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Deconstructing Jonson’s Ode

It’s clear that Jonson admired Shakespeare immensely. Despite the traces of envy in things he said about him to Drummond or wrote in his notebooks, Jonson was a man of taste and intelligence, who, as an excellent writer himself, could not help but be awed by Shakespeare’s talent. Although clever and highly educated, Jonson did not often display genuine eloquence, yet here, inspired perhaps by a deepening awareness of his great rival’s accomplishment, when he speaks about him he comes close to the language of the Bard himself.

In a dedicatory ode intended to introduce to an eager and adoring public Shakespeare’s works in print, the strangely negative tone of the opening lines is usually ignored, probably because there’s no explanation for it. Why should anyone think that Jonson would or could “draw envy” to Shakespeare by mentioning his work and his reputation in print? What dark element is there that Jonson must address before he can begin to sing his hero’s praises? If he felt so strongly about Shakespeare and, despite the dangers he outlines at the start, is willing to express it in print, we can be certain that he is also expressing feelings he shared with the men and women who sponsored the true author, who protected his identity during his life, and promoted the publication of his works after his death.

That it took so long to produce the First Folio is testimony to the difficulties that this group faced. Anyone who has ever been involved with getting the rights to a body of work of an important writer so that a complete works can be published (or has followed such a situation, or read about it) will understand what difficulties must have been involved in organizing the publication of the First Folio, particularly if, as we believe, the Authorship Question was causing problems for both Oxford’s friends and his enemies, as it had been in varying degrees since the 1580s.

What are the difficulties that Jonson treats of at the beginning? He’s not exactly being transparent here, which suggests that this part was written for those who knew what he was talking about. That he begins with it suggests that he thought it was important. Or could the tone be due to his public role as chief cynic, so that he felt it necessary to stick to his trademark attitude, at least as an opener?

“To draw no envy on thy name”

What does Jonson mean when he states that he wishes to “draw no envy” on Shakespeare’s name? Envy was a word used a lot in the 16th century. Apparently a great many people were afraid of the trouble that could be caused by the malice of persons who envy others, who want what they have, something primitive societies envision as “the evil eye.” Since Jonson’s literary community was well past the primitive stage, why envy should seem so dangerous is hard to understand, unless, of course, because it was much easier to get away with dirty tricks, even murder, then than it is now. Since Shakespeare had long been dead, or at least quiet, by 1623, one would think he was beyond the reach of envy.

In any case, once past these initial snarls, Jonson finally gets down to the business of lauding the man whose book he is introducing, who in another context has claimed he loved “next idolatry” (Drummond/Dutton).

Much of what Jonson says in praise of Shakespeare is transparent and needs no interpreting. There are however two lies, untruths, false clues, “glancings,” that he felt it necessary (or was required) to weave into the fabric of his poem in order to shift attention from the true author to William of Stratford.

“Thou art a monument without a tomb”

However ambiguous elsewhere, Jonson was clear enough when he wrote: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room; Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s message throughout this verse and the next is that the book he’s introducing, the First Folio, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs. It seems the author is to have no monument, which is of course untrue of William, who seven years earlier had been buried under the floor of Trinity Church in Stratford under a slab of stone noteworthy for the unfortunate bit of doggeral verse carved into it.

The tradition of burying writers in the floor of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey began in 1599 with the burial of Edmund Spenser on a site probably chosen because Chaucer’s monument, the greatest poet of earlier times, was located nearby. Seven years later the tradition was amplified when a third writer was buried nearby, playwright Francis Beaumont. Still, it seems a bit raw to use his Ode to openly deny the Star of Poets his spot in Poet’s Corner. Why make a point of it?

Two thoughts seem appropriate here. First, following Beaumont’s funeral there may have been a movement to have Shakespeare buried in Poet’s Corner. Why not bury the great one in London’s most prestigious cemetary, where those who admired him could come to honor him without having to take the long trip to Stratford? Surely Shakespeare deserved no less.

Here’s another clue that William wasn’t the author, for had he been, there would have been no reason whatsoever to deny him a place in Poet’s Corner. Jonson’s explanation, that Shakespeare was so great that he needs no such recognition, is about as weak as it gets. It’s also worth noting that Jonson claims he has no tomb and no monument (other than the First Folio). William died in 1616. Seven years later, was the stone with its doggerel platitude not yet laid in the floor of the Trinity Church? Was the Stratford monument not yet in place? If not, then what did he mean by “thy Stratford moniment”? If they were, was he unaware of it? Or was he covering up the truth?

Jonson may simply be using a very old trick in the art of disinformation, namely conveying important information by stating it as a denial. Jonson’s biographer, Richard Dutton, in his chapter on Jonson’s “glancings,” notes that this was one of his favorite tricks. The fact that the authorities repeatedly accused Jonson of doing what he denies is not proof, but it must evoke suspicion. The fact that Jonson so consistently denies it proves nothing either; obviously he was not going to admit it. It is, however possible to construe the denials in the end as protesting too much: in effect, . . drawing attention to something in the writing by publicly insisting that it is not there.” (141).

Jonson may be telling those concerned with Shakespeare’s final resting place that if they want to honor him, they can do so by standing on a spot in the Abbey midway between the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont. Those who cared about the true author and his legacy were people with great influence who could easily have arranged for a funeral ceremony in the Abbey at night, when it was closed to the public. Whether or not Beaumont’s coffin had to be moved matters little; Jonson’s purpose was to point to the spot where Shakespeare lay, beneath the paving stones of the Chapel floor.

Chaucer’s monument was then, as it is today, an upright structure standing on the floor against the wall, but the tombs of Spenser and Beaumont were simply plaques with their names set into the floor, as are so many tombs in the Abbey and in Poet’s Corner. Unfortunately, there’s no telling today exactly where they were then, since plaques from many eras now lie edge to edge beside each other covering the entire area.

What is most probable is that he lies beneath the statue that was placed in the Abbey by the patron who acquired his name in the mid-18th century, the First Earl of Oxford by the Second Creation, whose manor of Welbeck had become the repository of books, paintings, and probably much else as the peers of that period sold or lost their valuables through gambling and as collateral for unpaid loans. The Statue and its meaning to an ever shrinking community of insiders, was created by members of the Grand Lodge of Masons to answer to a higher deity than the gaping and ignorant public.

