Gather ye scandals while ye may

Returning for the moment to the truth about Elizabeth’s sex life: grievous as it must have been for her as a woman to have her favorite, Robert Dudley, placed under house arrest following the death of his wife Amy Robsart, the scandal it caused was probably a blessing in disguise for her politically, as it saved her from the marriage that, given the Reformation nature of the Court, must necessarily have followed quickly had she slept with him. Had she done so, everyone at Court would have known it within minutes, and if somehow they missed it, or they couldn’t be sure, Dudley himself would certainly have found a way to let them know. At a Court where morality was a constant issue and no one had any privacy, for the unmarried queen to have slept with a courtier would have required an immediate wedding, if not to Dudley (who, lest we forget, was already married), then to some other candidate for her hand.

Once past that watershed, there was no possibility that Elizabeth, given her history, would ever again get so close to intercourse. Alfred Kinsey offers evidence from his exhaustive clinical studies and interviews with American women in the 1950s––an era not quite so repressive as Elizabeth’s, but far more so than it would become once The Pill launched the so-called sexual revolution of the “swinging sixties.” In the 1950s of Kinsey’s era:

At forty-five years of age there were still 15 percent of the devout Protestant females who had never experienced orgasm in their lives, but only 5 percent of the inactive [not devout] Protestants who belonged in that category. . . There seems to be no doubt that the moral restraints which lead a female to avoid sexual contacts before marriage, and to inhibit her responses when she does make contacts, may also affect her capacity to respond erotically later in her life. (516)

In Elizabeth’s case, her restraint had nothing to do with piety. Biographers Elizabeth Jenkins and Anne Somerset, after studying the heaps of documents that bear on the Elizabethan reign, bold hold that the Seymour affair caused permanent damage to her psycho-sexual development. Thomas Seymour’s overbold flirtation, followed by the horrors of his trial and execution, not to mention her own ordeal by the third degree to which she was subjected by Somerset, took place at that most sensitive moment in a girl’s development when, as Kinsey describes, her body had become that of a woman but her ability to respond sexually was still not fully formed. Of mature unmarried women with no experience of orgasm, Kinsey says:

Many of them were sexually responsive enough, but they were inhibited, chiefly by their moral training [as Protestants] and had not allowed themselves to respond to the point of orgasm. Many of them had been psychologically disturbed as a result of this blockage of their sexual responses. (526)

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”

As so many poets of the time would express during her reign, the springtime of life must be experienced before it passes by, or flowers die on the vine before pollination and fruition can take place. Kinsey makes what may be the most important point where our interest in Elizabeth is concerned:

All of these females . . . were limited in their understanding of the nature of sexual responses and orgasm, and many of them seemed unable to comprehend what sexual activity could mean to other persons. They disapproved of the sexual activities of females who had high rates of outlet [satisfaction] and they were particularly incapable of understanding the rates of response which we have reported for the males in the population. . . . When such frustrated or sexually unresponsive, unmarried females attempt to direct the behavior of other persons, they may do considerable damage. (our emphasis)

As many at Court would have agreed. Elizabeth’s biographer Anne Somerset describes her attitude towards her ladies-in-waiting:

Ideally Elizabeth would have preferred it if more of her female attendants had followed the example of ladies such as Blanche Parry and Mary Radcliffe and remained single. Not only did she resent the upheavals that her ladies’ marriages caused in her own domestic arangements . . . but she failed to see why they needed the fulfilment of family life any more than she did. She would “much exhort all her women to remain in virgin state as much as may be,” and even on those occasions when she pretended that she would not mind if they married and asked her ladies if they had anyone in mind, “the wise ones did well conceal their liking thereto, as knowing the Queen’s judgement in this matter.” (346-7)

Elizabeth’s ignorance when it came to the emotional realities of marriage and family life can be seen in her amazingly naive idea of 1563 that the problem of Mary Queen of Scots could be solved by persuading her to marry her own favorite, Dudley (not yet Earl of Leicester, a title she gave him so that he’d be legally able to marry one so high above him in rank). As explained by another biographer, since she couldn’t marry him herself, she would take care of him in this way, and her sister Queen as well. It’s rather sad.

Most significant is the intensity of her rage when some member of the Court was caught either having sex or marrying without her permission (348). It’s one thing to get cross with a couple who know they need her permission and don’t ask for it, or who endanger the Court’s reputation with careless behavior. It’s another to throw them in the Tower, using jailors to keep them separated, leaving them there to rot, for months, even years. Doubtless some of this was calculated to maintain control, but still, would a woman who herself had had, or was having, adult sexual relations for pleasure, carry these tantrums to the extremes that she did?

Not only did she hate to see her courtiers pair off, either sexually or as marriage partners, she was ice cold to normal family needs, refusing to allow ambassadors to return to their families after they’d been abroad for years, making decisions that separated couples and family members, and looking for any excuse to refuse the wives of her favorite male courtiers access to Court society. Her time was one that did not pay much attention to what we think of as family bonding, but Elizabeth took this to extremes. Neither sexual nor family needs were in her vocabulary.

Another symptom of her negativity towards marriage and family was her determination that Protestant clergymen remain unmarried. Obtaining the right to marry and have legitimate children was one of the leading reasons why many Catholic clergymen were willing to join the Protestant revolution. Had her reasons been political, she would surely have yielded on a point that was so obviously politically expedient. Why should she care whether or not these men married?   But she was undetered, refusing to promote those who were married, while she favored both courtiers and clergymen who remained unmarried, giving them top spots in her government while sending the married men off to foreign embassies, which in many cases meant separating them from their wives and children.

Lovely lads

Historians tell us that Elizabeth had many “favorites,” but we mustn’t assume that a favorite was a lover (the Elizabethans often use the word lover to mean a particularly close friend and the word friend to mean what we mean by lover). Accepting that Dudley played a signficantly different role in her life, Elizabeth’s other favorites were more like protégés, particularly as she got older––good to look at, fun to talk to, and above all, good dancers. The estates and lucrative monopolies she bestowed on them were less gestures of affection than bonds to keep them by her side and, not least, to keep them out of the marriage market. And God help them if they strayed!

What confuses historians is the fantasy of courtship that she required, not only from her favorites, but from almost any man in search of a post or a favor. Peculiar as it may seem to us today, this was largely a function of the times, a vestigial remain of the medieval tradition of Courtly Love, the unselfish devotion of a knight to a lady who outranks him. The billing and cooing that this required, much of it in the form of coy love notes, lavish gifts of jewelry and clothing, poems, and eloquent dedications. She hugely enjoyed her political courtships with Continental princes, in the case of her last, the Duc d’Alençon, dragging it out for over a decade (Somerset Ladies 72).

Throughout her career she was inclined to respond positively to the kind of tactics that most adults would regard as an invitation to intimacy, but with her this was no more than a charade indulged in purely for pleasure and, in the case of a genuine suitor, intended to keep him interested for as long as possible. The pleasure was all in the prologue, which was all there was and all there could ever be.

That Elizabeth greatly appreciated masculine beauty is reflected in the good looks of the men around her, Dudley, Oxford, Hatton, Raleigh, Sidney, Southampton and many others. These may have had other accomplishments to offer, but their looks were certainly important. At Elizabeth’s Court, masculine beauty far outshone the feminine, a situation that Elizabeth controlled by giving grief to any female who dared to dress more luxuriously than herself, and by requiring that her Maids of Honor all dress in white as backdrop to her own peacock array. While women were covered with fabric from head to toe, with great bulky sleeves and skirts, men’s bodies, though covered, were far more obvious, particularly their legs. During a period known to geologists as the “little ice age,” the legs of the younger men were covered only with tight hose, topped with snug little jackets, not much there to keep warm as they stood about in the cold rooms of the palace. No wonder there was so much dancing!

Marriage yes, sex no

Of course there have been queens who had lovers. Catherine the Great of Russia was one that we know about, Marguerite de Valois another, but their circumstances were very different from Elizabeth’s. Both had powerful family connections to rely on, while Elizabeth, with no close relations to any of the great pan-European ruling families and without brothers or uncles more powerful than herself, was in an extremely weak position from the start. Her father’s family saw her as an upstart, even a bastard, while her mother’s family, the Howards, most of them Catholics, were more inclined to plot against her than to support her.

In addition, both the Russian and French queens flourished at courts where promiscuity was open and rampant, a lifestyle that even had Elizabeth been so inclined, her evangelical ministers would never have tolerated. Raised from birth in households dependent on the Court, she knew all too well its capacity for rumor. She knew that if she ever had sex with Dudley, or Hatton, or Oxford, or Raleigh, or any of her so-called favorites, someone would know about it, and so intense was the scrutiny under which she functioned, so important was it to defy the rumors, both at home and abroad, of the notorious sexuality of this Protestant “Whore of Babylon” and the gazillion bastards she was supposed to have borne in secret, that as the major promoter of Protestantism abroad, even had she wished otherwise, she simply had no choice.

As social historian Lawrence Stone informs us, today’s concept of privacy was unknown to the Elizabethans (6). Elizabeth rarely slept alone; in fact, neither she nor any monarch ever did anything completely alone. For purposes of security there was always someone near enough to her to hear if there was any kind of trouble, or, if she wished to be by herself, someone close enough to keep an eye on her. Her retainers would have been acutely aware of any substantial amount of time spent alone with anyone but her oldest and hoariest ministers. In addition, the women who surrounded her were the wives, sisters, and daughters of the men who ran her Court and the nation. For their sakes as well as her own, she could not afford to do anything that would tempt them to reveal things that were damaging to her reputation or authority.

Beware the “monstrous regiment of women”

For Elizabeth, it was absolutely imperative that she retain the respect of her Privy Council. They need not love her; they need not even like her; but they had to respect her. If she lost their respect she would find herself isolated, a danger she could not risk. Had she been a male her sex life would have been of small concern to the Council. As a woman, one whose duty it was to marry and produce a legitimate heir to the throne, anything that threatened this scenario would have been a disaster, certainly for her and possibly for them as well.

Francis Osborne in his Memoirs (1658) quotes Henri IV of France as saying that there were three things that people thought false that he knew to be true: that contrary to opinion, the Prince of Orange was a great general, that he himself was a true Catholic, and that the Queen of England was a virgin (Chamberlin 194). Henri was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth’s last princely suitor, the Duc d’Alençon. Because he was a legal suitor, she was able to spend many hours alone with him, soon becoming very fond of this small, ugly, unthreatening man, many years younger than herself, so fond that she may well have fooled even herself, however briefly, as to her intentions to marry.

Family members don’t always get along, certainly Navarre and d’Alençon did not, but they are also inclined, at moments when they are together, to exchange the kind of information that they might not share with others. Navarre would have been interested in anything his brother had to tell him about the Queen whose friendship he so badly needed (while posing as a Protestant, he continually sent her envoys begging her for loans), particularly since he himself had once been considered as a candidate for her hand.

“God sent us our Elizabeth” 

The Queen of England may have lacked support from the Establishment of European Royalty, but she more than made up for it by the support of her people. Absent the backing of a powerful family network like the Hapsburgs, the Valois or the Medici, her main source of support was the vast hordes of English commoners. During Mary’s reign, her popularity with the people was the major factor in her sister’s hatred. That she was “married to her people” was one of her favorite excuses for not marrying.

The feeling was mutual. To her people the queen would always be the golden-haired angel whose coronation ended the years of imprisonments, torture, burnings and exile. During the early days of her reign, a poem known as “The Register,” that listed the horrors of the burnings during Mary’s reign, ended each verse with the refrain: “After these were burned to death, we prayed for our Elizabeth.” The final verse that listed the last of the burnings, ended with the line: “And after these were burned to death, God sent us our Elizabeth.” Evidence of their love can be found in the many affectionate Mother Goose rhymes about Lizzie, Betty or Bess. Yet, although her people wanted her to be happy and to provide the nation with an heir (or two), at some level they were pleased by her virginity, for had she married, their vision of her would be forced to change, as happened to her sister following Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain. She knew from Mary Queen of Scots (and many other examples) that, should she give birth to the all-important heir, how their interest would shift immediately from herself to her son.

