Why did the coverup continue past Oxford’s death? – Alex McNeil


McNeil: Why did the cover-up continue past Oxford’s death?

Hughes: Several people have asked this or questions that touch on it, so I’ll respond as fully as I can without going into voluminous detail.  Contrary to some thinking, the cover-up was not something that took place after Oxford’s death.  He was hiding his authorship from his early teens, when he first began to write.  Why?

Several reasons:

1) At first he was simply following in the footsteps of his tutor and his guardian, both of whose works were mostly published anonymously or attributed to other authors.  2) Raised in solitude, he was uncomfortable in any sort of spotlight.  3) Because he was so much younger than the other members of the Cecil House coterie who form his earliest audience, he found it easier to use an age-old dodge and attribute his early work to someone else.  4) From the start he hated having to deal with feedback, both from the pedagogues whose opinions dominated literary theory and from contemporaries for whose education and intellect he had little respect.  5) He wanted freedom to experiment.  6) He hated knowing that people were talking about him behind his back; they may guess that he wrote something, but if they didn’t know for certain it was less likely there would be gossip.  And 7) Not least, he had his own and his family’s reputation to consider at a time when there was a great deal of prejudice against imaginative literature and also against those who wrote it.

As time went by and the work he published under other names increases in popularity, it becomes even more necessary to keep his identity hidden, for if awareness of his authorship spreads too far, pressure from his in-laws and other authorities for him to stop writing will soon become impossible to ignore.  With his banishment from Court in 1581 Oxford goes even deeper into anonymity, for the plays he begins writing at that time for his West End audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” might mean permanent banishment, were Elizabeth to find out.

A possible career scenario

While in his mid-to-late teens in the late ’60s and then in his twenties through the ’70s, promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, Oxford had explored his talents by writing entertainments for Court weddings and holidays that he rehearsed at Blackfriars and performed there (with limited publicity) for the West End audience.  With his return from Italy, he, the Burbages, and their patrons opened the first successful commercial theaters in London, a small private theater in the West End for the gentry, and Burbage’s big public theater in the East End.

In 1582 or ’83 he’s enrolled by Walsingham to write comedies and history plays for the new Crown company, the Queen’s Men, led by comedian Richard Tarleton, and several of the best actors in London.  This means writing with a much broader public audience in mind, which means he will do a good deal of experimenting as he learns the ropes from actors Richard Tarleton and Will Kempe about creating comedy.  Throughout this period his authorship is not an issue since none of his plays, or anyone’s plays for that matter, are being published as yet.  As for his early poems,these are identified only by initials or Latin mottos in the anthologies of the 1570s where they don’t go beyond the still small high-end reading audience centered at Court and the Inns of Court.

Oxford helps to create the commercial press

It’s also during the 1580s that he and his cousin Francis Bacon create the first periodical audience in English history through the serial publication of popular pamphlets.  For this he uses the name Robert Greene, a real individual, though not a writer, possibly a member of an old Essex family whose forbears were close associates of his father’s.  (Bacon uses the name Thomas Nashe.)  When various pressures, among them a sudden and unexpected popularity––plus threats from within his own circles to out him, plus a second marriage into a respectable family––force him to put an end to Greene, he adopts the name of a hometown neighbor of one of his printers, largely because, like Greene (green in French is vere), it can be read as a pun: “(I) will shake (a) spear.”

Enter Shake-spear

By the early ’90s, the London commercial Stage, always insecure, is threatened with extinction.  A combination of the plague, politics, and a clash among the rising powers of the media vs. elements of the government causes most of the acting companies to break up and re-form.  Oxford, bankrupt, is side-lined, his power over the London Stage transferred to the Alleyn-Marlowe team at Henslowe’s Rose Theater on Bankside.  To resolve the chaos, members of the Privy Council take actions of different sorts.  Leading actors are split into two licensed companies, one under the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, at the Rose, the other under Howard’s father-in-law, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon, at Burbage’s Theater in Norton Folgate.

Eager to take the lead back from the Alleyn-Henslowe-Lord Strange consortium at The Rose, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men claim their right to Oxford’s playbook.  To get this they have to promise him (and his family) anonymity,  which they achieve by renting from the Stratford chap the punnable name Oxford used the year before to get his narrative poem Venus and Adonis into print.  In 1595 they establish this fictional actor-playwright as a reality by getting his name on a Court document.

In other words, the great Shakespeare cover-up began as nothing more than a quick fix so the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could have something ready for the winter holiday season of 1594-’95.  It would have repercussions down the road that they probably didn’t consider at the time, some fairly soon due to the death of their patron, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, but mostly to the immediate and steadily increasing popularity of Oxford’s plays, which began to raise the question among the literati of their source.