“But though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”

As we have seen, this line of Jonson’s is what set orthodox Shakespeare studies on the wild goose chase from which they have never returned. Why did Jonson lie about Shakespeare’s erudition and how did he manage to get away with it? How did the obvious knowledge of Plautus, Terence, Euripides, Ariosto, etc., (often in the original language) that Shakespeare reveals in his many neologisms escape Jonson’s readers (those at least who expressed opinions in print) and all orthodox scholars since?

Shakespeare was circumspect about his learning. Unlike Jonson, who liked to parade his education, Shakespeare’s characters tend to reveal the erudition of their creator obliquely, sometimes by satirizing it as the confused versions that live in the minds of lesser intellects who had learning beaten into them by their grammar school teachers. Like himself, his more advanced characters often reveal their learning through metaphors and descriptive phrases that will be only partly understood without an educated awareness of their roots in Greek, Latin, French, or Italian.

Why so modest? Was he ashamed of his erudition? Not ashamed, but cautious, as behooved one whose learning so far surpassed even most of his closest associates. And why bother to use references that no one is going to understand? This was true to some extent when he was writing for the Court, but even more so for the public. And since he obviously wished to remain anonymous, he would have done his best to avoid in his published plays and poems the kinds of classical references that would have made it impossible for those who knew him personally to remain ignorant of his authorship.

Nevertheless, the very plots and characters of his plays plus a thousand tropes that made up the substance of his work revealed much too clearly, particularly to a literary milieu educated in the classics to a degree probably never seen since, the kind of education that could not possibly be ascribed to William of Stratford; not, that is, without some serious tampering with the record. So Jonson had no choice but to lie as forcefully and plainly as possible. Contemporaries may have questioned it privately, but scholarship has declined since then, and scholars of subsequent ages have taken at face value this out and out prevarication. Not that they care about the author anyway since their chief interest in Shakespeare is, and always has been, the text.

Jonson then makes up for his monstrus fib by ascribing to Shakespeare a genius that surpasses the “antiquated” Greeks, attributing to him a mystical perfection that transcends Time. He also attempts to salve the fact that he is attributing (however obliquely) the greatest works ever written up until then to an illiterate nonentity by claiming that, as their “father,” Shakespeare’s god-given “mind and manners” shine through his characters and their stories.

 “Sweet swan of Avon”

These are the only words in the entire First Folio that point, however obliquely, to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon Avon. Although not true, they are not quite a lie. No doubt it was incumbent on Jonson, as Court poet and advocate for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to put something in the Ode that connected Shakespeare the poet with William of Stratford, their chosen proxy. If so, this was possibly the least obvious clue he could have dreamed up. Either that or it could be something most easily translated by those who knew the truth, to a reference to the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes.

As Jonson’s patron, Pembroke and his Court circle could, if they chose, read “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a reference to Shakespeare entertaining the Court community at Pembroke’s home, Wilton, which stands on the bank of the Avon River in Wiltshire. (There are at least nine rivers named Avon in Britain; avon means river in Welsh.) There is a strong possibility that the true author was present for at least one such production in 1603, when the young Earl and his mother, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke and former mistress of Wilton, were entertaining King James and his retinue before they made their royal way to London. The swan was thought to sing only at its death. Since Oxford would die (or rather pretend to die) within a few months of that event, the phrase was appropriate in more ways than one.

Jonson makes up to some extent for these necessary prevarications by giving us some important clues about the true author and how he worked. He compares him (and all true poets) to the hardest working of all artisans, the blacksmith, who sweats as he hammers, beating his work into shape. The term “second heat” refers to the phase in metal-working known as termpering when, having beaten the metal into its initial form, the smith allows it to cool, then reheats it for another round of beating. Jonson seems to be comparising these rounds of heating and cooling, a process that strengthens the metal, to the rounds of revision required by good writing, revisions being the “Art” that “makes” a writer, even the most innately gifted. Revisions over a period of years is a better explanation for the anomalous topical references and alterations in language in some of Shakespeare’s plays than the theory that these necessarily reveal the work of a co-author or later reviser, as those who see him as a commercial hack would have it.

“Shine forth, thou Star of Poets”

But the most important clues of all offered by Jonson as to who Shakespeare was and what he actually did, may be contained in his final lines: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage.” What does he mean by pairing rage and influence, chiding and cheering? Aren’t these pairs duplications? Don’t they mean the same thing? That Shakespeare’s works, returned in their true form in the First Folio, will both condemn what’s wrong with the present and encourage a return to something better? Is he speaking only with regard to the Stage, or perhaps in broader terms, to what the Stage represents, the power to change humanity, to change the way it thinks and acts. Isn’t “rage” too strong a word for just the pretense of emotion generated by an actor and his part? If we knew that Shakespeare meant, not just to entertain, but to move his audiences to action, what sorts of action would he be advocating? What influence? At what did his pun name manifest: I “will shake [a] spear!” Surely this is what Jonson––who himself got into trouble more than once for his satires––meant by influence, rage, and chide.

Finally, regarding the use of the word “envy,” we might note that the initials for Ned (Edward) Vere are NV. Can Jonson’s opening line be read: “To draw no NV on your name”? Is this another instance of stating a fact as a denial? Could he have meant instead to be speaking to those who knew the truth: “To draw on NV as your name . . .”?

Are we reading a too much into Jonson’s Ode, one of the most significant poems he would ever write in a long career of writing just such models of doublethink? For as the academics know quite well and have stated as an interesting feature of the time, that is, when there is no chance of its casting suspicion on the Stratford myth, that this kind of seeking for a satirical subtext was the very passion of the period, wouldn’t the true author’s followers be studying Jonson’s dedication for just such sleights of hand? Wouldn’t Jonson know that they would be expecting to see their hero acknowledged in the subtle ways he demonstrated so often in his many odes and epigrams, doing a little “sweating” himself to produce something worthy of the greatest wordsmith of them all, putting his true feelings for the man that by the time he wrote it, had been dead for almost twenty years?

