The so-called coverup, that is, the hiding of the identity of the true author behind the name of a small town entrepreneur, was, from first to last, a business maneuver by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), the acting company that from 1594 on was the only one to perform and publish Oxford’s plays. True, they couldn’t have done it had not he paved the way by remaining as anonymous as he could since childhood, while his use of William’s name on Venus and Adonis in 1593 opened the door to the eventual solution, but from 1597 on it was entirely a matter of business strategy by the Crown Company and their patrons on the Privy Council.
More specifically, Oxford’s cover was the work of the core group within the LCMen known as the sharers. Others close to the operation may have been aware of the truth, or figured it out as time went by, but as with any business enterprise (then and now), as a company secret, it was not to be divulged on any account. As a business secret of the Crown Company, no one who was not authorized to know it would have revealed the fact that they knew it even to others who knew.
Perhaps what has made this issue so complicated is that no one, not even the author himself, had any idea, back when the cover-up began, that his writing, both what they published as Shakespeare and what he’d published earlier under the names of Robert Greene, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson, Thomas Lodge, and John Lyly, would become so popular, or that their popularity would drive the creation of both the London Stage and the periodical press. Did Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have any idea that what they were tinkering with in their garages would change the culture of the entire world? It was the popularity of Oxford’s (and Marlowe’s) plays that turned what began as a quick fix into one of the great literary mysteries of all time.
Following the death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590, when Baron Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, took over as manager of the Court Stage, he did what Walsingham had done a decade earlier, he brought together (in June 1594) the best actors from the three top companies to create a new Crown company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. More specifically he took Richard Burbage, son of James, plus several from Lord Strange’s Men: Hemmings, Kempe, Phillips, and Pope. These formed the core of the company that from then on was known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Burbages, Hemmings, Pope and Kempe were the original sharers.
Although the commercial stage was still only ten years old, by 1594 it had had enough time to reveal the kind of problems that Hunsdon, Burbage and the actors were determined to prevent. In particular they wanted to avoid losing their playwright, as Henslowe had with the death of Christopher Marlowe. Oxford had lost his status as a patron by this time, having cashed in his inherited capital to keep his theaters afloat, so by 1594 his value to the company was chiefly his pen. In fact, in some ways his social status may have become more of a handicap to them than a help.
As for Oxford himself, however much he may have enjoyed the company of actors and musicians, with whom, as a writer and musician he had a lot more in common than he did with most of his social equals, we know that at times he felt keenly how he’d come down in the world, that he was now nothing but a writer at the beck of “base fellows” like Burbage and Hemmings. He shows this in Sonnets 71, and 72, and in As You Like It where Touchstone compares the public audience (audire) to the provincial slut (Audrey) that he’s being forced to marry (entertain).
A successful repertory company must have four things: 1) a set of actors: dramatic leads, ingenue and juvenile leads, plus, back then, a pair of comedians; enough anyway that they can gather at least six onstage at one time. 2) they need a stage, including a place to rehearse; 3) they need an audience, so the playhouse has to be located near a busy thoroughfare where people can reach it easily by foot; and 4) last but certainly not least, they need a popular playbook that they can count on to bring in the money. Minus any one of these four things, and it’s not going to succeed.
Oxford wasn’t easy. He had a lot of baggage. He needed protection from a variety of enemies, on many of whom he’d revenged himself by satirizing them more or less obviously onstage. He was also involved in a torrid affair with Hunsdon’s mistress, the black-eyed temptress Emilia Bassano. Hunsdon, rumored to be a byblow of Henry VIII and thus himself a product of royal hanky panky, was going on 70 by then and so may have been philosophical about the sex lives of a man the age of his sons and a woman the age of his granddaughters. (Who knows, Emilia may even have been part of the deal.) In any case, since Oxford had the golden playbook, the one that made the money, they had to have him, warts and all, and so they had to find a way to protect him.
But it seems that Oxford, Timon-like, was already plotting his escape to the Forest. By 1593 he had returned to petitioning the Queen for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, while clues to this can be seen in the plays from that period, rewrites of Timon, Measure for Measure, and most signficantly, The Tempest, all featuring escapes or exiles to the woods. But Elizabeth knew her Court jester too well to let him get away with another disappearing act, and so continued to stall him with one ploy after another, perhaps using her continually unfulfilled promises to give him the Forest as a carrot to tempt him back into writing comedies for the children, her preferred entertainment.
