By 1580 Oxford must have learned, or guessed, that it was his cousin, Lord Henry Howard, who had created the rumor about Anne that broke up his marriage. Somebody created it, and based on Howard’s history, plus his relationship to Oxford, plus the Shakespeare plays that relate to the breakup of his marriage, if it’s only a guess, it’s an educated guess. Born as second son to the famed Poet Earl of Surrey, his grandfather the great and powerful 3rd Duke of Norfolk, both destroyed by Henry VIII in the course of the routine slaughter with which the insane king rid himself of his closest supporters, Howard’s envy of those whom he saw as having replaced him and his family among the governing elite dominated whatever humanity may have been left from a childhood devastated by religious politics and conflict.
When Oxford was just into his twenties, grieved and embittered at the way the Crown had trapped then executed his cousin, Howard’s brother, Elizabeth’s only Duke, feeling trapped himself, turned to his older cousin and his coterie of recusant Catholics as he sought means to distance himself from his domineering father-in-law. (see Marie Merkel’s view of the creation of Titus Andronicus.) When Oxford was finally allowed to visit Italy and the Mediterranean, Howard took advantage of his absence to insinuate himelf into Burghley’s trust, perhaps with the promise of keeping him informed of Milord’s plans and whereabouts. Included in the welcoming committee that gathered in Dover to greet him on his return, it was to Howard that Burghley turned for information when Oxford refused to see or meet with him or his daughter (Nelson 143).
Over the summer of 1575 while Oxford was out of touch for several months and the gossips rumored that he was dead, it would have been easy enough to spread the rumor that Burghley, fearful that Oxford might not return and leave him without an heir, had impregnated his own daughter. This was the story that met Oxford on his return to Paris, and that caused him to reject his wife and her family on his return, taking off instead to stay with the Yorkes, members of Howard’s coterie of envious fringe courtiers.
Who else would have known, or pretended to know, that Oxford had claimed that if Anne was pregnant it was not by him (the very sort of bitter lie that Milord was inclined to make when in company with Howard and Charles Arundel). That Oxford himself had no such notion is clear from the cheerful tone of his written response to Burghley’s news that Anne was pregnant. That he continued to believe the ugly rumor for so long after his return testifies more to his anger at Burghley for allowing it to become “the fable of the world,” and to his desperate need for privacy than from suspicions of Anne’s infidelity. While dates are impossible to assign, the nature and language of the plays that refer to his marital tragedy reveal the process he went through as he appears to turn from believing the rumor to realizing how he’s been bamboozled and by whom.
In Pericles, the earliest of these plays (if its clumsy pastoral, Greek romance style is considered) the protagonist is a prince travelling the lands of the eastern Mediterranean who escapes from a King who has promised to give his daughter in marriage to anyone who can solve a riddle, but must die if he fails. Realizing that the riddle points to the King’s guilty secret––i.e., that the King has incested his own daughter––and that whether he reveals it or keeps it to himself, he will die anyway, he flees, at which point the incest appears to be forgotten in a conglomeration of themes that tend to recur in every one of the six plays that dwell on the breakup of his marriage.
Next comes The Winter’s Tale, which, like its predecessor, roves from one Mediterranean location to another. While still in the Greek romance mode, the crime in question has now shifted from the incest of a king to the monstrous jealousy of a king. Several of the early themes repeat: a trusted wife dies and is recurrected; their daughter, seemingly lost in a shipwreck, is saved by peasants, grows into a beauty and is ultimately reunited with her remorseful father and resurrected mother.
Next comes Cymbeline, another pastoral in which the jealousy aroused in its naive protagonist is caused by a nasty prank played by an envious friend. The Mediterranean has been replaced by an English forest replete with two characters who will reappear again in future plays: the courtier who’s escaped to the woods and the engenue who dresses like a boy. A bit of English history creeps in towards the end in the form of an invading Roman army.
With Much Ado about Nothing we’re back by the Mediterranean where the jealousy aroused by another wicked prank and the (mock) resurrection of its innocent victim has been relegated to the subplot, the main plot focusing on a feisty romance suggestive of Oxford’s relationship with Ann Vavasor in the early ’80s. That Don John (of Austria) is portrayed as the envious villain who tricks the stupid bridegroom into his act of jealous cruelty dates it to before 1578 when the real Don John’s death meant his villany was no longer of any interest to an English audience. This is a genuine bit of evidence that Oxford’s relationship with Vavasor actually began not long after his return from Italy.
Next comes Alls Well that Ends Well, in which the cruelty of the caddish protagonist is shown by his refusal to take seriously his marriage to a girl from an inferior class, force on him by the monarch. Here the offended lady displays some feminist mettle by dressing as a pilgrim and tracking him to the continental army that he’s joined, largely to escape having to marry her. Alls Well is filled with incidents that match so closely to Oxford’s life in his early twenties that it must take an incredible determination to resist its relevance to the authorship question! The use of the bed trick as the means whereby she gets her man is only one of the many tropes in this play that recall Oxford’s situation in 1582 or ’83 as he strives to return to the good graces of his wife, the Queen and Burghley, following his two-year exile from Court.
Finally after the dramas and the comedies comes the the masterpiece known simply as Othello (O the hell O) in which the scene returns to the background portrayed in Much Ado, the 1570s battle for control of the Mediterranean. Probably not written, or at least not completed, until after Anne’s death (in 1588, at age thirty-one, by her own hand if Hamlet is to be believed), the operatic nature of the great tragedy and the grandeur of its language express the remorse of a man in midlife. Caught in the inescapable contemplation of the past that comes with maturity, no longer able to take refuge in theatrical fantasies of reincarnation, Oxford turned to his art for the confession and expiation that no religion could offer––his defense that he loved: “not wisely, but too well.”
These then are the six plays that dwell most actively on Oxford’s family tragedy, though others certainly touch on it, most notably Hamlet, where it hangs just out of sight as a felt but unseen introduction, or Measure for Measure where Claudio’s rejection of Mariana echoes similar rejections in Much Ado and All’s Well. They also provide a timetable for Oxford’s dawning awareness that, while the responsibilty for believing the story of Anne’s supposed infidelity and for using it to escape his domineering in-laws were his alone, the real source of the evil rumor was his cousin, Henry Howard.
Missing from the plots of Pericles and The Winters Tale, the Howard character first appears in Cymbeline where Postumous’s jealousy is aroused by Iachimo’s prank. In Alls Well, diverting his accusations from Howard himself to his friends the Yorke brothers, in Much Ado he’s conflated with Don John of Austria, whose plot developed into the one Howard was using to snare Oxford when he turned him in to the Queen in 1580. But it’s as Iago in Othello where he’s most fully revealed as the villain who broke up the great playwright’s marriage.
Students of Othello have pondered the reasons for the “motiveless malignity” of Iago’s determination to destroy his noble and high-minded superior. With Howard as Iago, such questions have satisfactory answers: Howard resented Oxford for his popularity and his status. Incapable of real love or sympathy, just as Iachimo used the ring and Iago used the handkerchief, Howard used the rumor to twist Oxford’s mind, already insecure about any woman’s ability to be faithful, so that he would break with the Cecils, Howard’s basic objective.
Oxford, who was protected by Elizabeth for as long as she lived, when Howard finally rose under James, joining his other enemy, his brother-in-law Robert Cecil, at their shared apex of political power, no wonder that the aging and ailing poet would seek cover in the forest, as had so many of his protagonists from Timon to Orlando to Rosalind, Imogen, Vincentio, and the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.