The authorship scenario in a nutshell

For those who may be new to the authorship question or who haven’t been able to piece together a full scenario from the hodge podge of my necessarily brief posts and pages, here’s a quick overview (well, as quick as possible) of the structure behind, not just the Shakespeare authorship issue, but my view of the entire English Literary Renaissance.  For more on each point, follow the links.

1550: The true author of the Shakespeare canon was born into a dysfunctional aristocratic English family in northwest Essex at almost the exact midpoint of the 16th century.  Four years later, due to the unstable political conditions surrounding the transfer of power from the first Reformation government under Edward VI to the Catholic government of his sister Mary Tudor, those who were concerned about the safety of the heir to the great Oxford earldom arranged for him to be transferred to the care of the nation’s leading statesmen and Greek scholar, Sir Thomas Smith.

At the time that de Vere came to live and study with him, Smith was living at Ankerwycke, a renovated priory on the northern bank of the Thames, a stone’s throw from today’s Heathrow airport.  Smith and his recently married second wife had no children, nor is there evidence of any other child raised in their household, suggesting that de Vere had a solitary childhood in terms of relationships with children his own age and of his rank.  Like other isolated children, he found companions in the heroes whose adventures he read about in books in Smith’s library, many appearing later in plays by Shakespeare.

During the five years of “Bloody Mary’s” Catholic reign, Smith and the other Reformation activists from Edward’s reign who stayed in England kept quietly to themselves.  Though it’s very possible that along with Smith and his wife, de Vere attended holiday festivities at nearby Windsor Castle where he would have seen plays and concerts and spent time with his parents and other members of the large family into which he was born, it’s unlikely that, except for five months at Cambridge in his ninth year, he spent much time away from Ankerwycke during the years when  Reformers like Smith, among them his former colleagues, John Cheke of Cambridge and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer , were being rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and executed.

1558-9: Queens’ College Cambridge

With the death of Mary in 1558, eight-year-old de Vere was shuffled off to his tutor’s college so Smith could take part in preparations for Elizabeth’s coronation.  When it became clear that he would not be getting the appointment to the Privy Council that he expected, Smith returned to his new estate, Hill Hall in Essex, to which de Vere too then returned.  Two years later, when his father’s death handed his fate over to the Crown and the Court of Wards, the now twelve-year-old Earl of Oxford came to to live with Smith’s former student, Sir William Cecil, now Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary and Master of the Court of Wards, at his new mansion in London’s West End.  There he studied ancient Anglo Saxon poetry and law under Laurence Nowell and the arts of the courtier under various masters of dancing, music, fencing, horsemanship and French pronunciation.

As a member of the household, de Vere formed a brotherly relationship with Cecil’s six-year-old daughter Anne and came to know their relatives, the Bacons, who lived up the road at York House: Anne Bacon, Mildred Cecil’s younger sister, her husband Sir Nicholas Bacon, William Cecil’s colleague on the Privy Council, and their small sons, toddlers Anthony and Francis, who, with their mother as instructor, could already babble charmingly in Latin.  Later the following year the Cecil’s only son, Robert, was born, and shortly after that Oxford’s first close friend, Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland, joined the household as the second ward of the Crown to come under Cecil’s care.  There they made friends with the young translators who congregated at Cecil House, most of them six to ten years their seniors.

Although the evidence is slim, it’s possible that from 1564 to 1566, under the name “Richard Vere,” the 14-to-16-year-old Oxford studied at Christ’s Church Oxford under the care of Canon Thomas Bernard, where he wrote and directed the play Palamon and Arcite for the 1566 commencement (later revised by John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen).  Earlier he did the same for the 1564 commencement at Cambridge, writing and directing the (extremely juvenile) play Damon and Pythias.  Both plays reflect his friendship for Rutland (both were attributed at the time to Richard Edwards, master of the Children of the Queen’s Chapel).  In February 1567 Cecil had him enrolled at Gray’s Inn in Westminster, signalling his return to London, Cecil House, and the Court.

By 1565 Oxford had written two plays for the West End community performed at Christmas at Gray’s Inn: one a translation of the comedy I Suppositi by Ariosto, the other Jocaste, a loose translation of a Sophocles tragedy.  Also in 1565 he published the first four books of his translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, published as by his uncle Arthur Golding; an anthology of tales translated by himself and his friends at Cecil House from numerous ancient and Continental authors (most of them found in Smith’s library) titled Painter’s Palace of Pleasure; and a collection of poems (Eclogues) by his friend Barnabe Googe.

1567: Court and literary patronage

By seventeen Oxford was living and travelling with the Royal Court and involved with the production of Court entertainments.  Like many other underage peers, he was forced to borrow from money-lenders to maintain his image as a Court dandy and patron of writers, musicians and companions.  These last included his cousin Henry Howard, who introduced him to Catholicism.  Though drawn by the Catholic panoply of art and music, so absent from the Reformation culture that had surrounded him since early childhood, yet the ancient belief system instill in him by Smith remained that of a Greek cycnic.  Among those he employed were several of his father’s retainers that, following his death, Cecil had taken into his own employ, among them the son of one  John Lyly.  He may also have sponsored the actors from his father’s old company.

As he approached and then passed his 21st birthday he continued his publishing ventures by putting into print Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier and his friend Tom Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte, a translation from Latin of Gerolamo Cardano’s popular de Consolatione.  In 1574 he published the first of the early anthologies, One Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, a collection of his own poems plus some by his friends, the plays he produced at Gray’s Inn, and a tale in prose, “The Adventures of Master FI,” the first of the sort of pastoral novella he would later publish in series as by Robert Greene, the name of one of his copyholders in Essex.

1571-75: Marriage and Italy

At twenty-one, yielding to tradition (and fiscal necessity), he allowed himself to be married to his guardian’s daughter, poor Anne Cecil, who got caught right away in the tension between her husband and her parents.  By 1575, he was finally allowed to take the traditional finale to a peer’s education, a tour of European capitals, and he set off for Italy, visiting in turn every locale in France and Italy portrayed later by Shakespeare.

While Oxford was away, issues arose around his indebtedness to money-lenders and those members of his family to whom his father had granted large innuities.  He staved these off by demanding that Cecil, who had charge of his estates, sell enough to pay his debts, something that the tight-fisted Cecil, whose eye was on the future of his daughter and her progeny, stalled on doing so that the interest continued to mount. It was as much out of fury at this situation as at the rumors that Anne had been unfaithful that Oxford broke off with her and her father upon his return from Italy.  This meant that she and their daughter continued to suffer for years from ugly rumors that the child was the product of an illicit affair, a tragic ploy that would haunt him for the rest of his life and that would form the plot or subplot of at least six of the Shakespeare plays.

1576: Birth of the London Stage 

In the weeks following Oxford’s return, the first of the first two successful commercial theaters in England sprang to life, the big public theater built by James Burbage for Hunsdon’s Men in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, a short distance on the Bishopsgate road leading north out of Central London.  Five months after his return, the second successful commercial theater opened its doors, this one the small private stage created as a rehearsal space for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in the old Revels building in the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The first served the public of the East End, the other the posh community of peers and educated parliamentarians of the West End.  Titles of all but one of the anonymous plays performed at Court that winter by both the adult companies and the boys suggest Oxford’s authorship.

By 1580 Oxford was living at Fisher’s Folly, a manor just outside the City Wall, roughly halfway between the City theater inns and Burbage’s public stage.  That Christmas he felt compelled to reveal to the Queen and leading members of the Court the fact that he’d found himself drawn by his cousin, Henry Howard, into a Catholic conspiracy that seemed to pose a threat to her life.  He was forgiven, while Howard and his cohort Charles Arundel landed in prison, which caused them to launch a series of scurilous counter charges against Oxford that stuck with many members of the Court community and that have damaged his reputation with historians ever since.  Having escaped the immediate consequences of their libels, he proceeded to get caught in a sexual liason with one of the Queen’s maids of honor.  This sent him to the Tower for two months (March through May), at which point he was released to house arrest.

