Although Oxford appears to be in the lead today, the first candidate, Francis Bacon, is still hanging in in a highly-visible second place, promoted by leading voices like Shakespearean actor-director Mark Rylance. This is largely due to the fact, ignored by many Oxfordians, that so much of the most important authorship research of the past hundred years has been done by Baconians. They gave the question its first big push in the mid-19th century; not only to reveal the Stratford cover story for what it is––or rather, isn’t––they were also the first to make the argument that the same mind that created the Shakespeare canon created the Robert Greene canon, plus a number of other works now seen as Shakespeare’s juvenilia. Baconians were the first to argue that Francis Bacon was responsible for the Spenser and Nashe canons. They were wrong about Shakespeare (most of their research took place before Looney), but they were right about almost everything else.
To the general reader, as an historic figure Bacon may seem a more attractive candidate than Oxford. Despite the drubbing he was given by early 19th-century historians like Macaulay, there’s no way that the Stratfordians can take away Bacon’s international standing as the founder of our modern philosophy of science. Because his reputation on the Continent was never diminished by the sneers of homophobic late 19th-century historians as it was in England; throughout the rest of Europe he remains one of the great minds of the Renaissance. And while Oxford is a minor figure in European history, English history continues to see him as nothing more than an ungrateful ward and son-in-law of the great Lord Burghley, and a cruel husband to his wife.
Oxford’s name is rarely mentioned by English historians except in passing and always with some negative epithet like notorious, prodigal, or wastrel. When Lawrence Stone chose, in his 1965 book The Crisis of the Aristocracy, to make Oxford his prime example of the numerous 16th-century aristocrats who lost their patrimonies to the rising tide of modern capitalism, he couldn’t resist a donnish tut-tutting over the vendetta caused by de Vere’s affair with Ann Vavasor, adding a gratuitous “violent” to the usual list of anti-Oxford adjectives, further amplified in recent years by the rabidly Stratfordian Alan Nelson.
Neither is it his credentials that puts Oxford’s claim before that of Bacon. While Francis is known both for his voluminous writing and for an education that gives him most of what’s required to support the Bard’s astonishing erudition, all we have of Oxford’s writing that we can be absolutely certain of are a handful of juvenile poems and his personal letters to his in-laws. As for his erudition, until I began to publicize Oxford’s learning years with Sir Thomas Smith, little was known, or at least published, about the true source and dimension of his education. Despite the fact that I began to lecture and publish about this in the mid-to-late ’90s, it is only now that I’m beginning to see Oxford’s true education mentioned here and there on the internet (and never yet in any publication other than my own).
The issue becomes even more complicated when we begin comparing their careers, for there too the cousins share characteristics that makes it hard for readers to make a definitive choice. First is the fact that, for both, their primary claim to authorship of Shakespeare and other literary works of the period is an anomaly the size of Texas. Historians, fearful of being charged with conjecture, prefer to ignore anomalies, but like the dog that didn’t bark in the night in Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, or the deviations in the orbit of Uranus that signaled to questioning astronomers that some large celestial body lay beyond Uranus (which turned out to be the planet Neptune), when anomalies are closely examined they usually reveal a previously hidden or unknown reality.
Bacon’s big anomaly is the fact that he published nothing at all (under his own name) until he was 35 years old. For this prodigiously gifted wordsmith, who basically had no real job until he was in his late 30s, that at this moment in history, the very dawn of the English Literary Renaissance, when publishing was just beginning to expand into a vehicle for genuine literature, to have published nothing until he was 35 is an anomaly of vast proportions. That this dog didn’t bark in the night should have been a reason for questioning long since, but historians are more inclined to play Inspector Lestrade than Sherlock Holmes.
Oxford’s biography shows the same kind of problem, though it came not, like Bacon’s, at the beginning of his career, but at its end. While Bacon seemed to take forever to start publishing, if we go strictly by the record, or rather by the lack of record, Oxford, acclaimed by contemporaries as the most gifted of the Court poets and playwrights of his day, quit publishing in his late twenties, an anomaly noted by both a puzzled E.K. Chambers and Churton Collins. If history is to be believed he continued to live for another twenty years, apparently without writing another word, or doing much of anything.
So Oxford and Bacon have the same problem, a huge gap where there should be evidence of writing, or at least of something. Does this mean that one was Shakespeare and the other spent half his life sitting on his hands? Of course not. Both were up to something, which, after twenty years of research, I intend to explain. That this gap occurred in both lives at different times in their development, but during the same period in recorded time, suggests that whatever it was that one was up to, the other was as well. Oxford’s hiatus began in 1576 with his arrival back from Italy while Bacon’s began three years later with his arrival back from Paris. Bacon’s ended in 1596, three years after the name Shakespeare first appeared in print, two years after the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, was formed, and three years before the name Shakespeare appeared on a play, launching 15 years of publishing success during the very period that Bacon was striving his utmost to rise at the Jacobean Court.
Oxford’s other massive anomaly
Stratfordians refuse to think about Oxford, so it’s no surprise that they never address the issue of what he did with the second half of his life or with what may be an even greater problem, how he managed to spend his entire patrimony by his mid-thirties. Although as Oxfordian Nina Green has shown, his spending was not nearly so colossal as Stone, Pearson, or others would have it, and as she has also shown, he was dreadfully taken advantage of by con men and, in Essex, by local land sharks, still, when compared with the finances of ordinary folk, Oxford did manage to vaporize a very great deal of money, his own and other people’s. The question is, on what?
