Assigning trustwothy dates to Shakespeare is extremely difficult. Like everything about him (the playwright, not the proxy), the actual dates of his plays are simply not there in the record. Half the plays in the 1623 Folio were published there for the first time. Information about the plays is scarce, almost nonexistent.
But that’s a lucky “almost” for like the knot-hole in the wooden fence there are points in the record where we get glimpses of what was going on that can help us construct a working scenario for the origins of the plays. Connecting these sparse and widely spaced dots is not easy, nor does it allow us to claim certainty, but it does let us create a path of trailmarks that those seeking more solid evidence can follow.
Why is it so hard to date the plays?
Dating anything relating to the literary Renaissance from this era is tough enough; working against the stultifying repression of the budding Reformation culture, most of it had to take place out of sight. And with Oxford as author, though having his biography is a help, other difficulties are compounded. He was obviously not in the same category with the professional writers who came later. Their motivation––to please as many people as possible because the bigger the box office the bigger their purse––had very little to do with his reasons for writing a given play at a given time. Certainly at first, when he was still acting as his own patron, Oxford’s motivations were bound to be both more personal and more political.
Writing not only to deal with his personal issues, but to influence his audience, our questions in dating each of the plays must be twofold, what personal issues plus what social issues might he be addressing, and with that in mind, a third consideration: for what audience was he writing? The earliest audiences were: first, his own Court community, of which the Queen was the central commanding figure; and second, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers, law students, and the noblemen and upper gentry who had rooms in Westminster to be near the courts and privy to the best the nation had to offer in terms of fellowship and intellectual ferment. Rooms at or near the Inns were the originals of what in later times would become the gentlemen’s clubs of the West End. The third audience, the public, first became a target in the 1580s with the creation of the Queen’s Men as a touring company, then a primary audience with the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s. Yet even during the Shakespeare years, many of the revisions that passed on to the public arenas were sparked by weddings and other Court events.
Finally there is the style. During the 30 years that Oxford was writing, his style, and style in general, went through a series of quantum leaps. From the “trickling tears” of the ’60s to the euphuism of the ’70s to the “jigging veins of rhyming mother wits” in the ’80s, to Shakespeare, Jonson and Webster in the ’90s, language was changing at a dizzying pace, and those plays that were born early and frequently updated are liable to bear the marks of more than one of these periods. Those bits of Shakespeare that scholars attribute to writers like George Peele or Marlowe are vestigial remains of an era. In the case of secretaries like George Peele or Anthony Munday, these were the periods during which Oxford was putting one of their names on his works. In the case of Marlowe, this was the period when Marlowe was learning from Oxford, absorbing a style that, for Oxford himself, would soon be evolving into what we call Shakespeare.
Each play shares something with others, and each is also unique. Some, like Titus Andronicus, The Spanish Tragedy or Pericles, show little or no changes. Others had speeches, bits of dialogue, even whole characters or scenes, replaced or added, the basic play remaining intact. Some were gutted, scenes being used to create whole new plays, with the rest discarded. And some were completely rewritten, as in the case of Leir and his Daughters, which metamorphosed from a pleasant Greek style romance into a black tragedy. This process, obvious in some, can only be guessed at in others, as we see in our detailed exploration of the creation and development of Taming of the Shrew.
The connections we see between these plays, background events, and Oxford’s life suggest a pattern that seems to play out throughout his entire career, with the plots of Shakespeare’s plays reflecting personalities and circumstances from crucial moments in his life. When we place the plays where they seem to fit best with his biography, we often find that other clues to their dating also fit. At that point we can be fairly certain that we have located their date of origin.
One of the ways of determining when a play was first created is whether or not the plot includes a thread that shows remorse over Oxford’s own actions. If not, it most likely originated before his banishment. After that, whether to ease his conscience or to demonstrate humility to his community or just because he was obsessed with it, he was inclined to refer to it in his dramas, even, however lightly, in holiday comedies.
The difference is obvious when we compare, for instance, Timon of Athens with Coriolanus. Both are early and both feature bitter, angry protagonists, but while both are portrayed as victims of their communities, Timon’s only real failing is his naivété, while the more mature Coriolanus understands that he himself is largely at fault. While the motives driving the action in A Comedy of Errors are chiefly silly human error, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Posthumous makes the same mistake that Bertram makes (transferring his affections from a faithful lover to a sudden crush during an overseas adventure). Similarly we can place Cymbeline after Oxford’s fall because Proteus makes the same mistake that Othello makes, believing Parolle’s slander as Othello believes Iago’s, though, as Cymbeline is a romance the results are not so dire.
