Was Oxford a misogynist? – Ronald Chisholm

Hughes:  No. A misogynist is someone who hates women.  That can’t be true of Shakespeare, or we would have no Ophelia, Kate, Rosalind or Cleopatra.  The list of 18 probable characteristics sketched out by Oxford’s first biographer, J.T. Looney (pron. Loney) as those demonstrated by Shakespeare in his works included that he was “doubtful and somewhat conflicting in his attitude about woman.”  Looney points to the sonnets to the Dark Lady as evidence of Shakespeare’s conflicted feelings of attraction and suspicion towards the opposite sex, but this hardly prevented him from creating some wonderfully real and appealing female characters.

Oxford’s dominant attitude would have been born of his early relationships with women.  At this point we know very little about his surrogate mother, the wife of his tutor, Philippa Wilford Smith, in whose household he lived from age four to twelve, though the little we do know suggests the two were not a happy, loving couple.  As a woman who for whatever reason failed to produce an heir for either of her husbands, Philippa had every reason to be jealous of the little boy who got the attention that her husband would have given the son that she so obviously failed to give him.  From 12 to 21, Oxford must have found himself in much the same emotional climate at Cecil House, where the lady of the house was in a similar situation.  Having miscarried a Cecil heir more than once, when one was finally born and lived, he was so frail and misshapen that what should have been joy was tempered for many years with grief and anxiety.

Burghley went to some lengths to make it seem that the marriage to his daughter Anne was Oxford’s choice, but if so, it can hardly have been out of any kind of passionate attraction to a girl who must have been more of a sister to him than a lover.  The marriage of peers was a dynastic or business transaction, one often contemplated right from the beginning when a father or mother paid for the wardship of a particular orphan.  The marriage of a ward to his guardian’s offspring was so common that no one would have been surprised when Burghley married Oxford to his daughter, although it was rumored that he married her as a sort of quid pro quo that Burghley go easy on the Duke of Norfolk.

In any case it’s obvious that Oxford in his early twenties had no notion of what today we would expect of a kind and loving husband.  Burghley, who certainly knew what Oxford was like after having lived with him off and on for nine years, could hardly have expected anything different.  What’s obvious is that Burghley was more interested in getting his progeny into the peerage than he was in the welfare of either his daughter or the wayward young earl.

Oxford’s break with his wife following his return from Italy is a major factor in the historian’s case against him, but surely the break was due less to the rumors about her supposed infidelity than it was to his need, as a man and a writer, to be free of Burghley’s spying and meddling.  On the verge of his first quantum leap in writing drama, the last thing he wanted, after a year of freedom abroad, was to continue to be seen by potential patrons as Burghley’s ward.   This break with his wife, and the feelings he had about it, would provide the plot or subplot for eight plays over the next 20 years, each from a different point of view: Pericles, All’s Well, Two Gents, Much Ado, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Othello, along with a decade of tales and anecdotes for the Robert Greene pamphlets.

Besides these mother figures and his wife, we know of three women who had an effect on him.  As a teenager, his first love was (probably) Mary Browne, later the Countess of Southampton and the mother of the youth for whom he would write so many sonnets.  In his late twenties it was Ann Vavasor, the Queen’s maid of honor, probably the first woman for whom he felt more than a passing urge, who gave him a son but with whom he was forced by the Queen to sever all relations. Finally, in his forties, it was the poet and musician Emilia Bassano, cousin of the Bassanos, the Court musicians with whom he worked to produce Court entertainments, raised by his sister-in-law the Countess of Kent, and mistress of Lord Henry Hunsdon, patron of his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  As the model for his teenage version of Juliet, Browne was also the Hippolyta of A Midsummer Night’s Dreame.  Vavasor was the model for the 1580s version of Juliet, for Rosalind in As You Like It and for Rosaline in a 1580s rewrite of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Emilia was the ’90s version of Kate in Shrew; she was the Venus to Southampton’s Adonis, and the Cleopatra to Oxford’s Antony.

His daughters played leading roles in his later plays, some nice, some not so.  Miranda in The Tempest was a lovingly conceived fantasy relationship conjured up in 1594 as a wedding present for his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, and intended to heal the no doubt deep emotional wound of his mistreatment following her birth when he used the suspicion that she was not his as a means of maintaining a distance from the Cecils.  Finally, it seems impossible to deny that his last blast, King Lear, was largely directed at his two oldest daughters and their husbands, Elizabeth married to the “niddicock” Earl of Derby, Bridget married to the insane Baron Norris of Rycote, later Earl of Berkshire.  Obviously they had offended him in some way, probably by refusing to allow him to bring his “lewd friends”  along when visiting them.  The sanctification of his youngest daughter, Susan, as Cordelia, suggests that the play was written shortly before her marriage to the brother of his patron, the Earl of Pembroke.

2 thoughts on “Was Oxford a misogynist? – Ronald Chisholm

  1. I would hardly cite Ophelia as evidence that Oxford was not a misogynist. Using Ophelia to perpetuate his charade of insanity, he cruelly berates the young innocent girl seemingly without cause, driving her to insanity and death.

  2. Howard, you’re mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. But we’re both mistaken, for I didn’t really answer the question properly, which should be based, not on his writing, but on the evidence of his life. That, or what we know of it, would seem to indicate that he was about average in his treatment of women as compared with other great artists like Pablo Picasso, two of whose lovers committed suicide, or Lord Byron, whose treatment of his sister and his lover Claire Claremont was atrocious. Great artists are almost invariably narcissistic, self-involved to an extent far beyond ordinary people. We forgive them because of what they give us, but they are hard on their families and lovers. Even so, Anne Cecil’s tragedy was not all due to Oxford’s rejection, but equally to the father who used her to manipulate the great Lord he tried so hard to keep under his thumb, much as Shakespeare shows in his portrait of both father and daughter in Hamlet.

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