More quick fixes

The cover-up continued to work well enough until the death of Queen Elizabeth brought about another upheaval at Court, which King James resolved by taking Shakespeare’s company under his wing as his Royal company, finally giving the London Stage some real protection from the bishops and city officials who’d spent the last thirty years doing all they could to get rid of it.

At the same time, James, happy (for once) to play the protector, took Oxford, now ill and frail, under his personal care, granting him certain privileges that will allow him to continue to write without fear of interference from the enemies that threaten both him and his work, namely his envious brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, and his lifelong enemy, Lord Henry Howard.  Without the King’s protection, these two, newly risen to supreme power on the Privy Council, would certainly have done whatever they could to make certain that neither he nor his papers would survive them.

If Oxford didn’t actually have his power-hungry brother-in-law in mind when he first wrote Richard III, many members of their community, including Cecil himself, must have thought that he did.  And Howard was much too paranoid not to have suspected that it was he who was the model for Othello’s Iago, Proteus’s Iachimo, Don John in Much Ado, Edricus in Ironside, Ateukin in James IV, and sundry other smooth-talking villains driven by “motiveless malignity.”  That both these dangerous men were so closely related to Oxford only made their increasing power all the more fearsome.

Birth of the Authorship Question

With his company protected by the King, and his plays their biggest money-maker, the identity of “Shakespeare” becomes an even greater issue, not with the general public, who do not expect to know who writes the plays they see and do not care, but within elite circles of sophisticated taste-makers who are aware that someone of a very high level of talent and intelligence is at work. (Genius as a concept has not yet been born.)

Though it may have become a topic for conjecture in small poetry-reading circles following the 1593 publication of Venus and Adonis, the name Shakespeare did not get publicized as a playwright until Francis Meres’s Wits Treasury of 1598.  With its appearance that same year on the title pages of several plays, questions about the authorship would have begun to spread to ever wider circles, nor would it have passed observation that the name Shakespeare contains a pun, a ploy used for centuries to mask the identities of what Bacon would call “hidden poets.”  As the years go by, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, now the King’s Men, and those closely connected with them will find themselves more and more frequently fielding questions about the authorship.

The cover-up turns a corner

With Oxford’s approaching death, the King’s Men face a daunting new situation: soon there will be no more new or revised plays from Shakespeare.  On the other hand, once he’s gone they will not have to cater to his whims, and so will be free to produce some of the old plays that that he has continued to refuse to allow to be restaged or revised.  Following his decease they hire some younger Jacobean playwrights to revise a few of his earlier, less popular, or unfinished plays, hoping in this way to give them a more timely air.

Meanwhile, Pembroke has been keeping his eye open for a writer, or writers, who can replace Oxford as company playwright when the time comes.  Chief among these are Ben Jonson and the young John Fletcher, already a member of the Queen’s coterie through his relationship with the Huntington cousin, John Beaumont.  Among those enrolled to provide plays that meet Pembroke’s standards are some by his mother, Mary Sidney, who writes under the cover of her coachmaker, John Webster.

As the years go by, conjectures continue over who is behind the name Shakespeare, some holding it was Oxford, others that it’s Fletcher, others Beaumont, each with his or her candidate (much like today)––yet no one in on the truth will confirm or deny anything.   Meanwhile Pembroke stalls, waiting for an opportunity to take control of the Stage.  That comes in 1615 when he gets the position he’s been seeking since he first rose to favor under James: Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household.  Gradually the Stage becomes the purview of the Pembroke family, with Herberts filling various related offices, and at least one playwright, Philip Massinger, coming from his brother’s household.

Finally placed to do right by the King’s Men and their precious playbook, he and his mother, brother, and sister-in-law (Oxford’s daughter) lay plans to get the plays into print.  Not everyone is happy with the idea, particularly those whose relatives were satirized in the plays.  To make this happen, a great deal of politicking has to take place; the anxieties of the various families of those satirized have to be addressed; the rights to some of the plays have to be obtained from printers who still hold them; others exist only in copies held by individuals who remain resistent to parting with them, while others are available only in imperfect copies.  Deals must be cut with those who hold the best versions; once obtained these often require much editing and fair copying.  All this takes time, and these are busy people.

Finally, the First Folio

With William’s death in 1616, one milestone is past, but since his wife is still alive they feel it best to wait, for once Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies appears with its signposts pointing towards Stratford there’s no telling what she might say to some nosy investigator.  As the years go by a few reckless printers slip the leash and go ahead with publishing the Shakespeare plays they believe are theirs by right.