It also seems clear that he rewrote many of these plays at least once and sometimes more than once, over the years. So with most of the plays, in particular the masterpieces that were rewritten a number of times, sometimes over a span of decades, we must keep in mind that it’s unlikely that every character or scene will fit a single point in time. Some of the late additions are easy to find, such as all the scenes in As You Like It featuring Touchstone and Audrey, clearly stuck in at intervals with no effort at all to include them in any real way in the plot. Others are less obvious.
Such multiple rewrites are one reason for the confusions in the First Folio versions where names appear and disappear for no reason, characters enter where they shouldn’t, are sometimes given different names, and so forth. In efforts to date a play, this can be where knowledge of the historical background and of Oxford’s possible intentions can be of help. We must ask ourselves, at what point in the course of events, both nationally or personally, would this play have had meaning?
The dating problem isn’t limited to Oxford’s process alone. Some of the earliest plays, those never subjected to a later revision, were revamped in the 17th century by Jacobean playwrights, as theater managers sought to feed the popular nostalgia for early Elizabethan pastorals. Finally, as critics of particular plays have shown, some editing was certainly done by whoever prepared the texts for the 1623 Folio, probably where, without some editing, it would have been too easy to identify the persons and events on which a particular scene was based.
Keeping in mind that this is a subject that even a series of books couldn’t properly compass, covering as it does, not only the 38 plays that we currently assign to Shakespeare, but all the early plays that are regarded as apocrypha or sources, a quick look at some of the points along the way leading up to the Shakespeare period may be helpful.
In the beginning, the most likely scenario has Oxford producing his translations of Ariosto’s comedy I Suppositi (The Supposes) and Euripides’s tragedy The Phoenissiae (Jocaste) at Gray’s Inn in early 1567, thus launching his relationship with his favorite audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court. We have them only because he published them himself, in the anthology A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, in 1574 (they were dropped from the official 1575 edition). The plot of the Ariosto play was probably translated originally in 1564 to celebrate the wedding of his Cecil House friend, Barnabe Googe, to Mary Darrell in 1564, following a dramatic courtship that resonates with the Ariosto plot, and that will serve years later as the subplot for Taming of the Shrew.
The plot of Jocaste contains the standoff between her sons, a first hint of his “buddy” plays, that deal with the attractions and tensions between young males––whether brothers, as in Jocaste (her sons, Polynices and Eteocles) or friends (Palamon and Arcite, Proteus and Valentine, Edward and Lacy, Euphues and Philautus). Having been raised as an only child and, as the youngest of the crew at Cecil House by six or more years, these proto-sibling tensions were still unknown to him until the arrival of a youth his own age (one year his senior). This was Edward Manners, the young Earl of Rutland, who joined the Cecil household at some point during the fall or winter of 1563-64. This “buddy love” can be seen in plays produced for the two university commencements in which he and Rutland received their Masters degrees: Damon and Pithias at Cambridge in 1564, and Palamon and Arcite in 1566. These were attributed to Richard Edwards, the Master of the children’s company that entertained the Court. The first may well be by Edwards, for its language and style seem too different from anything in Oxford’s later work. Palamon and Arcite we know only from its revision many years later as Two Noble Kinsmen.
Also probably first written during Cecil House days was James IV, later attributed to Robert Greene, a rather silly pastoral that may have derived from the kind of rumors about Scotland that were hot topics at Cecil House in the mid 1560s. The version we know was a rewrite made in the 1580s for the Queen’s Men, in which the villain Ateukin was an early version of his cousin and former friend, Henry Howard, with whom he was having a serious falling out. The Cecil House period also seems the most likely moment for Titus Andronicus, his attempt at Senecan tragedy, popular at that time, which, as Marie Merkel suggests, may reflect the dark history of Oxford’s cousins, the Howards. Oxford’s relationship with this branch of his family, strong in his teens and early 20s, had turned dark and bitter by his 30s, one reason why he never felt like revising the play.
