ever got separated? Blame it on politics, the politics inherent in History, the politics inherent in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Defoe, Byron, Blake and Shelley, unacknowledged and suppressed in their own times, and by the politics of the Academy, where theory seeks to soar as far as possible beyond tiresome human realities. How else to explain the sorry state of that most important and necessary side of English studies, Composition, in which are combined the nuts and bolts of the language, formerly studied as the Trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric. According to Chace:
While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned. . . . Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset.
As higher ed attitudes trickle down to the high schools where graduates of university English departments do most of the teaching, students end up in college not knowing a verb from a noun, so that required English courses become a makeup for what should have been taught in the sixth through ninth grades. Today, with students focused on paring down language to what can most quickly be texted on their iphones, or the 140 characters allowed by tweeting, the ability to write a meaningful sentence, a coherent paragraph, heads towards one extreme while “literary” English, bogged in the incoherencies of novelists like James Elroy, the densities of Faulkner and Joyce, the seemingly pointless puzzles of modern poetry, head towards the other.
To say that these are the results of Jonson’s lie would be ridiculous, but that something has come full circle since then may not be. When Oxford first began to write he had the “drab era” to contend with. It wasn’t existential, it didn’t suggest that life was without meaning, but it was adamant that it was utterly without hope. Quickly he moved away from the dismal dread of his elders towards the light and laughter he found in Plautus and Terence. Condemned by Church and City officials, he hid his name, but not his light, his gift for making people laugh. Now that the 20th-century version of officialdom, the professors of philology and linguistics who have taken over the English Departments, have divested him of everything but what they consider to be the best bits of his masterpieces, and so have ruined his Studies, isn’t it time for us to do what he did so long ago, find a way to reach past the academics to the readers, hungry for the good word, that we know who wrote the works of Shakespeare, one with a real story to tell, as he so poignantly has the dying Hamlet require of Horatio.
But these are the ultimate results of two things, the big lie told by Ben Jonson back in 1623, when he claimed that Shakespeare knew only “small Latin and less Greek,” and the choice by the early English departments, formed only a little more than 100 years ago, to regard English as a branch of Philology, an origin from which it has never managed to free itself. The first denied Shakespeare his education, the second denied him his artistry. The result has left both professors and students with a Shakespeare who, thanks to Jonson, knew nothing, his accomplishment solely due to his genius, and finally, thanks to the bibliographers and philologists of the English Departments, a chimeric genius part deer-poacher, part horse-holder, part play-patcher, part plagiarizer, one without any real artistry .
How are we to respect a study based on such a fragile and transparent foundation? How can anyone expect it to sustain, not only the works written in the language Shakespeare bequeathed us, one he created out of local dialects, Latin, Greek, French and Old English, but the histories and philosophies and even maths taught in that language? Founded on a set of lies and suppositions created to make those lies coherent, English itself is without a clear identity. What is it? No one seems to know.
“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
. . . cries Alice, awakening to the greater reality that lies beyond the “dream” of Oxbridge. What else could her creator, Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, math professor at Oxford University, have had in mind with the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White King, the Mad Hatter, the Tortoise who “taught us,” the gardens that Alice was either too big or too small to enter, but university professors and their fraternities and cliques. Who else were Tweedledum and Tweedledee but profs whose lesson plans were indistinguishable while they fought each other with rattling terms that no one but they could understand? Who but the Department Head was the Black Crow that frightened those two worthies into silence? Why pay attention to an accretion of nonsense too monolithic to move and too absurd to take seriously, particularly one that seems to be teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and cry, along with Alice, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
Friends, let us go our own way. Despite the threats to literacy of this new age of electronics, it has given us an opening to the public that’s been out of reach for questioners since the grand possessors finally realized that in order to get the great works published they would have to use the name of someone who could not be damaged himself, and who could not damage the true author.
Every single day on this blog I get upwards of 100 to 200 readers, mostly from the US and UK, but also from every other country in the world. That’s too many to account for just a few who read everything on it. It means there are hundreds more who read some of it. If some of my readers are academics, forgive my rhetoric, but please wake up and step outside the box your training has stuck you in. Read the history of the period, not just those bits that the philologists and bibliographers have picked to substantiate their equations, but all the history, most of all the history of the English Reformation and its repression of the arts, in particular the art of writing imaginative literature.
English is the first or second language of the entire world. Readers in every nation are interested in its history and the history of the genius who more than any other individual created it in its first incarnation. Let us stop trying to reach the academics huddled behind their hermaneutics and word studies. Permanently blind to the forest, they can see only the trees right in their way.
Please, let’s stop these useless attempts to bring the argument around to include Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, and the questions of authorship raised by all their lives and works. It’s going on a century-and-a-half since the question of Shakespeare’s identity first became public, and close to a century since Oxford was identified. If we haven’t brought the authorship issue any closer than we have with our present tactics, we never will.
Their power is lodged within their control of the scholarly publishing industry, a force that can promote disinformation as easily as it does genuine information, and one that reality demands must always choose in favor of the bottom line. But we are living at a time when the door is open to us outside of the feudal castle of print, and can publish for a community of like-minded readers, just as you are reading this message today within hours or perhaps days of downloading, and with the opportunity to ask questions, offer opinions, and get feedback from myself and others. It’s necessary to get things published in print, but only what supports facts gleaned from history. Study the history of the period, find those writers who created the language we use today (Shakespeare was not the only one), by all means publish in print if you can, but meanwhile, work to establish a community of internet scholars. That’s where the future lies.