By the time Anne Hathaway finally dies in August 1623 the committee has become desperate to get the collection finished, for both Pembroke and his brother are threatened with the loss of their Court positions due to the machinations of the King’s increasingly powerful favorite.  This man, the loutish Duke of Buckingham, would probably halt publication if given the opportunity.  As it turns out, they survive the crisis as does the project, and so the First Folio finally reaches the bookstalls late in 1623, a little the worse for the rush put on it at the end.

The result is the best that could be hoped for.  Jonson’s talent for equivocation has been used to good effect in his dedicatory ode, cleverly pointing in two directions at once.  Stratford-at-Bowe isn’t a dead sure reference to Oxford, who’d been living not far from there for decades, but it would suffice.  The reference to the Avon River points equally well to Pembroke, and to his mother, since their estate is located on one of the many rivers in England bearing that name (Avon is Welsh for river).  The engraved frontispiece portrait looks like anyone and no one.  While the pages are being run off, Hemmings and Condell make a quick trip up to Stratford to remove from the bust anything that might identify it with John Shakspere, impressing upon the vicar the need for secrecy by way of a hefty contribution to the church poorbox.

The final chapter

As it turns out, no one would bother to take the two day trip up to Stratford for a century, or if they did they failed to mention it in print, no doubt because, like the actor Thomas Betterton, they found nothing worth telling.  Nor, so far as we know, has anyone ever brought down on their head the curse embedded in William’s  floor plaque by disturbing his bones.  There was, however, no curse expended on those who might disturb the monument , something that has been done rather frequently over the centuries, always in the name of “renovation,” but in fact to give tourists in search of a Bardic icon something that fills the bill (pun intended).

Of course there were those who knew the truth and who surely passed it along from parent to child, but when finally the story had lost enough heat to bear public scrutiny, Civil War broke out, putting the actors out of work for another twenty years.  By the time a new King took the throne and the theaters opened again, most of those who had known Oxford personally were gone and Shakespeare’s literary reputation was at a low ebb.  Stories and anecdotes from the Elizabethan era had been passed on by scribbling gossips like John Aubrey, but claims like that of playwright impresario William Davenant that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son hardly seemed worth examining.

Shakespeare’s reputation as a great artist would rise again two decades later when the next big wave of literary brilliance brought fame to poet and novelists Pope, Swift and Defoe and journalists Addison and Steele, but by then all connection to Oxford or the Cecils was either completely lost, or, if still alive, only as a myth or rumor, one that could neither be proven nor disproven.

I do believe, however, that in the time of Sir Edward Harvey the second Earl of Oxford (of the second creation), there were still some who knew the truth, although they knew better than to attempt to get it accepted publicly, and that this is still discernable, if through a glass darkly, in a set of engravings made by Harvey’s friend, the artist George Vertue.

This is far from all there is to say on this subject, but it’s enough for now.


5 thoughts on “Why did the coverup continue past Oxford’s death? – Alex McNeil

  1. Alex and Stephanie,

    This is a tough question, but a key one to know how to answer if we want to be persuasive. I think it’s important to distinguish between what we do and don’t know. It’s best to just say we don’t know for sure, when, in fact, we don’t. Speculation should be clearly identified as such. Here’s how I’d answer the question:

    The truth is we don’t really know for sure why the cover-up continued past Oxford’s death, because nobody wrote it down and told us. But there’s no shortage of plausible explanations. We don’t know which is correct, if any, and may never know. But some things we do know, and they tell us a lot. So let’s start with those.

    The starting place for any explanation is Shake-Speare’s Sonnets. The author himself says (and whose words could be more authoritative?) that he did not expect his name to be remembered (81), and did not want it to be remembered (72). Neither sonnet makes sense unless his name was not yet associated with his works at the time. He tells the Youth not to be seen mourning for him after his death (71), and he says repeatedly that he is in disgrace; but he never tells us why. Is it hard to imagine that such a man might not have wanted his name associated with his works? Valuing his creations, as he clearly did, he may have wanted them to be stand on their own, apart from him and his decayed reputation.

    In light of the Sonnets, much of the mystery disappears. Posthumous continuation of the cover-up is what the author says he wanted. That is sufficient reason to think it happened, apart from whether we understand his motives, or the motives of those who followed his wishes. As Looney said, his reasons are his business, not ours. But we still want to know, so we speculate.

    Here are some common speculations, more than one of which may be partly correct, or perhaps none is correct:

    1. His heirs, holding him in high regard, were honoring his wishes, as stated in the Sonnets, with or without agreeing with his own motives.

    2. His reputation was such that it would have been an embarrassment to his heirs to call any unnecessary attention to him as their ancestor.

    3. The works were an embarrassment to his heirs and others because of what they reveal about them, and/or about Elizabeth I’s court.