She was also aware that in a nation so bitterly divided over religion and regional interests, she would never be able to please all, or even half of her people through politics alone. Elizabeth’s purity was a story they bought into when they first came to know her as a child. They had watched as she bore with courage and dignity the cruelties perpetrated on her, first by her father, then by Protector Somerset, and finally by her sister. Despite all the rumors of sex with Seymour and the curse of bastardy, they continued to believe in her, and would continue, that is, so long as there was never any proof that she was otherwise.

The people were also her refuge from the tyranny of her Privy Council. If they wanted her to do something she didn’t want to do, whenever possible she would use her people’s love against them. To them she must remain their golden-haired princess, long after the real hair under the red wig had turned sparse and gray. By 1573 she had seen how even a queen from a powerful family like Mary Queen of Scots was treated by her once loyal people after she made the mistake of marrying a man they didn’t like. By not marrying, though it drove her ministers crazy, Elizabeth was able to keep that most valuable weapon in the political battles she had to fight over the years, the undying love of her people.

Playing the marriage card

As canny a politician as ever lived, Elizabeth hadn’t been in the top power seat for long before she realized that, when it came to the masculine arena of international politics, her sex did give her one great benefit. Where other royal females had to marry men chosen by their fathers and brothers, because she was (legally) free to choose for herself, she had something to offer that no male monarch could provide. While marriage to a male monarch could offer only an alliance, marriage to Elizabeth was seen by the princes of Europe as a potential means of adding England to their sphere of influence. This of course would have been a problem for England, but only if she actually married one of them.

The reality was that as long as she remained unmarried, what she did and said may have carried more weight than it would had she been a king. As a queen of marriageable age, one who had, not just an alliance, but conceivably a throne to offer, she wielded a kind of power at the royal courts of Europe that only an unmarried female monarch could. For a good many years it was chiefly this Royal Ace that kept Spain from attacking England and France from invading Scotland. It helped make Sweden and Russia willing to negotiate treaties and trade alliances, and kept them from forming similar alliances with her rivals.

Of course, time would eventually run out for her in this royal shell game, as of course she knew it would. Nevertheless, by careful negotiation, by enveloping herself in pearls and cloth of gold for the portraits that were all most of her people and all members of foreign courts would ever see of her, and by surrounding herself with an attractive entourage at a Court where envoys and ambassadors knew they could always find good entertainment, she managed to keep the game going for almost two decades, giving England time to build a navy, secure its borders, and consolidate most of the nation in a vigorous Protestant lifestyle. Largely as a result of this pretense at royal dalliance, when Spain finally attacked in 1588, England was ready.

The White Goddess

The 16th century in Europe is often referred to as the Age of Queens. With Mary Queen of Scots in Scotland, Elizabeth in England, and Marie de Medici in France, women appeared to rule much of Europe. As suggested by the opening scene in Henry V, this was as much a worry to the Renaissance Church as it had been to the war lords of the Middle Ages. But on a deeply emotional level, a much older if generally silent attitude towards a female in power deafened her rural constituents to the shrieks and howls of anti-feminists like John Knox and Pope Gregory.

It was ages since the patriarchal kingdoms and religions had supplanted the earliest religion, the one that worshipped the Great Mother, the central deity in the Stone Age rituals of tribal Europe. But behind the threats of an angry Reformation God, of Jehovah or Zeus or Mithras, behind her portrayals by the patriarchs as raging Juno, the furious Eumenides, or the Medusa whose face turned men to stone, the sense of a magical mother of men lingered deep in the hearts of ordinary people, particularly in rural areas where they were still dependent on the earth for survival, and where they continued, with May Day rituals like the maypole, to worship the Mary hidden in words like May Day (Mary’s Day), “merry-making,” and marriage.

In the British Isles the Goddess was known by many names, most recently the Virgin Mary and St. Brigid, but long before them by assorted Celtic and Frankish names. She dwells at the silent heart of the ancient mysteries, and of the legends of the Holy Grail sought by Parsifal and Galihad. As Diana, Cynthia, Astraea, or Phoebe, ancient goddesses of the moon and the hunt, the poets of the Renaissance resurrected her as Elizabeth in hundreds of paintings, poems, and plays while artists arrayed her in splendors that drew upon prehistoric racial memories. The modern English poet and mythologist, Robert Graves, based his great study of the role of British mythology in English literature, on a being he describes as

a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips as red as rowan berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable. In ghost stories she often figures as “the White Lady, “ and in ancient religions, from the British Isles to the Caucasus, as “the White Goddess.” I cannot think of any true poet from Homer onwards who has not independently recorded his experience of her. The test of a poet’s vision, one might say, is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. (24)

Now who does that sound like? (All but the blue eyes––Elizabeth’s were gray.) And no, Graves was not thinking of Elizabeth when he wrote it, but that it sounds so much like her helps to explain why she meant so much to her people, who, tapping into a shared if attavistic memory must have felt that they had known Her forever, and that, unlike Arthur, who remained in Avalon, She had returned to protect them. Elizabeth was all too human, but for a nation shaking with the tremors of great changes in a world view terrifyingly expanded by Copernicus, it was easy for the superstitious country folk who knew nothing of her personally to see in her something of the great goddesses of yore, something she knew instinctively that she would lose should she marry.

Thus Elizabeth, with the survival instincts that kept her reign intact for four decades, understood that by remaining unmarried she roused in the hearts of the country folk who were her most dedicated supporters, their subconscious devotion to the Ideal Feminine, the Great Goddess, lover and mother of mortal men, but not bound by them or to them. With the help of her poets, songwriters, and artists, she simply did an end run around Knox and Calvin, cheerfully acknowledging the artists who painted her and the poets who made her era one of the most famous in literary history.

Surrounded by her maids-of-honor and ladies-in-waiting, many of them unmarried (or seeming so), for poets and artists it was easy to portray her as Diana, goddess of the hunt, with her corps of virginal nymphs. Any reference to the Moon, beautiful but distant, was seen as a reference to Elizabeth. The myth of Actaeon, who made the mistake of coming upon Diana in the altogether, for which he was turned into a stag and hunted to death by his own dogs, sent the message: “look but don’t touch.”

As she left her marriageable years, portraits of her, loaded with goddess and imperial symbolism, were created and made available to those who wished to have copies made for themselves, thus spreading the goddess image throughout the nation. To keep the marriage card in play, to continue with the charade of being wooed by the great princes of Europe, was part and parcel of the Elizabethan mythology. Had she allowed one of these suits to end with a marriage would have meant a quick finish to the myth and all that went with it.

Evoking the Faerie Queene

Famed for its entertainment, for us today the image of Elizabeth’s Court comes closest to that of musical theater, with the queen as a regally attired diva surrounded by her corps of male dancers, her chorus of maidens all dressed alike. The ballet has preserved the styles of this era for all time, the males in tights and little jackets, the females all in white with great full skirts.

This was the show, but what about backstage? Most Renaissance courts were less than moral, some virtual sinks of sexual license, the almost inevitable result of an environment where scores of well-fed, attractive individuals have little to do but get dressed in the latest styles, drink to excess, gamble, gossip, plot, and urge suits to benefit themselves and their clients. Elizabeth’s Court was no different, that is, in everything but drunkeness and sexual license. In this it could not have been more unique.

The philandering of Church officials was one of England’s chief reasons for breaking with Rome and the Empire, one they used with effect in discussions with the other nations of Europe. With this and with the puritanical City fathers keeping watch, sobriety and morality were an absolute necessity. Elizabeth insisted upon it, her clergy preached it, and the most loyal members of her household were drawn from the strictest members of the Protestant establishment. Of course there were exceptions, we’re aware of some and no doubt there were many that escaped report, but when compared with the usual behavior of court societies, Elizabeth’s was marvelously well-behaved.

What an interesting dichotomy. Here was a Court where sexuality was forbidden, where the Queen saw to it that sex was as difficult as possible even for married couples, yet unlike the kind of gloomy, haunted environment that Philip II created at the Escorial in Spain, his strict piety forbidding any show of pleasure, for many years, Elizabeth’s Court was filled with music, dancing, and laughter. Flirtation was fine, just so long as it didn’t lead to anything more. The result was that the energy that otherwise would have gone ito private sexual assignations, went instead into the rituals of flirtation. Since nothing else could happen, the glances, sighs, love songs and poems that documented the sensations of lovemaking, expanded the rituals of flirtation to fill the time that, for less repressed environments, would have been devoted to sexual fulfilment. Such a climate also fosters efforts to discover romantic secrets, to intercept meaningful glances, to grasp through hints what at other courts was openly displayed, who was in love with whom, an atmosphere described in the poem Ann Vavasor wrote to Oxford when the Queen forced them to part:

Thou seest we live amongst the lynx’s eyes,
That pries and spies each privy thought of mind;
Thou knowest right well what sorrows may arise
If once they chance my settled looks to find.

Content thyself that once I made an oath
To shield myself in shroud of honest shame;
And when thou list, make trial of my troth,
So that thou save the honor of my name. . . .

We silly dames, that false suspect do fear,
And live within the mouth of envy’s lake,
Must in our hearts a secret meaning bear,
Far from the show that outwardly we make.

So where I like, I list not vaunt my love;
Where I desire, there must I feign debate.
One hath my hand, another hath my glove,
But he my heart whom most I seem to hate. . . .

As all novelists are aware, the romantic passion that feeds on adversity, dies with security. There is no greater stimulus to desire than anticipation, no greater damper than satiety. Where a community of several hundred souls spend their days in an atmosphere of permanently unsatisfied excitement, like work to the workaholic, Desire becomes an end in itself. The repressive atmosphere at Elizabeth’s Court had a great deal to do with the upsurge of poetry that occurred during her reign, culminating in superb works of frustration such as Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Raleigh’s Cynthia, even Spenser’s Faerie Queene. These gorgeous fleurs du mal were products of the hothouse of sexual repression demanded from the pulpit and experienced by her courtiers. And so the background to the rich profusion of works that emerged from Elizabeth’s Court was nurtured by the frustration emanating from the Queen herself, as suggested in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Titania sighs in Act III, “The Moon methinks looks with a watery eye; and when she weeps, weeps every little flower, lamenting some enforced chastity.” As always in Shakespeare, “the Moon” is referring to Elizabeth.

With the advent of King James and the rampantly immoral atmosphere of his Court, the mood changed abruptly. With plays like Bartholomew Fair, Volpone, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, and Tis Pity She’s a Whore, playwrights sought to outdo each other with incest, violence, excruciating cruelty and bitterly sardonic wit. Disgusted, John Donne turned from writing the most lyrical love poetry of the late Elizabethan period to a stern piety, while Shakespeare wrote bitterly of sex in Measure for Measure and King Lear.

All things historical and psychological affirm this as the truth about Elizabeth’s sex life.  As with every other aspect of the Authorship Question, let’s try to keep it in mind.

Out, damned biography! Out I say!

The great anomalies that have dogged Shakespeare from the start, whether associated with his name, his person, his plays, or the theaters that introduced them to the world, all can be traced to a single cause, the biography of William of Stratford. Reduce his narrow if necessary role to that of provider of a name to put in what for four years was the empty spot on the title pages of the published plays, and most of these problems simply vanish.