Hide Fox and all after

In the second scene of Act 4, we find Hamlet alone in a room in the castle, where he’s discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been sent to bring him to the King, who’s just been informed of the death of Polonius. After taunting them with their servility, Hamlet agrees to go with them and, as they exit, he mutters “Hide Fox and all after.” Notes tell us what we could have guessed, that this is the name of a children’s game, the one we know today as Hide and Go Seek.  Why does Hamlet say this?   What does he mean? He isn’t saying it to his former schoolmates, nor to the audience. They won’t know what he means any more than we do. From this point on Hamlet talks in riddles a great deal of the time.

In Hide and Go Seek, the child who is “it” plays the role of a hunted animal, a fox if you will, who is sought by the dogs, the rest of the children. To evade the dogs, the fox must be silent and crafty. When one of the hunters tracks him down, the hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the fox, becomes “it.”  Since no harm comes to the fox in the children’s game, this role is more glamorous than that of a hunter, so there is competition to be “it.” To be the best dog, the one who finds the fox the quickest, then to be the best fox, the one who can outfox the dogs for the longest time––this is the motive force that drives the game.  Hamlet is a prince, born to rule. Refusing to see himself as a victim, he finds a way to cast himself as a winner––in his own mind at least––one who can outfox the dogs.

Hamlet is no longer a child, but until now he has lived a pampered existence.  Blissfully unaware of the murderous animal energies that drive the politics of Court society, he has, like Prospero, spent his life immersed in books and things of the mind.  It has taken his father’s murder to awaken him to the realities of power politics.  Unwilling to believe the ghost without some evidence of his uncle’s guilt, he sets a trap, a play, to determine the truth.  This works, yet it also puts him in serious jeopardy.

Now that Claudius knows that he knows who murdered the Old King, Hamlet, formerly just an irritation, has become a deadly threat.  Further, by killing Polonius, he has given his uncle a legitimate reason to get rid of him. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hamlet needs to get the hell out of his intellectual ivory tower and engage on the level of animal energies with all his wits about him.  Knowing how fear can paralyze action, to encourage himself he summons up a game from his childhood, so that he can act freely, with the élan of a child at play.  Thus it is to himself that he speaks when he mutters “Hide fox, and all after.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is full of clues about the author, but these have led nowhere since there’s nothing to be found in Stratford.  There was no prince in Stratford, living in an Ivory Tower.  This author felt safe in childhood, and what does he do as an adult?  How does he deal with the cruel realities of life?  He plays.  He plays the lute, and he writes plays, in which, as in children’s games, the victims rise when the curtain falls and the show is over to play again the following day in a world of make believe.  This author was someone who felt powerless in the real world of power politics, who found his strength and power in the world of the theater, the world of play.

The fox is safe as long so he remains hidden.  There is nowhere Hamlet can hide his physical self from the King and his henchmen.  But what he can hide are his intentions.  From now on, Hamlet, who is of an open disposition by nature and inclined to reveal his feelings, hides them behind a mask of foolery.  Like Hamlet, his author too hides himself behind a mask––the one we call “Shakespeare.”

Why Shakespeare hid

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was a genius.  We may not agree on who he was at this point, but surely we all agree that he was a genius.  There’s something else we know about him now, something we didn’t realize until recently: he was not only a genius at writing plays and poetry, he was also a genius at hiding.  We’ve been playing Hide Fox and All After with Shakespeare for roughly two hundred years, and still he remains elusive, dim, half––if no longer completely––hidden.  But why?

Hamlet hid his intentions because he was in mortal danger.  Is this a clue to Shakespeare’s hiding?  Was he in mortal danger?

Authors frequently hide behind pseudonyms when they publish works that might get them into trouble with the authorities.  (The list of famous writers who have done this is too long to include here.)  Is this why Shakespeare hid his identity?  Would he have been in trouble with the authorities had they known who he was?

Writers often use pseudonyms when they branch out and try something different, so that they won’t turn away faithful readers used to a different style or genre.  (Again, the list of famous writers who have done this, and are doing it today, is too long to list here.)  Could this be part of the reason Shakespeare hid his identity, so he’d be free to change style and genre whenever he felt like it?

Many writers in the past have hidden their identities because they wished to protect their class status or some professional identity.  Was this the reason, or part of it?

Writers hide from family, friends and fans behind unmarked doors and unlisted phone numbers because they need extended periods of unbroken time to get into the creative zone and stay there long enough to make something happen.  Was this why he hid?   To insure his privacy?

As so many great writers have agreed, great writers create out of their own experience, some of it potentially scandalous and embarrassing to their families, friends and lovers. Did Shakespeare hide to protect his family and friends from a posterity that might connect their private secrets with the plots of his plays?  With his villains and fools?  With the passion of his sonnets?

The early modern period was a time when poets were ashamed to put their names to the poetry they published.  In Shakespeare’s day, poetry, particularly love poetry, was regarded as a “toy,” a foolish pastime that healthy-minded adults gave up with maturity.  Is this why he hid?  Because, once past his twenties, he was ashamed to be known as a poet?

This was a time of fierce criticism of all innovations in word usage, spelling, syntax. The messy experiments of a language getting born led to ferocious condemnations of all attempts to do something new. Is this why he hid? Because he didn’t care to hear himself condemned by ignorant fools?

Another reason has been suggested in an article by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, published some time ago in The New Yorker, titled: “What is a Novelist?” In an effort to explain what motivates a serious novelist, Kundera makes the very interesting point that great writers are haunted by a demon unique to their craft, the awareness that their audience may well be posterity, that their name, unlike that of mere generals and tyrants, may last forever, and in fact, that the fame of generals and tyrants depends on writers, for no one will remember the greatest hero unless some writer preserves his deeds in words. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this when he promised the Fair Youth that so “great was his pen,” that the Youth would be remembered “when tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass are spent.” By separating himself from his name, did he wish to keep his inspiration free from the psychological burden of future fame?

Are any of these the reason? Are none of them the reason? Are all of them the reason? Why do we do anything important in life, marry, divorce, start a family, move to a different town or country, change career paths, go back to school? Isn’t it always for more than one reason?