Banished from Court indefinitely, he turned his skills towards writing more personally satisfying plays for the adult companies to perform at the little Blackfriars theater school for his favorite audience, the West End community.  This did not go well with the residents of Blackfriars, and soon the teachers who ran the school and their patrons, himself included, found themselves threatened with the loss of the stage that gave them access to the Westminster audience.  Although the choristers school was forced to merge with the one at Paul’s Cathedral in 1584, the stage itself probably continued to function on a less public basis for another six years.  There Burbage’s adult company was able to perform early versions of plays like Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Hamlet for the West End community, plays they could never have performed at Court.

When Sir Thomas Smith died in 1577, his friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham took over as Secretary of State.  Six years later, when Lord Chamberlain Sussex died, Walsingham took over as patron of the Court stage, which, through Oxford’s activities and those of his patrons and actors, was in the process of developing into the London commercial stage.  Walsingham, who lived just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly, and who was under pressure to prepare for war with Spain, saw in Oxford’s household of secretaries and musicians a sort of unofficial propaganda office.

Funding it at first from his own pocket, then persuading the Queen to kick in, he had Oxford providing the newly-formed Royal touring company, the Queen’s Men, with plays to perform in the shires, plays that dramatized for the provincial English some notable moments in their history.  This it was hoped would raise their national pride to a level that those who still saw themselves as Catholics would decline, when the Spanish attacked, to sell out for religious reasons.  Out of this came the early versions of Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, and the three Henry VI plays, plus all the plays now assigned to Robert Greene and most of the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

1580s: Francis Bacon and the birth of the periodical press

During his banishment, Oxford took a step towards providing the reading public with some of the tales he had written in the ’60s and ’70s to amuse the Court, but it wasn’t until he was back in 1583 that he followed through, publishing the pamphlet Mamillia as by Robert Greene, the name of one of his Essex copyholders.  Its almost immediate popularity spurred him to publish others, and soon, perhaps to his surprise, he found himself with an enthusiastic and expanding reading audience.  Through the dedications to these Greek romance-like stories he found a convenient way to acknowledge Court figures that, for one reason or another, he thought deserved recognition, or who could reward the bearer of a complimentary copy (one of his secretaries?)  with a sizable donation.

Thus was Oxford not only Shakespeare, not only the intitiator of the London Stage, he was also the initiator of the English periodical press, a phenomenon that spread rapidly, developing in later centuries into regular newsletters, then newspapers and magazines.

In 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon had arrived back in England for his father’s funeral.  Unable to return to Paris for lack of funds (his father died before providing him with a living), and with nothing more important to do, Bacon hooked up with Oxford, falling quickly into the role of Puck to his Oberon.  Oxford returned the favor by getting him connected with printers who would publish his poems, anonymously at first, then, with Sir Walter Raleigh’s help, as Edmund Spenser.  With the real Spenser far off in the wilds of southern Ireland, and with Raleigh willing to see to it that he got a regular stipend for the use of his name, Bacon was encouraged to publish a wide variety of his writings, including such divergent works as The Faerie Queene, written to entertain the Queen and her ladies, and Mother Hubberd’s Cupboard, an opening shot in his lifelong pushback against his uncle Burghley.

Lacking a paying Court position, Bacon was forced to provide for himself by working as a high level secretary to Court figures in need of politically sensitive, well-worded letters and official documents.  First among these was Sir Francis Walsingham, who, when Oxford refused to write for the Court in 1581, urged him to step in with plays for the boys to perform in a style that came as close as he could manage to the euphuism that the Queen enjoyed and that were directed and staged by Oxford’s secretary John Lyly.  By the end of the decade there were eight of these, which, like Oxford’s Euphues novels, were later published as by Lyly.

1587-88: Marlowe and Martin rock the boat

In 1584, 20-year-old Christopher Marlowe began showing up for training sessions with Oxford and Bacon, sessions intended to prepare the talented young poet to provide plays for the Queen’s Men.  These sessions took place for a few weeks each year until his graduation from Cambridge in 1587, at which point, rather than follow up on his promise to provide plays for the Court, he absconded with the fledgling actor, Edward Alleyn and the scribe Thomas Kyd to set up at Philip Henslowe’s new theater on Bankside where they entertained members of their own class with the dangerously anti-establishment play Tamburlaine.  Razzed by Oxford (Greene) and Bacon (Nashe) in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, Marlowe responded by adding a nose-thumbing prologue that referred to the Queen’s Men as “jigging . . . mother-wits.”

The following year the world of pamphlet publishing was rocked by the publication of the anonymous “Martin Mar-prelate” anti-cleric satires.  The bishops were furious, but their efforts to defend the newborn Anglican establishment only made them look pathetic.  In desperation they enlisted Oxford and Bacon to mount a counterattack.  Oxford’s lacked fire (probably because he found Martin hilarious), but Bacon, who had been struggling for years to find a genuine voice of his own, saw the light!  Adapting Martin’s slangy rant to his own purposes, he lashed out at Martin, fighting fire with fire with delirious abandon.

Martin was ultimately silenced by Cecil’s hounds, but Bacon had found his voice.  In 1589, using the name Thomas Nashe, he turned from the awkward pseudo-euphuism of An Anatomy of Absurdity to frolic in this new voice in a long preface to Greene’s latest pamphlet, Menaphon (another swipe at Tamburlaine).  From then on until 1596 when he finally got the respectable Court job he’d been yearning for, Francis published one work of comic genius after another.  Like Greene (in French, vert) or Shake-spear, Nashe was a pun on this wild new teeth-gnashing style. (The real Thomas Nashe had been a sizar at Cambridge, who, like William of Stratford and Edmund Spenser, got a stipend for the use of his name.)

1593: Marlowe’s death, Sidney’s sonnets, Shakespeare’s name

As the 1580s wore on, the impending threat of attack by Spain had brought a level of power to Secretary of State Walsingham that did not sit well with Lord Burghley, who by the Armada showdown had begun to see his former protégé as more of a rival than the obsequious junior he would have preferred.  With Walsingham’s death in early 1590 came the opportunity he’d been waiting for.   While he himself moved quickly to take over the public side of the Secretary’s office, he turned over Walsingham’s secret service agencies to his son, 27-year-old Robert Cecil.

Eager to show the Court in general and his frolicsome cousins in particular that he was a force to be reckoned with, Cecil created a sting that culminated in January 1592 whereby Marlowe could have been jailed under suspicion of coining, to be followed no doubt by the usual tribunal and execution.  When that failed to pan out, the next opportunity appeared a few months later when early signs of plague appeared.  Centuries of experience had taught the English that it would hit with full force the following spring, giving Cecil time to create another virtually flawless sting operation, which did in fact go off without a hitch.  Marlowe was caught, trapped, and either executed or transported overseas, with a corpse from another recent execution substitued in his place.

That Oxford had been warned in advance that trouble was on its way seems clear from the way that at the first warning of the plague in the summer of 1592 he rid himself of his Robert Greene persona.  That he included in Greene’s final “deathbed” pamphlet a warning that Marlowe was headed for trouble makes it almost a certainty.  That Bacon was frightened by Marlowe’s murder is evident from the fact that the book that he had ready to publish, the larky Jack Wilton, got set aside as he rushed to print instead the morose Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem.  A few months later, having recovered his nerve, he published that masterpiece of English satire, Piers (Purse) Penniless, in which he descants with stunning wit on his irksome poverty and the human devils that it forces him to deal with.