Plays from his early years at Court include Love’s Labour’s Lost, which Rima Greenhill has pegged to 1578-79, due to the frequent references to particular incidents in England’s relations with Russia occuring at that time (28). Ruth Loyd Miller places it in the same time frame, suggesting how the relationship between Berowne and Maria was Oxford’s way of apologizing to Lady Mary Hastings for having married someone else (he had been afianced to her as a child by his father). The episodic nature of the play, more like a comedy revue than a drama, suggests that the original may have been even earlier. In fact, it may be that by the mid ’70s it had already become a favorite for Court holidays, updated every year or so, with several of the characters, in particular the comedy duo Costard and Armado, spoofing a changing set of Court personalities in the manner continued by the English in their Christmas panto (pantomime).
Oxford’s career consisted of a series of quantum leaps wherein the experiments of the previous decade melded into a particular style, at which point the process would begin again.
The first quantum leap: 1576 – 1580
His first such amalgamation came after his return from Italy in 1576. The opening of the two commercial theaters plus Sussex’s drive to take the Court Stage away from Leicester put pressure on him to come up with as much as he could produce. Plays from this period are characterized by their focus on male friendship, their weak deliniations of women, and their pastoral settings. (In some, their original pastoral nature may have vanished in later revisions.) Those touching on historical events or personalities also show a disregard for accuracy that isn’t true of his later work. Under pressure to produce, he had to work fast, and so was relying on memory.
Among the plays that first saw life during this period was The Merchant of Venice, largely based on his recent experiences in Italy plus the loss of his investment in the Newfoundland expedition of 1578. Another is Timon of Athens, a tantrum over his debt crisis and the first hint of what became a recurring desire to flee the tensions of Court life by taking to the woods, possibly a theme from a childhood spent near the Forest of Windsor. Here we also find the early versions of some of the plays based on the break with his wife: Pericles (it was her father’s fault), Two Gents (she should have dressed like a boy and followed him to Italy), Cymbeline (she should have dressed like a boy and followed him into the woods), A Winter’s Tale (a dry run for Othello), All’s Well (a mea culpa for his wife, her family, and the Court in general, written during the period when Walsingham was striving to get him reinstated at Court), and most interestingly, Much Ado (his wife’s story overshadowed by his burgeoning romance with Ann Vavasor).
An early version of Taming of the Shrew was written in 1579 as a more or less friendly chivaree for the wedding of his rival for the Court Stage, Lord Strange, to the heiress Alice Spencer. Rewritten for the public during his early Shakespeare period and published as Taming of a Shrew, it was revised again in the late ’90s as Taming of the Shrew. In this Ld Strange is satirized as Petruccio, while his bride, the rebellious Alice, is the shrew that, Oxford suggests, Lord Strange must train to his fist as one would a wayward hawk.
The Play of Sir Thomas More also comes from this period. Written I believe shortly after the arrest of Edmund Campion in 1580, it was an attempt to use the public stage as a bully pulpit to sway the lawyers of his West End audience in favor of Campion by comparing him to a similar martyr to State policy, Sir Thomas More, whose execution by Henry VIII for many of the same reasons was not forgotten. As we can see by the marked-up manuscript that remains, this effort was vigorously rejected by Edmund Tilney, recently appointed Master of the Revels on purpose to prevent such uses of the stage. Never performed, it gives us an example of his style at this time, his methods (dictating to secretaries), and his willingness to incorporate family history by making his uncle, the poet Earl of Surrey, a leading character.
The second quantum leap: 1580-1584
With his banishment from Court in 1581, Oxford was no longer under any pressure to write comedies for the Children of the Chapel and Paul’s Boys. In fact, due to the harrassment of his mistress’s male relatives, he probably couldn’t even get to Blackfriars on a regular basis, and so was forced to rehearse at Fisher’s Folly, perhaps also next door at the Inn called the Pye. Once a play was rehearsed, the performance could simply be moved to Blackfriars, probably by John Lyly, for the politically important West End audience. During the period from June 1581, when he was released from the Tower, to the early months of 1585, when we find him in Westminster petitioning the Queen for a command in the Lowlands. Bursting with fury built up over the weeks in the Tower, this is the most likely moment for the first versions of several of his greatest plays.