The authorship of the early quartos, impossible to anyone born as late as William (1564), emerge as the missing Shakespeare juvenilia. That unique voice, appearing here and there under a variety of proxies and pseudonyms from the mid-1560s on, cannot be assigned to anyone but the Bard himself. Who was it that was so fascinated with love, with sex, with friendship, with truth, who had such knowledge of ancient Greek literature, of Roman history, of Court manners and Machiavellian politics? Who in the small circle of poets writing and publishing in London so early in Elizabeth’s reign fills the bill as author of the comedies that made her laugh, performed by the talented boys she loved to watch? Story by story, event by event, one individual and only one, from earliest works to final collection, has the life that perfectly fits in terms of dates, places, events and motivations, the phenomenon we call Shakespeare.

The theaters

As the work of C.W Wallace shows, that the public theaters appeared almost twenty years before the great Shakespeare arrived to take advantage of them is one of the anomalies that’s made it so hard to give a substantial account of how a phenomenon that, to the people of his time, must have been equal to or even surpassing how those of my generation have been affected by the creation of the Internet. Few have remarked upon the interesting fact that both of the first two commercially successful purpose-built London theaters (one for 20 years, the other for 15 years) were created within weeks of the Earl of Oxford’s return from his year in Venice, where acting troups were crafting the commedia del’arte style that delighted the Italian public and the Courts of Europe.

The patrons

Among the many things that continue to be overlooked by academics and authorship scholars alike are the patrons whose wealth and political motivations were fundamental to the creation, first of the theaters where Shakespeare’s plays were performed, later to their preservation in the First Folio, in itself something of a publishing phenomenon. The notion that something so powerful as the public stage, a cultural game-changer on the level of the printing press a hundred years earlier, radio three hundred years later, or the Internet four hundred years later, how this could possibly have been created single-handedly by a part time actor like James Burbage, a joiner, the lowliest of trades, has been swallowed whole by the Academy and its precursors for some 200 plus years, none of whom, apparently, have had enough experience of the world of the Theater to understand the sheer impossibility of such a scenario.

Yes, Burbage and a fellow carpenter built the Theatre, but neither he, nor his carpenter, nor (supposedly) his brother-in-law, could possibly have paid for it, or gotten the necessary permission to build it where they did, on the main thoroughfare leading into and out of the City. While it’s clear that the patrons preferred to minimize the extent of their support for this thing that was so detested by the Church and feared by the City fathers, there’s no denying the existence and importance of their patronage. In truth, without the patrons––among them Oxford himself (so long as his credit held out)––there would have been no London Stage, and certainly no Shakespeare.

The politics

That no one so far as I know has investigated what should be an obvious effort to provide a theater close enough to the West End that it could entertain Parliament, is yet another blind spot created by the exclusive focus on the life of the wool dealer’s son. Because his biography has forced the earliest possible dates for the plays into the 1590s, displacing some from their true origins by as much as fifteen years, what should be an obvious connection between them and the events that inspired them has forced the Academy to ignore their political overtones. True, most of the plays as they have come down to us from the editors of the First Folio do not dwell on obvious political themes, but as anyone who studies the period should know, political arguments were invariably presented as lessons based on familiar stories from history, mythology, or the Bible.

Do those whose opinions matter never study the history of the Theater through the ages? How can they continue to think that, unlike his near contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Marston, George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, George Middleton, etc., all in frequent trouble with the authorities for meddling in political or religious matters, that the greatest among them remained untouched by the politics of his day? Does it not puzzle them that during Essex’s treason trial Shakespeare’s actors were questioned about performing Richard II the day before his attempt to attack the Court, yet the author himself was not only not questioned by the authorities, it seems from what has survived that he wasn’t even mentioned?

Of course the Stage was political! Attempts to portray it as somehow operating apart from the all-consuming issues of the day are absurd, and in fact, are themselves evidence of the power of politics today, at both the university levels and that occupied by the New York Times. It was Churchill himself who, when confronted with the Authorship Question, is said to have responded that he didn’t want his “myths meddled with.” Myths? What about History? What about the truth?

The pun

But what may be the most significant aspect to this story, namely the fact that the name that finally showed up on what till then had been anonymous title pages––four years after the plays first began appearing in print––was a pun! Obviously, the name William Shake-speare (as it appeared on the first two plays to bear it) was intended to communicate to the sophisticated readers of the day that it was a phony name like Doll Tear-sheet or Cuthbert Curry-knave, one that allowed it to be read by the witty and sophisticated as a declarative sentence: “Will I am [to] shake [a] spear”! Now I ask you, could this possibly have been a coincidence? One that took four years to happen?

What most obviously separates the philologists who took over the newly-created English Departments at the dawn of the twentieth century from the poets of the Elizabethan era is this utter and total lack of any understanding of what makes a poet tick, how words are used to communicate, particularly back when puns were among the many tricks to the wordplay game. The dour puritans who were out to “pluck down” the theaters in the Bard’s own time have been replaced by university philologists who can’t see the glorious Shakespearean forest, pulsating with life and meaning, for the handful of linguistic trees that is all they’re been equipped to recognize by the universities that persist in ignoring every other aspect of the London Stage phenomenon.

The nineties

Because Shakespeare is so central to the story of the London Stage, and because there is so little evidence with which to create a satisfying history as it developed through the 1570s and 1580s, the Academy must needs cling to the notion that nothing of any importance took place until his plays first begin to be published in the mid-1590s. At the very end of the decade, two years from the beginning of the seventeenth century and five from the end of the Elizabethan era, when a name finally appears all at once on the title pages of the second editions of two of his most devastatingly political history plays, the Academy, helpless to explain this amazing leap from zero to greatness, deals with the problem once again by ignoring it! Even so recently as a few months ago coming up with the tired old notion that Marlowe “helped” their hapless young Shakespeare with several scenes in Henry VI Part One, possibly most of Part Three, something the New York Times heralds as a “bold interpretation.” One doesn’t know whether to laugh or curse!

In every effort to describe the events of the nineties with respect to the stage, academics refer to actions taken by the government against the theaters as coming from the Privy Council, never bothering to note how radically the Privy Council of the 1570s under the Earl of Sussex, or of the 1580s under Sir Francis Walsingham, differed from the Privy Council of the 1590s when it was controlled by the Cecils. To academics dealing with the Stage, the historic showdown between the Cecils and the Essex faction, which took seriously what the Stage had to say, is no more than a little rumble offstage, barely audible. Having ignored the events of the previous three decades, academics have no problem with ignoring the Cecils’ efforts to control the London Stage, which by then saw upwards of eight theaters running at once. Does spending one’s life in the ivory towers of a university erase the commonsense understanding of how the first move by all tyrants is to take over, or shut down, the media and kill or drive into exile those who seek to hold them to public account?

The political upheavals of the nineties that gripped the Court and the nation hardly cause a ripple in the Academy’s placid accounts of the deaths of Christopher Marlowe, murdered in 1593 by government agents at age twenty-nine; his patron Lord Strange, murdered the following year at age thirty-six; or how two years later James Burbage, longtime manager of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their Privy Council patron, Lord Chamberlain Baron Hunsdon, both died suddenly and unexpectedly, one in his sixties, the other just turned seventy; all deaths that, coming one after another in quick succession, resulted in decimating the until then booming London theater scene. How can they not see this? How can they fail to ask why?

Ignoring his education

Since it was the incredible level of Shakespeare’s learning––particularly his knowledge of the Law––that finally raised a public demand in the nineteenth century for the truth about his identity, how difficult would it have been, once Oxford was brought out of the shadows by his first biographer, to check out his education? How difficult would it have been to follow up on Sir Thomas Smith, clearly stated as his tutor and as one who “brought him up” in letters from Burghley to Smith, Burghley to Walsingham, and Smith to Burghley? Until the advent of online resources like Google, every library had a copy of Books in Print, which lists biographies by name and author. Why did no one bother to find out more about Smith?

The “stigma of print”

Most of Oxford’s biographers attribute the hiding of his name to the so-called “stigma of print,” the tradition that kept members of the Court community from publishing under their own names, but they do not make it clear that the works in question are all works of the imagination, poetry, tales, plays, or the fact that it was works like these that were damned by the evangelicals then in control of English publishing as tools of the Devil in his eternal task of luring the innocent to destruction? While admitting that Polonius was (probably) a spoof of Lord Burghley (William Cecil), the Queen’s leading minister of State, why do they neglect to suggest what should have been equally obvious, that the rest of the characters in Hamlet can be easily seen as reflections of Burghley’s relatives, of his Mistress, the Queen, of her Favorite (as close to a King as she allowed)? Why so far but no farther? The answer then should be obvious, but why no answer today, when the Queen and all her Court have been dead and gone for centuries? (Not, however, the Cecils; they are still very much around, and may be just as influential as ever.)

In 1980, Prof. Steven May, reigning expert on the Elizabethan Court poets, felt called upon to add his bit to the universal effort to eliminate Oxford from the authorship debate. Declaiming in a highly publicized article in Renaissance Papers, “Tudor Aristocrats and the mythical stigma of print,” he asserted that there simply was “no ‘stigma of print” during the Tudor age. Those who continue to wave this as a flag neglect to add that May finished by admitting what he should have made clear from the start, that “it was poesy, not the printing press, which our ancestors viewed with suspicion,” so that “the ‘stigma of print’ should give place to the ‘stigma of verse.’” Which includes plays, of course, since playwrights were termed poets by the Tudors, and most early plays were written in verse, Shakespeare’s included.

Why not be clear about that distinction from the start? Because to be sufficiently clear about it was simply not to the good professor’s primary purpose (academic survival), just as it has nothing to do with the obvious fact that the Queen never gave an official Court position to any of the writers of important literature at her Court, including her godson, John Harington Jr., and the brilliant Francis Bacon, both as highly qualified as any of the men to whom she showed preferment, both of whom expressed great bitterness over their lack of advancement. Nor does it acknowledge Lord Buckhurst’s explanation for why, as soon as he inherited his title in 1566, he (pompously) gave up writing verse.

As Buckhurst explains in his (supposedly) last poem, “Sackville’s Old Age,” it was because, as his DNB biographer puts it, “time was passing and his life [had] another course to run.” Moving up the ladder of preferment, Buckhurst would follow in the Cecils’ footprints, eventually becoming the wealthy and powerful Earl of Dorset and Lord Treasurer under King James. But Oxford had no such goal to strive for. Born to a social and political level for which others could only dream, his striving had to be for something else, something greater, in his mind at least, than rank and titles, something that lay beyond the grovelings of politics and greed.

Frustrated by the way he was not allowed to take what an earlier age would have allowed him as a role in the governing of his nation and its military engagements abroad, it seems from plays like Alls Well that Ends Well and Two Gentlemen of Verona that Oxford did not appreciate, at least not at first, that his efforts to create a living literary language, or that acquainting the illiterate public with their nation’s history and its heroes were far more important than, like Sir Philip Sidney, suffering an early death on a foreign battlefield. Impoverished by his travels in Italy and through the Mediterranean, travels that brought him subjects for so many of his greatest plays, as Rosalind remarks in As You Like It: “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.”

The role of conjecture

It will doubtless be argued that my accounts are based on conjecture to too great an extent. Unfortunately were we to continue to rely totally on what facts remain, none of our questions would ever be answered, and we would continue to remain, as we have until now, with only the name on the published plays. Given the mysterious absence of so many paper trails from this period, we can never hope to reach beyond our present stalemate with the Academy unless we begin to acknowledge, and track, informed conjectures like these.

In the realm of literary history, of theatrical literature in particular, is not the conjectural equivalent to the hypothetical in Science? Do not the “Laws of Science” rest upon an initiatory stage, known as the hypothesis, from which the second stage, the necessary and often prolonged period of experiment depend? Have not these resulted in the advances in technology and understanding that we enjoy today? Where so much is missing, history without conjecture is no more substantial than science without hypothesis.