With the booming poularity of the public stage in a world as small as the literary community of 16th-century London, keeping Oxford’s involvement with the LCMen a secret was more easily said than done. The London Stage was breaking new ground in every aspect of English life, so companies like theirs had problems to consider that the amateur actors of earlier times had never had to deal with. In a small community, where everyone who could read knew everyone who could write, a pen name would only stimulate curiosity. Dates suggest that it actually took awhile for the Company to come up with a solution.
Their first move was to gain control of Oxford’s playbook. Until the assassination of Lord Strange, of the various companies in operation at that time, the four top adult companies, those in competition for Court performance: the Queen’s Men, the Lord Strange’s Men, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and Pembroke’s Men, all had versions of his plays.
Following the sting that rid the Crown of Marlowe in June 1593, the scenario that makes the most sense is that the patrons of the two top companies, Hunsdon and his son-in-law Charles Howard (the Lord Admiral), both members of the Queen’s Privy Council, got together with the owners of the two major London theaters, Philip Henslowe and James Burbage, and worked out a compromise as to how the London Stage would be divided from then on: who would get which actors and who got which of Oxford’s plays. Theirs would be the only two official companies, the rest having to make do with theater inns or the road.
The new Crown company would have the cream of the acting crop, all that is, but the superstar Edward Alleyn; they got the plays Oxford was still interested in revising, and Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch. The Lord Admiral’s Men got Alleyn, several of the most popular plays (those that no longer interested Oxford), and Henslowe’s theater on Bankside. To make up for the lack of a playwright of Oxford or Marlowe’s calibre, Henslowe began the practise of hiring stringers, sometimes as many as five to a play, who turned out plays to order on topics suggested by himself or Alleyn. Both companies moved immediately to license their plays with the Stationers, which gave them the right to prevent them from being performed or published by anyone else. Those they had no interest in producing they published, possibly to prevent other companies from performing them.
Enter William of Stratford
By June of 1594, these companies were under pressure to get plays ready for the summer season. Both Burbage’s Theatre and Henslowe’s Rose were outdoor arenas limited to the warmer weather. With the final loss of the Blackfriars theater school in 1590, the history of what theaters they used in the winter is complicated. Burbage would soon be making a bid for the old Parliament chamber at Blackfriars, where he ran into considerable trouble. It seems Henslowe and Alleyn kept the Rose going through the winter. The Elizabethans were a hardy lot.
Dates suggest that the LCMen moved ahead without having decided just how to deal with the matter of protecting their playwright, something that the murder of his longtime rival for the Court Stage, Lord Strange, in June of ’94 must have made a matter of some importance. Oxford having just used the name of Richard Field’s neighbor from the distant town of Stratford-on-Avon to get his Venus and Adonis published, someone suggested hiring him as a standin, perhaps as a temporary measure until a better solution could be found. In the event, nothing better ever turned up. Since there is no existing warrrant establishing the personnel of the original company, that William was officially considered a member of the company comes from later documents, the first being his name as one of three payees for a December Court performance of the company, March 15, 1595 (Schoenbaum 136).
Sixteenth-century businessmen were experts at legal fictions. Defined by Wikipedia as “an ad hoc remedy forged to meet a harsh or an unforeseen situation,” these were semi-legal dodges that enabled them to work around the archaic limitations of common law. Technically what the LCMen created was less a legal fiction than a proxy, an ancient means by which a man or woman could be in two places at the same time, or what Irwin Smith called “a cardboard man,” as created by Sir William More when, in his effort to rid Blackfriars of Oxford’s private theater, he conjured up a fictional party to act as his disputant, one “Thomas Smallpiece” (151).
Actors like Robert Wilson and Richard Tarleton who were known to write plays provided the model for William’s role with the company, that of an actor-sharer. Decades later, when the company had become one of the most lucrative in London, nonactors might inherit their shares or investors buy them, but in the beginning only the principal actors were shareholders, meaning they got a share of the take, and later, when the new Globe was built, a share of the house (Gurr Shakespearean 295).
