The following is the substance of the lecture I gave recently at the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Conference in Hartford CT.
It’s so obvious that a man from William of Stratford’s background, that of an uneducated 16th-century wool dealer’s son from a town three days ride by horseback from England’s only theatrical city, simply COULD NOT have written the works of Shakespeare. So why does the Academy lie about that? Why have they continued to lie for centuries?
One thing is certain, to attack the English Department for its stupidity has been a waste of time. It arrived too late in the Shakespeare game to do anything but keep on turning in tight little circles around the kind of issues that are all their peculiar brand of philology will allow. No, our problem is with the History Department. Until we understand that, and the unseen immensity of the question of his identity, we will never get anywhere.
Because while the English Departments care nothing about Oxford, or William, or any possible author, the History Department does care about him, because it hates him. It has hated the Earl of Oxford for centuries. It sees him as a pampered brat who did nothing but waste his family inheritance and insult that kindly old gentleman, Lord Burghley. Alan Nelson is only the most recent in a long stream of historians who’ve been egregiously slamming Oxford for centuries. Forty years before Nelson, sociologist Laurence Stone labelled Burghley’s wards “an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all.”
Part of this is the Earl’s own fault. Following his return from Italy in 1576, he effectively disappears from history. Focussed on building theaters and giving actors work, he did what he could to stay out of sight of the Reformation puritans and evangelicals whose passionate belief that making and watching plays was a slippery slope leading to eternal damnation. Though his name pops up now and then in the Revels records and Court Calendar, these seem almost accidental, as if by a new clerk who didn’t yet know that the actors preferred to keep his involvement a secret.
None of this, however, goes anywhere near explaining why every biographer, journalist or novelist who has ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has paired it with some nasty pejorative, such as: “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford”; the “violent” Earl of Oxford; the “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “profligate,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable” Earl of Oxford. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read, he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Alan Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel,”––this last because his mother wasn’t a thoroughbred aristocrat! And they call us snobs!
Some of this mistreatment began in his own lifetime. We know this from the Sonnets,where he speaks of himself as ‘ïn disgrace with ‘fortune and men’s eyes,” and because in the version of Hamletpublished while he was still alive, the dying protagonist begs his friend, “O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me . . . .” What things unknown?
As all are aware who have delved into what E.K. Chambers calls “the Shakespeare Problem,” there are entire periods, whole sequences of events, that are missing from history. One of these is the truth about Shakespeare’s identity. Another is a satisfying account of the creation of the London Stage. With both of these it’s is as if a film about the moon landing were to go from the planning stage to the return from space with nothing to show what took place in between. In the great 4-volume compendium E.K. Chambers published in 1923, The Elizabethan Stage, his only acknowledgement of these chunks of missing data is the arcane Latin term, lacunae.
On a subject that calls for a book length treatment, all we have time for today is a close look at one important moment, and even for that, just the briefest of outlines.
We’ll begin in the spring of 1590 with the death of the then Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. History’s claim––that Walsingham had no interest in the Stage––is another flat out lie, one of the many that we encounter when seeking the truth about the creation of the London Stage. As you find when you look further than statements in things like the DNB, Walsingham had actively fostered the Stage throughout the 1580s. Why then, as soon as he was gone, did it begin to suffer the setbacks that came close to destroying it? The only possible answer is the return by Lord Burghley to running Walsingham’s office, the office that Burghley himself had created during the Queen’s first decade, and that he brought in with him his son Robert to help with those aspects of the job that his increasing age made difficult. Among these it seems was Robert’s all-out attempt to control, even to destroy, the London Stage, Oxford’s great accomplishment.
According to the Revels Account for the winters of 1590 through 1593, the three companies that had entertained the Court every winter for the decade that Walsingham was in charge, Paul’s Boys, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and the Queen’s Men, were dropped, one by one, from the roster. With their loss of the government’s support, some of these companies were forced to break, and their actors to take off to the Continent in hopes of finding work there.
When Burghley’s attempt to get the popular playwright Christopher Marlowe incarcerated on a trumped up charge of counterfeiting failed in 1592, his brutal murder by government agents the following year was blamed on Marlowe himself. To make certain that no one would bother to investigate his murder, a team of disinformation operatives were put to work creating documents that defamed his character, a defamation that has lasted to this day.