As for the all-important facts that someone (i.e. Robert Cecil, for fifteen years the most powerful English Secretary of State that ever lived) managed to so thoroughly erase, while scores of academics have searched the records in the Public Record Office and other archives for anything remotely connected to William of Stratford, no Oxfordian has ever had the time, or the wherewithall, to do the same for the Earl of Oxford. Should authorship scholars ever be admitted within the sacred halls of Academe, and they be given the opportunity to treat the Oxford theory with the same courtesy it’s been treating the Stratford theory for the past 400 years, who knows what may still be out there, still waiting to be discovered?



The missing evidence

The major reason why, so far, it has been impossible to prove conclusively Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon, is the fact that there are simply no records of what, considering the impact it has had on the lives of English-speakers ever since, of what must have been an astonishing phenomenon at the time. This, of course, was the sudden appearance, almost overnight, of the first two commercially successful, purpose-built public theaters in England: Burbage’s great open air theater in Shoreditch, north of the City, and the first indoor theater, known to historians as the First Blackfriars Theater, located in the southernmost corner of the City Wall, as close as possible to Westminster. How can it be that this major advance in human communications, equal in impact to the advent of the printing press, the radio, the telephone or the internet, something that took place in the teeth of tremendous controversy, how could it have left so little in the way of official records?

In researching these matters, again and again I found myself running into what seems to be an interrupted narrative, the interruption occurring just where I would expect to find relevant material. Eventually it became necessary to face the fact that this couldn’t possibly be ascribed to accident. Accidents are random; when disappearances exhibit patterns it becomes ever more likely that such blanks reflect a purposeful intent to alter what should have been a feast of references.

In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s biography of Oxford he quotes Charlotte Stopes: “The volumes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Warrants, which “supply much information concerning plays and players, [are] unfortunately missing for the most important years of Shakespeare history.” He then quotes Charles Wisner Barrell that the official books of Edmund Tilney and George Buc,

Masters of the Revels under Elizabeth and James respectively, together with all office records of the Lord Chamberlain who supervised the Masters of the Revels in those times, have hopelessly vanished. With them have disappeared the voluminous and detailed correspondence and memoranda covering the origin, selection, licensing, casting, mounting, costuming, rehearsal and finished production of literally scores of plays, including Shakespeare’s. (121-22).

He then quotes A.L. Rowse who mourns the fact that the Burbages’ papers did not survive as did Henslowe’s notebooks. An expert businessman, as the success and duration of his theater proves, did Burbage simply not bother to keep records?

In 1912, C.W. Wallace, complaining of the lack of information in the Audit Office relating to payments made for plays, notes: “Perhaps if we had the Books of Queen’s Payments we should find the records as in previous reigns. But no such account books of Elizabeth prior to 1581 seem to be extant” (107-8). Were no accounts kept before 1581, or did someone get rid of them after she died? 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans, with Lyly answering to Lord Burghley.

George Peele

Among the paper trails that have mysteriously vanished are those followed by David H. Horne while he was writing his biography of George Peele, published in 1952. Peele was the purported author of several plays from the early days of the First Blackfriars Theater. A student at Christ Church College Oxford from 1571 to 1579, Peele had returned to London in 1581, the year Oxford was banished from Court. Regarded as author of the only surviving play known to have been produced at the First Blackfriars Theater by the Children of the Chapel, The Arraignment of Paris, he, like Munday, was also involved in creating the public shows the City produced for visiting dignitaries.

So far there’s no direct evidence that connects George Peele to Oxford such as we have for Munday and Lyly. In discussing the “continuous tradition of amateur acting at Christ Church” College at Oxford (a tradition that appears to have begun with Palamon and Arcite during the 1566 commencement when Oxford and Rutland were awarded Masters degrees), Horne complains about his inability to provide further details: “unfortunately the Disbursement Books, from which come most of our knowledge of the plays, are missing for the greater part of the period of Peele’s residence.” He adds in a footnote, “These are the first of many records which have hiatuses at the exact places where they might be expected to yield information about Peele.”

William Ingram, in his Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London (1992), notes that there is a great deal more information on the companies playing in the provinces in the 1580s, gleaned from local records, than there is for the London companies, this despite the obvious fact that London was the great center for English play production. “There are simply not many direct references to plays and playing in the City from the middle third of the century. An historian concerned with events in the City will have to find alternative kinds of evidence to consider. . . .”

Gingerly avoiding the issue of the missing impresario (an issue that Wallace was brave enough to address), Ingram speaks of the “unfortunate remedy in our own time, namely the general avoidance of biographical study as a component of Elizabethan theater history. . . ; when we do make use of biographical material . . . it is often in the service of some other agenda.” Is this due to “avoidance,” or to the fact that there simply isn’t enough to make use of?

Missing Privy Council minutes

In the first paragraph of his Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, 259), E.K. Chambers comments that “It must be borne in mind that orders relating to plays are probably missing [from the Privy Council register] owing to lacunae.Lacunae is Latin for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” As listed by Chambers, these lacunae are eight periods where the minutes of the Privy Council are missing, and since it’s most unlikely that the Council failed to take minutes during these periods, the question becomes, why the blanks? Since several of these missing sections cover periods when it’s likely that the Court Stage, and/or the Stage in general, would have been a matter for intense discussion by a Council wherein at least two of its members had become patrons of two of these theaters, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that someone in a position to alter the record, did so on purpose. Following are the eight lacunae cited by Chambers:

1: May 1559––May 1562: This three-year blank took place at the beginning of the reign when little effort was being expended on holiday entertainment. It covers the period when Ambassador Throgmorton was petitioning Cecil to have Sir Thomas Smith sent to France, which would have left the twelve-year-old de Vere without a tutor, a period followed by the death of Earl John that August. Three months later comes a second hiatus;

2: September 1562––November 1564: It was during this two-year period that plays began replacing masques at Court. It begins with Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, continues through the period when Richard Edwards supposedly took over the Children of the Chapel and when Paul’s Boys first appeared at Court, through the winter holiday of 1563-64 at Windsor, where the Court was entertained by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under Richard Farrant, later Master at the Blackfriars School. It covers the period when when Damon and Pythias was performed for the Court during the commencement exercises at Cambridge University, when Oxford and Rutland were given Masters degrees.

3: December 1565––October 1566: These ten months represent the period when Paul’s Boys, performing three plays over the Christmas holidays, rose to the level they would maintain for the next thirty years. On New Year’s Day, Sapientia Solomonis (“The Wisdom of Solomon”) was performed for the Privy Council by students at the Westminster School, during which a velvet sword scabbard belonging to the Earl of Rutland was broken (Holmes 77-8). On February 19th, when Oxford was fifteen, Lord Montague produced a masque at his City mansion in Southwark for the wedding of his 13-year-old daughter, Mary Browne, to the young Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen; his Romeo was fifteen). In June, Oxford and Rutland received Masters degrees at Oxford University, where later that summer Palamon and Arcite was performed for the Court.

4: May 1567––May 1570: During this three-year blank in the Privy Council minutes, the Court scribe recorded the titles of eight plays performed over the Christmas holiday of 1567-68 that touch the history of Shakespeare’s works including the King of Scots, Wit and Will, and Orestes. In addition to the plays performed by three Children’s companies, adult companies joined the roster. For the Christmases of 1568-69 and 1569-70: Rich’s Men, Paul’s Boys and the Chapel boys performed one play each.

5: July 1572––February 1573: It was during this six-month period that Sussex took control of the Court Stage away from Leicester, opening the door for more plays by the Earl of Oxford. That Christmas saw Oxford’s man Lawrence Dutton act as payee for Lane’s Men, the first of a yearly series of holidays in which Dutton was payee for two more companies, companies that in 1580 would be revealed as Oxford’s.

6: June 1582––February 1586: This three-and-a-half-year stretch (the longest of Chambers’s lacunae) includes the latter half of Oxford’s period of banishment when productions of Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, attributed to his secretary John Lyly, were performed by Oxford’s Boys on the Blackfriars School stage. The spring of 1583 saw his return to Court, the death of Sussex, the creation of the Queen’s Men by Walsingham, and probably also the first versions of plays like Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Julius Caesar, produced for his Inns of Court audience, possibly on the Blackfriars School stage, plus Romeo and Juliet produced for the public at Burbage’s Theatre. Over the Christmas of 1584-85 Oxford’s Boys performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

7: August 1593––October 1595: It is simply not possible that the creation of the “theatrical duopoly” by two members of the Privy Council, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Henry Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by Charles Howard, would have left no trace at all in the minutes. This is also the period that saw the Cecils’ takeover of Walsingham’s office; the first Marlowe sting in Flushing; the Dutch Church libel, the torture of Thomas Kyd; the hanging of John Penry (May 29, 1593); and the assassination (or transportation) of London’s most popular playwright, Christopher Marlowe (May 30, 1593). It saw the registration in May through June 1594 of the first batch of plays later attributed to Shakespeare; the 1595 wedding of Oxford’s daughter to the Earl of Derby; and the Masque at Gray’s Inn produced by Francis Bacon for Christmas 1594-95 which included a performance of The Comedy of Errors.

After July 1596, with Robert Cecil in supreme power as Secretary of State, in control of the Privy Council and its minutes, only one more large lacuna remains:

8: April 1599––January 1600: This period follows the publication in 1598 of the first plays to bear the name William Shake-speare, a period when Cecil was struggling to maintain his control of the Privy Council against a rising tide of wrath emanating from the group surrounding the Earl of Essex. The Globe was being built on Bankside by the Burbages with timbers from their old Theatre in Shoreditch. While patronage of the company remained with the new Lord Chamberlain, Hunsdon’s son, no patrons’ names were attached to the Globe as this appears to have been paid for by the central actors themselves, thus creating the unique cooperative structure in which they functioned as “sharers,” while protecting the real investors from Cecil’s wrath, since it’s most unlikely that the actors would have had the funds necessary for creating such a structure. It is also during this period that the Burbages were allowed to rent their shuttered Blackfriars Theater to the popular new commercial Children’s company, the “little eyeasses” that Shakespeare derides in Hamlet.

It is also true that the minutes of the Privy Council from January 1602 to May 1613 are missing. According to the National Archives, where the surviving Registers are now located, this substantial loss, covering the entire period that Cecil was Secretary under James, was due to a fire in 1619 that destroyed the old Banquetting House where a great number of government papers had been stored.

Missing collections of private papers

Among the documents that would surely shine a brighter light on the Elizabethan era are the private papers of some of the leading figures in our story, three in particular: the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Essex, all to some extent rivals or adversaries of the Cecils. Some of Leicester’s papers, long thought lost, appear to have been widely dispersed after his death and have recently been catalogued, but these are only a fraction of what there should be considering the place he held in government and society and for how long he held it.

Following Essex’s execution, his papers were appropriated by Secretary of State Robert Cecil, remaining ever since among the collections at Hatfield House. It’s interesting that, in that time of avid playgoing by Essex’s associates, there should be in what remains of Essex’s papers, such a total lack of evidence of his interest in, or patronage of, the Stage, its actors, or its playwrights.

As for Walsingham, all that remains of his papers are the letters that relate to his official duties as Ambassador to France and Secretary of State. According to the author of his DNB biography, their fate after his death was “complicated.” As Walsingham’s brother-in-law, Robert Beale, stated not long after Walsingham’s death, “all his papers and books both public and private were seized on and carried away.” Seized on by whom? Only the Cecils, by then in control of everything related to Walsingham’s office, would have had the authority. In the process all private material was weeded out and has disappeared with the exception of two semi-official diaries or ledgerbooks, one covering the years 1570 to 1583 (Martin, ‘Journal of Sir Francis Walsingham’), and the other 1583 to 1584 (BL, Harley MS 6035). As a result, Walsingham’s official career can be reconstructed in detail, but his personal history remains a blank.