Problems of understanding the period

To find the fox it is necessary to understand him, how he thinks, what motivates him. Those of us who reject the Stratford biography are forced to deal with several problems that complicate our search for Shakespeare, problems that we must address before we can understand him, before we can feel certain that we’ve found the man himself and not just another one of his colleagues, rivals, patrons or proxies. Most of these problems relate to the immense differences that separate our time from his.

Humans share a great deal across the boundaries of time period, nationality, class, language, skin color, etcetera. We share the need to eat, sleep, be protected from cold and heat, communicate, find work, love, companionship, and so forth, but there are also a great many differences between our time and earlier times, differences between classes and the ways in which we regard class differences, between word usages, between expectations with regard to security, privacy, opportunity, responsibility to family and community, differences between our belief systems today, our views on sexuality today, and those of Shakespeare’s time. Some of these differences bear close examination.

For instance, there were far fewer people then. There was only one real city in England, with a population of less than 200,000, while the larger towns were more like what we consider villages today, and the villages hamlets. Although a wave of restlessness and movement, fueled by economic troubles, was rising, most people still tended to stay in one place and keep to one occupation for their entire lives, resulting in much smaller communities with fewer opportunities for change or advancement. Few people outside the Court community were literate.

The high death rate meant that changes such as transfers of offices and property were brought about more by deaths than anything else, usually causing those who lived longer to have as many as three or more marriage partners. The extremely high death rate among infants caused a set of very different attitudes towards children than what we know today, which in turrn must have affected their attitudes as adults. It also caused women to have as many children as they could so that at least some would live to maturity, which had a great effect on the lives, the health, and the attitudes of women.

The high death rate also made religious tolerance next to impossible. With death an ever present factor it was simply too important to feel secure about what happens afterwards to allow any room for differences of opinion. Today most of us are existentialists who accept uncertainty as the price of living in peace with neighbors of differing beliefs, but that was not yet the case in Shakespeare’s time. Where so much was uncertain, certainty of belief was a necessity.

Apart from religion there were other things we routinely question today that were not yet matters for discussion––at least, not open discussion, including the need for strongly-defined social classes, that prestigious bloodlines should be the determining factor in choosing a leader, and that the political system should reflect a particular religion. Differences like these must be seen as absolutely necessary to our effort to understand both the fox we call Shakespeare and the background wherein we seek him.

There are plateaus in history, long periods where change occurs very slowly. Sooner or later these come to an end, giving way to periods of extremely rapid change, often triggered by a discovery of some sort, or a series of discoveries. This was one such period. For several hundred years following the fall of Rome, change had occurred at a relatively slow and even rate, but with the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance, change began to pick up speed.

As is the case in our own time when immense leaps in technology have shrunk, and continue to shrink, our planet while expanding our concept of the universe, the Elizabethan era saw similar leaps in technology bringing about an equally rapid, changing and expanding world view. Considering how long their world view had remained at the level it held throughout the middle ages, there is no doubt that this process was hugely disturbing to most. Awareness of these changes was spread by another factor, the expansion of literacy.

As a response to the Reformation, beginning in the 1550s and reaching a peak of expansion in the 1580s, an upsurge in the creation of grammar schools and colleges at the universities, an expansion of their teaching programs and rapid increase in their student populations, plus the addition of Renaissance humanist subjects to their curricula, created a supernova of learning. People of all ranks and both sexes were learning to read and write in far greater numbers than ever before while at the same time, the language itself was experiencing rapid change and expansion, a phenomenon that was occurring in every European nation.

That this supernova of learning was as intense as it was, and that it lasted at that level of intensity for only a short period of time, roughly fifteen years, can be seen by corelating the pertinent records with the relevant dates. Change and growth continued after this, of course, but at a far slower rate. Since Shakespeare is one of the two great creators of our modern English language that lived at this time, this supernova of language and learning must be taken into account as we seek his identity. Where does he fall on this steep bell curve of development? Reason should tell us that it must be neither too early nor too late.  Finally, because this authorship question involves the writing of poetry and poetic prose, we need to consider the place that poetry occupied in European minds at that time.

Poetry, so important to antiquity, has lost its significance today because it’s no longer needed as it was then. In Shakespeare’s day, although the need was already gone, centuries of habit continued to regard it with respect as a legacy of the aeons that we dismissively term the “oral tradition.” Before people could read and write, poetry and song were the means with which they preserved their cultures in memory, the vehicles whereby an immensely rich culture was passed from each generation to the next.

Poetry is language woven together through the use of mnemonics, tricks of sound that make things easier to remember because they stick in the mind. There are three major mnemonics: rhythm (or meter), rhyme, and alliteration. These, with the addition of song, are the means with which all peoples who do not write keep their cultures alive.  With the development of writing, people no longer had to keep everything, their history, their traditions, their stories, their wisdom, in their memories, they could simply write them down and refer to them when necessary. Nevertheless, although mnemonics, and eventually poetry itself, were no longer necessary, for the centuries preceding printing, tradition kept poetics alive, so that most ancient works of philosophy, religion, history, science, and medicine continued to be written in some form of poetry. Today we think of poetry as a vehicle for personal and emotional themes, but in ancient times, everything was written in poetry if it was to be kept in memory.

Although it wouldn’t be until our own time that schoolchildren––in America at least––would no longer be required to memorize a handful of poems, Shakespeare’s period, due to the Reformation attitudes towards art and the rapid increases in printing and education, saw the importance of poetry being seriously questioned for the first time.

Renaissance vs. Reformation

The great cultural revolution known as the European Renaissance, imported from Southern Europe, came late to England, and when it arrived it was almost immediately modified by another great cultural revolution, the Protestant Reformation, imported from Northern Europe. They reinforced each other in some respects, particularly in encouraging education, but in others they clashed, creating a tension that continues to exist in the English-speaking culture today. This tension was at high voltage during Shakespeare’s time. While the Renaissance craved art, music and poetry, the Reformation tended to frown on the arts as, at best, a waste of the Lord’s precious time, at worst, tools of the Devil.

