The longer we study the background to the English Literary Renaissance, the greater seems the role played by the Earl of Oxford. If we penetrate beneath the cloud cover under which, as a ranking peer, he would have had to function, we find him the first to write commercial works for sale to the public, both for the press and the stage, and among the first patrons to fund both as well. Sure, he had help, the protection and later the financial support of other patrons, the printers who published his pamphlets, the carpenters who built the first outdoor theaters, and the actors who knew what they needed, but it all came from him, the ideas, the material, and for the first decade or so, the money.
What are the facts?
First, we need to remember that the community we’re studying was very, very small. There were not tens of thousands of actors, thousands of playwrights, hundreds of theaters, such as we have today. For centuries and up through the 1560s, all we have as actors were roving bands of itinerant players, three or four companies of boys choral groups connected with the royal palaces, and a small core of semi-professional actors at Court, who had other tasks to perform off season. For theaters there were town halls, halls in noblemen’s households, and a couple of theater inns in London, where plays were performed during holidays. As for playwrights, there were none, not professionals anyway. Historians are fuzzy on the transition from this to the polished professionals and the eight theaters in operation in London by the mid-1590s, because they’ve been missing its central feature, the genius of Edward de Vere.
What was the situation at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign?
At the outset, all entertaining was done by amateurs, students at the universities and grammar schools, servants of the great noble households, and roaming bands of dancers and fiddlers who did comic turns between juggling acts at county fairs before passing the hat. There was only one group of professionals (most of them had other tasks as well) who entertained the Queen and her Court at holidays and for the visits of dignitaries. Following the Vagabond Act of 1572, this core group called themselves Leicester’s Men, not because the Earl of Leicester had much to do with what they performed or where, but because the law required them to have a patron and Leicester, more or less by default, was seen at that time as the primary patron of the arts.
What, where, when and by whom were the first modern plays performed?
The first noted by history was Gorboduc, written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton of the Inner Temple, and performed before the Queen in January 1562. As for who performed it, we are told that it was Inner Temple law students, but with Leicester as patron, the lead roles could well have been performed by Tarleton and two or three of his cohorts. By the time twelve-year-old Oxford arrived at Cecil House nine months later, it would still have been the talk of the Cecil House coterie. Neither Sackville nor Norton can be considered professionals because neither of them ever wrote another play.
The next two historic plays were written for the commencement festivities at Cambridge in June 1564 and Oxford, June 1566, both attributed to Richard Edwards, then the Master of the Children’s Chapell, the boys of the Queen’s chorus who, since the Queen’s coronation, had been performing most of the plays that entertained the Court. The first, Damon and Pithias, was probably the work of Edwards. It has little in common with the one performed at Oxford by Oxford students, Palamon and Arcite, which resurfaced many years later as Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen. These were the ceremonies at which the teenaged Oxford and his friend the Earl of Rutland obtained their Master’s degrees.
The next two plays on the history roster are the translations, The Supposes and Jocaste, performed for the winter holidays of 1566-’67 by the Inner Temple’s rival Inn, Gray’s. Attributed to George Gascoigne, a member of the Cecil House coterie, their quality far exceeds anything else published under his name. Supposedly performed by students at Grays, the leading roles could well have been performed by Tarleton et al. These took place a few weeks before Oxford enrolled at Gray’s Inn.
When, where, and by whom were the first successful year-round public stages created in England?
Following a failed attempt to create a public stage in Whitechapel, the first successful public stage was built by actor/carpenter James Burbage and his sons in 1576 in Norton Folgate, an ancient liberty on the outskirts of the London East End. The name they gave their innovative new building, the Theatre––from the Greek word for “the seeing place”––was the first use of the word in English as a theater name (OED). It soon became the location for plays performed by Tarleton’s company.