In The Lame Storyteller, a compilation of essays and notes by authorship scholar Peter Moore, he includes items culled from nineteen of the twenty volumes of Cecil family papers known as the Salisbury Manuscripts to which he had access at the University of Maryland library. Among the many mentions of Oxford over the years, Moore notes “the total disappearance of Oxford between 2 June 1590 and 9 March 1595 . . . until we reach the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to William Stanley . . . in January 1596” (251). This of course was the period when Oxford, having been forced by Burghley to sell Fisher’s Folly, wrote the bulk of his sonnets to Southampton, when Marlowe was assassinated, Robert Greene “vouchsafed” to die, Hunsdon launched the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the battle between Cecil and Oxford reached its apex during the Parliament of 1597-98.

It should be clear by now that we will never find that “smoking gun,” that piece of conclusive evidence that will put an end to the Stratford hoax for the simple reason that someone from Shakespeare’s own time devoted a great deal of effort to destroying everything that testifies to Oxford’s connection to the London Stage and Press. That person could only have been Robert Cecil. Driven by his hatred of the Stage for its power over the minds and hearts of the public, its rough treatment of himself and his hatred of its creator for his treatment of his father and his sister, driven by his need to retaliate for the repeated editions of Richard III published every other year during the twenty years he functioned as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth and King James. Only Cecil had the power, the time, and the motivation to wreak such havoc with the record, a record that his powerful descendants have prevented from being seriously questioned for the four centuries that, until very recently, has remained at Hatfield House, the Cecil family home.

Why Elizabeth would never marry

The great social movement known as the Reformation that began under Henry VIII, that was codified under Edward VI and made permanent under Queen Elizabeth I, carried a strong anti-sex message that had nothing to do with purifying the Church Service or reducing the Church calendar. With the evangelicals, sins like pride and greed, previously among the worst because they blocked the sinners’ access to God, were now overtopped by lust. Anything that might lead to sex, such as masqueing; too much time spent playing and listening to music; indulging in seasonal “may games,” a term often applied to ancient mating rituals like dancing around the maypole; these were banned as slippery slopes leading to sexual activity and eternal damnation.

As the government strove to eradicate such “merry-making,” plays too were condemned by the puritans and their bishops as “filthy” and “ungodly,” catchwords for sexual behavior. While plays have always made the authorities nervous because they are so liable to contain anti-authoritarian messages, the notion that sex leads to damnation allowed the puritans to make hell, quite literally, for the Elizabethans who enjoyed them. As testified by the almost 300 pages of “Documents of criticism and control” in Volume IV of Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage, the creation of the London Stage, with its bawdy humor and portrayal of sexy activities, was met with such passionate resistance by the evangelical establishment that reasons must be sought for this irrational panic over this most basic of human drives.

In 1989, a professor of Comparative Sociology at the Polish University in London, Stanislav Andreski, provided what would seem to be the best explanation. In his book, Syphilis, Puritanism and Witch Hunts, he explains: “I want to put forward the view that the importation of syphilis into Europe had . . . profound effects on European civilization: affecting most directly religion and sexual morality . . . . (4). While there have always been “preachers of asceticism”––cries for a return to the innocence of Eden lest God unleash another Flood on Sodom––what “demands explanation” according to Andreski, is why the Elizabethans were so ready to support this grim, unhappy religion:

Causation of great historical processes is always bafflingly complex, and clearly many other factors were involved. But this seems to me less uncertain than any other explanation: puritanism would not have had the appeal which helped it to find adherents so quickly . . . without the spread of syphilis. (5)

As Andreski uses the term puritan, he refers more specifically to the evangelical view that sexual intercourse is inherently sinful, which suggests that human life, which relies on sex if the species is to continue, was regarded by the God of the evangelicals as wicked and disgusting and therefore that humans are all born sinners––“In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Catholic Church dealt with this by providing these sinners with priests who had the power to redeem them through confession. Protestants on the other hand, resentful of the power of the priesthood, were left to bear the weight of their “heaps of heavy sin” with little relief (apart from a very great deal of very dull poetry).  Some hoped to escape damnation through “profitable” work; others by claiming membership in an “Elect,” who for some reason felt that this guaranteed them salvation without having to work for it.

While Andreski doesn’t discuss the health of Henry VIII or the fate of his children, when he comments on how the disease was ravaging the royal houses of Europe at that time, he notes Henry VIII (and Ivan the Terrible) as prime examples (77). Is Andreski right? The grossness of Henry’s physical decline; the unhappy fate of his wives and their children; the paranoia that caused him to execute his most dedicated ministers; his reckless wars and senseless vendettas––can these be due to the physical and moral deterioration common to the later stages of syphilis?

Andreski’s message falls on deaf ears

By the 1980s, the English, battered by two world wars, had come to accept historian Geoffrey Elton’s reversal of the comforting image of “Great Harry” as provided by earlier historians, but neither Elton nor his audience––forgetting perhaps what syphilis was like before the discovery of penicillin (in 1928)––were prepared to ascribe his insanity to a disease, particularly if it suggested a deeper look into the medical history of the last three Tudors. If syphilis is ever mentioned by historians or other commentators as a factor in the King’s behavior it’s invariably dismissed, as in this typical blurb: “If Henry VIII did have the disease, then his comprehensive medical records would have mentioned either the obvious symptoms or the extensive treatment, but there is no mention of either.”

This is blarney. Henry’s symptoms are far too obvious, and if his doctors ever did use the treatments used at the time, they would certainly not have allowed that to be entered into any record. Furthermore, neither would they have informed the King, for, as all of his biographers make plain, Henry was so terrified of disease that at the slightest hint that there was illness anywhere in his vicinity he would instantly move to another palace, forcing the Court to follow (Elton Reform 104). Even more to the point, as his brain deteriorated and the chronic paranoia that is a symptom of the final stage of the disease possessed him, it was known that anyone who dared to present him with unpleasant news risked destruction.

By the time Henry’s doctors would have been certain that all the ailments assignable to the second stage of the disease were actually caused by “the pox” (known as “the great imitator” due to the wide variety of the symptoms it shares with other diseases) the only certain cure, mercury, would have been too late, and even had they tried it––perhaps explaining it as a cure for something less fearsome––it’s absurd to suggest that they would have left a record of it or discussed it with anyone outside the King’s immediate circle of care-givers. These were the so-called Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, whose task it was to minister to to the King’s body, bathing him, assisting him to the toilet, changing the bandages on the stinking sores that covered his legs and genitals, and dealing with his fearsome outbursts of rage.

Many at Court must have guessed the truth, but while most courtiers were kept as far from him as possible, these unhappy men were privy to things that, however denied from openly discussing, they would never have been able to erase from memory, horrors brought about by the sexual license the King was allowed in his teens and twenties, behaviors that at that time were considered signs of a vigorous male constitution.

Forced by their office to be physically close to the King during the final decade of his life, forced to watch as his once fine body became a rotting mass of putrid flesh, his mind tormented by the paranoid fears and mood swings that accompany the final ”tertiary” stage of the disease, the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber were constrained both by fear and by their oaths of office to keep these horrors to themselves. Thus it is no surprise to find that it was largely these men, and their families, who were most active in driving the English version of the Reformation, with its potent anti-sex campaign, to the extremes that they did.

A “physically lavish” adolescent

When Henry came to the throne at age seventeen he seemed every inch the image of the ideal Renaissance prince. His athletic build and energy, his love of music and literature, his scholarly efforts to raise the level of studies at the universities to levels already accepted in Italy and Spain, brought him a reputation that shone through all the Courts of Europe, promising a glorious career.

Almost immediately he was forced to deal with the international impasse into which death had cast his older brother Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Eager to stay on good terms with her father, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, Henry solved the problem by marrying his brother’s widow. But marriage placed no constraints on the royal libido. As historian Geoffrey Elton so delicately puts it, his councillors felt that “so physically lavish an adolescent” would be better off married (Reform 18). Nor did he restrict himself to one-nighters with pretty milkmaids, for, one after another, he took his poor wife’s royal handmaidens to bed, and when they got pregnant, married them off to one of his male courtiers.

Nine months from the day they married, Catherine of Aragon bore the first of a series of stillborn sons and daughters. In 1519, six months after she miscarried for the sixth and final time, having produced only one living child, the Princess Mary, a son was born to her husband’s current mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount. Still without a male heir, Henry dubbed him Duke of Richmond and gave him a princely education.

Most know the rest of the ugly story: his brutal divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn; how Anne, after providing yet another daughter, made the fatal mistake of miscarrying a male fetus two months before the seventeen-year-old Duke of Richmond died; how on the very day after Anne was executed, Henry married her handmaiden, Jane Seymour, who, the following year, gave birth to the all important male heir a week before she herself died, supposedly of child bed fever. By the time Henry attempted marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, he was fifty years old, sick, obese, and probably no longer actually capable of fathering another child.

History’s silence

Although history continues to dismiss it, the truth should be obvious: at some point during his reckless youth Henry had contracted “the great pox”––so named for the sores that left scars (pock marks) when they healed. (The “small pox” was “small” because it was somewhat less deadly; many survived it, and those who did were permanently immunized against a further outbreak.) The silence that surrounds this disease in the records of the time is due to the intense shame it engendered, the fact that its symptoms were often hidden from view, the disgusting nature of its symptoms, and its deadly etiology. Among its horrors was the way it could infect the victim’s partners, and through them, their children.

Most of us today know nothing of this nightmare, protected as we are by antibiotics, but the disease having struck some time before it was first recorded (in Naples in 1495, in England in 1497) its symptoms were certainly understood by the time Henry began having problems in his forties. (Among the many cruelties of his administration, not the least should be the way his officials stood by as he continued to infect one wife after another.)

Known as “the great imitator,” syphilis can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms. The officially diagnosed causes of the deaths of several of Henry’s wives and children––consumption (aka tuberculosis)––lends strong testimony to Andreski’s thesis, consumption having long been a general term for a range of pulmonary diseases, syphilis among them. From Catherine and Anne’s failed attempts to produce a viable male heir, to the early deaths of his sons, the Duke of Richmond at seventeen (of consumption) and Edward VI at fifteen (also of consumption), to Mary and Elizabeth’s poor health, Mary’s inability to conceive, and certain of Elizabeth’s symptoms––what other explanation can there be?

Consider the case of Edward VI, whose death from “consumption” does not fit the description of his symptoms as provided by Frederick Chamberlin, who published his research into Queen Elizabeth’s medical history in The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth (1921). Of her brother’s death, Chamberlin quotes the British Medical Journal of 1910: “in addition to the symptoms of pulmonary disease [consumption], eruptions on his skin came out, his hair fell off, and then his nails, and afterwards the joints of his toes and fingers” (38). Chris Skidmore (Edward VI: The Lost King of England [2009]) quotes an Ambassador sent by Charles V: “He does not sleep except when he be stuffed with . . . opiates. The sputum which he brings up is livid, black, fetid and full of carbon; it smells beyond measure; if it is put in a basin full of water is sinks to the bottom” (250).

As for Edward’s sister Mary Tudor, who strove without success to get pregnant by her husband Philip of Spain, Chamberlin wrote: “many years she was never free from headache and palpitation of the heart; she was habitually afflicted with the most abject melancholy; she was anaemic to a notable degree . . . . her periods were irregular, scanty, painful, and in the main suppressed” (37)––all symptoms of inherited syphilis.

Why Elizabeth never married

As for Henry’s third living child, Queen Elizabeth, who never married, never got pregnant, and never gave birth, the records of her various illnesses, again examined by Chamberlin, suggest the same thing. While reasons commonly given for her resistance to marriage cannot be discounted––as a female, marriage would certainly have weakened her ability to maintain her authority––but if she was aware of the cause that had laid waste to the rest of Henry’s progeny, she would also have been aware that it could infect his offspring “unto the third and fourth generation.” Clearly marriage, or rather, the sexual intercourse that would inevitably follow, resulting in the pregnancy so fervently desired by her people, would, as she would surely have been aware, be a far greater threat both to herself and to the nation she was sworn to protect.

