HIS LIFE IN A NUTSHELL: The Shakespeare years

“Shakespeare” is born

You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower––until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.
……………………………..Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea

By 1590, bored, lonely, in the throes of midlife crisis, Oxford turned first to one, then the other, of the only two people who seemed to care for him any more, his mistress, the poet musician Emilia Bassano, and his new patron, the teenaged Henry Wriothesley (pron. Rosely, not Rizly), 3rd Earl of Southampton.  At some point in 1590, he wrote 17 conventionally flattering sonnets to Southampton as a gift for his 17th birthday, tightly crafted poems in which we hear for the first time the full development of what we know today as Shakespeare’s voice.

Bereft of his patrons and his audiences, he had no one left to please but these two young people––and himself.  In love, partly with Southampton, partly with Emilia, but most of all with the sound of his own voice, Oxford kept on writing, every day for a month or two, then every week, then every month, until there were 126 sonnets to “the Fair Youth” and 26 to “the Dark Lady.”

As he wrote, confidence in himself and in his art began to return.  Rereading his old plays, he became excited again over the stories they told, even more excited over what they could be.  Ideas leapt off the page.  A meeting with Ld Hunsdon set the wheels in motion.  Now the Queen’s Ld Chamberlain, the post filled so long ago by Oxford’s first truly supportive patron, the Earl of Sussex, Hunsdon knew that it was time to take action.  The London Theater that he and Ld Charles Howard (Hunsdon’s son-in-law) had helped Sussex and Oxford to create back in the 1570s was in chaos.  As patrons, writers and theater owners wrangled with each other and took potshots at authority figures, the forces that wanted Theater stopped altogether began gathering strength.

Alarmed, Hunsdon decided to take the same action Walsingham had taken a decade earlier, namely to create a Crown company, that is, if Oxford would provide the playbook.  The Queen’s own cousin, possibly (it was rumored) her half-brother, it wasn’t too hard for Hunsdon to persuade Elizabeth that a new company would provide the state of the art entertainment she needed to keep up the reputation of her Court as a happening place.  Since she never paid much attention to who was doing the writing, that problem could be dealt with at another time.  With loyalty to England no longer the issue it had been for Walsingham, this company was meant, not to tour, but to dominate the London Stage.

As for Oxford’s relationship with Hunsdon’s mistress, the Lord Chamberlain’s feeling for Emilia was probably more that of a father than a lover.  True, it would now be difficult to find a good husband for her, but if it kept his playwright in a writing mood, well, so be it.  In any case, there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Enter Shakespeare

One of the blows that struck Oxford at this time was the publication in 1591 of Philip Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella.  Written a decade earlier, it could not be published until after his death, but even so, it was a breakthrough, for until now, no Court poet had ever been published (under their own name).  In a series of 103 sonnets, Sidney created a new style, borrowed from the Italians but recast in a frank and open English narrative.  Available in quarto on the bookstalls, it caused an overnight sensation.  To the growing reading audience, Sidney was the new Chaucer, the English Tasso.

Oxford may have been down but he wasn’t out.  Determined to show the world there was someone better than Sidney, he dashed off the sexy narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in the style born of his sonnets to Southampton and Emilia.  To get it published, he borrowed the name of a friend of one of his printers, one that made a delightful pun: Will shake spear.  To make it as clear as possible that “William Shakespeare” was not the real author, he left the space blank on the title page where the author’s name was usually placed, putting it on the  dedication page instead.  Venus and Adonis was an instant hit, going into multiple editions over the next decade.

Theater of blood

With Leicester gone and Elizabeth dallying over Walsingham’s replacement, the Cecils began moving to take control of the functioning government, Burghley to handle diplomacy while his son Robert took charge of intelligence.  Furious with the writing establishment that had developed under Walsingham, most particularly with what they (probably) saw as the dangerous elements in Tamburlaine, Robert Cecil prepared a sting operation, so that when the plague struck in February of 1593, he was ready.  In a few short weeks he had Marlowe up before the Star Chamber, and before the month was out, either dead––killed in a supposed “tavern brawl” in Deptford––or secretly transported out of the country.  Freaked out by Marlowe’s brutal elimination, Bacon halted the publication of his picaresque Nashe novel Jack Wilton, publishing instead the morbidly apologetic Christ’s Teares Over Jerusalem. Thanks to his puritan mother, Bacon was a fast man with a religious metaphor.

