Oxford enjoyed portraying himself as Henry V, Brutus, Hamlet, Antony, and so forth, but what about his villains?
During the two years he was banished from Court in the early 1580s, Oxford began the kind of writing that would eventually lead to the Shakespeare masterpieces. Freed from the pressure to come up with comedies for the Court, the early versions of some of these deeply serious and philosophical plays led to the first versions of his great noble characters, but it also saw the first versions of his most heinous villains.
I suggest that Oxford’s original model for Macbeth was his cousin Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, executed by the Crown in 1572 for having recklessly wooed the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. This was treason since Mary, who had a great following in the North––Norfolk’s domain––continued to press her claim to the English throne. Shakespeare’s Macbeth reflects Norfolk’s passivity in allowing himself to be led into mortal danger by his ambitious brother, just as Macbeth was led by his wife, the true villain of the play. Cecil’s biographer, Conyers Read, who goes into detail on the Norfolk treason, says of Norfolk, that “he was a weak man, not a strong one, and more likely the tool of others than the guiding hand” (Secretary 451). When Anne Bacon realized her son Anthony was hanging out with Howard in the early 90s, she warned him: “Beware in any wise of the Lord H! . . . he will betray you to divers. . . . The Duke [Norfolk] had been alive but by his practising and double undoing. . . . He is a subtle serpent” (du Maurier Lads 109-10).
A homosexual, Howard’s method of realizing his own ambitions by manipulating his brother may have struck Oxford as more typical of the kind of wily tactics used by women than ordinary masculine behavior. In fact, if we consider how the action begins with the prophesies of three old women, the entire play can be seen as a commentary on the dangers of relying on the irrational sex.
Henry Howard’s dealings, not only with his brother and Oxford but many other victims as well, are too similar to those of Lady Macbeth for there to be any question (in my mind) of his/her identity. Oxford, knowing his cousin as well as he did and finally having seen him in his true light, would base several of the villains he created during this early period on this “backfriend” who had come so close to involving him in a treason plot, who was still doing his best to destroy his reputation at Court, and who he must have realized by then was the real source of the rumor that caused the breakup of his marriage.
Why did Oxford get so involved with Howard in the first place?
Foremost for a budding poet, Howard was all that remained of Oxford’s uncle, Howard’s father, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, also named Henry Howard. Greatly revered in Oxford’s time and known to literary history as the inventor of the sonnet form later adopted by Shakespeare, that Oxford, lacking brothers of his own, and also having lost his own father, would feel kinship with the Poet Earl’s son seems only natural.
With the execution of his brother for treason in 1572, Henry Howard became his family’s patriarch. Lord Henry could not, however, inherit his brother’s title, or any title, for along with the Duke’s execution all the Howard titles and most of their estates had become forfeit to the Crown, Howard himself remaining under suspicion for his role in his brother’s treason. Despite his heritage, his learning, and the fact that he was the Queen’s own cousin, as a Catholic and a known homosexual it would have been difficult for Howard to get ahead at Elizabeth’s Court in any case.
Howard was 10 years older than Oxford; his younger brother Thomas, later Earl of Suffolk, was 11 years younger than Oxford, while their cousin Philip, Earl of Arundel, 7 years younger than Oxford, was the son of their oldest brother, the executed 4th Duke of Norfolk. Oxford may have felt some sympathy for his cousin Philip who, though raised a Protestant, reverted to his native religion following the martyrdom of Edmund Campion. He and Oxford would certainly have known each other from time spent at Court. When Philip was thrown into the Tower in July 1585, beaten and fined £10,000 for leaving England without the Queen’s permission, Oxford gave him a vote of confidence in the only way he could, by dedicating to him one of his Greene pamphlets, Morando, The Tritameron of Love.
In his teens and early twenties, Oxford would have been drawn to Howard partly because of his family position as a surrogate older brother, but also because of his intellect and education. Tutored in youth by leading scholars, Howard was the only peer to actually work at a university as a lecturer. Over the years he produced dozens of scholarly treatises on a variety of subjects, all “adorned” as his DNB biographer put it, with “the elaborate apparatus of Renaissance scholarship.” During his climb to power under James he was made High Steward of Oxford in 1609, and Chancellor of Cambridge in 1612.
In his teens and early twenties Oxford must have been very curious about the Catholic culture. Having been been denied it as a child, he would have been, like any spunky teenager, eager to experience it for himself. Drawn by nature to the arts and to Italy, once he’d been there and seen the beauty of the cathedrals, statues, and paintings created by centuries of Catholic patronage, he must have realized how utterly the Reformation had devastated the arts in England, and how it continued to stifle almost everything of artistic value. Weary of the incessant preaching, the hypocrisy, the fear of anything pleasurable and the negative attitude towards creativity displayed by the Cecils and their cohorts, the Catholics he knew seemed to have a much more humane and sophisticated attitude towards life. To Oxford’s young eyes, his cousin may have held something of the dark glamour that Milton gave Satan.