This was the kind of Catch-22 that would have been impossible for her to explain. When we read her statements to the members of Parliament who were tormenting her with demands that she marry, we can’t help but feel some compassion. According to the historian John Neale who gives close accounts of her relations with Parliament, she was very clear from the start that she did not intend to marry. Forced by their demands that she marry and produce an heir, thereby avoiding a showdown over the succession that could lead to civil war, to show a willingness to marry, should the right suitor appear, there is simply no other way for us to compare what she said then to her total failure to follow up on any of the many marriage proposals that she pretended to consider during her fertile years.

Those who knew without being told why she would never marry were those who had been close to Henry VIII during his descent into madness. These included William Cecil, son of Richard Cecil, the King’s valet, who had known the King from birth to death; Secretary of State Francis Walsingham, protégé of Sir Anthony Denny, Henry’s leading Groom of the Stool; and Sir Thomas Heneage, another Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, later Elizabeth’s chancellor of her personal exchequer. Most important perhaps, considering his fatherly influence over his powerful son-in-law, was the authoritarian Evangelical Sir Anthony Cooke, whose function as one of Henry’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber over the final weeks of his life had rendered him vulnerable to the sex-as-sin message in the Calvinism he encountered while living in exile in Strasbourg during Mary’s reign. Back in England, Cooke spread his brand of Calvinism to his fellow believers in Parliament even as he indoctrinated his children with his beliefs, among them the future wives of several of Elizabeth’s leading ministers of State.

The shadow that followed the King’s attempts to get an heir, that damaged his wives and their children, leaves little doubt that as early as 1513 he had become infected with syphilis, and that it was this that, along with other factors, was the primary reason why Elizabeth never married. Yes, marriage could have meant a loss in terms of her power over her all-male Privy Council, but what would have been even more frightening for her as a woman was the awareness of what having sex, and the pregnancy that would follow, might mean, not only to her own health and well-being, but also to her partner and ultimately to the nation she was born to serve. She could not have been blind to her sister’s symptoms or to the agonizing death of her little brother. That she herself suffered for a full decade from a suppurating fistula on her leg and another on her shoulder (Chamberlain 57-59, 67) would have been a warning that, despite the charade of her many official romances, she must never be tempted, not just to marry, not just to become pregnant, but primarily never to have the kind of sex that might threaten her partner.

As for Burghley, who was surely aware, through his father and his father-in-law, of the King’s condition and therefore of its implications for his royal Mistress, that despite his apparent interest in a marriage that would protect England from its Catholic enemies, through it all he remained secure from any fear of what such a marriage with a foreign prince might mean for himself.  This must cast his position on her highly publicized attempts to find an appropriate husband as another example of how his private views remained separate from his public stand on a variety of issues. When we see these highly advertised marriage negotiations with the princes of Europe, all fondly imagining that they could conquer England simply by marrying its Queen, and how this helped to keep England’s enemies at bay for the the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, we can see her highly publicized romances as political maneuvers that gave her and her ministers time to build the nation’s military strength to where by 1588 it could survive the eventual attack by the great and supposedly invincible Spanish Armada.

There was only one other political reason why Elizabeth never married, namely the fact, and fact it certainly was, that she would have lost a good deal of her power to whomever she married, for no matter how restrictive might have been the limitations set on a potential cohort’s status, men are always more inclined to deal with other men if they can.  As for other issues related to sex, there were a great many besides her father’s disease to discourage her.  If her own mother’s fate and that of her father’s other wives weren’t terrible enough, there were the equally grim fates of Mary Queen of Scots, tossed aside by her ministers as soon as she produced the necessary heir, or Elizabeth of Valois, dead from childbirth at age twenty-three after producing one baby after another every year since her marriage to Philip II.  Even greater than these would have been her own first experience with desire in her teens, when the man who wooed her in hopes of marrying a future queen was tried for treason, condemned and beheaded, partly for having dared to make love to her, while she herself lived for a year under the threat of a similar fate had her persecutors been able to prove that she had encouraged him.

Still, nothing could approach the fear inspired in her by her father’s insanity, the illnesses and early deaths of his wives and her sister, the gruesome death of her beloved brother, and her own repeated symptoms.  She must at least have had the satisfaction of knowing that the Tudor line, with its doomed etiology, would be ending with herself.

A “rage to master”

One of the most depressing results of the Academy’s philological dissection of literature’s golden goose is the almost total removal of his genius. After centuries of being told that, lacking any evidence of formal education it was genius alone that allowed William of Stratford to grasp recondite elements of the Law, Medicine, Astronomy, etc., the English Departments flip to the opposite pole with Shakespeare learning enough at his local grammar school to get all he needs to know about ancient Greek drama from mediocre Latin translations, while anything that appears to be too early for him gets assigned to a nameless ghost writer.

Fitting the horse to the shoe, the great creator is transformed into a plagiarizer, the great original into a hack, the fountain of Renaissance creativity into a tight-fisted and squeamish little dealer in land and properties. No artistic genius ever behaved like the Shakespeare bequeathed us by the Academy. Rejecting him as opposed to common sense and human experience, we must begin with the reality of what the author knew and what that vast trove of knowledge might suggest about his origins.

Ellen Winner’s prescription

In 1996, Boston College Professor of Psychology and Harvard Senior Research Associate Ellen Winner published a book that can help to define what to look for in the origins of such a genius. In Gifted Children; Myths and Realities she examines the elements that are invariably present for that unusual child who will become what she calls a “creator.” With conclusions based on clinical trials, the biographies of some extraordinarily talented children plus those of historic geniuses, Winner’s credentials, her evidence and her field, the Psychology of Creativity, give her the kind of authority that are so obviously absent from anything offered by our 20th-century History and English Departments.

What then, in Winner’s terms, should we expect to find as the background of the genius we call Shakespeare? Rather than paraphrase or condense and so risk misinterpreting what she has taken pains to clarify, we must quote her at some length. She begins by describing the characteristics of gifted children, only a handful of whom will rise to the level of creator. Atypical of ordinary children, these children

are precocious. They begin to take the first steps in the mastery of some domain at an earlier-than-average age. They also make more progress in this domain than do ordinary children, because learning in the domain comes easily to them. By domain, I refer to an organized area of knowledge such as language, music, mathematics . . . .

Second, they insist on marching to their own drummer:

Gifted children not only learn faster than average or even bright children but also learn in a qualitatively different way. . . . they need minimum help or scaffolding from adults in order to master their domain, and much of the time they teach themselves. The discoveries they make about their domain are exciting and motivating and each leads the gifted child on to the next step. Often these children independently invent rules of the domain and devise novel, idiosyncratic ways of solving problems.

These children have what Winner terms a rage to master. “They are intrinsically motivated to make sense of the domain in which they show precocity. They exhibit an intense and obsessive interest, an ability to focus sharply. . . . They experience ‘states of flow’ while engaged in learning––optimal states in which they focus intently and lose sense of the outside world. The lucky combination of obsessive interest in a domain along with an ability to learn easily leads to high achievement” (3-4). Later she defines “the right personality structure for mastery”: these

children are highly motivated to work to achieve mastery, they derive pleasure from challenge and, at least by adolescence, they have an unusually strong sense of who they are and what they want to do as adults. . . . [They are] fiercely independent and nonconforming . . . [and] they tend to be more introverted and lonelier than the average child, both because they have so little in common with others and because they need and want to be alone to develop their talent. These qualities of thought and feeling add up to a kind of subjective experience that is both more pleasurable and fulfilling, and more painful, isolating, and stressful than that of the average child. (212-3)

She addresses several common myths regarding giftedness, among them:

the commonsense “folk” psychology . . . that giftedness is entirely inborn: you either have it or you don’t. The abilities of Mozart, Picasso, Newton, or Einstein are so unfathomable to us that we explain them by saying that these individuals were just born geniuses. The environment has no interesting role to play if talents are inborn and fixed. . . . Psychologists like to attack folk psychologies in general . . . but psychologists have their own myth: that giftedness is entirely a product of the environment [and that] the right kind of training, begun at an early age, is sufficient to account for even the very highest levels of giftedness. (143)

She shows that both expectations are unrealistic, that in fact, both factors must be present for gifted children to excel in any domain. They must be born with talent, in her terms, with a “rage to master.” At the same time they must also have the support of caregivers who value their efforts, who can provide them with what she terms an “enriched environment,” one in which education is valued and which includes “opportunities for reading, playing and talking” (185). Without these, no matter how great the inborn gifts, nothing can develop. Says Winner: “There are undoubtedly many children never identified as gifted because of their disadvantaged environments” (186).

But giftedness in childhood can only go so far. Only a few go from gifted child or prodigy in a domain to a creator in that domain––“a pattern exemplified by Mozart and Picasso”––and, we would add, by Shakespeare. Says Winner, “Those who traverse this route must make the profound transition from being an expert in an established domain to being someone who disrupts the domain and remakes it, leaving it forever altered.” Moreover, they must be born when the zeitgeist is right––when a domain is ready for the kind of change that the creator envisions. A domain can change only so much and thus can accommodate only a very few creators. So the factors that predict who will become a creator include not only the traits of the individuals in question but also historical and cultural factors (281).

In her final pages Winner goes into detail on the characteristics of creators as they have been determined by numerous tests and studies. To follow the route she has outlined “requires not only extreme early ability but also a rebellious personality, a desire to shake up the status quo (281). Creators are

hard driving, focused, dominant, independent risk takers. They have experienced stressful childhoods and they often suffer from forms of psychopathology. . . . Creators must be willing to sacrifice . . . [They are] workaholics. The most creative people are also the most prolific. . . . [They] must be able to persist in the face of difficulty and overcome the many obstacles in the way of creative discovery. They must persist because of what has become known among creativity researchers as the “ten-year rule”––the dictum that it takes about ten years of hard work in a domain to make a breakthrough. (293)

Winner details the research that led to the formulation of this “ten-year rule”:

Even Mozart did not produce his first masterpiece until after about ten years of composing. A willingness to toil and to tolerate frustration and persist in the face of failure is crucial. . . . Creators are strong, dominant personalities with an unshakable belief in themselves. They must be able to believe in themselves, for otherwise they would be felled by the inevitable attacks that come when one goes against the established point of view. (293 fn)

The only-child syndrome

Several times in the course of the book Winner describes the need creators have to be alone. Prodigies are often “only children,” raised in the company of adults, allowed to go their own way to a much greater extent than ordinary children. Such children often suffer from being so different from their peers, feeling odd or out of place among them. Even so they prefer being alone to being bored in the company of children who don’t share their interests.

They set challenging goals for themselves and believe that they can achieve what they aspire to. Those who would be recognized must also be able to tolerate competition––some even thrive on it. . . . Creators are independent and nonconforming. . . . Caring about pleasing everyone cannot be a priority for anyone who is going to challenge an established tradition. . . . Creators must be willing to sacrifice comfort, relaxation, and personal relationships for the sake of their work. They are often ruthless and destructive of personal ties. . . . Creators have to be willing to risk failure, since anything new is likely initially to be denounced. [Those] who produce the most works are most likely to produce a masterpiece, but they also produce the most failed works. Perhaps the most important of all is the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up the established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view; they are oppositional and discontented. (292-298)

Winner examines the typical family life of great creators:

The future creator seems to grow up in a family that is much less child-centered and supportive, and far more stress-filled than does the gifted child not destined to become a creator. Three-fourths of the eminent creators studied by [leading researchers] experienced some kind of extreme stress in their early family life: poverty; death of a parent; divorced or estranged parents; rejecting, abusive or alcoholic parents; fathers who experienced professional failure or bankruptcy; and so on. They came from atypical families––irritable, explosive families, often prone to depression or to large-scale mood swings. . . . Particularly shocking is the frequency with which eminent individuals have lost a parent in childhood. . . . In [one] study of major creators, over a fifth had lost one or both parents in childhood . . . the only other groups with such high levels of parental loss are delinquents and depressive or suicidal psychiatric patients. . . .