Following the period of the most intense growth of education came a second period of rapid change, one that also lasted a fairly short period of time, roughly the two decades that spanned the 1580s and 1590s. During this period language and style developed at a breathless pace.

It began at a pathetically low level. Try reading a few pages of Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Baldassare Cortegiano’s The Courtier. Hoby’s attempt to translate this Italian masterpiece into English is so turgid, so stilted, so convoluted, that over and over, the editor finds it necessary to translate so the reader can understand what the Italian original had intended. Or try some of the jog-trot poetry of Thomas Churchyard or George Whetstone. C.S. Lewis called this the “drab era.” Although education was increasing during this period by leaps and bounds, most teaching was still done in Latin, while English remained as stark and awkward as ever.

But by 1600, two short decades later, the standard had climbed to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached either before or since, that set the bars for every writer of English to come later. This was a bell curve of change so steep it’s almost vertical. While the previous generation saw a supernova of education, the era of Marlowe, Sidney, Bacon and Shakespeare created a supernova of culture.

What caused this abrupt and rapid change? Certainly the preceding upsurge in printing and education had a great deal to do with it. But was there more to it than that?

Birth of the commercial media

This cultural supernova was fueled by an extremely important event in English history, one that, so far as I can see, has not been given its due. This momentous event was the birth of the commercial stage and the commercial press in the mid-1580s. Historians haven’t rated this in proportion to its importance in the history of the English-speaking peoples, not just their literary history, but a far more important development in the grand scheme of things, namely the history of Democracy. As the people of London began to make their will known by the plays they supported and the pamphlets they read, a new branch of government was born: the Fourth Estate, the voice of the people, the vox populi, what today we call the Media, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before the mid-1580s.

Before that, plays and books were dependent on wealthy patrons to get produced.   Following the Edwardian Reformation, when printing took off, roughly 90 percent of everything published were sermons or translations of religious tracts, with five percent how-to books or other works of self-improvement. But with the popularity of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, and of pamphlets like Robert Greene’s romances, a wealthy patron was no longer necessary––for these paid for themselves. Now theater owners and publishers could produce works based purely on their appeal to the public. From this point on, writers began to write what they believed readers and audiences would want to read, rather than what someone thought they ought to read.

This was the beginning of democracy in action, a bloodless revolution––well, relatively bloodless––and, perhaps because it was relatively bloodless, it hasn’t been seen in its true light.  So why did it occur at this particular moment in time?

Hunger for entertainment

For centuries the Church had filled all the entertainment needs of the public at large. Almost every week some Saint’s Day provided an excuse for a feast, while at least once per season there would be a full blown festival lasting for several days, offering an excuse to dress up, dance, feast, drink, play games and make elaborate processions to the local parish church. These gave the people something to look forward to throughout the days and weeks of the year. With the Protestant Reformation, most of this came to an end. Such carryings-on were seen by the early reformers as papistical pandering to pagan disorder. Yule logs were banned––may poles torn down.

For centuries certain inns in London and the larger towns had doubled as theatres when acting troupes came to town. With the loss of the Church calendar, people began to spend more time and more money in the theater inns, to the point where business entrepreneurs like James Burbage and his brother-in-law thought a building dedicated solely to plays might be able to support itself.   This they just barely managed to do until the mid-80s when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine showed that with the right play and the right performers, significant profits could be made from the enthusiasm of an audience willing to pay its penny, not once, not twice, but whenever the play was performed.

As for the commercial press, the same scenario held, though on a considerably smaller scale, since pamphlet sales were limited to the reading public, which at that time was probably roughly five to ten percent of the population. And while a pamphlet might eventually reach 500 readers, a play could reach thousands. According to Thomas Nashe, by 1592, 10,000 people had seen Henry the Sixth.

Later historians may have missed the significance of this revolution, but the Crown, the City and the Church certainly did not. Throughout this period they made continuous and frantic efforts to stop or at least control their growth, and even to banish them altogether. But as a poet once put it: “stop running water and it will rage”––once a revolution has been launched in full force, there’s no stopping it.

By the end of the ’90s, the booming commercial theater and press began to produce a small corps of professional writers. By professional we mean that they could live, or at least hope to live, on the proceeds of their writing­­––something that is difficult at any time, but was, until then, so impossible that no one bothered to try. Point being, there simply were no commercial writers at the beginning of this revolution. There were scriveners who made their living acting as secretaries to the illiterate public at large, who, for a small fee would read to them the letters they received and write letters for them, but this trade was not an art.

In the end it was a small community of university-trained secretaries and tutors to the well-to-do that would provide the budding media with professional writers, but that did not happen until the very end of the century.

As for the actors, until the 1580s most performers had a trade that kept them going between holidays. Once the stage went commercial, and there was work year-round, talented actors simply gave up their “day gigs.”  But the situation was different for the writers who would provide the material that actors and theater owners relied upon. Until the professional writers began to appear in the early 17th century––Jonson, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher––who was doing the writing on which the actors and theater owners––and audiences––relied for their entertainment? The answer is, we really don’t know.

This is a mystery of much greater proportions that just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Who wrote these early pamphlets and plays? Who kick-started this literary revolution? If we go solely by the records, Shakespeare played no part in the production of these first commercial plays from the 1580s. There must have been several hundred plays written by the beginning of the nineties for the various boy companies, the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men. Apart from the occasional one-timer like Udall or Wilson, for all of these we have authors for no more than 17 plays and for these, only four authors: 4 plays from Christopher Marlowe, 9 from John Lyly, 1 from Thomas Kyd, and 3 from Robert Greene [Orlando, James IV, Friar Bacon, ]––and two of the four authors, Kyd and Greene, are no more than conjectures. Since pamphlets required names on the title page, we have a few of these, but for genuinely literary pamphlets, only two names stick out, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

Groups or coteries

First: no lasting revolution was ever engineered by a single individual. Revolutions are always created by groups. They may center around a single inspiring leader, but it requires a group to accomplish any set of common goals or to create an accepted standard. By the same token, great artists, who are almost always revolutionaries of a sort, do not create out of a vacuum. Invariably they have colleagues and rivals, if not equal in genius, then close enough to stimulate them to reach for greater heights.