Enter Stratford

It was not only Oxford’s wish that his identity be obscured, it was no less than a government mandate (however silent).  Hunsdon knew that if the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were to control the burgeoning theater, they had to be better than the other companies, which meant they had to have, not only the best actors, but also the best playbook.  This meant Oxford.  Problems over his identity only arose when the plays were published, because anything that was published had to have the name of an author on it.  If it didn’t, it could raise questions.  Because so many of Oxford’s characters were based on members of the government community, among them the Queen and the Lord Treasurer and his family, his identity as author had to be hidden somehow, or the government would see to it that his playbook would be “drowned deeper than ever did plummet sound.”

In fact, the authorship question may have arisen as early as 1594 when the shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had several of Oxford’s older plays published, probably to keep other companies from performing them.   Perhaps because they hadn’t yet made the deal with William, perhaps because they hadn’t fully considered the problems Oxford’s authorship might cause, they published Titus Andronicus, Taming of A Shrew, and The First Part of the Contention without an author’s name.

But the theater was an industry now, no longer the little side show it had been through the early ’80s.  The identities of those involved had become a matter of interest to the politically minded.  When these plays appeared without an author’s name, questions of their source must have begun to arise.  The easiest solution was to use the same name Oxford used the year before on Venus and Adonis.  John Hemmings was (probably) dispatched to Stratford, and by the following winter they (probably) had a deal.

There may have been other documents bearing the phony playwright’s name, but the earliest we know of is a 1595 note for payment to the LCMen with “William Shakespeare” as one of the payees.  Yet, despite (possible) questions about their authorship, eight more of Oxford’s plays would be published anonymously over the next four years.  Perhaps not everyone involved was enthusiastic about doing business with William of Stratford.

Newly married by this time to one of the Queen’s wealthiest maids of honor, Oxford was, if not personally in a position to raise funds, at least he was properly housed, fed, and clothed.  Safely ensconced in an appropiately magnificent manor far enough north of Burbage’s public stage to be well outside its now funkified neighborhood, he was in good shape to begin rewriting his old plays.  Making use of all he had learned over the years about creating powerful, emotionally satisfying theater, some were so completely rewritten that they might almost be considered new, had not the plots and most of the characters remained the same.

Which plays were completely new?  It’s likely that it was during the middle to late years of the ’90s, still involved with Emilia Bassano, that he wrote the first version of Antony and Cleopatra, blaming his downfall on his obsession with her (a theme he harped on his Robert Greene pamphlets) , and in the process providing perhaps the greatest role for an actress he would ever write, though many years would have to pass before a real woman could play it.

Troubled waters

The new company had only two years of Ld Hunsdon’s protection.  Their patron’s death in 1596 initiated a period of uncertainty during which the Queen appointed uninvolved or openly antagonistic Lords Chamberlain: first the Cecil client, William Brooke, Ld Cobham, then Hunsdon’s son, George Carey, both of them residents of Blackfriars and both opposed to any use by the company of the Parliament Chamber that Burbage had purchased and renovated at great expense as a winter stage for his West End audience.  As a result it remained dark and emptry for over a decade.  Oxford retaliated by portraying Cobham as a ludicrous version of his ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle, that is, until the Queen made him change the name.  The one he chose, Sir John Falstaff, was an inspired combination of the name of another respected nobleman of the past, Sir John Fastolfe, with a pun on his own pen name (shake-fall spear-staff).