As she continues she approaches our area of inquiry:

Family trauma is more often characterized by those who became writers, artists, musicians and actors in comparison to those who became scientists, physicians and political leaders. . . . [In one study] of eminent twentieth-century figures, 89 percent of the novelists and playwrights, 83 percent of the poets and 70 percent of the artists had difficult family lives, while this was true for only 56 percent of the scientists. . . . The same distinction was found in a comparison between Nobel Prize winners in science v. literature; those in literature were more likely to come from unstable family environments. Literature winners were also eight times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood. (298-300)

Winner draws a number of conclusions from these studies, all pertinent to our quest. Though all are interesting, we’ll quote only the most apposite. Regarding family trauma:

Trauma could make a child feel different from the start and thus lead to a willingness to be different. The perception that one’s environment is unpredictable may lead to the desire to achieve in order to gain control over one’s destiny. . . .   Loss of a parent may also lead to a kind of compensation––desire to replace the lost object by creating one’s own object, whether a work of art or a scientific theory. A horror of the void left by death could stimulate a child to create an ideal world and to lose [him]self in its creation. The desire to replace emptiness and the lost object with an ideal created world may be so strong that [he] is not overly critical. . . .

“Ideal created worlds”

Such a world is a good description of the island of Ephesus where the shipwrecked family is reunited in A Comedy of Errors, or the magical isle of The Tempest, where father and daughter are wafted to safety out of the grasp of evil relatives, or Illyria in Twelfth Night where brother and sister wash ashore following yet another Shakespearean family shipwreck.

Based on Winner’s detailed analysis, and Shakespeare’s erudition, what sort of biography should we be looking for? Certainly we would expect to see at least some of the following: a rage to master, an enriched environment, a stressful home life, a solitary childhood, a painful childhood trauma, a parental failure, the early death of a parent, an indomitable will, an oppositional and discontented nature.

Except, perhaps, for the fact that his father suffered some sort of business failure when he was twelve, little of this is apparent in anything we know about William of Stratford. It must be for this reason that despite the genius attached to his name and its immense importance to our culture, among the upper tier of creators whose biographies and careers she discusses, creators whose “rage to master” led to “altering their domains,” Winner never mentions the one who created the language we speak; she never mentions William Shakespeare. Is this because nothing in the life of William of Stratford matches the guidelines she and her colleagues have unearthed from thousands of reports on gifted children and biographies of geniuses? Which is at fault here, Winner and the Psychology of Creativity, or the Stratford biography?

Note: The above is excerpted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Shakespeare and the Birth of the London Stage.

“Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, modern imaginative literature (poetry, novels and plays) erupted out of feudal darkness at the courts of European kings and princes, for nowhere else was there the leisure to create it or the literacy to enjoy it. This is not to say that the uneducated and illiterate did not have a rich heritage of spoken and sung story and verse, one shared by educated and uneducated alike, it’s that it was not until the Renaissance that it was combined with the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East into elegant national literatures.

In England, however, where, unlike the other nations of Europe, the Renaissance got preempted by the Reformation, the Renaissance urge to create got so thoroughly and completely forced underground by Calvinist fears of damnation and the Devil, that it took on a most peculiar appearance. This doesn’t mean that nothing got published––though necessarily much was suppressed––what it meant was that the process of getting it published forced writers and publishers to assume an obscure and defensive posture, pretending that the work was something it wasn’t, and seemingly written by persons who apparently had nothing to lose, who were utterly unknown at Court or to anyone in London.

There was a lot more hiding going on in 16th-century English literature than just the hiding of Shakespeare’s identity. In fact, it might be stated without fear of exaggeration that the entire canon of Early Modern English literature was one long exercise in hiding––authors, central figures, publishers, patrons, printers, dates of publication, and most of all, messages, for the Reformation didn’t like the kind of messages that were emerging from the push for intellectual freedom that was the repressed English response to the European Renaissance. If the message was too obviously Catholic, too ornate, too passionate, too sexy, too ironic, too satirical, the English ministers of State wanted it toned down or better, squashed. As we puzzle out the truth about these early works of the imagination, we need to keep this in mind. There were two major issues for the censors, if it (the play, the poem, the story) was “lewd” (naughty, dirty) it encouraged audiences and readers to take serious matters like sex and hellfire too lightly; if it was too political it encouraged heresy and rebellion.

For instance, take the tag “No less pleasant than profitable” found in one form or another on almost every work of imagination published between 1540 and 1640. What on earth does that mean? If it’s got you puzzled, you aren’t alone. What it seems to be saying is that what you are about to read is not only “profitable,” that is, it will leave you wiser than you were before, it is also “pleasant,” that is enjoyable, entertaining.  In other words, it looks like a promotion, it sounds like a promotion, but it doesn’t really promote. In fact, if anything, it sounds like the kind of modest inversion for which the Brits are famous, as when a billionaire confesses that he’s not “doing too badly,” or a beautiful woman is described as “not unlovely.”

Titles can be just as confusing. As William Roberts put it in 1889: “Whether the title had an immediate or remote reference to the subject-matter does not appear to have been considered material, or, in fact, whether it had reference to anything at all in particular” (An Early History of Bookselling, 67). He’s right about the title, but this isn’t true of this or similar tags, which did have a meaning, however obscure to present day literary historians. The message it conveyed to the silent seekers of reading entertainment was that this was a work of the imagination.

It’s said that during this time, the Jesuits were training their missionaries in a sort of double-speak known as equivocation, so that if grilled by the Protestants in northern Europe or the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, they could find ways of answering without condemning themselves to their inquisitors on the one hand, or to God on the other. Many in those days believed the fate of their souls was bound up with what answers they gave under oath: if they lied to the Man they’d get burnt at the stake; if to God, they’d still get burnt, only later, and for eternity.  Equivocation was simply a more serious form of the kind of wordsmithery that was the intellectual bread and wine for an educated, progressive Elizabethan.

Where did it come from?

Usually it was not the author but the bookseller or publisher who composed a book’s title page and front matter. His primary objective, of course, was first to get it past the censor, and second to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible. Over time, much experimenting led to a formula that worked. A tag like “No less pleasant than profitable” met the Reformation requirement that everything, even joke books, had better advertise itself as having a serious purpose or it was in danger of getting a closer look and potential rejection. So for the publishers of the 1590s, t’were best to take the easy way: give the work a confusing name, then use the front matter to distract the censor from taking too great an interest in the content.

While some works could withstand such an examination, many, in particular those that “darkly figured forth” real persons and politics, could not. And that there was a growing audience that fed on such works is evident from the complaints by writers of attempts to read into their innocent tales personal and political comments that were simply not there. Among those who complained the loudest was Thomas Nashe, the worst offender of all, whose complaints have to be taken with the same grain of salt required by almost everything he wrote.

Human nature being much the same in every age, by the 1590s when publishing had become a commercial industry generating a considerable volume of submitted manuscripts needing to be read by the censors, what could be more likely than when the stack got too high, the junior official in charge of weeding out problematic submissions was likely to give each a quick once-over, initial and return it to the publishers, only holding out for a closer look the one or two whose title and front matter forced him to look more closely. Thus by the nineties, publishers would have been well aware that as long as the title page, introduction and first few pages looked kosher, a book had every chance of making it past the censor. Those who enjoyed these works were unlikely to blow any whistles, unless the material got so raw they they feared for their souls, or more likely were offended by satires about themselves or their friends. Some such scenario is undoubtedly behind Stephen Gosson’s attacks on the playwrights of Fisher’s Folly following the rash of plays for the Children of the Chapell, the Queen’s Men, and Paul’s Boys in the early 1580s.

Profit and pleasure

That nothing during this era was ever published purely for entertainment, but all must be utilitarian (even the most lascivious and violent, for these taught readers what to avoid) can be found in everything from the title page to the preface by the printer, to the introduction and poems by the author and his friends, to the dedication to some important figure and the various complimentary letters to the author, all meant to be taken as guarantees of the book’s legitimacy. Take it as a given, the more questionable the work, the more equivocal the introductory material, and the more likely that the names and dates on the title page might be less than 100 percent on the level.

While efforts to obscure the real nature of a work appear to get briefer and more formulaic as time went by, we can see from the preachy tone of the earliest examples the author’s, or more likely the publisher’s need to steer the censor toward acceptance. We see this clearly in this excerpt from the “Letter to the Reader” that introduces what may be the first of these early works of the imagination, Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem, Romeus and Juliet, where the theme of passionate desire would surely have caused a problem without this robust caveat:

The glorious triumph of the continent man upon the lusts of wanton flesh, encourageth men to honest restraint of wild affections; the shameful and wretched ends of such as have yielded their liberty thrall to foul desires teach men to withhold themselves from the headlong fall of loose dishonesty. So, to like effect, by sundry means the good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. . . . And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death. This precedent, good Reader, shall be to thee, as the slaves of Lacedemon, oppressed with excess of drink, deformed and altered from likeness of men both in mind and use of body, were to the free-born children, so showed to them by their parents, to th’intent to raise in them in hateful loathing of so filthy beastliness. Hereunto, if you apply it, ye shall deliver my doing from offence and profit yourselves.

It’s clear that whoever wrote this preface either had no idea what Brooke’s long narrative poem was really about, or he was deliberately describing it in ways that might ensure its publication. Rather than “thralling themselves to unhonest desire,” the love Romeus feels for Juliet is portrayed as a natural force over which neither the boy himself nor the Friar’s advice have any power. As for the Friar, not only is he not “superstitious” or a “naturally fit instrument of unchastity,” he is loving and wise, a genuine spiritual counselor, whom the poet describes as “beloved well, and honoured much of all.” Nor is there any “loathing of filthy beastliness” in his description of the young lovers’ wedding night, nor moral drawn against their desire for each other. Instead the poet admits:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in;
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin,
But that I might as well with pen their joys depaint,
. . . . .
If Cupid, god of love, be god of pleasant sport,
I think, O Romeus, Mars himself envies thy happy sort.
Ne Venus justly might, as I suppose, repent,
If in thy stead, O Juliet, this pleasant time she spent.

The only possible reason for such a dishonest preface is that either the author or the publisher wrote it to distract the censor. Published in the early 1560s, when such works were only a trickle, the same scenario continues to play out on title pages and in introductory material in almost every work of the imagination published throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. As the trickle became a flood in the eighties and nineties, these red herrings got briefer and more automatic, but also more cleverly worded. Finally the reference to poetry or any sort of fiction as a frivolity appropriate only for young men before the serious matters of adult life banished such time-wasters from their minds, was a judgment heard not only from conservative Reformers and older members of society but also from the poets and storytellers themselves, who were ever wont to apologize for what they invariably describe as “childish toys” written for no other purpose than simply to pass the time.


Dating the Plays

From Titus to Lear: when was it written?

If, as we believe, Shakespeare’s plays as we know them from the First Folio of 1623, are the product of at least one revision, some more than one over the years, and, as we also believe, that they are a compound of the author’s experience at the time each was written, the political reality of that moment in time, and the particular audience for whom they were originally written, then one way of establishing the most likely moment when, is to seek for a time when these elements overlap.  Keeping in mind that the play as we know it from the First Folio would most likely have been altered over time by revisions, particularly the comedies, which required that outdated topics be replaced by current topical references, we must also keep in mind that the First Folio version may well have been revised by its editors, chiefly to expunge anything suggesting a scandalous connection to certain real Court individuals with whom the author had a bone to pick.

In general, the earliest, written at some point between the early 1560s to the mid-70s while he was in his teens or his early twenties, were written for a Court audience, with the Queen as a (silent) patron. Mainly comedies, pastorals styled after Greek Romance, at least one was a blood and guts dramas styled after Seneca. They tend to have a youthful protagonist, unrealistic female characters, are enthusiastic about honor acquired on the battlefield through war and killing, and were originally written for Paul’s Boys, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, or the students from one of the local prep schools.