But Howard was was a Catholic of an altogether different sort. He would have been most comfortable in Byzantine Constantinople or worming his way into power at the Spanish Court via the Inquisition. Oxford may not have realized until their break in 1580-81 what manner of creature he was dealing with. As P.M. Handover, Robert Cecil’s biographer, describes him:
No man was more fitted for conspiracy, no man so venomous against those he hated or so obsequious to those he hoped to make his friends. His mind, remarkable for its great learning, was so perverted that in a bawdy and outspoken age he wrapped up his filthy imputations in Latin and ascribed them to ancient authors. Not only was he impure in thought and deed, but he lacked a grain of loving kindness, of nobility of mind or generosity of heart. Few men have been so purposelessly bent upon destroying the fellowship of man. (240)
Could there be a more apt description of Shakespeare’s Iago? Beginning with Edricus in Ironside, Ateukin in James IV, and Lorenzo in Spanish Tragedy, Oxford polished his image of the back-stabbing conspirator to emerge in Shakespeare as not only Lady Macbeth, but Proteus’s Iachimo in Two Gents, Don John in Much Ado, and finally, most powerfully and most obviously, as Iago in Othello.
While in Paris preparing to depart for England in April 1576, Oxford had been upset by rumors, passed to him by one of his servants, that the daughter born to his wife while he was away, wasn’t his. He might have dealt with this more easily on landing at Dover had he not just been robbed by pirates who took everything he had, including the clothes off his back. In any case, it’s clear that having been met at the dock by half the Cecil clan did not contribute to his good humor. Without discussing the issue with anyone, he took off for London, staying briefly with Rowland Yorke’s brother before setting up housekeeping on his own (Nelson 142). It would be five years before he laid eyes on his daughter, and another two or three before he made things up with Anne. Meanwhile his silence seemed to show that he believed the rumor, which may have been even more filthy than simple infidelity if the plot of Pericles is any indication.
That this breakup tormented him his whole life is clear from the fact that at least six of his plays dwell on it, either as the main or the sub plot, each of them taking the situation from a different angle: pastoral romance in the pre-Shakespeare era plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, and A Winter’s Tale, drama in Measure for Measure, comedy in Much Ado, and tragedy in the most powerful of all, Othello, clearly written out of the most intense remorse for his weakness in having believed the rumors and an awareness of how badly it had hurt her. What no one has asked is why Oxford, who was no innocent in the ways of courtiers, should so quickly and easily have believed the rumors.
The clue comes from Othello, in which the true protagonist is not Othello but Iago, whose power lay in his ability to insinuate ideas, to poison innocent minds and acts, drop by drop, with subtle innuendoes. Only a man whose mind has been carefully poisoned over time by sly suggestion, as was Othello’s by Iago, would have reacted with the kind of mindless fury that Oxford did, suggesting that his suspicion of Anne may have been festering in his mind long before he set out for Italy. Who better to have been the instrument of that suspicion than Howard, whose relationship with Oxford during his twenties is a matter of record. That Howard was present when Oxford docked in Dover and later acted as go-between from Oxford to Burghley during Burghley’s efforts to get Oxford to acknowledge Anne is clear from the notes that Burghley wrote to himself about the situation (Nelson 124-43), that is, if the “Ld Howard” he mentions is in fact Henry Howard. (There were many Howards at that time, but he’s the only “Ld Howard” that makes sense.)
That Howard was capable of such Iago-like behavior is clear from the history of the period, during which he engaged in a number of similar intrigues, in particular his machinations in 1612 and after in getting his niece Frances Howard into bed with the King’s favorite, Robert Carr, recorded for posterity in disgusting detail in the dreadful letters that survived him.
Howard’s purposes were understandable considering the temper of the times, that is, to protect himself and his fellow Catholics and secure their influence in positions of authority. It was his methods that were despicable. By planting suspicions of Anne’s virtue in his cousin’s mind, his malignant purpose, far from “motiveless,” was to drive a wedge between Oxford and his father-in-law, Cecil being seen by Howard and the recusant Catholics as their greatest enemy at Court. In this he was certainly successful.
Oxford could not have seen the truth about Howard until 1581 when, probably through the publication of the Papal bull condoning Elizabeth’s assassination, he awakened to the fact that by following Howard he’d been toying with treason, and so turned on him in open Court. Howard’s attempts to turn the tables back on him by accusing him of pederasty, of attempts to murder his rivals, and of his supposed plans to fight for Spain, are the major reason for the “wounded name” that today continues to blind the world to Oxford’s identity as the author of Shakespeare.
Oxford was not the only playwright to “eternize” Howard as the epitome of villainy. Howard dragged Ben Jonson into Star Chamber in 1608 on charges that Jonson satirized him as Cataline in Sejanus. Howard’s role in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1614 inspired Mary Sidney to portray him as the insane Flamineo, arch villain of Webster’s great horror show, The White Devil (page 80). Howard may also have been the original of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but on later rewrites, another even closer enemy would come to take his place as Machiavellian ambition personified.