It’s most unlikely that William was ever an actor in anything but name. His inclusion on Jonson’s play lists is easily seen as a ruse by the Company to maintain the cover story, while his identification as an actor or player on legal documents came from William himself. The word actor as a performer was a rather recent addition to the language (OED gives first use to Philip Sidney: 1580: Apologie for Poetry); earlier it meant several other things, including “a doer . . . one who takes part in any affair.” By the same token, a “player” could mean anyone involved in any way in the production of plays, not necessarily onstage.
It’s equally unlikely that William was a sharer in anything but name. More likely he was recompensed with a stipend delivered once or twice a year, probably by the company manager John Hemmings who had to pass through William’s home town on his way to visit his family in Droitwich, 25 miles northeast of Stratford. The nature of Hemmings’s association with William is revealed by his later use of him as a player in the Blackfriars Gatehouse deal, a business transaction that had nothing to do with the theater.
In addition to the stipend there were other benefits, perhaps provided at William’s request: first the family crest that had been denied his father many years earlier, then the big Stratford house known as New Place, then, following his father’s death in 1601, the monument in Trinity Church that contained a bust of his father holding a woolsack, the symbol of his trade. But along with these there also had to be a stipend, for there had to be something to maintain his and his wife’s cooperative silence.
Luckily for the Company, William, like Oxford, had a genius for hiding. Having suffered since his teens the scorn and pity that small town folk tend to bestow on their less fortunate neighbors, he would have been most careful to keep secret the source of his properity or that it was totally based on what must have seemed to him the mysterious value of his surname. If the townsfolk of Stratford heard about some playwright in London who happened to have the same name as their close-mouthed neighbor, they’d think nothing of it, a situation that William, and probably his wife as well, would be dedicated to maintaining. It was understood that his trips to London were about whatever business it was that was bringing him his income. By keeping their mouths shut and investing their stipend in land and commodities, the Shaksperes managed to build up a tidy little estate in their home community. This was their only interest in the works of Shakespeare.
We know that William spent time in London from sometime in 1595 through the first decade of the 17th century. We know this partly through tax rolls that list him as a defaulter in 1595, ’96, and ’97 in the parish of St. Helens, Bishopsgate, years when the Company was located nearby in Shoreditch, then from 1602 to at least 1605, after the actors had moved to Southwark. This comes through evidence that he roomed on occasion with the Mountjoy family, makers of wigs and headgear, on Silver Street, just around the corner from where John Hemmings lived at that time (ODNB). A 1609 court case in Stratford in which he was suing a neighbor for £6 describes him as “recently” of London.
When every bit of actual evidence of William’s presence in London is gathered it indicates the rental of rooms occupied only briefly and intermittently by a man whose base remained in his hometown, two days from London by horseback. Stratfordians invariably expand upon it, assuming a life spent in London, but that’s not what the record by itself would indicate. What William actually did in London is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the actors did put him to work holding horses, as one anecdote has it. Ben Jonson has left us what certainly seems to be a satirical portrait in the character of Sogliardo in his 1599 play, Every Man Out of his Humor.
1598 was a turning point for the Company. With Burbage’s Theatre in trouble with his landlord, the year ended with their midnight move across the river. It seems another kind of move was also made the year before, to define Shakespeare as someone separate from Oxford. A showdown in 1597 between the actors and Robert Cecil, whose vendetta had led to the loss of both their theaters, forced the Company to put William’s name on the title page of Richard III the following year, while at the same time, a commentary titled Wit’s Treasury made the distinction between Oxford as famed for comedies (none listed), and Shakespeare as author of eight recent and popular plays, their titles listed. Thus was the cover-up launched in 1598, more out of necessity than any coherent strategy.
With the advent of King James in 1603, the LCMen, now the King’s Men, entered into their most lucrative period. Protected by the King and the Earl of Pembroke, they and the London Stage they created, became a powerful political force, the foundation of what today we call the Fourth Estate of government, aka the Media.
In this way was the identity of the playwright Shakespeare created and maintained by the company that grew rich and successful on his plays.