Burghley had already taken steps in 1588 (following his daughter’s death) to shut down Oxford’s operation by allowing his debts to the Court of Wards to be called in, forcing him to rid himself of anything that could be confiscated by the Crown or his other creditors, including Fisher’s Folly.  With bankruptcy hanging over him, Oxford found himself for the first time utterly unable to continue to support his staff (note the story of the grasshopper and the ant in Greene’s Groatsworth) or to raise any cash at all.  In fact, it seems that at one point he fell so low that he had to turn to his former retainers for handouts.

Feeling deserted and at a loss, when a young nobleman offered financial support for his new play (a revised Romeo and Juliet?), Oxford felt a gratitude that blossomed into love.  Now in his forties, his wife dead and with no heir to carry on his ancient name, his oldest and dearest friend gone, drenched with remorse over his treatment of his wife and his affair with his patron’s mistress, his heart went out to this handsome young peer.  In hopes of seeing him wed to his daughter, in 1590 he wrote 17 sonnets for the boy’s 17th birthday and gave them to him bound in velvet.  The youth’s response sent him into raptures of sonneteering.  Using the sonnet form created by his great uncle the Earl of Surrey, in verse after verse, a new voice began to appear.  Chasing the youth, chasing this new and powerful voice, he kept on writing.   As always in times of trouble, writing was his tonic, his escape.

Mary comes to town

November 1588 had seen the arrival on the London scene of 27-year-old Mary Sidney, Philip’s sister, who ended her two years of mourning for her brother by arriving at the Armada victory celebration in full Countess regalia and in a coach painted in Sidney colors.  Having produced the requisite heirs for her husband, the Earl of Pembroke, Mary was out to live life the way she wanted.  Quickly involving herself in writing (anonymously) for the stage, probably for Henslowe, whose theater was a short ferry ride from the Pembroke’s City residence, when Francis, determined to get the English Literary Renaissance moving no matter whom it upset,  published an unauthorized version of Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella, in 1591, she quickly saw to it that the book was recalled, edited her brother’s poems to suit her notions of what would pass for respectable, and had it republished  (minus the Oxford sonnet)––the first time in the Elizabethan era that a courtier poet of Philip’s standing was published under his own name.  That he was dead made it all right, but it still represented a crack in the monolithic taboo against courtiers publishing their own works.  More important, it forced Oxford to surpass everything he’d done up to then, and in so doing, find the voice we know as Shakespeare.

The appearance of Sidney’s wryly sweet and witty sonnets created an instant sensation with a reading public that, due to Greene (Oxford) and Nashe (Bacon), had grown by 1591 to sizable proportions.  Already adored as England’s warrior martyr, Sidney was now seen by Oxford’s reading audience as the greatest English poet since Chaucer.  Annoyed at being blind-sided by Bacon and Mary and, once again, upstaged by Sidney, Oxford, bent on taking back the preeminence he cared about the most, outdid himself.  By the end of the Elizabethan era it was clear that Venus and Adonis was far and away the most popular work published during that period.   How interesting that it was just at this moment, when his world was under attack, that Oxford finally found the voice that would spread the English culture to the ends of the world.

Bacon responded to Oxford’s crisis by publishing mournful ditties as Nashe to “Slumbering Euphues in his Melancholy Cell at Silexedra” and as Spenser to: “Our pleasant Willy” who is “dead of late.”  Along with his brother Anthony, who had returned from France in 1592, Francis opened his doors to what remained of the disbanded University Wits, he and his brother continuing their secretarial service out of their rooms at Gray’s Inn.  Mary helped by creating a new acting company in her husband’s name so that actors could continue to find work.  But Marlowe’s murder in 1593, followed by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, in 1594, sent the dire message throughout London’s little theater and publishing world that the good times were over.   Matthew Roydon disappeared; Thomas Watson “died”; Thomas Lodge went to France to study medicine; George Peele went to work for the Mayor; and Lyly began his lifetime of begging, unheard, for another Court job.

However low Oxford might fall it seems someone or something always came along to rescue him.  By 1592 the Queen had stepped in and arranged a second marriage with an heiress, Elizabeth Trentham, whose brothers were in a position to take over his shaky finances while his new Countess arranged for the purchase of a manor in the northern suburbs suitable for a person of his (and now her) rank.

In 1594 the ranking Privy Council patrons, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law the Lord Admiral stepped in to create out of the wreckage of the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men, two new companies.  The Royal company, with Hunsdon as patron, would have the advantage of Oxford’s playbook and the northern theaters, while the other, patronized by the Lord Admiral, would have some of his lesser plays, Henslowe’s theater on Bankside, and the advantage of Edward Alleyn as lead actor.  Oxford would be free to write for new audiences, in particular the gentlemen of the Inns of Court in Westminster who would soon be entertained in style in the grand new theater planned by Burbage and Hunsdon for the great Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars.

But this was not to be, for Robert Cecil, having acquired the wide-ranging powers of the Secretary of State in 1596, was not about to allow Oxford’s company access to the Westminster community.  As the winter holiday season approached and Burbage prepared the new theater for use, Cecil saw to it that the Privy Council honored a petition signed by the residents of Blackfriars requesting that the theater be prevented from opening.  This,  plus the loss of their old public stage in Shoreditch, plus the death in July of their patron Lord Hunsdon (two weeks after Cecil became Secretary of State), plus the death of James Burbage the following February, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in a very sorry state.

Bacon, with the help of Ben Jonson and perhaps also Oxford, fought back with a play produced at the new Swan theater on Bankside.  The response suggests that it dealt roughly with Cecil, whose recent appointment as Secretary of State tipped the balance of power on the Privy Council too heavily towards the Cecil faction for many at Court.  Concerned for his reputation with the Parliament due to convene in October, Cecil retaliated by closing all the theaters in London, which sent all the actors, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, on the road.  When they returned, it was to publish the Shakespeare version of Richard III, in which comparisons were so clearly drawn between the wicked king and Robert Cecil that, as history records, Cecil’s reputation was permanently blackened.  From then on he was stuck with the comparison, which sunk more deeply into the public psyche every time a new edition of the play was published, which occured with unusual frequency, eight editions in all, five of them before and a sixth joining the herd of libels that followed his death in 1612.

1598: The cover-up is launched

The uproar caused by the publication and production of Richard III in 1597 intensified the need by the scribbling rascality of the West End to discover who wrote it, which in turn forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put a name on the second edition, published the following year.   No other options having presented  themselves, they were forced to use the same name that Oxford had used four years earlier when he published Venus and Adonis, the name of one of printer Richard Field’s hometown neighbors.  That this cost the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or their patrons, something seems clear from the fact that it was at this same time that Field’s neighbor was suddenly able to afford one of the biggest houses in his hometown and to purchase the family crest that his dad had tried and failed to get twenty years earlier.

1604: Oxford escapes to the Forest

The troubles launched by the Cecils’ takeover of Walsingham’s office and the deaths of so many of his literary and theatrical colleagues, plus perhaps his own poor health, caused Oxford to begin planning his escape from Court.  As early as 1593 he was once again petitioning the Queen to return to him his inherited rights to the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham and the keepership of Havering palace.  Doubtless aware of her playwright’s intentions, the Queen continued to refuse it, but following her death in 1603, Mary’s sons, now the third Earl of Pembroke and his younger brother, found the new King easily persuaded to let the old poet have what he wanted.  Shortly after, Oxford invited his friends to a secret celebration to be held in the Forest on Midsummer’s Eve.  The following day, June 24th, 1604, word went out that he was dead.