One of these was The Spanish Tragedy. Many years later attributed to Thomas Kyd in a passing remark by Thomas Heywood, everything about the play stamps it as an experiment with elements Oxford will use to better effect in Hamlet. Most of his plays from this period are meant for a youthful lead, but this one was obviously intended for an older actor, most likely John Bentley. It soon became the vehicle whereby an actor could demonstrate his skills by “going mad,” something the Elizabethans relished. And in the bloody finale, as Oxford slaughters by proxy those courtiers who fawned on him in the ’70s and turned on him as soon as the Queen withdrew her favor, he uses the same kind of play within a play that he will use in the third act of Hamlet as its turning point.
Though based on the poem he had written first as a teenager for Mary Browne, the play Romeo and Juliet derives its power from the sorrow he felt over the loss of his first real adult love, the beautiful and witty Ann Vavasor, with whom he was forbidden by Elizabeth to have any more contact, as is clear from her deeply felt poem. The intense beauty of the language in R&J was Oxford’s way of expressing his love and also his regret for how one of the most important moments in his life had ended. Hoping that she would be able to see the play, or at least hear about it from friends, it was his only way of telling her how much she meant to him. This too must have been written for the West End audience; there’s no way he ever intended that Elizabeth would see this play, at least, not the version that made it into the First Folio.
R&J was also meant to erase the sting of his first reaction to the news that Ann had become the mistress of Sir Henry Lee. This was the version of Troilus and Cressida that was listed in the Revels record of 1584/85 as “The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses” by the Earl of Oxenford his boys on St. John’s day” (Clark 627) in which he shows his first bitterly jealous reaction to the news that Ann Vavasor had become the mistress of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Champion. Although there’s no documentation that the Queen sanctioned Ann’s relationship with Lee, perhaps even arranged it herself as a sort of gift to her champion, can be guessed from the very lack of evidence of her reaction, while, as Ann’s poem so eloquently tells us, as it must eventually have told Oxford, her side of the story. The scenes based on Homer’s Iliad show Oxford’s view of the tensions between Court factions at that time. It was revised in the early ’90s to reflect the tensions between Essex and Raleigh.
Walsingham and the history plays
It was during this period that Sir Francis Walsingham established the Queen’s Men, to ensure entertainment for the Court and also to bring good will to the provinces while at the same time teaching them something about their nation’s history. To this end, Oxford was enrolled to write early versions of his history plays: The Contention, The Famous Victories, The True Tragedies, which would later become the various parts of the Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI plays. Two that were never revised, Thomas of Woodstock, and Edmund Ironside, are good examples of the style of this period. Macbeth, possibly a rewrite of an early play written while he was at Cecil House and immersed in Scottish issues, was written to explore the extent to which Henry Howard had influenced his brother, the Duke of Norfolk, to make his fatal play for the crown of Scotland.
The earliest version of Hamlet (now lost) was written in late 1583, partly out of anger at the Queen and the Court, but chiefly out of fear that the Earl of Sussex, the father figure who had opened the door of the Court Stage to him, and who had just died of consumption, had been poisoned by his enemy, the Earl of Leicester. Like Claudius, Leicester had profited from the death of Oxford’s father, having been given by the Queen the “use” (profit from) his estates; now, also like Claudius, Leicester was profiting by the death of Sussex by threatening to take back the Court Stage that had just been so hard won by Sussex. This way he could take his revenge on Leicester, killing him, by proxy, over and over, night after night, on the stage at Blackfriars for the benefit of the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.
Julius Caesar served more than one purpose. As a history play for Walsingham it sent a message to those Catholics who might have been plotting to kill the Queen how the murder of an “anointed” leader would only make things worse for everyone and lead to their own destruction. At the same time it was a mea culpa to those Inns of Court insiders who thought badly of him for getting involved with treasonable plots against the Queen, showing how, like Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all,” he got sucked into the plots of his own Cassius, his cousin Henry Howard.
An early version of Coriolanus served the same purpose. Written while still banished, or shortly after his return to Court, he portrays himself as a born warrior who joins the enemy, the Volcians (the Spanish) out of sheer frustration at being mistreated by his fellow Romans (the English). During this period he still sees himself as a military leader like his grandfather, the 13th Earl, biding his time dabbling with theatrical “toys” as he waits for a proper military command to come his way. In Coriolanus he treats his wife and her family with respect: Anne as his wife Virgilia, Burghley as the wise counselor Menenius, while Volumnia is probably less Mildred Burghley than her termagent sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, who may already have been making his life miserable as one of the residents of Blackfriars pressing his landlord to have the theater shut down.
