Why was it dishonorable for peers to write?-Michael Egan

Egan: “The claim that it was dishonorable for an aristocrat to write for the stage needs to be much more extensively documented.  It’s often asserted but very poorly proved.”

Hughes:  Modern Americans may be blind to class divisions, but they were certainly real in all the nations of Europe in the 16th century (still are to a large extent).  And it was definitely not proper for an aristocrat to lower himself to something that other people did for a living.  Not only were peers expected to act as role models for lesser beings, the period we study was far more stringent in its expectations of peers than it had been earlier or would be later.  As the first nation to be administered on Reformation principles, it was tremendously important to the nation’s reformist leaders that the new crop of young peers conform to expectation.

Since Oxford was born during the first years of the English Reformation, and since he was the only heir of one of the largest and most ancient earldoms, and also because his father had been something of a disgrace, his education  was a matter of intense concern to his caregivers.  His tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, was chosen as much for his moral credentials as for his teaching expertise while his guardian, Sir William Cecil, dedicated much of his life to seeing to it that as many young peers as he could get his hands on were raised and educated according to strict Reformation principles.

The idea that it was the duty of a noblemen to live an exemplary life was hardly new, but it was one that the Reformation pedagogues (teachers of teachers) who promoted education were passionate about, as we see expressed by Queen Elizabeth’s tutor Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’-em) in his book The Scholemaster (1563). Dedicated to William Cecil shortly after Oxford came to Cecil House at twelve, it’s fair to assume that Ascham had both guardian and student in mind when he wrote:

indent4Take heed, therefore, you great ones in the Court; yea though you be the greatest of all, take heed what you do, take heed how you live. For as you great ones use to do, so all mean [ordinary] men love to do. You be indeed makers, or marrers, of all men’s manners within the Realm. For though God hath placed you to be chief in making of laws, to bear greatest authority, to command all others, yet God doth order that all your laws, all your authority, all your commandments, do not half so much with mean men as doth your example and manner of living . . .  you carry all the Court with you, and the whole Realm besides, earnestly and orderly, to do the same. If you do otherwise, you be the only authors of all misorders in Religion, not only to the Court but to all England besides.

The literature of the time is filled with similar sentiments.  Critics of the aristocracy, both then and now, like to portray the aristocrats as wilfully pursuing personal pleasure at any cost.  Some did, of course, but not all by any means, including Oxford, who, in his own way, was quite diligent in following his tutors’ precepts, however they may have misinterpreted his goals.

Attitudes towards writing plays

Difficult as it may be for today’s readers to understand 16th-century attitudes towards class divisions, it’s almost as difficult to understand the conflicted attitudes of Oxford’s elders towards the arts.  Parents today may worry if a youngster shows too much interest in a career in the arts because they know its probably going to be tough for them to earn a living.  But poetry, by which the 16th century meant all written works of the imagination––prose as well as verse, plays as well as poems––was considered by the reformers to be, not only a waste of time, but actually dangerous!  Why?  Because it led to Sin.

The 16th century was immensely concerned with Sin and the Devil, who they felt certain was dedicated to luring the innocent to damnation through sexy poetry and bawdy plays.  Yet even with works of the most elevated nature, class division set a limit to what was appropriate.  Noble youths were given license to write music and poetry during their “Venus years,” (roughly 14 to 21), but once fully matured, they were not to spend more than brief moments of leisure time practising things that lesser men did for a living.

Here’s what Ascham’s predecessor as foremost Reformation pedagogue, Sir Thomas Elyot, had to say in 1531 about noblemen indulging in music:

indent-2It were therefore better that no music were taught to a nobleman, than, by the exact knowledge thereof, he should have therein inordinate delight, and by that be elected  to wantonness, abandoning gravity and the necessary care and office in the public weal, to him committed. [http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/gov/gov1.htm]

It should be noted that at the time that Elyot was writing, music, dance, and pantomime generally formed a larger proportion of an evening’s entertainment  than anything written or spoken,  and what there was generally came in the form of brief scenes or comic turns known as interludes (breaks between the singing and dancing, often engineered to give time for costume changes).  There had always been full length plays, but these would not be the primary form of entertainment either at Court or for the public until the late 1570s.

Ascham continues by quoting Philip of Macedon’s humiliation of his teenaged son Alexander (the Great) back in the fourth century BC, for having displayed before the Court more expertise at playing the cittern than was commensurate with his rank:

indent-3. . . whereby he [Philip] meant that the open profession of that craft was but of a base estimation, and that it sufficed a nobleman, having therein knowledge, either to use it secretly, for the refreshing of his wit when he hath time of solace, or else, only hearing the contention of noble [gifted] musicians, to give judgment in the excellence of their cunnings [skills].

A nobleman was supposed to develop his understanding of music theory and his good taste, but only to prepare himself to judge the performance of professionals, not to perform himself.

indent-41And if the child be of a perfect inclination and towardness to virtue, and very aptly disposed to this science . . . the tutor’s office shall be to persuade him to have principally in remembrance his estate, which maketh him exempt from the liberty of using this science in every time and place . . . and to show him that a gentleman playing or singing in a communal audience impaireth his estimation, the people forgetting reverence when they behold him in the similitude of a common servant or minstrel.

That Oxford took note can be seen in the fact that for at least a decade he wrote only to entertain his own community.  If some of what he wrote slipped out through the actors, primarily the Children of the Chapel, to a public performance or two during the Christmas season, his involvement was successfully kept under wraps for two decades.  We can trace it now by inference, but no hint reached the record books until 1583, and then only briefly.  Most of what he wrote during that early period was either for the Court or for what I call his West End audience, the “gentlemen  of the Inns of Court,” the sophisticated, highly educated  legal community. Very little of what we consider the canon was written originally for the public at large.