With no reason to disbelieve the report, Cecil sent his agents to arrest the Earl of Southampton on the usual charge, suspicion of plotting to kill the King.  Finding none of Oxford’s papers, Cecil was forced to release Southampton.  He soon learned that Oxford wasn’t really dead, but by then there was nothing he could do but go along with a fabrication that was countenanced by the King.  When arrangements were made to wed Oxford’s youngest daughter Susan to the Earl of Pembroke’s younger brother, Cecil did what he could to prevent it, but again was overridden by the King, who liked nothing better than a wedding that seemed to bring together two Court factions.  Oxford spent the rest of 1604 revising eight of his plays for the wedding that took place that Christmas, four of them attributed by a Court scribe to “Shaxberd.”

1609: The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

He continued to live for another four years, polishing and revising his favorites for the King’s Men, among them Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet.  That he was dead by 1609 seems evident from the works published that year, among them Pericles and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, probably produced by Bacon.  Fascinated as he was by anagrams and codes, Francis is the most likely creator of the strangely worded dedication in which the name of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth, Henry Wriothesley, (Earl of Southampton) is spelled out through a particular arrangement of the printer’s type.  Cost and authorization were probably provided by the Earl of Pembroke––William Herbert––who was honored in the tradition of such publishing methods by being named as dedicatee: “Mr. W.H.”

With the author no longer around to provide more plays, the King’s Men turned some of his early pastorals over to Mary Sidney and John Fletcher to revise for audiences nostalgic for the “innocent” days of Elizabeth’s youth.  An uneasy alliance was formed among those who agreed that it was important to publish his collected works in a format that would guarantee their survival.  That this took a long time is understandable considering how controversial were some of the plays during Oxford’s lifetime, the concerns of his daughters who had their Cecil relatives to consider, friends of Oxford’s who may have held the best originals and who needed coaxing or payment, and booksellers who held the rights to some of the plays.  By the time the book was finally published well over a decade later, all were gone who might have caused serious problems.  Henry Howard and Robert Cecil were both long dead as was William of Stratford, although his wife was still alive until a mere two months before the book was available for purchase.

At about this same time, the monument to John Shakspere in Trinity Church acquired a plaque that explains in the kind of convoluted verse that was Ben Jonson’s forte that the subject was known for his wit.  It’s unlikely that either this or Jonson’s equally evasive wording in his dedicatory Ode to the 1623 Folio succeeded in quashing the authorship inquiry.  It seems the same concerns that dictated Jonson’s Ode continued to dictate the front material in both the 1633 and 1640 editions of his works, in which poets reiterated Jonson’s suggestion that room had been made for Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner.  The replacement of the bust of William’s father by a more writerly figure, with the woolsack evolving into a pillow and a pen, suggests that the paternal woolsack was presenting a problem.  Thus was initiated the series of renovations that has led to the present figure whose face Mark Twain felt resembled a “bladder.”

Among the fairly small community of art-lovers and aristocrats to which Oxford and his patrons belonged, his authorship must have been an open secret for two or three generations.  Then, as those who knew the truth for certain died, and their children died, fact faded to the level of a rumor, until the 19th century when a passion for delving into primary causes (Darwin, Marx, Freud) swept the culture at the same time that a renewed interest in his works turned Shakespeare into a cultural icon.  However, if one follows the chain of connections over the years from poet to poet and patron to patron,  it’s possible that the truth was known to the group that placed the statue in Poet’s Corner in 1741.

With Oxford so utterly lost to history, enthusiasts turned first to Francis, whose writing skills, interests and education seemed to qualify him.  The effort put into proving that Bacon was Shakespeare was the true beginning of authorship scholarship, as the Baconians published evidence showing how impossible it was that such a man as William of Stratford, with no education, no presence at Court, no legal training and no means of travelling to Italy, could possibly have written the works of Shakespeare.  They also located in the works of Robert Greene the missing Shakespeare juvenilia and made the connection between Bacon and the works of Spenser and Thomas Nashe.  Yet still the central truth, the existence of the Earl of Oxford, continued to elude them.

This was finally supplied in the years just following World War I when a British schoolteacher realized that someone so unknown to literary history must have been equally unknown as the playwright during his own time.  By creating a list of characteristics that Shakespeare reveals about himself in his works, and seeking in the right place, poetry anthologies, he found the Earl of Oxford, who fit the 18 characteristics in every respect.

Thus arrived the situation as it remains today.  Because historians and the left-brainers who run Wikipedia, based on what records the Cecils chose to leave us, continue to see Oxford as the kind of louche ne’er-do-weel the Cecils detested and did their best to destroy, we’re stuck with William, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Mary, or (God help us) Edmund Campion, or almost anyone but the guy who actually did it!

But refusing to deal with the facts about Oxford vs. William may not be the root cause of the problem, which is the utter refusal on the part of English historians to see the Elizabethan reign as a repressive regime dedicated to stamping out any glimmer of intellectual freedom.  Until the historians are willing to accept that as a given, we’ll continue to get nowhere with Oxford, for they will simply continue to ask why on earth should he, or Bacon, or Mary, any of the other writers, wish to hide their identities?

None are so blind as those who will not see.

Review: Peter Moore’s Lame Storyteller

This year the world of Oxfordian scholarship benefits by the publication of books by two of its most important scholars, Peter Moore and Richard Roe, both gone whence no traveller returns.  Roe’s long awaited Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy will be out sometime later this year, but Moore’s Lame Storyteller is available right now and I urge everyone who cares about the Authorship Question to get it while you can!  Get it, read it, and talk about it!  Whether your interest is to acquire a deeper understanding of some of the more knotty issues or to argue effectively with Stratfordians, Peter Moore is your man, for no one has ever put the argument more succinctly.  For instance: “The conventional biographies of the Bard that keep appearing, some of them written by professors, are best classified as fiction” (333).  You can’t say it better than that.

Or how about the

overly zealous professors of the school called the New Criticism (now obsolete), a powerful force in academia in the early and mid-twentieth century.  The New Criticism insists that a poem stands alone and must be examined without regard to any background––historical, cultural, or linguistic.  There is something to be said for this approach, if it is not carried to excess.  There is no reason why a Literature professor needs to to study the Battle of Balaclava in order to appreciate Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but we would surely be astonished if the professor heatedly insisted that there had been no such battle. (320)

Unlike most Shakespeareans (and Oxfordians) Moore’s arguments are largely based on history, proving, to me at least, that this is absolutely the most fruitful way to deal with the authorship question.  As a collection of self-contained articles, this is a book you can dip into whenever you’ve got a few minutes and that will never fail to leave you with something important to think about.  It offers solid nutrients for newcomers to the authorship question with heaping spoonfuls of Beluga for the generals.

At a certain point in the early 1990s, Moore realized that he was never going to get his Oxfordian research published in a mainstream journal, so he began submitting articles on points that reinforce the Oxfordian argument, but without mentioning Oxford.  He got a number of these published in Notes & Queries, The English Historical Review, and Cahiers Élizabéthians, among others.  The editor has divided these essays, putting those about Shakespeare (without reference to Oxford) together in the first half of the book, those about Oxford in the last half.

Alan Nelson’s stunning gullibility

Readers who were outraged by Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary will find solace here.  Lengthy and detailed, cool and deft, Moore gets to the heart of Nelson’s problem.  Following some (well-deserved) praise for the Berkeley prof for his generosity in providing us with so much important material in his book and on his website, plus an acknowlegement of his credentials: “readers should recognize an obvious professional” in his field (English Lit)––Moore strikes at the core of his weakness: “Unfortunately, Nelson cannot do history” (288).

This of course is nothing new.  We’re stuck with any number of English professors who, when it comes to the historical imperative, can’t tell chalk from cheese.  Just a little more training, just a little more respect for the broad view, just a little more help from the History Department, and the impossibility of a Stratfordian Shakespeare would surely have been apparent long since.  But sadly History Departments are as wary of literature as English Departments are of history.