The following year came the murder of Marlowe’s patron, Ferdinando Lord Strange, recently raised to 5th Earl of Derby. In 1595 came the marriage of Ferdinando’s younger brother William, now the 6th Earl of Derby, to, of all women, Oxford’s daughter. With Ferdinando out of the way, the marriage, arrranged by Burghley, gave the Cecils the entry into the upper peerage that was denied them when Oxford failed to provide them with an heir.
This brings us to 1596, the year the Queen finally gave in and appointed Robert Secretary of State. Two weeks after Cecil’s appointment, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, creator of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that was meant to replace the companies disbanded by the Cecils, died unexpectedly following a healthy dinner.
Two weeks after Hunsdon’ death, his office as Lord Chamberlain was given to Cecil’s father-in-law, Burghley’s main supporter William Brooke Lord Cobham, which put Brooke on the Privy Council, thus giving control of the Council to the Cecils. By October, the Council had been persuaded by Elizabeth Russell––Robert’s Aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law––to prevent the Burbages from opening their elegant new theater in what she regarded as her personal bailiwick, the Liberty of Blackfriars. The following February, James Burbage, builder of the first public stage in London and father of the team that led the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was also dead.
When Cecil , now the most powerful man in England, was informed the following May that he was the butt of a play being performed at a new theater by a company made up of actors from those he had forced to disband, he ordered all the theaters in London closed for the rest of the summer. He would have to allow them to reopen in October because that’s when upwards of 500 parliamentarians from all over England would pour into Westminster for the Queen’s Ninth Parliament, hungry for the kind of entertainment that they could find only in the nation’s capitol. Cecil could not afford to displease these important constituents by keeping the theaters shuttered, so they reopened in October. That is, all but two, one of them the Burbages 20-year-old public stage. It remained closed––permanently.
With no theater in which to perform, no Court patron to protect them, their manager dead, their livelihoods at stake, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men turned to the one thing they had left, their playwright. Faced with the destruction of the industry he had created and with the loss of contact with what by then must have become an immense public audience, Oxford called once more on his “Muse of Fire.” Revising his old True Tragedy of Richard the Third into the brutal and humorless play we know today as Richard the Third, the Company, with the help of someone close to the press community, launched their attack. With no theater available, they must have arranged to perform it nearby in the hall of one of London’s great manors.
The Court was used to Robert Cecil’s tiny body and his deformity, his spindly little legs, hunched back and crooked neck. Born with a serious form of the scoliosis that touched so many members of his mother’s family, Robert had borne the slings and arrows of his cruel misfortune, the dismissive attitude of the tall men and beautiful women who winked at each other over his head in a Court ruled by a Queen who surrounded herself with tall, handsome, long-legged men. But the parliamentarians from the north and west of England may never have seen him in person until he stood before them in Parliament as the Queen’s new representative.
And so, as the footlights were lit, and the young Richard Burbage, hunched over and garbed all in black, entered the darkened room, the audience of MPs and Court regulars gasped to see the image of their new Secretary of State. With Burbage mimicking Cecil’s lurching gait, speaking in accents modelled on the voice they had been hearing every day in Parliament, they listened with astonished horror as he mouthed the opening lines:
“I that am rudely stamp’d, . . . Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up,”––a description written by one who had been present during his mother’s pregnancy, who had seen the anxiety with which his family anticipated his birth (his mother had a history of miscarriages), who had seen his struggles to breathe and walk. Thus did Oxford lash out at his adversary and Richard Burbage launch his career as one of the most famous actors of his time, in the role for which he would forever be best known.
As the parliamentarians watched in stunned silence while the evil king proceded to destroy one after another of his rivals, the question must have struck many: Who could have written this devastating slander? Who was daring enough to risk Cecil’s wrath? Later, as Parliament finished its business and the MPs returned to their home territories, the scandal would have spread like wildfire throughout the nation––but only whispered, behind closed doors, for no one who had seen the play would have dared to speak openly. No one would have dared to put anything on paper. Despite the lack of incontrovertible evidence, that this is what happened is the only possible explanation for what followed.
Before the arrival of the MPs in October, someone had seen to it that this revision of The True Tragedy was made available to them in inexpensive quarto. However prepared by this, what the audience would not have been prepared for was the comparison of their new Secretary of State with the evil King. There is nothing in the published version to suggest it. Only those who had seen the play would make the connection. And with no record of the performance but hearsay, how could anyone prove that the comparison with Cecil was intentional, or anything but the viewer’s naughty imagination? Best to keep silent, at least until they got home.
