Oxford’s enemies: Shakespeare’s villains

Anonymity deflects more bullets than body armour.
………………………………………..Director Shepherd, NCIS

There were many reasons for Oxford to remain silent on the subject of his authorship, but one important reason was his need to steer clear of persons that he satirized.  The rage expressed in the letter of Thomas Vavasor during the early 1580s when Oxford was under attack by Ann Vavasor’s relatives for having “ruined” her seems based less on that than on some more recent act, most likely a public production of Romeo and Juliet (“that shadow of thine”), in which Vavasor, Knyvett and their adherents were portrayed as the gang that killed Mercutio. (In particular, Knyvett––pron. Nivitt, the K is silent––seems very close phonetically to Tybalt, pron. Tibbult.)

Much guessing has gone on over the years as to the models, not only for Shakespeare’s protagonists, but also for his fools and villains, nor is this a recent phenomenon, for it seems that part of the fun of seeing plays was guessing who was being satirized.  Certainly Shakespeare saw it as a playwright’s duty, as does Jaques when he asks the Duke, to “Invest me in my motley [the Court jester’s uniform]––give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world.”  This was the function of the Court jester throughout time, since only he dared to reveal unpleasant but necessary truths to a monarch.

Though Oxford may have dodged the issue, as when Hamlet apologizes to Laertes: “I have shot mine arrow o’er the house and hurt my brother,” claiming, like Nashe did in Piers Penniless, that such caricatures were only of a class of fools or villains, not of any particular individual, it’s obvious that amongst the playgoing public and even more so (no doubt) with members of the Court community, there was a common urge to make just such identifications.

The brouhaha over the first appearance of Shakespeare’s great comic character, Sir John Falstaff, in his Henry IV plays and in Merry Wives of Windsor, in the mid-1590s points to just such an identification, that is, that William Brooke Ld Cobham, was Shakespeare’s original target as the profane and randy knight.  A number of references in the plays identify Brooke as the target, including, most obviously that in the early versions of the plays, Falstaff was named Oldcastle, the revered ancestor of the Brooke family.  Oxford was privy to much inside dope on the Cobhams, close friends and neighbors of the Cecils.  It was while he was living at Cecil House that two of the Cobham brothers had been enrolled by Cecil to rob a Spanish envoy of his papers at Gad’s Hill on the road to Dover, an adventure that Shakespeare uses to comic effect in The Famous Victories and Henry IV Part One (Scoufos 87-88, 97).

Shakespeare had every reason to be angry with Brooke, who showed his negative attitude towards the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when, as Elizabeth’s choice to replace the dead Hunsdon as Lord Chamberlain in July 1596, he refused to act as their patron.  A longtime resident of Blackfriars, it was in an apartment just previously leased to Brooke that Farrant (and presumably Hunsdon and Oxford) had sneaked in the first Blackfriar’s theater.  No doubt Brooke was also a leader in the Blackfriar’s residents petition that blocked Burbage and Company from using the Parliament Chamber for a decade.

These are only two of the many individuals that were portrayed as fools or villains by the author of these plays who, themselves or their decendants, would have been outraged had word leaked out that it was a member of the Court who was responsible, making it easy to guess their identities.  With Shakespeare of Stratford as the playwright, way off somewhere in Warwickshire, who would think he’d know enough about the Court to be satirizing courtiers.  Though courtiers themselves might be suspicious, or even in the know, certainly the public at large would have had no clue.  That is, unless Shakespeare cut too close to the bone, as he seems to have done with the two members of the Court that records suggest, were the Earl of Oxford’s worst enemies, his cousin Henry Howard, and his brother-in-law Robert Cecil.

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