Following closely through Nelson’s depiction of six episodes in Oxford’s life, Moore shows how the professor purposely (the better word might be uncontrollably) chooses the worst possible interpretation of the facts, sometimes to a ludicrous degree.  For starters he notes how Nelson takes seriously the reports that

Oxford copulated with a female spirit, saw the ghost of his mother and stepfather, and often conjured up Satan for conversations.  Nelson then explains in detail where, when and above all, how Oxford carried out these ungodly deeds.  Unfortunately Nelson neglects to inform his readers that Howard and Arundel listed these items among the outrageous lies regularly told by Oxford.  In other words, although neither Howard nor Arundel expected their contemporaries to believe that Oxford actually committed such acts, they failed to anticipate the stunning gullibility of Nelson. (289-90)

Moore follows this with Nelson’s notion that the poet Nathaniel Baxter would have had the insane gall in 1606 to “honor” Oxford’s daughter, by then the Countess of Montgomery, with a poem in which Baxter’s term “hopping Helena” refers to Oxford’s having acquired syphilis while in Italy (290-91), then hurrying back to England so he could infect her mother and her subsequent siblings.   The absurdity of this should be clear, but not to Nelson, whose hammer-like hatred of Oxford makes every fact look like a big fat nail.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Again and again, Nelson sides with Oxford’s enemies, however vile.  Dismissing both of Oxford’s most obvious efforts to get a military command as his own fault, Nelson ignores the influence of the Queen’s primary military leader, the Earl of Leicester.  Since Oxford must always be in the wrong, ipso facto, whoever opposes him must be nothing less than the soul of honorable duty.  That Leicester was Oxford’s rival for Elizabeth’s affections during the years that the elder Earl’s hopes of marrying her were at their height, is, of course, irrelevant.  History is clear on the subject of Leicester’s failings as a military leader, but hey, why bother with history?  Boring!

This is most obvious in Nelson’s frequent references to the efforts by Henry Howard, Charles Arundel, and Francis Southwell to destroy Oxford’s reputation in 1580-81.  To Nelson, that their testimonies were obviously driven by the need to save their own skins is simply beside the point, as is the fact that both were later found guilty of the very plotting that history clearly shows drove Oxford to accuse them.  Nelson would rather see it as Oxford’s “willingness to to betray his erstwhile friends” due to his “hatred and resentment of the whole Howard clan” (258).  Rather than use the hindsight of history to give a balanced view of what happened that December day in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, Nelson takes everything the plotters said as gospel, blandly relying on them as reliable sources throughout the rest of his book, even taking its title from a statement by Arundel, a rascal who fled the country shortly after to escape further charges of treason.

Although we are grateful for the documents and information Nelson provides, that mustn’t blind us to the fact that his purpose is not to do history, but only to reinforce his premise that Oxford was simply too wicked to be Shakespeare.  As Moore complains, with Nelson “the question of credibility never arises . . . .  The critical testimony of Francis Southwell does not appear, even in a footnote” (300).  That Southwell’s testimony is crucial to the truth, well, so what?  Nobody will notice, certainly not Nelson’s colleagues, who, equally lacking in historical fundamentals, are unlikely (unable?) to require anything more rigorous.   But Moore makes up for Nelson’s fault, providing us with the missing documentation, as well as the kind of historical perspective that lets us see clearly what Oxford’s accusers were up against.

Moore ends this section with what should be the most pertinent point of all, namely that, despite Oxford’s obvious failings: throwing away his family fortune, failing to “shoulder his share of local and national responsibilities,” and “fathering a child out of wedlock,” somehow he managed to retain both the Queen’s favor throughout her long lifetime and that of King James as well.  As Moore puts it:

How did the Queen react to Howard and Arundel’s accustaions that Oxford tried to murder her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, her vice Chamberlain and favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Worcester and all his household; Lord Windsor and all his household; as well as a string of other prominent courtiers, including Sir Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney, not to mention the accusations of buggery, atheism, sedition, disrespect to her own person, etc.? . . . . she refused to take action. . . . (299)

That both monarchs should have continued to support the monster––James referring to him at one point as “great Oxford”––might suggest something fundamental about the Earl’s character and how he was seen by at least some rather important members of his community.  But not, of course, by Nelson.

The Shakespeare Clinic

Another ongoing argument that gets Moore’s attention is the Claremont College word study by Elliot and Valenza that Ward Elliot keeps claiming proves Oxford could not have written the Shakespeare canon (282-87).  After a very helpful breakdown of the various tests involved––noting that Oxford actually matched Shakespeare on some of them––Moore explains in brief and simple terms, first: why these tests can’t be taken seriously as proving anything, and second: how, if read properly, they actually do more to point towards Oxford than away from him.

The most absurd tests are probably the three involving punctuation wherein E&V show their stunning ignorance of the history of publishing!  Elliot’s claim that “Shakespeare loved compound words” would be more truthful had he said that it was his typesetters who loved them.  But there’s no need to go into detail here; the article is available on the Elizabethan Review website where those who are focussed on this issue will find the kind of detail and clarity that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Misdating the plays

In “The Abysm of Time,” Moore delves into the dating question, swiftly making the most salient points.  Noting that the present scheme comes from the venerable E.K. Chambers (1930), he informs us that”virtually every post-1930 student of the dating issue agrees that Chambers’s dates are too late.”  Having listed an impressive array of dissenters, Moore offers the “astonishing” fact that although “nearly every authority who discusses the subject agrees that Chambers’ dates are too late, . . . yet those dates still stand. . . .  in short, Chambers dead is stronger than his successors alive” (156-7).   Why did the otherwise rigorous Chambers squeeze the plays into this unlikely timeframe and why do his successors, even those who see where he went wrong, continue to follow the same faulty scheme?  Because, however unlikely, they must conform to the narrow window of time allowed by the Stratford biography.  Chambers himself admits that he was forced to fit: “ this order of the plays into the time allowed by the the span of Shakespeare’s dramatic career” (I.253, qtd by Moore, 158).

Moore notes the four general errors made by Chambers in his construction of Shakespeare’s chronology (as summarized by E.A.G. Honigmann), 1) that he relied on Meres; 2) that he interpreted Henslowe’s “ne” as “new”; 3) that he treated flimsy earliest possible dates as firm evidence; and 4) that he assumed that Shakespeare improved other men’s plays.  Moore includes the interesting fact that Chambers himself was well aware that he was wrong on three of them (159).  When the timeframe is adjusted for these errors, the plays lose their current moorings, invariably drifting back into the 1580s where they part company with William, who, born in 1564, was far too young to have had anything to do with their creation.

Moore follows this with notes on another set of problems created by the late dating, the early plays that to anyone unencumbered by the Stratford bio, seem obviously to be early versions of Shakespeare’s history plays, among them The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York which later became 2 and 3 Henry VI;  The Troublesome Raigne that became King John; and Taming of a Shrew that became Taming of the Shrew.

Much Latin and more Greek

In 1994, Moore published a brief article in the SOS Newsletter that boils down the age-old argument over Shakespeare’s education into a single easily understood point.  Focussing on the two most important studies on the subject, T.W. Baldwin’s 2-volume tome on the English grammar school education and Sister Miriam Joseph’s detailed examination of his knowledge of rhetoric and logic, these

show that Shakespeare mastered Latin rhetoric and logic so fully that he could unobtrusively weave it throughout his English plays and poems.  More to the point, he did this with such art that it went unnoticed for over three centuries.  In other words, Shakepeare assimilated the educational equivalent of two years of university study, however and wherever he received it. . . . (218)

Considering the nonsense that has been written by certain modern Holofernes out to disprove Shakespeare’s education by showing where his Latin and his grasp of legal terms weren’t up to modern professional standards, I particularly appreciate Moore’s intelligent comment:

. . . all of us start forgetting the day we leave school––which of us could pass today the final exams of our first year in college?  Excellent though his memory may have been, I cannot see Shakespeare’s brain as a trap from which nothing ever escaped. (218)

Only a writer with the kind of education that we now know was given Oxford, one who acquired it through no effort or cost to himself, could have treated it as cavalierly as did Shakespeare, tossing off a half-remembered quote from Ovid or Homer as unself-consciously as a wealthy teenager in dirty jeans throws himself into his grandmother’s original Aubusson-upholstered Louis XIV armchair.