In Aufidius he reveals his admiration for the great general of the period, Don John of Austria, who, though dead since 1578, was still fresh in the minds of the insiders for whom this play had a particular message: treat your warriors kindly lest they get so frustrated they join the enemy, somethingthat would notoriously take place in 1587, when England’s most lauded warrior, Sir William Stanley, defected to the Spanish, taking hundreds of Irish soldiers with him. This event, so devastating at the time, may have provided the occasion for the version we know from the First Folio, clearly among the earliest of the Shakespeare period.
Theatrical chaos: 1588-94:
As the 1580s drew to a close, Oxford’s troubles began to increase. With the death of the Earl of Rutland in ’87, neighbors in Norton Folgate began to harrass Burbage over his Theatre while on the banks of the Thames, time was running out on Hunsdon’s leases of the Blackfriars stage (Irwin Smith xx). Oxford, running short of cash and credit, could only watch in wounded fury as the actors and writers he had trained began defecting to other companies. Over the barrel of his self-imposed anonymity, he was powerless to do anything more than lambaste them in his Robert Greene pamphlets. When his creditors attacked, Burghley, embittered by the deaths of his daughter and his wife, stood aside, bringing Oxford so low that he may actually have had to beg for help from two of his former servants, Henry Lok and Thomas Churchyard (Nelson 325-30).
With the deaths of Leicester in ’88 and Walsingham in ’90, power on the Privy Council began to centralize around the Cecils, something everyone dreaded but even the Queen was unable to prevent. With the reins now in his hands, Robert Cecil moved against Walsingham’s writing establishment, eliminating first Christopher Marlowe in 1593, then Lord Strange, Marlowe’s patron, the following year.
The grub becomes a butterfly
At a low point in every way, Oxford turns to poetry for solace. As, day by day, he writes sonnet after sonnet for his new patron, the Earl of Southampton, a new style begins to emerge, the one we call Shakespeare. Late in 1593, his cousin, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, stepped in, as patrons always seemed to do just when things looked darkest. With the Stage in chaos, Hunsdon takes a leaf from Walsingham’s book and begins to make plans to form a second Crown company.
Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Howard, patron of what is now the leading company at Court, sit down with the other major players and come to an agreement as to which actors would go with which companies at which theaters, and who gets what plays, his own company, the LCMen retaining for their use those plays that Oxford is interested in revising. With the company manager, John Hemmings, it’s arranged that Oxford’s privacy will continue to be protected by setting up a nonentity from a distant town as a straw man, identifying him as an actor and share-holder in the company. This remains a company secret, something that only four of five members of the company, the so-called sharers, know about. With the launching of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the London Stage returns to vigor, and although it will continue to struggle for a decade, finally, under the patronage of King James, it becomes too big to fail.
Oxford’s deal with the LCMen
Tired of having nothing to do, Oxford plunged into rewriting the best of his earlier plays. From here on the dating must rely largely on the style of the plays. At the early end, Romeo and Juliet can be dated by its style through its many similarities to the two narrative poems published at this time, Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594, the only works for which we have relatively certain dates of composition. At the late end of the spectrum the style of King Lear suggests an almost operatic approach.
Oxford was a Taurus, a sign that puts down roots, slowly growing taller and expanding as the roots grow deeper. Like a flowering shrub or fruit tree that every year puts out more of the same, only more and better, he returned to his early works with the wisdom of experience and with a language that had developed a richness and precision that never failed him. He was also wise enough to leave unchanged those scenes and dialogues that couldn’t be bettered. As a result, most of the plays represent at least two versions, some several, with, for the masterpieces, a final bit of polish added in his last three or four years.
Thus we go from the awkward language of the early works, most of them attributed to other authors, to the early Shakespeare, to the works of his middle Shakespeare period, to the final touches on the ones that had the most meaning for him, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It. Vickers hears George Peele in Titus because the language of Titus is the way Oxford was writing while Peele was his secretary. They hear Marlowe in early Shakespeare, because that’s the way he was writing when Marlowe was studying with him in the mid 80s. They hear Bacon because Bacon was his cohort from the late ’70s until the mid ’90s.
With this as his pattern, how on earth is anyone to arrive at a trustworthy set of dates based on word studies? Frankly I just don’t see how it can be done.