Following the marriage of his oldest daughter in 1595, it seems likely that Oxford made his first attempt to resign as Elizabeth’s Minister of Pastime (Without Portfolio), passing the non-writing duties on to his new son-in-law, William Stanley, Earl of Derby  (as Prospero does to Ferdinand in The Tempest) and the writing duties to Bacon and Jonson.  He resumed his efforts to get the Queen to grant him the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham.  And in a letter to Robert Sidney that November, Roland White reported: “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead.”  It’s then also that we begin to hear him mention being troubled with poor health.

World weariness and sadness tinge the plays rewritten during this period: Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Troilus and Cressida.  By 1596 he knew he’d lost the battle to keep Southampton in his own corner.  Like so many other young courtiers, Wriothesley  had joined forces with the charismatic Earl of Essex, stepson of Oxford’s ancient enemy, the Earl of Leicester.  Even Bacon was moving on.  Following Mary Sidney’s publication of her brother’s work in 1591 and Sir John Harington’s of his translation of Orlando Furioso the same year, Bacon joined their little revolution in 1596 by publishing his Montaigne-like essays under his own name.

For Bacon had finally been given a Court position.  Although it paid nothing, still, it seemed a promise of better things to come, since, as Queen’s counsel, he answered directly to Elizabeth, whom he adored.  It must have seemed to Francis that he was finally on the path to his lifelong goal, the post he felt was his birthright, his father’s, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, and with it the mansion where he’d been born, York House on the Strand.  At 36 Bacon was ready to leave the “toys” of youth behind in preparation for a move to the arena where he always believed he belonged, the legitimate stage of jurisprudence and Court politics.  Ariel was ready to leave Prospero, Puck to leave Oberon.

There were newcomers, among them the capable Ben Jonson, but Oxford, portraying him as Caliban (Calvin + Ben) in his 1595 version of The Tempest, saw him at first as just one more manifestation of the takeover of the London Stage by savages.

The King’s Men

Then, once again, just when things seemed darkest, a powerful new patron arrived on the scene.  Someone (probably the young Earl of Pembroke) got to King James during his progress to take the English throne in 1603.  James was happy to show his largesse by taking both the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and its playwright under his wing, making himself the company’s primary patron, and giving Oxford what he’d petitioned for so long, stewardship of the Forest of Waltham.

Although official records indicate that Oxford died the following year, there are reasons to think that these were rigged, and that he continued to live, and write, for another three or four years.  His eagerness to have the stewardship suggests that he had a personal reason for wanting it beyond any financial perks it offered.  I believe that he wanted to live there, in seclusion, close to Havering-Atte-Bowre, ancient home of Edward the Confessor, and in the ancient forest, where so many scenes take place in his plays.  It’s interesting that some of the wooded areas that surrounded Havering then have been preserved.

For one thing, because it was an ancient liberty, it put him directly under the King’s protection, which meant that his enemies would have to find other means to thwart him than through the courts.  For another, it meant he could live there, far from the annoyances and interruptions at his wife’s menage at Hackney.  We know he was ill, and though we don’t know what was wrong, it was something that reinforced his lifelong craving for privacy.  Most important, he would have the peace and quiet he needed to polish his favorite plays.  This final chapter of his life was (probably) portrayed in the forest scenes in As You Like It, produced for the King’s pleasure at the Pembroke estate at Wilton while waiting for the plague to diminish in London.

Rather than dying in 1604, Oxford (probably) spent that summer and fall preparing for the marriage of his youngest daughter to the brother of the Earl of Pembroke, whom he (possibly) made his executor at this time, handing over what he felt to be the best copies of his plays.  Pembroke was certainly in the best position of anyone involved in the Court Stage to protect them and see to it that they got properly published at the right time (as witness the reference in the Sonnets to “Master WH” i.e., William Herbert).  That winter, nine of his plays were produced at Court for, or shortly after, his daughter’s wedding, some of them doubtless revised for the occasion.