The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised

Moore’s title refers to Shakespeare’s view of himself as shown in the Sonnets.  That lame, poor and despised were not terms easily applied to William of Stratford has caused centuries of Shakespeare scholars to dismiss the Sonnets as romantic fantasies, once again ignoring history, this time the history of the sonnet.  A centuries-old vehicle for telling the truth, that is, the truth about a poet’s romantic feelings, for by tradition most poets hid the identity of their beloved and sometimes their own identities as well for  what should be obvious reasons.  If taken as history would suggest, the Sonnets were clearly written by someone suffering from feelings of low self-esteem, a picture that fits Oxford as he was in the early ’90s when it’s clear most of them were written.

His wife dead, no heir to his title, estranged from his daughters and his inlaws, in bad with the Garter Assembly, at rock bottom financially, Oxford could well have seen himself as poor and despised at this time. And as for lame, one of the better arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare, however subtle, is the athleticism of his early years.  Winning twice at the tilts, fencing, playing tennis, bowling, his dancing was such that the Queen once tried to use it to impress her foreign envoys––all of which suggests a physically active nature that fits the dramatic force of Shakespeare’s writing.  Carolyn Spurgeon makes action the keystone of his style, as most clearly revealed by his use of action verbs.

So the wound Oxford received from one of Knyvett’s retainers in 1582, though perhaps not so deep as a well, was probably enough to slow down what till then had been a very active lifestyle.  And although a lame leg would have been no deterrent to a man on horseback, perhaps it was during his short period in Holland as a commander of cavalry that he realized the full extent of his disability, for how was he to lead troops if ever he happened to lose his horse?  With walking, running, dancing no longer the safety valve they once had been, here was one more thing driving him to replace his dreams of military leadership with the desk, the pen, and the living stories of the Hotspurs of the past.

“Whose name one silent letter bounds”

An example of the riches offered by Moore is his condensed roundup of comments by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that point towards a hidden figure central to the early stages of the Elizabethan literary revolution:

A fair number of contemporary writers commented on Shakespeare, but only one did so in a way that implied he actually knew the man, that one being Ben Jonson.  Others spoke of him respectfully, but often strangely, in a way that would make sense if he were a nobleman who lost caste by association with the public stage.  What else are we to make of: “And though the stage doth stain pure gentle blood, yet generous [i.e., aristocractic] ye are in mind and mood”?

Edmund Spenser: “Pleasant Willy” in Tears of the Muses and Action in Colin Clout; Ben Jonson: revision of Sejanus and Epigram 77: “To one that desired me not to name him”; Thomas Edwards: the “center poet” in the prologue to Cephaus and Procris; Sir John Davies: Orchestra; and John Marston: a great writer “whose silent name/one letter bounds” in Sourge of Villanie; all mention some important writer who had to be referred to by a pseudonym or who could not be named at all.  (332)

Etcetera

Among the many issues he discusses, Moore offers important information on recent scholarship on the six signatures; interesting thoughts on Thomas Edwards and the identity of “Adon deafly masking thro” (224); important insights into the truth about the Peyton letter (239); and examples of what the term “ever-living” meant back then (241).  For those whose chief interest is the series of poems Moore calls “the ultimate fusion of intense emotion and poetical skill,” that “ought to form the centerpiece of any biography of their author” (18)––the editors provide four chapters from Moore’s as yet unpublished book on the Sonnets.

Moore provides important information about some of Oxford’s family situations, attributing the breakup of his marriage to the interference of his wife’s parents, including a close look at Ldy Burghley’s dictatorial interference with his household while he and Anne were staying at Wivenhoe early in their marriage (250).  Elsewhere he adds to our knowledge of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth Vere by going into detail not available elsewhere on the behavior of her insanely jealous husband, the Earl of Derby (252-8).

Personally

I feel it proper to note that, for me, Moore’s writing has been a godsend, strengthening my nerve on a number of issues that without the support of his viewpoint would have me out a limb, all by myself, shaking and quaking.  First, there’s his emphasis on history.  Second, the way his historically-based viewpoint led him to identify the Earl of Essex as the the Rival Poet of the Sonnets (simply put: Who else could it have been?).  Third, the importance of Shakespeare’s education (214).  Although he did not know of my work on Smith (or else did not choose to acknowledge it), everything he says about what Shakespeare knew is pertinent, notably his knowledge of Christian theology, in particular the Book of Common Prayer (47).  In several of his articles, Moore pushes the Shakespeare timeline back to the mid-1580s, not unique to either of us, but a cornerstone of my scenario.  He notes how both Anne Cecil and her daughter Elizabeth were tormented by slanderous rumor (253, 54, 57), a theme I see as central to the lives of all women at that time, including the nature and behavior of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, and Ann Vavasor.

This is not to say that we agree on everything.  Moore’s effectiveness as an anti-Stratfordian lies largely in his native conservatism; he simply can’t play fast and loose with the facts as the Stratfordians are so wont to do.  When confronted with a gaping anomaly, rather than ignore it as they do, or attempt to fill it, as I do, he simply notes it, leaving it where he finds it.  This means that he never questions the authorship or death of Robert Greene, which leaves him unable to get any further with Groatsworth than the idea that it was written by Henry Chettle.  He never questions the identity of Spenser, Nashe, or John Webster.  He doesn’t see that the Privy Council theater patrons of the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men had reasons for the cover-up that were just as strong as Oxford’s personal need to secure his children’s futures.  But these are minor issues when compared with the importance of his work as a whole.

I can’t possibly do more here than touch on a few of the points that mean the most to me, but what I can say to those who truly care about this issue is buy this book! When you buy Oxfordian scholarship of this calibre, you not only inform and entertain yourself, you suggest to the living authorship scholars (of which I am still one) that our work is valued, and that it’s worthwhile to keep at it.

Thanks are due to editor, Gary Goldstein, former editor of The Elizabethan Review, whose excellent introduction provides a background to Moore’s life and work, and to his diligent Oxfordian publisher, Uwe Laugwitz of Germany.  A nice, sturdily bound paperback (stitched rather than just glued), this is a well-produced book and one that should hold up through years of use.  My only suggestion would be that if it should ever require a second edition, an index would be most helpful.

The Two Shakespeares

The shortest answer to the Shakespeare Authorship Question is that the name represents more than one entity.  There were, in the 1590s in England, two men who shared the name Shakespeare, the one who was born with it, or something close to it, and the one who used it to get his writing published.  This was not what some have called an “open secret,”––it was certainly kept as secret as possible, but so few knew for a certainty who was doing the writing, that it was easy enough, with a few well-placed prevarications, to keep the truth at the level of rumor.  The reason why this was felt to be necessary by those involved lies buried in the nature of the times.  And as one otherwise unknown English writer once remarked, “the past is a foreign country,” one so different from today’s present that understanding it takes years of study.

Most English-speaking people heard the name Shakespeare early enough to know that it represents a writer from a long time ago who those who follow him say was a genius.  Many Americans were forced to read one or two or of his plays in high school, giving them a permanent sense of dread whenever his name comes up.  Luckier students learn about him by reading a play aloud in class, passing the roles around, so that everyone gets to read a particular character’s part for an entire scene (which keeps attention focussed on the action, and, with help from the teacher as to rhythm and intonation, to get the music of the language, as just reading to oneself, or hearing it read by someone else, does not).  Best of all, for those who have been involved in giving a live performance, particularly one of the comedies, how the story comes to life is something they will probably never forget.