Of the peers whose finances Stone examines in his The Crisis of the Aristocracy, Oxford, though held up by Stone as the most noteworthy, is the only one for whom it can’t be seen how he managed to spend so much money. It’s obvious that the Earl of Leicester went into debt providing Elizabeth with reasons to marry him. Francis Walsingham went into debt funding the preparations for England’s showdown with Spain. The Earl of Cumberland was said to have thrown a fortune into the ocean, due to his obsession with ship-building. Jasper Fisher went broke building Fisher’s Folly. But Oxford didn’t go in for shipbuilding or for building great houses. There’s nothing that suggests he was a gambler. Certainly he spent lavishly while in Italy, though not as recklessly as has been reported. He probably poured a fair amount of cash or credit into renovating Fisher’s Folly, but that can’t begin to account for his losses overall. He invested once in a failed overseas mining expedition, and once in a trading vessel, but only once. He was generous with his friends in his twenties, but that stopped at about the time he seemed to stop writing. How then did he manage to borrow and spend so much money that by age 40 he was driven to begging one of his former retainers for handouts (Nelson 328-30)?
We suggest that Oxford was one of the earls who spent his fortune creating a new industry. This was not the coal mines of Lord Lumley, nor the lead mines of the Earl of Devonshire, nor the iron works of the Earl of Rutland, nor the urban development ventures of the Earl of Salisbury (Stone 341-7, 360), but the London stage, which by the 1590s was just as viable an industry as coal, lead, iron, or real estate, bringing fame and fortune to the actors and latecomers who held shares in it, launching the English as the great actors of their day and the West End as the world’s most influential theater district, not that Oxford himself ever saw a groatsworth return on his investment.
The Theater is a demanding mistress. No investment comes anywhere near it in terms of expense or the level of risk based on the whims of public and critical taste. I know of a team that wrote a dazzling jazz musical, and when a long time Broadway investor reviewed (and approved) the book and the music, he said that a low estimate of how much it would cost to mount came to something around 12 million dollars––and that was twenty years ago.
Theater then was no different. Startup costs were then, as they are today, astronomical. Actors and musicians had to be paid or they wouldn’t show up to rehearse; rehearsal space had to be paid for; costumes and wigs had to be good enough to make Shakespeare’s Kings and Cardinals ring true to an audience standing close enough to see the very buttons on their vests. Adding to the startup costs is the fact that the London stage that got launched in 1576 was the first ever venture into full time commercial production in England, a shaky venture that could not have seemed promising to investors, not to mention that theaters had to be built, a new sort of theater, one that could withstand winter storms and that amplified sound so two or three thousand could be seated per performance.
Not only was the Queen not interested in funding even the Court stage that provided her holiday entertainment, she saw very little good in helping to provide yearround entertainment for the public, no matter what the quality. Patrons would step forward later, once they saw the value of the stage as a bully pulpit, but at the beginning producing plays on a daily and yearly basis for the public was an extremely risky venture, one with which a wise courtier or merchant, however enthusiastic they might be about a night at the theater, would hesitate to have their name associated, considering the puritanical attitudes towards having fun and public merry-making that dominated the Elizabethan Reformation.
Bacon was 15 years old and on his way to France when the London Stage was born in 1576, so he could have had nothing to do with its inception, which was into its third year upon his return in 1578. Young as he was, poor as he was, lacking as he was at that time in social and political support, he was in no position either to patronize such an enterprise himself, nor did he then have friends powerful enough to do it for him.
However, as I hope to explain, he did get involved during the early to mid 1580s with providing material for the Children of the Chapell to perform for Court holidays. He did write at least one rather mediocre play for private performance in the early 1590s. From the mid-’90s on he helped to create and produce a number of theatrical events such as masques and banquets. But right at the time the true author of Hamlet and Cymbeline began using the name Shakespeare to get published, Bacon was finally launched on the career that he’d been angling for from his earliest days, one that required that he maintain the most dignified posture he could muster. From then on the writing that absorbed him was the mandate he felt to improve the intellectual life of English readers, his great plans for the advancement of science and learning, and the revision and simplification of England’s messy legal systems. From 1596 on, Bacon simply had no time for the kind of effort that creating plays like Julius Caesar or King Lear requires.
Francis Bacon is an important part of the Shakespeare story. I believe that he was responsible for publishing Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. I believe that his hand is evident in places in some of the plays, particularly in Richard III, suggesting that he was involved in its editing. Although his and Shakespeare’s educations are similar, they are not exactly the same. Their attitudes towards women are not the same. Most obviously, their styles differ too profoundly. As for the crossovers that scholars have noted, these are easily explained if, as I hope to show, Bacon worked closely with his older cousin during the Fisher’s Folly years, was largely responsible for getting the first quarto of Richard III published in 1597, and late in life was one of the main editors of the First Folio. His use of Oxford’s lines in a few places, if not an unconscious slip, could well have been a compliment, if we keep in mind that in those days, it was considered a compliment to quote a colleague.
However necessary Bacon was to the production and promotion of Shakespeare, Bacon himself was not Shakespeare. If someday we can accept all that (I believe) he did to contribute to the the literature of the period, using other men’s names as a necessary cover, in place of the stodgy old pedant he seems today, we’ll have the real Francis, the most incredibly witty rascal, the most daring satirist that ever put pen to vellum, taking wild and dangerous risks with reputation, liberty and life during an English Literary Renaissance that’s so much more exciting than anything you’ll find in the history books, no one but some doddering old Holofernes will be able to resist it, and neither will you.