Records dating the publication of his works provide hints to when he actually died.  Considering the dangerous personal material in the Sonnets, it seems unlikely that he, or anyone, would have wanted them published before his death, which makes 1609, when they were published, or 1608, his most likely final year.  This final period (probably) saw the last round of changes to his masterpieces, among them Hamlet (expanded into 5 hours playing time if produced uncut), Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Some were changed more than others.  Most had a speech added here and there, some pearl of thought, set in words of unforgettable beauty, like Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .” or Juliet’s “cut him out in little stars . . .” or Hamlet’s “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I . . . .”

His wife’s will left money for a monument to be erected in the church where she could lie beside him, but if this ever did take place there’s no record of it.  His grand-nephew, Percival Golding, stated flatly, probably in or before 1619, that he was buried in Westminster Abbey.  My examination of the records pertaining to the tradition of burying writers in Poet’s Corner suggests that it was (probably) Oxford’s funeral that created the tradition.  Night burials, particularly for persons with social issues, were a commonplace.

The suggestion that there was a sizable community who loved and respected Oxford for his contributions to the English Literary Renaissance is almost as tough a claim as is his authorship of Shakespeare, but the one would have to include the other, for if Oxford was Shakespeare, those who knew the truth would have wanted to see him buried in the Abbey where he belonged, not just as a poet, but also as one of the great peers of his time.

So when did Oxford actually die?

That he was still alive in the fall of 1604 seems certain from the timing of The Woman’s Prize, which, as George Swan shows, makes sense only for the fall of 1604.  As a satire it would have to have been written while he was still alive.  It must have been before Chapman’s eulogy in The Revenge of Bussy d’Amboise, in which the hero steps outside the action in Act 3, Scene 2, to eulogize him, while, as a sequel to Bussy D’Amboise, written in 1603 or ’04 (as guessed by E.K. Chambers), it could have been written at any point between then and 1613, when it was published.

The publication of the Sonnets would seem to require that his death took place at some point in or shortly before 1609.  There’s the publication of three plays in late 1608-1609 after a 5-year publishing hiatus (the most recent was the authoritative version of Hamlet in 1604): King Lear in 1608, Pericles (twice) in 1609, and the puzzling double edition of Troilus and Cressida, also in 1609, followed by an almost complete publishing blackout until 1623.  As Robert Brazil shows in his blog 1609 Chronology, a poem attributed to Cyril Tourneur and dedicated to Sir Francis Vere, who died that year, sounds as though it’s meant to eulogize, not Vere but his cousin, the Earl of Oxford.  Brazil’s argument is persuasive, though he fails to explain why anyone would eulogize someone five years after their death.  Unless, of course, Oxford didn’t actually die until 1609.

The First Folio

Although William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (son of Mary Sidney and nephew of her brother Philip) was actively involved in Court theater during the first decade and a half of James’s reign, it was mostly through entertainments that he and others helped to provide for the Queen and her circle.  The King’s only real pleasure was hunting, so it was primarily the Queen who sponsored the pageants and masques that kept the Court entertained.  Thus it wasn’t until 1615, when Pembroke finally got the post he’d been seeking for years––Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household––that he could act on his (likely) promise to get Oxford’s writing published.

To this end he (probably) turned to his mother, whose credentials included her own sterling stagecraft plus her experience  editing her brother’s work.  As a lifelong member of status in Court circles, Mary knew better than anyone else where dialogue had to be cut or altered to ensure that no connections could be drawn between real persons and events and Shakespeare’s characters and plots.  With the troublesome playwright himself no longer around to make waves, any bitterness over his past treatment of herself or others would pale beside the undying freshness and beauty of his work.  A great artist herself, she knew how to edit so as not to diminish that special magic.

Having sponsored Jonson early on as a writer for the King’s Men, the Earl of Pembroke continued to favor him, making him Poet Laurette in 1616 with an annuity that allowed him to continue writing.  Plans to get Shakespeare’s work published were (probably) afoot long before Jonson published his own collected works in 1616, for in it he laid some of the groundwork for the First Folio by listing “William Shakespeare” at the head of the list of actors in several of his plays.