Second: nothing is so powerful in stimulating human action as competition, whether for food, power, or recognition, even if the recognition is only from a handful of others of like mind.

Third: writers and performers need audiences. And no artist finds a better, more stimulating, audience than that provided by his or her peers. That we see no evidence of any connection between the artists who stand out from this period: Shakespeare, Philip and Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, etc., does not mean, as the academics seem so strangely willing to accept, that they had no connection with each other. Of course they did. Birds of a feather flock together. Just because we don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What does a bear do in the woods? Do we need an affadavit?

So here’s another dog that didn’t bark in the night, another anomaly in the orbit of the visible planets.

And the fact that there is no evidence of what common sense demands––should tell us something else––namely that such a connection was hidden––that concern with each other or time spent together was not something to spread about or refer to in print. What behaviors are acceptable in public and what are acceptable only within the privacy of the family or private coterie is something that every child learns very early, if not at his mother’s and father’s knee, then at the knee of his tutor or her governess.

This can hardly be considered a “conspiracy,” as least not as the Stratfordians derisively term it. Is it a conspiracy when a man and a woman who are married to other partners have lunch together in some out of the way bistro, and then simply don’t tell anyone about it?   Or when politicians from opposing parties get together in private to discuss a sensitive issue and neglect to inform the newspapers?

Very little of what was done and said in those days wound up in the records if the letters that survived with the legend “burn this” inscribed at the bottom are any indication. There’s no reason why writers who were members of different and sometimes opposing coteries would leave any record of their connections with each other, or why those who worked for them would reveal relationships that their employers preferred to remain hidden. There were no paparazzi in those days. Not only was there no yellow journalism in those days, there was no journalism period.

There was not just one fox in this game of hide and go seek, but several. Why? Because this was a revolution and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Were they aware that they were creating a revolution? Maybe, maybe not. But what they were surely aware of was that as soon as the fox was caught the game would be over. This was not a conspiracy, it was a game! At least, that’s what it was at first.

Merry-making

To banish his fears of the horrors of an adult reality, Hamlet strives to return in his mind to a childhood world of play. In the effort to understand Hamlet’s creator, one of the prime factors that has been missed by the so-called experts is this quality of playfulness, or, to use an old English term, “merry-making.” In English we call dramas “plays.” Sixteenth-century audiences called actors “players,” reflecting the source of modern theater in the games and rituals of “merry-making,” the English term for the age-old response of the human animal to the changes in the seasons.

At particular moments during the year, the English of all classes and callings donned costumes and masks and stepped out of their humdrum workaday world into a holiday world of fantasy ritual. These moments occurred most significantly on May Day, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and on several occasions during the winter holidays from November 30th, All Hallow’s Eve, to January 6th, Twelfth Night, then to Shrovetide in early February, also known as Fat Tuesday or, on the Continent, Carneval, the last big blowout before the beginning of Lent. This was part and parcel of the Church calendar as it had been pursued around the year from time immemorial.

But, though they were loosely connected to Christian holidays, these festivals were not Christian in origin. They had grown over the centuries out of pagan festivals, which themselves had grown during even earlier ages out of grim Stone Age rituals––rituals whose significance had been forgotten long before the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s early plays reflect their origins in these rituals. Authorship scholars are proving that the sexual greenwood adventures of May Day, as reflected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the traditional wedding chivaree, as in Taming of the Shrew, were, in fact, written for two such occasions. The teasing and tormenting of authorities or obnoxious neighbors through satires, burning of effigies, breaking of windows, chanting of naughty jingles, which, combined with a hearty consumption of ale, could lead to real trouble, were sublimated and refined by Shakespeare into the vicarious tormenting of stage characters like Malvolio and Falstaff.  Thus were the crude animal energies that were so feared by the reformers sublimated into a the genteel theater event of the present.

In other words, for the first decade of this revolution, the 1580s, this uprush of expression through plays and pamphlets was done, most of it, in the age-old holiday spirit of merrymaking. Quashed by the evangelical reformers, now it was spilling over the ancient time boundaries that until then had kept it contained within the traditional holiday periods, much to the horror of the Church that had created the problem in the first place.

In any case, these folks whose identities we are tracking did what they did in a spirit of good clean fun, or fun at least. Brilliant minds met to create moments of exhilarating hilarity, the tensions and fears of the regime blown away in gusts of laughter, first among themselves at Court gatherings, then spreading to the public theaters and bookstalls. That we can still hear that laughter echoing in the scenes with Falstaff, Nym and Pistol, with Hal and Poins teasing Francis the drawer, is due to Shakespeare’s comic genius. And when Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, saying “dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” we are hearing Shakespeare confront a rising tide of humorless Calvinists that half a century later would shut down his brilliant, funny, witty theater, leaving it cold and shuttered for two long decades. He must have seen what was coming, having given the last word of the play to the puritanical Malvolio: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

These young Court writers were not out to change the world, not at first. Like kids in school, they were just out to have a good time and were not about to let anyone stop them. There’s your conspiracy––a gang of gifted mischief-makers out to torment the self-righteous, a conspiracy among the real Marias, Sir Tobys, Fabians and Festes, between the real Oberon and Puck, between the real Prospero and Ariel, the real Mistresses Page and Ford, the real Hal and Poins.

So who were they?

None of them are unknown to us. All are known to us today, at least for their reputations if not for their actual works. Most of them were courtiers. Courtiers were the only people in Elizabethan society with the leisure to play such games, games that, like cards, dice, dancing and singing madrigals, could only be played by a group. They were also the only ones with an awareness of what was being done by their counterparts at the Italian courts, by Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Tasso.

How did they do it? By using proxies on their title pages.

How are we to tell who was a proxy and who was a real writer?

Because the real writers have genuine writer’s biographies, their works match their life experiences, and we know them today, not just for their works but also by their proven presence in society where they were acknowledged for their writing.  The proxies show only that they lived and died; they show no evidence of a writer’s life; and their purported works do not match their life experience as projected by their biographies. This is not the case only with Shakespeare, but with all but two of the major writers during this two.decade period.