That the play created a firestorm of scandalized commentary at Court and in London may never have reached the record, but it is suggested by the fact that a second edition of the play was published at some point not long after the Christmas break, one with exactly the same text as the first except that the phrase “by William Shake-speare” had been added to the title page. Thus was the name Shakespeare launched to an eternity of fame and misidentification.
That life at Court appears to have continued as though undisturbed, suggests that Elizabeth got involved. Normally she left all matters relating to her Court entertainment to her Lord Chamberlain, doubtless so that her reputation not be tarnished with the evangelicals, but the subsequent smoothing over of what must have been a great if whispered scandal could only have been done by the Queen herself. In any case, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Lord Admiral’s Men continued to entertain over the winter holidays, and as Robert Cecil continued beside her as her main advisor, it must have seemed to most that he had survived the blow aimed at him by his brother-in-law.
There was, however, one who would continue to feel it and that most painfully, namely Cecil himself. Having proven himself a Master of the Dark Arts by the success of the sting with which he destroyed Marlowe and his reputation, Cecil’s campaign to destroy the London Stage and its creator was to have been the ultimate demonstration to his enemies that he was proof against all efforts to damage him. That in the final showdown over the Stage Oxford had beaten him, and that the world, or that part of it that mattered, knew it, left Master Secretary Cecil with a great thirst for revenge.
Having learned from his father how He who owns the Record owns History, once Cecil reached the level of power under James that gave him access to every record in the nation, can we doubt that he took advantage of it? Can we imagine that having the power to eliminate everything about the London Stage, along with everything that connected it to his hated brother-in-law, can we think for one minute that he failed to use it? Having no other weapon with which to wound him, with his subsequent history of dirty tricks and political conniving under King James, can we doubt that he did so?
What other explanation can there be for E.K. Chambers’s lacunae, the great gaps that appear in the record where there ought to be something about the Stage? The only persons in a position to do that were the Cecils, who, except for the decade and a half that Walsingham held the office of Secretary, had control of it for half a century. What other explanation can there be for the barrage of pejoratives that has attended any mention of the Earl of Oxford from that day to this? Who else could have seen to it that nothing good about him remained in the record, while things like the Howard-Arundel libels remained?
Hatfield House, home to the Cecils and their descendants ever since Robert acquired the property from King James, has also been the permanent home of the archives from the Tudor period as collected by the Cecils over the half century that they controlled the record. For 400 years, scholars requiring access to original documents from the Tudor and Jacobean period have had to apply for permission to study these in the library at Hatfield House, under the watchful eyes of their librarians.
As other household archives ended up in the British Museum or the Public Record Office, those gathered by Burghley and his son remained under their family’s control at Hatfield House. Only since 2003 has the creation of the National Archives and the growth of the Internet has made it possible for those of us without the support of a university to research these records without the authorization of the Cecil family.
Long after the original Cecils were gone, generations of Robert’s descendants have served on boards and committees whose goal has been to oversee the creation of a morally acceptible English History. Can we doubt that these have been partly driven as a means of protecting the good name of Salisbury, correcting anything that might threaten to damage it with an ugly truth?
In his 1973 memoire about his family, Lord David Cecil repeats the version of Oxford that the Cecils have been telling each other and the nation ever since. It’s all there, including the accusations of pedophilia, which means that generations of Cecils, and those following the paper trails they left to History have all had access to the Howard-Arundel libels long before Alan Nelson published them in 2000. There is a nasty quality to these off-hand slurs that reflects the tone of the terms used to defame gay men by inference during the 19th-century when England writhed in the grip of its epidemic of homophobia, a story that has barely reached beyond what it did to Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde. How it contributed to the damage done Oxford’s reputation is a chapter that needs to be told.
It was also during the 19th century that William Cecil’s lifetime goal, the raising of a humble family to the peak of power, was finally and gloriously achieved when the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, another Robert Cecil, rose to become Queen Victoria’s longest ruling Prime Minister and the major power behind the phenomenon known as the British Empire. The grand irony here is that while this Cecil’s economic and political might spread the English language and its literature around the world, it took with it the works of Shakespeare, including of course, his Richard the Third, an irony that Oxford would surely have appreciated, had he been around to see it.