Most of us have a very vague idea of who this playwright actually was.  We were taught in school that he came from a particular town where his father was a wool dealer, and where he went to grammar school, and where, while still in his teens, he got a well-to-do neighbor’s daughter pregnant, married her, and, when he got into hot water with local landowners for poaching deer (or rabbits) ran off to London where, though only in his mid-twenties, he immediately became an actor with the leading theater company while demonstrating a dazzling ability to write witty and learned dialogue for characters at his imagined Court.

Except for the part about becoming an actor and a playwright, the story is probably true enough, that is, it’s true about the younger half of the Shakespeare entity.  This was William, the oldest living son of Catholic leatherworker and wool dealer John Shakspere.  We pronounce his name Shake-spear today, because that’s the way it was pronounced in London, but that it had been pronounced rather differently in Stratford before it began appearing in print is suggested by some of the Stratford spellings, such as Shaxpere, Shagspere, Shackespyeer, and so forth.

In London the pronunciation came, not directly through hearing it spoken, but from reading on the title pages of published plays and in a book known as Wit’s Treasury, where it was spelled so that it would be pronounced with a long a, Shake-spear, which turns it into a pun, particularly with William’s nickname in front: Will Shake-spear, a name that sounds too much like that of a fictional character like Doll Tear-sheet to be an accident.

The other half of the Shakespeare entity was the great artist who had the problematic fate to be born into the aristocracy, which, though it gave him the education he would use to entertain his fellow courtiers, and the credit and leisure to develop his interests, also prevented him from letting the world beyond the tapestried walls of the Court connect him with what he created.  This was no problem at first since––for cultural reasons that lie so far beyond our present day understanding that it’s almost pointless to name them––he really didn’t want to be seen as a poet by anyone but members of his own circle.   Later, when his work began to create a public audience and publication became an issue, he would need a name for the title page.  Over the first two decades of his career he used the names of secretaries, schoolmates, and needy courtiers.  For the last 15, he used the name of the wool dealer’s son from Stratford.

Had it not been for the magical name that was common to a sizable population (of descendants of Norman French peasants) in Warwickshire and a pun on the nature and purposes of the playwright who used it––I will shake a spear!––it’s possible that we would not have the works today.  It’s also possible, even likely, that William never knew exactly who it was that was using his name.  It’s also very unlikely that these two who so depended on each other––William for the stipend from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that kept his family afloat during hard times and the Earl of Oxford for the name that meant he could continue to publish his works––ever met.

Once Oxford is seen as the writing half of the Shakespeare entity, apart from the 38 works with which it was credited (however obliquely) by Ben Jonson, plus most of the plays now known as the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and immense as is his stature as the individual most responsible for the language we speak today, Shakespeare will be credited with even more immensely important innovations.  That the first two full-time yearround successful commercial theaters in London were built within weeks of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and that the great public theater built by James Burbage that year was built to specifications that Oxford was privy to from his years of study with Sir Thomas Smith, suggests that the round theaters that were the first of their kind in England, perhaps in all of northern Europe, were also primarily his creation.

Thus it will be seen that, not only did “Shakespeare” write and probably direct these innovative plays, he was largely responsible for creating the stages on which they would be performed.  One thinks of Newton who, when struggling to explain the laws of motion, created the mathematical technique known as calculus; or of Alexander the Great who, when confronted with strategic problems on his military conquest of Asia, solved them by creating new weapons; or of Brunelleschi who, when confronted with the need to finish the dome on the great cathedral of Florence, invented the reversible gear by which sandstone beams weighing two tons each could be raised hundreds of feet in the air by an ox walking in a continuous circle.

Oxford not only created the Shakespeare plays, he created the language that they spoke and the venue where they could be heard, the one founding one of the world’s great literary traditions, the other the industry known as the London Stage.

What a guy!

The Real Authorship Question

The Authorship Question is a lot bigger than just who wrote the Shakespeare canon.  Bigger, wider, broader, and deeper.  The problem isn’t just who wrote the works of Shakespeare, it’s more like who wrote everything that qualifies as fiction during the English Literary Renaissance?  We have half a dozen genuine candidates for the role of Shakespeare, what about them?  They can’t all have been Shakespeare.

Forget about the group theory, that is, any idea that a group of writers worked together on the plays the way they do today on screenplays.  That’s nonsense.  No great and unique work of literature every got written that way.  That’s just as idiotic as the idea that Marlowe came back from the dead or that a 16th-century woman wrote Shakespeare.  Let’s be serious.

And what about the other writers who have biographies just as weak as William’s?  What about Robert Greene, whose later works sound so much like early Shakespeare, yet who has almost nothing in the way of a biography?  Why should we know so much about Ben Jonson and nothing about Greene, whose career was only a little shorter than Jonson’s?  What about Edmund Spenser who somehow managed to escape Marlowe’s fate despite his transparently anti-establishment beast fables?  Or Thomas Nashe, who simply vanished after the Isle of Dogs disaster, unlike his co-authors who both wound up in jail?

What about John Lyly, who despite the popularity of his plays and Euphues novels, never published or produced another thing for the last 18 years of his life?  Or Francis Bacon, who published nothing for the first 36 years of his life?  What about the playwright John Webster, who has absolutely nothing in his documented biography to suggest that he was anything but the son of a coachmaker?  What about George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, Thomas Kyd, and all the other authors with dodgy or nonexistent writer’s bios?  And this is only the merest glance at the true size and scope of a question in which Shakespeare’s role is only one small factor, however large it’s loomed over time.

Since it seems the English Lit folks won’t, or can’t, make sense of this, it’s time to have a go at it from the History side.  Fitting together personalities, biographies, dates and locations, I’ve pieced together a broad overview that explains this mess, one that fills in the gaping anomalies and creates a scenario that accounts for almost all the problems that the authorship scholars denote, be they Oxfordians, Stratfordians, Baconians, or Marlovians.

But first it’s necessary to understand why it happened the way it did.

The nature of the Reformation

It always boils down to terminology, to words.  Much as they avoided the truth about the 20 years of war that tore the English society apart in the 17th century by calling it, or part of it, The Interregum, English historians have sugar-coated what should be called the English Revolution by calling it the Reformation. Yes, it was the English version of the Reform movement that was sweeping northern Europe at that time, but it was also, perhaps even more so, a political revolution.  And although it didn’t reach the chaotic depths of the French or Russian Revolutions in later centuries, for those who were most at risk, it was just as devastating.

Hundreds of English families were torn apart, sons fled to the continent, parents imprisoned, their properties confiscated.  Hundreds were burnt at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, for the crime of wishing to pursue the religion of their fathers, or of attempting to create a new one with only minor differences from that chosen by the State, or for assisting friends and family members who were in trouble.

Church properties were given away, churches and other religious buildings were torn down, their stone used to build houses for the reformers and their friends.  Law were passed, taking away the rights and prerogatives of those who refused to join the revolution, penalizing them with heavy fines, rewarding those who turned them in to authorities, thus opening the way for blackguards to destroy their neighbors and take their properties through false accusations.  Where is there a difference here between what happened during the Elizabethan era and what happened in France and Russia and is still happening in places like Somalia, Burma, and East Timor?

What happens to important writers during times like these?  Consider the atmosphere in 1775 when the members of the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the witticisms that accompanied the signing of what many believed would be their death warrant.  Others who believed in the new nation refused to sign out of fear of British vengeance, of what it would do to their families were they to fail.  Consider the fates of writer Alexander Solzenitzen and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov during the Stalin years, of playwright Vaclav Hamel during the Russian attack on the Czech Republic, of Chinese writers under Chairman Mao.  Consider the fates of Rousseau, Ovid, Cicero, the list goes on.  Why would England during its great revolution be any different?