The success of Burbage’s theater came largely from its location on the major road that ran from the northeastern shires through London, across London Bridge and south to Dover, assuring Burbage of a constant stream of travellers. Another factor was its innovative design, apparently based on designs by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (Yates). Though leased from the current owner, the land on which the Theatre was built had been, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in the possession of the Rutland earls, and was smack dab next to a recently built manor owned by the current earl, Edward Manners, friend and early companion of the Earl of Oxford.
The Theatre’s unusual design, considered by Frances Yates to have been transmitted to Burbage via an ancient Latin text from John Dee’s library at Mortlake, was also to be found in the library of Sir Thomas Smith, Oxford’s childhood tutor, who was still alive in 1576. Four years after the Theatre was built, the Earl set up housekeeping with a staff of secretaries in a renovated manor a short walk south from Burbage’s Theatre, and an even shorter walk from London’s three major theater inns.
When and where did the first great dramatic star of the period, Edward Alleyn, get his training?
Alleyn was ten years old when Burbage built his theater up the street from the inn owned by his family, and fourteen when Oxford set up housekeeping next door at Fisher’s Folly. During the early years of the Theatre, Alleyn’s older brother John worked for Burbage, suggesting that it was through his brother that Edward got the training that saw him with Worcester’s company by 1583. Even more likely is his proximity to Oxford and company next door at Fisher’s Folly.
When and where did the author of the first theatrical superhit get his training?
Historians have universally adopted the view that the breaks in Christopher Marlowe’s studies at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge (1584-’87) were spent spying for Sir Francis Walsingham. Considering that Marlowe was a brilliant student and a gifted poet, it’s far more likely that his work for Walsingham had to do with writing for the theater company founded by Walsingham in 1583, just months before Marlowe began taking breaks from Cambridge.
That Oxford himself was writing for the Queen’s Men in 1584-’87 while Marlowe was taking these breaks is clear from the fact that among the plays that Queen’s Men are known to have performed between 1583 and 1589 were the first versions of what would later become Henry V and the Henry IV and VI plays (McMillin). It is accepted that in 1589, when Marlowe was arrested for fighting with William Bradley, he was living in Norton Folgate, while the fight in question took place on on Hog Lane, a meandering path that ran directly behind Fisher’s Folly. That Marlowe trained with the author of the Shakespeare canon is a more satisfactory explanation for the similarities in their works than the unsupported notion that he himself was Shakespeare.
How did the name William Shakespeare get attached to the canon?
The name “William Shakespeare” first appeared in literature in 1593 on the dedication page (not the title page) of the narrative poem Venus and Adonis. In his hometown of Stratford, the man William Shakespeare was a neighbor of the printer Richard Field, whose London print shop was located a few steps from the theater at Blackfriars that Oxford protected from bankruptcy in 1583 by taking over its lease from Henry Evans, passing it on to his secretary John Lyly (Irwin Smith 151). In 1588, Field was responsible for publishing anti-Spanish propaganda by Oxford’s father-in-law, Lord Burghley (ODNB), and in 1589, he published The Arte of English Poesie in which the anonymous author listed first, among the “crew of Courtly makers [poets], . . . who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be . . . made public, . . . Edward Earl of Oxford.”
With the establishment of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in the 1590s, his name appears in 1597 in connection with the theater, in the 1597 book by Francis Meres, Wit’s Treasury, where, along with the introduction of the name Shakespeare as a popular playwright, Oxford is noted as “best for comedy.” Thus, after almost 30 years of close association with the burgeoning English theater, though still only in his forties, he is finally identified as a playwright at the very moment that Shakespeare is introduced, at which point his name appears no more.
That is, it appears no more in direct connection with theatrical activities, though it is interesting that in 1604, the year he is supposed to have died, his youngest daughter will marry the Earl of Montgomery, one of the two theatrical patrons to whom the collected works of William Shakespeare will be dedicated in 1623.
Once having accepted Oxford as the missing piece of the puzzle that’s the history of the English Literary Renaissance, his biography becomes a crucial factor in dating the works of Shakespeare.