To understand how the creation of the Fourth Estate in Elizabethan times by the emergence of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press attracted the energies of six or seven tremendously gifted individuals who created lift-off for an industry that by the 17th century saw professional writers emerging from the population at large, it’s important to make the point that this was done at the beginning in the spirit of a game, of play, of a new kind of “mumming and disguising,” of new and more respectable forms of “merry-making” to take the place of the old May games that, along with the Church calendar, were being driven into disrepute by the Reformation.

In my view, which is of course, subject to change with the arrival of new facts and insights, there were six major figures in this revolution that came from the Court community: these being Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his cousin german, Francis Bacon (we don’t call him Sir because he wasn’t a knight yet, during this early revolutionary period), Philip Sidney (for most of this period, Philip was not a knight yet either), his sister Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (she was a countess during this revolutionary period), and Sir Walter Raleigh. In addition to the Court writers, there was a commoner who belongs in this top category, Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury.

Just as the history of the Trojan War requires the story of the combatants, their personalities, their goals and ambitions, and their relationships with each other, to understand this revolution of language, we must know the stories of the revolutionaries and of their relationships. Just listing them won’t be enough. The proof is in the story. But we can’t examine their stories, we can’t put them together in a single story, or in a single blog. What we can do in this time, is identify them, affirm that obviously they knew each other’s work, affirm that they must have known each other personally, and that by their works they drove each other to reach for the heights. It was simply too small a community for any other scenario to be possible.

Who were the proxies then, the so-called writers who lent or sold the use of their names so the Court writers could publish anonymously? Whose biographies lack the necessary factors that we must see in a writer’s biography to give it credence?  The men who, I believe, rented their names to the Court writers purely for cash or other forms of remuneration were: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, William Shakespeare, and John Webster.

Other men for reasons of friendship lent their names for one or two publications: among these were: George Gascoigne, George Pettie, Barnabe Riche, and Thomas Lodge. There may be others, but of these we can be fairly certain, for all of them show similar problems with their biographies and with the fact that the nature of the works that they are supposed to have written does not match the nature of their lives as revealed in their biographies.

Scholars tend to be a serious lot. For centuries they’ve managed to ignore the obvious clues that the death of Robert Greene was a joke. Of these clues, the most glaring is that he was said to have died of a “surfeit,” or overdose, of “pickle-herring.” “Pickle-herring” at that time was a traditional name for a clown or comedian, similar to Harlequin or Punch. So the reader is being told, of course, that Greene’s supposed death was due to an overdose of foolery. You’d think that this would have alerted scholars to the game-playing nature of his work, but so far as I know, for over 400 years it has failed to alert a single one.

Much is yet to be puzzled out, much reading of early works is left to do, many word studies created that may now give us some real results since we have better questions to propose, much time spent in thought, yet I believe that it’s fair to state that the most important of these writers was responsible for, in chronological order: the Gascoigne plays, the Pettie canon, the Lyly novels, the Robert Greene canon, and the Shakespeare canon. The second most important was responsible for most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon. And a third is responsible for the John Webster canon and perhaps a handful of plays attributed to other, later writers. That they are grouped this way can be shown, I believe, first, by noting similarities of approach, basic habits of expression, and unchanging personal concerns that transcend all changes in style and genre. And second, through their dates. For instance, it is of utmost significance that the appearance of Shakespeare follows so closely on the demise of Robert Greene and, for another, that Nashe follows almost immediately on the final works of Edmund Spenser.

Finally, the point must be made, that while three of these writers published under other names than their own, the works of the other two were published under their own names. Philip Sidney himself wrote everything, with a few very minor exceptions, that was published under his name, while Marlowe’s plays are all his own. It should also be noted that both of these writers died young, before they were published, while those who published under proxies all lived fairly long lives and all published long before they died. Where Raleigh fits into this picture is hard to tell at this point. Perhaps the few poems that we believe to be his, his marvelous reports and tracts on naval matters, and the history of the world that he wrote towards the end of his life are, in fact, all he ever wrote. Hopefully what poetry was his will become more clear as we investigate his cronies. These are the main players, the authors of most of the important works of the imagination during this earliest period. Others there were without doubt, with possibly equal talent, who chose, for personal reasons, not to develop it in later life. But these six had a passion for writing that could not be silenced, even if for their own good.

What then can I state without equivocation?

First, that the English Literary Renaissance was launched by, not one, not two, but at least six individuals, five courtiers and one commoner, five men and one woman; that they knew each other and inspired each other; and that a number of important and not so important works attributed to other writers are, in fact, the works of three or four members of this group. Second, that their impulse to write and publish grew, at least at the beginning, out of the game-playing spirit of holiday merry-making, and that the hiding of their identities grew out of the same tradition, that of holiday mumming and disguising and that the game turned deadly roughly halfway through this period when “Maxwell’s silver hammer” fell down on Marlowe’s head. From then on the mumming became serious and the disguising a necessity.

Finally, we will not know the full truth about Shakespeare until we’ve unraveled the truth about all the writers of this period, both those who did the writing, and those who took, or have been given, the credit for it. This is the story of, not just one individual, however great, but a group. And it’s a darned good story, and well worth the telling.

[The above is a slightly modified version of a lecture given at the Globe Theater in 2006 for the first of what has become the annual Shakespeare Authorship Trust lecture series.]

Greenblatt’s “Will in the World”: not

Beleaguered perhaps by the rising enthusiasm for Oxford as Shakespeare, as our world of Shakespeare enthusiasts entered the 21st century, two academics have once more taken it upon themselves to provide us with William of Stratford scenarios, not so new as slightly refurbished. Curious to see how they deal with the thousand and one still unresolved anomalies that attend “the Shakespeare Problem,” (E.K. Chambers’s term for “problems of chronology”: when were the plays written?, and “problems of authenticity: who wrote them?) I began with the one from 2004, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.

After introducing us to Shakespeare’s accomplishments, how he

turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and of beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history. . . .