    4. The State wanted their origin concealed, due to their beginnings as tools of state propaganda.

    5. King James wanted their origin concealed due to politics at the time the Folio was published.

    There are others, and variations on these.

    The point is we have sufficient reason to claim that it did happen, and what we know about the people involved and the history of the period makes it entirely plausible, without knowing exactly how and why it was implemented. Those are probably unanswerable questions, but they need not be obstacles to us proving our case.

  2. John, returning to these comments after many months, I think I have a better response now. To respond to your list of possible reasons for continuing the coverup past Oxford’s death”:

    1. His heirs, holding him in high regard, were honoring his wishes, as stated in the Sonnets, with or without agreeing with his own motives.

    Rather his heirs were honoring their own needs. If Polonius was Burghley, Ophelia Anne Cecil, and Richard III Robert Cecil, how would Anne’s daughters and Cecil’s son have felt had it been revealed to a gossipy world that the creator of these models was their father and uncle?

    2. His reputation was such that it would have been an embarrassment to his heirs to call any unnecessary attention to him as their ancestor.

    I assume you mean the bad reputation he got by “wasting” his patrimony and mistreating his wife. When it came to one of their own, this sort of thing never bothered the Court community very much. As for the heirs, if it were commonly thought that Anne was Ophelia, the Queen Gertrude, Leicester (the Sidney’s great patron-uncle) Claudius, the response would hardly have been mere embarrassment. It would have been disgrace.

    3. The works were an embarrassment to his heirs and others because of what they reveal about them, and/or about Elizabeth I’s court.

    Absolutely. Though again, “embarrassment” is too mild a term.

    4. The State wanted their origin concealed, due to their beginnings as tools of state propaganda.

    If by “the State” you mean the Queen, Burghley, the various privy council patrons of the Court and London Stage, everyone that Oxford satirized in play after play, certainly they wanted the connection hidden, as did Oxford himself, for a number of personal reasons, along with the knowledge that if it came out who was doing the writing, that would have been the end of his career. As for State propaganda, I don’t see how that would cause so much concern. The propaganda in the history plays written for Walsingham is pretty mild. Even the ones that dealt with social issues like MOV and MforM were hardly barn burners.

    5. King James wanted their origin concealed due to politics at the time the Folio was published.

    King James wanted their source hidden for all the same reasons that the rest of the Court community wanted it hidden. It was a company secret (as the grand patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, it was hardly the King’s role to tattle on his own playwright). If the plays themselves no longer belong to the Court exclusively, at least the secret of their source was still theirs.

    What isn’t fully appreciated is how important it was, during his life to make it possible for him to keep writing, and after his death, to get the plays into print. As I’ve explained elsewhere on this site, it would have been darned difficult to collect all the plays from whoever held them and get a general agreement among all concerned that they be published. Along with the agreement would have gone the promise that no identities would be revealed. Had Oxford’s name been put on the First Folio, it would have taken roughly three days before the chattering class had nailed all the identities, in their own minds at least. Whether or not they were right, the last thing anyone wanted was more gossip. The First Folio was crafted purposefully to eliminate the gossip about the authorship. The last thing the publishers would have wanted would have been to make it worse. I don’t see that this is so complicated or so arcane. Anyone involved in publishing the papers of a controversial writer would see the likelihood of this scenario immediately.

    As for “politics” at the time the FFolio was published, this had little to do with the King directly than it did with the Pembrokes, who were both in the very bad graces of his Grace the Duke of Buckingham. A power struggle was going on between the Pembrokes and Buckingham, and the two brothers must have been concerned that if the Duke succeeded in ousting them, the works of Shakespeare would never see the light of day due to his dislike of anything connected with the Pembrokes or the 18th Earl. James had been a friend to Oxford, but all were well aware that he would sacrifice anyone and anything to the whims of his favorite.

  3. Excellent suggestion, Stephanie. Robert Cecil would have been especially concerned about his identification with Richard III, who was portrayed as a hunchback. The Sonnet publication of 1609 probably put the poems in scrambled order so that the narrative would not be seen as portraying the real people in Oxford’s life. It was quickly suppressed, but the later 1640 edition called attention to the earlier edition, thus preserving the collection. I think the Dedication (which appeared in the 1609 but not the 1640 edition) was Oxford dedicating the sonnets to Henry Wriothesley, as a riddle since young Henry was in prison condemned for treason (a confined doom?)

  4. Thanks, Helen. However, I do not agree that the sequence of sonnets was “scrambled.” I agree with Peter Moore and a dozen others, that it makes too much narrative sense in the order as originally published. Nor do I see Oxford expending the kind of fascination with cryptography manifested by the 1609 dedication, which makes too much sense with “Mr. W.H.” as William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, Oxford’s last and greatest patron.

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