As for violating some unwritten rule, what was forbidden was not to write but to publish..  Aristocrats could write whatever they pleased, whether for the stage or anything else, so long as what they wrote remained within their private circle.  As the thousand pound gorillas of their day, they could write just about anything: plays, poems, songs, novels, propaganda, and so forth, which they certainly did, and had been doing for centuries.  The issue was not writing or producing, which could be kept private, but performing or publishing, which could not be kept private, that is, not unless they found a way to hide their authorship!

Courtier, not aristocrat

As for the term aristocrat, in the context of Egan’s question the better term would be courtier.   Peers were always courtiers, or could be if they wished (and behaved themselves) but courtiers were not always peers.  There’s an abundance of evidence that it was not so much the peers, but the courtiers of lesser rank who, out of anxiety about their reputations and their need for promotion, did not want to be seen as doing anything so frivolous as writing entertainments.

As a courtier, Oxford’s position was unique. In terms of the antiquity of his name and title he outranked just about everyone else at Court, including the Queen.  This meant that he had nothing to strive for since he was born with the titles, fortune, and prestige that the others spent their lives striving to achieve. This also meant that, unlike them, he had nothing to lose (but his reputation) by doing whatever it was that he felt like doing, since short of convicting him of treason, no one could take his rank away from him, or the privileges that went along with it––though they certainly tried.

Perhaps under a different monarch this prejudice against writing fiction would have been less of a problem, but Elizabeth was just as prejudiced against it as any reformation preacher.  It may have been the Golden Age of English Literature when seen in retrospect, but not because she did anything more than simply allow it to continue, and not always that.  To none of the courtiers who had imaginative works published under their own names in the 1590s, writers like Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, and John Harington, did Elizabeth ever give any important offices or titles (duties yes; offices and titles, no).  Someone like Sir Thomas Sackville, on the other hand, who sententiously “gave up” writing poetry in his thirties, was rewarded with one office and title after another.

Seeing the Reformation as a revolution

English historians have tended to soften the image of this period, to make it seem natural, a simple shift from old-fashioned medieval thinking to the systems and cultures of our modern age, a little rocky at times, but basically without the horrors of the French or Russian revolutions.  The persecution of Catholics and radical Protestants are glossed over, as is the fact that almost as many of these were burned to death or otherwise executed during Elizabeth’s reign as were Protestants under her Catholic sister.

The truth is that the English Reformation was a revolution just as devastating as the one that would take place in France two centuries later.  Though not quite as bloody perhaps, it was certainly bloody enough for those who lived through it. And many brave souls, including the Elizabethan era’s second greatest literary genius, Christopher Marlowe, did not live through it.

A literary revolution

The literary aspect of this revolution was just as fraught as the religious aspect.  In some ways the two were one, for although the Reformation Establishment promoted the freedom to read the Bible in English (the official version that is), they were a long way from supporting the freedom of an individual to speak, or write, in any way that did not conform to Reformation principles, and those who did so were apt to pay a heavy price, imprisonment, exile, loss of a hand, of property, status, even life itself.

This immense issue, one scarcely addressed by any literary historian (that I’ve read) was due to another revolution that was taking place at the same time. This was the birth in the late 1570s of the modern fourth Estate, the Media, which came to life in two forms at exactly the same time: 1) the London commercial stage, and 2) the commercial periodical press.  With the Stage supported by a public audience hungry for entertainment and the Press by a much smaller but increasingly literate public audience, the old controls maintained by noble patrons were increasingly less effective, a potentially explosive situation that was not lost on the Crown and its officers who scrambled for means to control what they so obviously could not prevent.

This is the real background to the so-called Golden Age of Elizabethan literature, one that somehow gets lost from any account by either the English or the History departments.  This is too bad, since it’s filled with the drama of deadly showdowns and heroic acts of courage.  It’s also the main reason why the identity of the great leader of this literary revolution has been lost.  In fact, it’s largely because, as a peer, Oxford was actually able to hide his identity, that he survived to mature into the writer we know as Shakespeare.  As a commoner, Marlowe, even had he wished, would simply not have been able to hide his identity, and we know what happened to him.

Finally, the stage is a term that, along with words like theater, actor, and playwright did not come into use until after the birth of the commercial theater in 1576. (OED credits its first use to 1589 in George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie.)  Although the word stage is very old and has been used for many things over time, its use in the sense that Prof. Egan uses it did not exist before the period in question simply because the theater as an English industry or profession did not exist until then.

In other words, for the first three decades of his career, Oxford can’t be seen as writing for something that did not yet exist.  His feelings about having to entertain the public during his final period (1594-1608) are best expressed in Act V Scene 1 of As You Like It, where, as Touchstone, he lodges a humorous complaint about his need to “marry” Audrey (a pun on the Latin audire: to hear), that foul, unpoetic slut, the public audience.

Next: Prof. Egan’s second question: “Why the vast conspiracy of silence?”


3 responses to “Why was it dishonorable for peers to write?-Michael Egan

  1. Outstanding. I look forward to more in this vein, especially your thoughts about the how, when and why Mr. Shakspere became the beard of Avon.

  2. Thank you, Stephanie — I look forward to the bare outline with great anticipation.

  3. A thorough, thoughtful commentary. Many thanks.

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