Revolutions make changes in many other arenas than politics or religion.  Consider how the French called each other “Citizen” during the Revolution, how the Russians called each other “Comrade”; how Stalin banned all art but the monumental worker style, or the Nazis burned the paintings of the “decadent” German expressionists, allowing only a cheap calendar style based on German folk sentiment; how they allowed only works by “Aryan” composers to be played at concerts.

When Oxford began writing, the atmosphere wasn’t all that different from the attitudes of the German “reformers” of the 1930s and ’40s towards anything but sentimental folk art.  Fear of self-expression is evident in the works of Reformation pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham.  The standards during Oxford’s youth were different, but they were equally low––C.S. Lewis calls it the “drab era.”  That Oxford used his status to create an opening for Renaissance ideals and ideas, not only for himself, but for other younger writers in whom he saw talent, is demonstrated in the prefaces he wrote for Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan.  He knew from early on that he would have to dissociate himself and his name from the works he published.  He simply had no choice.  And thank God he did, or the English we speak today would be a different language.

Oxford used an age-old trick, publishing his and others’ works (chiefly Bacon’s though perhaps others as well) as though by someone who was not in any position to know the persons they were satirizing or the issues they were addressing.  Those in a similar position who came after him used the same tactic, Bacon until the late 1590s and Mary Sidney until 1621.  There may have been others as well.  This continued for a relatively brief period, beginning with the earliest publications in the 1560s, and ending at about the time the First Folio was published.

Which is not to say that no one ever used this ruse again, or that no one during the period ever published under their own names.  However, once the pattern is revealed, it becomes clear that those writers who wrote creative, original fiction, poetry, plays, pamphlets, novellas, and who stood to suffer if their identities were known, used pseudonyms or the names of persons they paid to act as proxies.  Those who refused to conform, either to a style that the government would accept or to the use of phony names, were doomed to suffer, as witness Christopher Marlowe and to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson.

This, then, is the reason for the mares nest that is the literary history of the English Literary Renaissance, and nothing that the adherents of the Stratford story have to say will make a particle of sense until they begin to accept this as the background to the creation and publication of the works of Shakespeare, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and a dozen others with similar problems.

Why I didn’t review Shapiro

I didn’t review Shapiro because I didn’t read his book.

I used to pay attention to Stratfordians.  I’d argue with them, pointing out the holes in their logic, pointing to the facts, the “smoking guns,” that require a courtier, a more sensible dating scheme, an explanation for the gaping anomalies in the Stratford biography.  When they ridiculed the Shakespeare authorship question I got serious.  When they purposely misinterpreted facts I got angry.  When they refused to listen I got sad.

Round and round I went on SHAKSPER with the postdocs and pseudo-scholars as they tirelessly repeated the mantras instilled in them by their professors.  When finally they began beating the drum for the notion that great fiction doesn’t have to arise from personal experience, I should have realized that it was an exercise in futility, but I soldiered on, thinking that there might be lurkers whose minds were less closed to reality.  If so I never saw any hint of it.

Then of course there was HLAS, created in part by Oxfordians Bill Boyle and Marty Hyatt as a forum for an open online discussion, which soon turned into a verbal Fight Club, with the Shakespeare authorship question nothing more than a focal point for the verbal art of ad hominem vilification.  If HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare) is still in operation I’d be very much surprised to hear that it’s changed.  Fighting is always so much more exciting than reasoning.

When they said Oxford’s poetry was terrible I demonstrated how different it was even then from the morose tone of the poetry being written at the time and known to literary historians as “the drab era.”  If any of them had ever bothered to read this stuff, to actually compare Oxford’s poetry with Turberville or Churchyard, they never uttered a peep.

When they brushed off Oxford as dying before The Tempest was written I pointed to the obvious factors that link that play to the 1595 marriage of his daughter to the Earl of Derby (since then Stritmatter and Kositsky have shown even earlier origins); to the fact that back in the 1570s it was his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, whose plan for colonizing Ireland is considered by historians today to be the starting point for all subsequent plans to colonize America (Quinn 103, Armitage xx), including Jamestown, where the ship was headed that was wrecked in Bermuda, the supposed source of the 1611 Strachey letter; to the fact that Smith’s family were close friends with the Stracheys in their hometown of Saffron Walden, Essex (it was their grandson who wrote the famous letter); and so on.  It hasn’t changed a thing.  We continue to hear, ad infinitum, how The Tempest and any number of other plays (never enumerated) were written too late to be by Oxford.

When they claim that knowing nothing about Shakespeare is perfectly understandable––since so little is known about writers like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, or John Webster, why should we know any more about Shakespeare than we do about them?––I never dared to explain how Greene was early Shakespeare,  Nashe was early Francis Bacon, and Webster Mary Sidney.  I may be willing to stick my chin out now and then, but I’m not insane.

How they love to ridicule the fact that there are so many candidates.  Francis Bacon?  No way.  Christopher Marlowe?  Un-uh.  Mary Sidney?  C’est ridicule!  Yet the historic picture based on the fact that there is no evidence that these writers even knew each other never raises a single eyebrow.  Do they actually know any great writers personally?  Have they ever researched the lives of other great writers in the kind of depth that would cause them to wonder why this group was so different?  No, because to a left-brainer, the only reality is the one written down on paper.  To admit that there might be something else is to open a can of really evil, dangerous right-brain worms.  Run away!  Run away!

Their favorite tactic of course is to call us “snobs” for thinking that only an earl could have had the kind of education revealed by Shakespeare’s works.  There’s really no rejoinder to the stupidity of this, except to point out that if in fact William of Stratford had had such an education, we’d surely know about it, just as we know about the educations of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, neither one of them earls or even close.

The major problem, as I have come to realize, is that students of literature never attempt to relate what they know of the history of the period (not so much nowadays it would appear) to its literature, its writers,  their publishers and printers, nor do they think to relate the mysteries of an earlier period with similar situations closer to us in time.  This disconnect begins in school where, in history class, sound-bytes on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation, the Inquisition, the burning of witches (i.e. women) in France and heretics (i.e. scientists) in Italy and Spain, are forgotten the day after the quiz, while in English class they learn that Shakespeare was “above” writing about current events or using his life as a background to his works.  Two little boxes, side by side on a mental shelf, one labelled History, one Literature––never the twain to meet.

I used to think this was more or less purposeful, that “none are so blind as those who will not see,” but now I think it’s not so much that they won’t see than that they simply can’t.  Raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely require anything more than regurgitating a teacher’s favorite ideas, most academics become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything they deal with that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have pretty much dried up and blown away.  This is bad news for the culture at large, as nature clearly intended the left brain to function as the servant to the right brain.  It’s a killer for those questions that require cross-disciplinary thinking.  It’s interesting that current studies suggest that animals use their left brains mostly for locating food, their right brains for warning of the approach of predators.  Substitute tenured professorships for food and the Beatles’s apple bonkers for predators, and you have a nice little metaphor for our present predicament.

Luckily, now that we have google and the internet, we can simply ignore them.  Already Shapiro’s book is fading from view.  Google alerts hasn’t turned up a new review in a couple of weeks.  No biggie, for the left-brainers will have a new one out in no time, written by and for the academics and their admirers, as they continue to reassure themselves that the Shakespeare authorship question is only for the lunatic fringe.

I respect the efforts of the Oxfordians who continue to take them on.  More power to them, though I doubt that it will make a dent in their thinking or in the thinking of those who lay out good money for their books.  The French Impressionists did not take the art world by storm by meeting the Royal academicians on their own turf.  No revolution, whether bloody or merely intellectual, ever began by playing footsie with the establishment, and the revolution we call the English Literary Renaissance was both intellectual and bloody.  And a hell of a lot more interesting than either the Stratford story or the hyperbole of its proponents.