I do not believe that there was ever the slightest consideration that the works could ever be published under Oxford’s name.  The name Shakespeare was already accepted, the connections between characters like Polonius and Ophelia with the great Lord Burghley and Oxford’s wife, between Richard III and Robert Cecil, or Iago and Henry Howard, were much too obvious to those who had been involved and were still alive, and though many of the originals were dead, they all (but Howard) had living descendants whose feelings had to be taken into consideration, while the reputation of the Court itself, and of Elizabeth’s reign, had to be maintained.  We may not care about these things now, but those involved at the time most certainly did care––passionately.  Doubtless the Cecils still care.

Why so long?

It’s unlikely that Pembroke would have published while William was still alive.  The hints that Jonson worked into the title and the dedicatory material could have sent the curious to Stratford, a risk he and the others involved would not have wanted to take.  Following William’s death in 1616, progress on the Folio may have been held up by similar concerns over William’s wife, Anne Hathaway, who must have known that her husband hadn’t spent his days in Stratford writing plays for a London theater company.  In addition, obtaining the best copies of some of the plays that were owned by outsiders (like Emilia Bassano?), getting agreements from persons like Southampton who may have been dead set against the publication of anything by Oxford, plus working with the printers who held copyrights to some of the plays, any or all of these could have kept its publication on hold from one year to the next.

Mary Pembroke died in 1621, (probably) leaving some of the editing unfinished.  But luckily for the project (though not for Francis), Bacon had his great downfall that same year, and so had time to pick up where Mary left off.  I believe that in the future, if scholars ever get on the right track with this story, evidence of both their hands will be found in those places where some have already suspected editing.  Their styles couldn’t be more opposite: Mary’s to pare all verbiage to the bone; Bacon’s to include everything but the kitchen sink.

More politics

Having created the palace coup that made John Villiers the King’s new favorite back in 1615, in 1622 Pembroke feared he was going to be hoist by his own petrard when the ungrateful Villiers, now Duke of Buckingham, turned on him and his brother.  To ascribe this to disagreements over England’s relationship with Catholic Spain is to ignore what was at heart a purely animal power struggle that would have erupted over almost anything.  Certain (probably) that, if he succeeded, the crass Buckingham would simply let the project die, the Pembrokes put on a push to get it published as quickly as possible, leaving many editing details unresolved.  As things turned out, they remained in power, but at least the book was out (warts and all).  And so, finally, Shakespeare belonged to the ages.

4 thoughts on “HIS LIFE IN A NUTSHELL: The Shakespeare years

  1. I like reading how you believe the pieces fit into place. Your overview illuminates many players and their possible roles, for example, Bacon, Marlowe, Howard, and Greene. I feel you’re underestimated Elizabeth’s role in Edward’s life and plays (e.g., I believe she is Cleopatra), but that’s not to say I don’t appreciate your theories. Thank you!

  2. Just as a curiosity Stephanie, in respect of your comment that ‘doubtless the Cecils still care’, my wife and I visited Hatfield House, that rather dreadful piece of ‘nouveau riche’ architecture [second down]
    about a year ago, and got into conversation with a shrewd and educated lady guide who was clearly an old retainer, and after a conversation about Elizabeth of Bohemia, who clearly she was in awe and wonder at
    I archly brought the conversation around to Anne Cecil and her husband, and wondered what she thought about that marriage. She was unfailingly polite, and said, Oxford you mean? and then became very diplomatic in changing the subject. I got a clear sense that feudal loyalties had come into play. So yes I think if we engage with the old (old/new) aristocratic families of England, some of the old imperatives may still be strongly felt and operative.

  3. Absolutely! But keep in mind that Hatfield House is the repository of Robert Cecil’s memory, not his father’s or the Queen’s. Considering the role that this Cecil played in Oxford’s life, his attempts to destroy the London Stage and (probably) to destroy the connection between himself and Shakespeare’s Richard III, it could hardly be otherwise. The descendant of William Cecil’s oldest son (by Mary Cheke), Ld Michael Cecil, 8th Marquess of Exeter, who now lives in Ashland, Oregon, has a very different take on the story than what you’ll be told at Hatfield House.

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