Like the anthropologist who spends thousands of hours sifting through tons of rubble beneath a cliff-side, seeking bits of bone no bigger than the end of a thumb that she hopes will fit the skeleton she’s piecing together of a proto-human aboriginal, so we sift through the texts of the period and, at second hand, through modern critical texts, seeking evidence of things that we have no other means of accessing as we strive to piece together the truth about a great artist. The bits of bone we seek are often no more than a single word, one that bears a particular significance. In our search for the truth about Shakespeare, one such word is shadow.
The word shadow meant more to readers in the sixteenth century than it does today. Besides a term for the patch of darkness created by blocking the sun’s rays, or a slang term for someone who sticks too close to someone else, or a 1930s Hollywood verb for spying, in Shakespeare’s time it was a metaphor for any kind of copy or reflection. You saw your shadow in a mirror; painters created shadows of reality on canvas: in his 1579 diatribe School of Abuses, Stephen Gosson wrote: “Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts] to vanquish the taste, nor painters in shadows to allure the eye, than poets in theaters to wound the conscience.” Some uses may reflect Plato’s vision of human beings as mere shadows on the wall of a cave, reflections of multi-dimensional spiritual realities in our narrow three-dimensional world.
Shakespeare used the word shadow for all of these; the account in Schmidt’s lexicon of the specific uses in his works fills well over a full page in very small type. He was especially fond of the biblical phrase shadow vs. substance, which for him expressed a world of meaning. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he uses shadow several times to refer to plays or actors. Replying to Hippolyta’s description of Pyramus and Thisbe as “the silliest stuff that ever I heard,” Theseus opines: “The best [plays] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” When Puck bids adieu to the audience after the last act he uses the term to refer to the characters created by the actors: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. . . .” Twice Puck calls Oberon, “King of Shadows.” Years earlier, the True Tragedy of Richard III, the first version of Shakespeare’s play, opens with:
Enter Truth and Poetry. To them appears the ghost of George, Duke of Clarence.
POETRY: Truth well met.
TRUTH: Thanks, Poetry; what makes thou upon a stage?
TRUTH: Then will I add bodies to the shadows. Therefore depart,
and give Truth leave to show her pageant.
In his prefatory letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, Oxford uses the word to mean the reflection of a patron or friend if mentioned in a work of literature that lives for generations long after the friend himself is departed.
Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs, whereby when they be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument. But with me it happenth far better, for in your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone.
“That shadow of thine”
One of the thousand and one smoking guns provided by authorship forensics is the handwritten note in the Cecil papers from one Thomas Vavasor to the Earl of Oxford, insulting him and taunting him to a duel. Dated January 19, 1585, it’s the final piece in the record of assaults on Oxford and his men by members of the Howard, Vavasor, and Knyvett circle in retaliation for Oxford having “ruined” their cousin, sister, niece and former Queen’s Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, who, in March 1581, gave birth to his illegitimate son in one of the royal bedchambers.
Following two months in the Tower and many more under house arrest, Oxford and his retainers were subjected to a year of attacks in the streets of London by Thomas Knyvett and his men. There were four of these “frays” that reached the record, the first March 3, 1582, the final February 21, 1583, three months before Oxford’s reinstatement at Court. Several on both sides were killed, and Oxford himself was seriously wounded in the first. There may have been other lesser incidents that escaped the record, but once Milord was back in the Queen’s favor it’s unlikely the Knyvett faction would have dared to prolong their vendetta.
The note, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, was found among Burghley’s papers. If the date added (in Burghley’s hand), January 1585, is anywhere near the date it was written, this puts it almost two years after the last recorded street fight and Oxford’s reinstatement at Court. But in fact it could have been written at any point from 1582 on, having come into Cecil’s possession at any time after that. Perhaps the answer can be found in the note itself. Here’s the text (spelling modernized) as reproduced by Alan Nelson in his fact-filled (if negative) biography:
If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown. I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits. Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting mind? Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels? If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers. But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse. For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer. (Nelson’s brackets, 295)
Let’s have a close look at what Vavasor is saying:
If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown.
According to Vavasor, if Oxford’s looks were as bad as his morals, his sister would never have allowed herself to be seduced; one more bit of evidence that he was considered good-looking; also testimony that he was not the instigator of the street brawls.
I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits.
In Vavasor’s view, Oxford is “base and sleepy” (cowardly and unresponsive to his taunts) because he is “wedded” to (totally involved with) something he calls “that shadow of thine” that prevents him from doing his duty as a nobleman and answering Vavasor’s challenge. Nelson states as fact that by “that shadow of thine” Vavasor is referring to “an unnamed male relative of Oxford’s,” as he scrambles among the names mentioned in connection with Oxford for one that might fit. This is a possibility because the use of shadow then did include such a use. However, that he was unable to come up with a name suggests there wasn’t any such person in Oxford’s life at that time, many of his retainers having dropped away with his banishment from Court. Just recovered from two years of exile and so most likely exhibiting extreme caution with regard to unseemly companions, “that shadow of thine” must refer to something else.
Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting [unknowing] mind?
The “revenge” taken of Oxford’s “vileness” must refer to the wound dealt him by Thomas Knyvett during the first recorded brawl three years earlier. However unwilling to continue to engage in these street fights, Oxford has done something else to provoke the “unwitting” Vavasor. What did he mean by “unworthy instruments”? Since this sentence follows directly on the reference to “that shadow of thine,” it seems most likely that the shadow and the unworthy instruments are connected.
Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels? If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers.
This must refer to one of the recorded “frays” in which only Oxford’s retainers were involved, or to some other for which there is no record. (The reference to Oxford’s “forlorn kindred” is intriguing; who might that be?) This also shows that Milord’s financial straits were already a matter of Court gossip.
But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse. For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer.
It’s unlikely there ever was an answer. Either Oxford handed over the threat to Burghley as Nelson suggests, or more likely, whoever was supposed to deliver it thought better of it, and gave it directly to Burghley, possibly after holding onto it for some time.
Romeo and Juliet
If, as we believe, based on a great deal of evidence provided here and in other locations, that during the mid-1580s, Oxford was not only the playwright who would publish under a series of pseudonyms, he was the author of most of the plays then being performed by the Queen’s Men, as well as the comedies performed by Paul’s Boys at Court in the 1570s, then what Thomas Vavasor meant by “that shadow of thine” must be the the London Stage, which was certainly considered an “unworthy instrument” by many of their contemporaries, particularly by those who’d been skewered by one of his satires.
As for the recent “provocation” mentioned by Vavasor, what else could he possibly mean but the original production of Romeo and Juliet? Written (I believe) during a rush of feeling following the realization that the silence and lack of response from his lover following her release from the Tower was not due to the perfidious change of heart he so angrily depicts in Troilus and Cressida, the first version of which (I believe) he wrote in 1581, or early ’82, while under house arrest at Fisher’s Folly, having received her beautiful explanation, the poem “Though I be strange,” compelled to make up for his initial loss of trust, he pours his heart into what has become the world’s favorite romantic tragedy.
Most likely the play was ready for production by late 1584 for the audience then gathering in Westminster for the Parliament that would run until the following March. With the 18-year-old Edward Alleyn as Romeo and the 16-year-old Richard Burbage as Juliet, the play would have been performed at the original Blackfriars Theater, located just above the fencing academy where Oxford and his friends were given to practising the routines as demonstrated by actors in the play. (The famous actor Richard Tarleton was reputed to be a master of the defensive art). Impelled by the added passions of relief and desire to make amends for having portraying Ann as Cressida, Romeo and Juliet expresses the feelings that got them both into so much trouble, not so fatal as what doomed the Veronese lovers, but still trouble. Such were the emotions contributing their force to what has been described as the “lyric rapture and youthful ecstasy” of one of the most loved plays in all literature.
Hardly anyone who writes about the close connections between Oxford’s biography and the plots of Shakespeare’s plays fails to connect the street brawls between the Oxford and Knyvett/Vavasor crews and those between the Montagues and the Capulets, or Oxford’s wound with Mecutio’s, “Not so deep as a well . . . but t’will serve.” The strong resemblance between Friar Lawrence and Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, is another important link. Less strong but still relevant are others such as the fact that Arthur Brooke, author of the narrative poem that served as a basis for Shakespeare’s play, was a nephew of George Brooke, Lord Cobham, Burghley’s close friend and his neighbor during Oxford’s years at Cecil House in the 1560s. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, neither Edward nor Ann died, they were not married, and Ann was pregnant as Juliet was not (or she died too soon to know), in any case, these unromantic differences aside, there’s far too much that connects the play and the events of 1581-’85 to brush off their similiarities as mere coincidence.
As for Ann, exactly where she was at this time we don’t know, but following her release from the Tower, the most likely place, based on what usually happened in such cases, would have been to stay with an older, dependable relative, closely connected to the Court, where she would be under surveillance (as her poem reports) until the Queen could decide what was to be done with her. At some point she ended up as the wife of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s champion, perhaps as a sort of prize for his years of service.
For Ann’s view of the situation, we have the poem she wrote to explain the reason for her silence. Other interpretations and attributions have been placed on this poem, but why not accept the most natural? Poetry is always the quickest path to the heart of a poet, and in those days, it was the path most often taken in matters of the heart, even by those who would have done better to stick to prose. Beautiful, witty, filled with feeling, it remains the sole evidence for whatever it was about her that had Oxford so fascinated. His later attachment to another female poet, Emilia Bassano, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, plus witty female characters like Beatrice and Kate, suggests that a woman’s wit was as important to him as her looks and her sexuality.
That the play was written for some other audience than the Court should be obvious, for there were lines in it that would have infuriated the Queen, had she heard them. Or, if it was at some point produced for the Court, lines that remained in the First Folio, such as Juliet’s in Act II Scene 1, “O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,” or Romeo’s:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
Elizabeth’s colors, as everyone knew, were green and white. Words like these would have been cut for a Court performance. Oxford may have been reckless, but he was not insane.