Those written between his return from Italy and his two-year banishment from Court (1576-1584), mostly under the patronage of Lord Chamberlain Sussex, generally take place in Italy or some other location in the Mediterranean, involve characters and events from ancient Roman history and more interesting female characters. Most of these were written for his own company of adult actors variously identified as Lane’s Men, Clinton’s Men, or Warwick’s Men, with one or another of the Dutton brothers as lead actor.

Those written during the 1580s under the patronage of Secretary of State Walsingham are the first aimed as much at the public as the Court or the Inns of Court. Many of these are based on incidents in English history, often with slapstick turns for a comedy duo.

Those written between 1590 and 1598 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, chiefly under the patronage of Lord Henry Hunsdon, were written (or revised) with all three audiences in mind, the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public, with at least two aimed specifically at the Parliament of 1597-98 (Richard II and Richard III). From 1603 through 1609, he wrote or revised earlier plays for the same company, now under the patronage of King James and known from then on as the King’s Men. These were aimed at a broad-based London audience, while some of his older plays continued to be performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men at the Rose and by Worcester’s Men at the Boar’s Head in Whitechapel.

Taking them in what seems as the most likely moments when first produced:

Titus Andronicus
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Two Noble Kinsmen
As You Like It

Mid-70s to 1580
Two Gentlemen of Verona
A Comedy of Errors
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
A Winter’s Tale
Twelfth Night

Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida

For Burbage’s Men
Romeo and Juliet
Tne Spanish Tragedy
Julius Caesar

For the Queen’s Men
King John
Richard II
Henry V

For the Court audience
All’s Well that Ends Well

for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Edward III
Henry VI Part One
Henry VI Part Two
Henry VI Part Three
Antony and Cleopatra
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Tempest
The Merchant of Venice
Henry IV Part One
Henry IV Part Two
The Merry Wives of Windsor

Measure for Measure
Henry VIII
King Lear


King of Shadows

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?
POETRY:    Shadows.
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.

A close look at Ben Jonson’s Dedication to Shakespeare’s First Folio

At some point in the early 1620s when Ben Jonson set himself to write the “Ode to Shakespeare” with which he and the Pembrokes launched the First Folio, part of the daunting task he faced as lead editor was the need to make a more solid connection between the plays and the putative author, William of Stratford. Twenty years of promoting the plays as by William Shakespeare had made it impossible ever to attribute them to anyone else.

When “Mr. William SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES, HISTORIES & TRAGEDIES” was finally published in 1623, although William himself was beyond interrogation (seven years dead and buried beneath the Stratford church floor), older courtiers and theater folk who had known the real author were still around, so however Jonson approached the delicate matter of Shakespeare’s identity, he was going to have to to find a way to suggest that there was more to it than what met the eye. The ability to  skillfully equivocate, must have been one of the reasons why the Pembrokes knew Jonson was the right man for the job.

For the group that published the First Folio, a primary concern would have been how to address the more highly educated members of London’s audience, who as soon as they read certain of the plays, would understand immediately, if they didn’t already know, the nature and extent of the author’s education. Concerned that anyone who might have pursued the putative author to his Stratford environs (three days ride by horseback on dangerous roads) would have find out that poor William of Stratford could not so much as write his own name, Jonson was forced to flat out lie. Following the odd negation of his opening phrases (attributed by his biographer, Richard Dutton, to the style of his popular epigrams) Jonson groups Shakespeare with the earliest of the Elizabethan writers (where he belongs), then, before comparing him to the greatest of the Greek dramatists, he states flatly that the great playwright could not possibly have read the ancient works that his plays suggest because his learning was limited to “small Latin and less Greek.” (Apparently he didn’t dare say “no Greek”).

With both the true author and his proxy dead and gone, the audience that Jonson was addressing in the First Folio, probably the only one still concerned with the truth about the authorship, would have been the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers’ clerks and scriveners who made a living writing letters for illiterate gentlemen and fair copies for the legal community of Westminster, London’s West End. Since “small Latin” was roughly the learning level of much of this audience, youths apprenticed to trades like printing and bookbinding, students from the nearby Law colleges, actors and writers looking for opportunities, educated women, the close connection between the writing of plays and the selling of cheap pamphlets should be seen as the actual first step towards what today we know as the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the people. By turning gossip into stories and plays into literature, these quickly produced and cheaply sold publications were responsible for launching the English popular press at about the same time that Shakespeare and his actors were creating the London Stage.

Ben Jonson had known both Oxford and William from the mid-to-late nineties when he began his theatrical career with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (It’s very likely that following Jonson’s 1596 incarceration for his part in creating the scurrilous Isle of Dogs, he was rescued from the wiles of Secretary of State Robert Cecil by Oxford and his actors.) Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare as expressed during his conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19) were largely based on his relationship with Oxford.  These (plus certain of his more dignified characters, such as Know-well in Every Man in his Humour or Puntarvolo in Every Man Out of his Humour), while Jonson’s take on William is shown by the character of Sogliardo in Every Man Out. It may be that Oxford and Jonson (and one other) also collaborated on Cynthias’s Revels, at a time when Milord, weary of entertaining the ungrateful Queen, was seeking someone to whom he could pass the baton of Court Impresario––much as Propero attempts to train Caliban in The Tempest. (Like the ungrateful Caliban, Jonson soon repaid Oxford and his company for having saved him by writing for their rival companies at Henslowe’s Rose and the new Children’s company at the Second Blackfriars Theater.)

Jonson’s subversive messages

With the accession of King James in 1603, Jonson found himself in a tight spot between the former supporters of Essex, who were his best audience, and the recently empowered Earls of Northampton and Salisbury (aka Henry Howard and Robert Cecil), Oxford’s ancient and most bitter enemies. According to Dutton, during this period, 1603-1615:

Jonson found himself in trouble with the authorities over his plays on at least four occasions: over the lost Isle of Dogs, for which he was imprisoned; over Sejanus, for which ‘he was called before the Council’ (and perhaps accused both of popery and treason’; over Eastward Ho, when he and Chapman ‘voluntarily’ imprisoned themselves and ‘the report was that they should then have their ears cut and noses’; and over The Devil is an Ass, ‘upon which he was accused. (136)

Although Jonson managed to get off without being cut or hanged (doubtless due to friends in high places like the Pembroke brothers) what Dutton does not discuss until his last chapter, subtitled with a quote from Bartholomew Fair, “Covert allusions: state decipherers and politic picklocks,” where he examines what Jonson called “glancings,” what today we might call “equivocations.” These were statements worded in such a way that they conveyed––to those members of his audience who appreciated such maneuvers––messages that can be read to contradict what they appear to state on the surface (as in his statement that Shakespeare was NOT buried in the Abbey between Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser). Thus it may behoove us to examine a little more closely Jonson’s statement that––“though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”––Shakespeare was just as great as Plautus or Euripides.

Was Jonson equivocating? Does though have meanings other than although? Indeed it does. The OED, after lengthy details on the evolution of the word though from AD 800 and up as it evolved into more recent uses, first states in #1 its standard usage, which is to introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a fact.” However, under #2: we learn that it can also introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a supposition or possibility: even if; even supposing that; granting that.” Under #4 the OED goes even further: “In more or less weakened or modified sense, often nearly coinciding with if, but usually retaining some notion of opposition”!––this followed by a further support for Jonsonian equivocation with, “After negative or interrogative phrases with wonder, marvel . . . where if or that is now substituted.”

Therefore, as the OED suggests, if we read “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” as “even if thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, I would not seek for names (like Lyly or Kyd) but call forth thundering Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.” Under #5, where the use of that with though is discussed, the OED has chosen a line from King John as its example: “Though that my death were adjunct to my act, by Heaven I would do it!” (Act 3 Scene 3)––meaning, of course, in today’s English, “I will do it even if it kills me!”

Make of this what you will, it should be obvious that the OED backs the suggestion that Jonson, renowned for his ability to equivocate, that is, to state something in such a way that it allows for another very different, even opposite, interpretation, was dealing with the delicate issue of Shakespeare’s education. If this kind of tinkering (something that’s second nature to lawyers, then and now) seems beyond the pale to today’s so-called Shakespeare experts, it’s only because they still haven’t a clue as to what the poets were up to in the good old bad old days of the seventeenth century.

[Updated from an earlier blog of September 9, 2018, titled “Once More into the Breach, dear Oxfordians.” It’s useful to repeat certain important elements of the argument from time to time.]

All for the want of a horseshoe nail

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of the horse, the rider was lost.
For want of the rider the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Memory is identity. Without memory, without a record of what we’ve done and thought and said, what we’ve heard and seen, a human exists only as a thing, as foreign to itself as it is to those who pass it on a busy city street. “Know thyself,” said Socrates. But to do that we must have memory. Our memories are the building blocks of our identities. They are what make us unique from others, they guide us as we mature. The sunny ones bring happiness and cheer on dark days; the dark ones help to keep us from suffering through repeated error.

History is our word for our collective memory as a people, a culture. To our personal memories it adds the experiences shared by our ancestors. Whether we absorb it from tales told around a winter fire, from lectures, sermons or books, it gives us context; it connects us to our fellows, expands our personal identities and those of our immediate family members to embrace our neighbors, our heroes, our ancestors. It gives meaning to the buildings and streets that surround us, to the art and architecture of our cities, to the songs we sing, the movies we watch, the stories we repeat. It gives us something to be a part of, something bigger than ourselves. “Know thyself,” said Dad, quoting somebody he called Socrates, but who was that? The Greek who used to cut his hair downtown? Without the shared memory we call history, we’d never know.

History is the story of humanity. While Science, Religion and Philosophy all attempt to explain a great deal more than just who we are, History is focussed on us, on what we have done, with, to, and for each other. And at the center of that “we” is always some central figure, some human being whose name and life story are central to a particular area of our shared memory, a story that holds meaning for a particular community, culture, religion, philosophy, the leader, the ground-breaker, the pioneer, the genius whose name we connect, not just with the history of whatever it was they invented or discovered, but the thing itself.

All History, be it the history of France or the American car industry, revolves around the name of its founder. Without that name it’s a story without an opening chapter, an adventure without a hero. If for some reason the name of one of these pioneers gets lost, the entire history of what they found or created can get broken into pieces and dispersed, skewed, distorted, minimized, misunderstood. If somehow we had lost all evidence of the life of Alexander the Great, to what would we attribute the spread of the Greek language over the 500 years from 300 BC to the rise of Rome in 200 AD? What would the history of mathematics look like without Sir Isaac Newton? The history of the Amercian Civil War without Abraham Lincoln? The Russian revolution without Karl Marx? The history of aviation without the Wright brothers? The Blitz without Churchill? The Cold War without Stalin?

Hard as it may be to fathom, this is exactly the problem we have with the history of today’s English language. It’s Greek without Homer, Christianity without St. Paul, Existentialism without Sartre.  In fact, it’s more than these, for the loss of the truth about Shakespeare not only skews and disperses the history of English literature, it’s lost to the history of England the most important of the pioneers of the sixteenth century gathered at the Court of Elizabeth. It’s skewed the history of the language itself. It’s plunged into darkness the bloody birth of the modern media (the fourth estate of government) and modern humanity’s first painful steps towards a functional democracy, of all these stories the most important today, not just to the West, but to the entire world.

What the man known by the pun-name Shake-speare did in the sixteenth century has never been fully understood because, for reasons of political and economic expediency, his primary achievement was passed along by contemporary politicians and historians to an undeserving front man, one whose modest story has skewed this era in English history so badly, that, deeper than ever did plummet sound, it’s buried the truth about these things for over four hundred years.

And all for the want of that horseshoe nail, his real name.