Greenblatt asks, “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” Alas, this is not a question he is capable of answering, for all that he has to offer is the same old dodge, tarted up with descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London, laced with facts and events that have no relevance, or very little, to how the plays got written, and so heavy with the kind of conjecture that must fill in where facts are scarce, it’s hard not to separate the wheat from the chaff, there being so very little wheat.

Those of us who read biographies to find out more about the famous persons who interest us should see immediately that, once again, this is far from what anyone would normally consider the biography of a real human being. Nor can we explain its failure to communicate Shakespeare’s life story as a natural loss of information from a long distant time, for why should we know more about Alexander the Great, who lived 2400 years ago, than we do Shakespeare, a mere 400, and at at time when letter writing was at a peak and the Stage a subject of intense public excitement and fascination?  Why should we know so much more about Ben Jonson, a playwright from Shakespeare’s own time, than his far greater contemporary?  And why isn’t the first question to be dealt with, now, after 400 years of silence, the reason for this strange and unexplained lack of information?

There’s no biography here, no story, no drama, no pathos, no real narrative, only a few anecdotes, many of them concocted by the Academy or its precursors to explain why a particular play was written, or what connection, if any, might be drawn to the life of someone about whom so very little was ever recorded, none of which shows any resemblance to the life of any real theatrical genius (Oscar Wilde? Leonard Bernstein? George Balanchine? George Gershwin?), that is, the only connection being the name that was purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men because they had to have something to put on the title pages of the plays when they finally began publishing them. As for the fact that the first two times it was used on a published play (after four years of anonymous publishing) it was hyphenated, well, “nothing here folks,” just another example of how nobody involved in creating the London Stage knew what the heck they were doing.

Professor of Humanities at Harvard and editor of the Norton Shakespeare, Greenblatt is considered a founder of the “new Historicism,” one of those bloody neologisms that have wreaked so much damage on the teaching, and study, and love and understanding, of English literature, ever since the universities in their wisdom began replacing reading and discussing the great works with language science (philolology, semiotics).

Whatever “the New Historicism” is supposed to convey it certainly doesn’t include much history. The realities of the period during which the plays were written, far from the ground out of which they grew, provide little more than a shifting and sketchy backdrop to the same old fairy tales: pleasant descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London; pastel acquatints; bathroom wallpaper.  We might be watching one of those old travelogues from the 1930s and’40s with which Turner Classic Movies fills out their programming, “and now we say goodbye to old sixteenth-century London . . . .”

Since history provides no support at all for the Stratford biography, what Greenblatt relies on instead are centuries of academic conjecture: “All biographical studies of Shakespeare necessarily build on the assiduous, sometimes obsessive, archival research and speculation of many generations of scholars and writers.”  After 400 years of consistent failure, wouldn’t you think the greatest need might be to go back to the beginning and start over?  Not so. It seems “Historicism” means little more than recycling every cockamamie workaround that 400 years of dealing with the Great Anomaly (the lack of any real evidence, not only for Shakespeare, but for the broader phenomenon, the London Stage) has managed to produce, for Greenblatt has organized his attempt at a biography, not so that we can come to know the man who gave us the great plays––clearly that’s impossible, at least for someone associated with a university––but so, as he puts it, that readers can “find their way through the immense forest of critical resources”!  Well who but a postdoc gives a hoot about “critical resources”?  This is supposed to be a biography!

Says Greenblatt, “the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin.” (12). By abundant he means that thanks to centuries of archival digging by scholars like Malone, Halliwell-Philips, Schoenbaum and dozens of others, we know far more than we need to know or care to know about William’s exceedingly humdrum life in Stratford, while by thin he means anything that connects him to London or the Stage.  Scholars have filled volumes with the Stratford records; the records that connect him to the Theater can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Says Greenblatt

After . . . sifting through most of the available traces, readers rarely feel closer to understanding how the playwright’s achievements came about. If anything, Shakespeare often seems a drabber, duller person, and the inward springs of his art seem more obscure than ever. Those springs would be difficult enough to glimpse if biographers could draw upon letters and diaries, contemporary memoires and interviews, books with revealing marginalia, notes and first drafts. Nothing of the kind survives. (13)

Survives?  What evidence is there that originally there was something worth surviving? What this otherwise unexplainable absence suggests is that in fact there were never any letters, diaries, memoires, etc., that mention William as an actor or a playwright, for had there been, there would simply be NO GOOD REASON why the evidence failed to survive when so much else has survived.

Why on earth would no one have ever paid any attention to William of Stratford had he in fact been the author of these popular plays?  Why so much attention to Jonson and nothing to Shakespeare?  When does common sense kick in?  Is it going to take another 200 years before this anomalous lack of evidence brings those who have the means to publish around to pondering for reasons why Jonson and not Shakespeare?

Greenblatt asks, “Where are [William’s] personal letters?  Why have scholars ferreting for centuries failed to find the books he must have owned––or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in these books, as Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did?”  How about because William couldn’t write, as evidenced by the six shaky signatures?  How about because he couldn’t read?  How about because he wasn’t Shakespeare?

The education problem

Says Greenblatt, “The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.” Modest education?  What education?  The only evidence that William could write so much as his own name (and even that not well or completely) are the six wobbly signatures on legal documents that are all that 200 years of digging has managed to unearth from the voluminous records that have been the focus of scholarly attention for the past 200 years. The only letter we know of that was ever written to William was never answered (or perhaps, never sent?).

The only possible support for the idea that he had any education at all is because, well, there was a grammar school in Stratford, and of course the great Shakespeare had to be educated, evidence or no evidence.  Yes, the author had to be educated, but is the man who could not even spell his own name that author?  Nor does “modest” accurately describe the kind of education revealed by everything attributed to Shakespeare, the depth of his knowledge of the Law, medicine, horticulture, astronomy, astrology, the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, of contemporary France and Italy, much of it foreign even to the most highly-educated of his contemporaries.

We are told what books Shakespeare “must have read.” Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that William had read anything.  There are no books listed in his will.  This and similar other difficult facts are “explained” by the academics as normal for the period. Many owners of books neglected to list them in their wills. Perhaps. But points like this simply add to an increasingly large set of facts that suggest, if they do not out and out prove, that William was illiterate, such as the fact that his entire family signed legal papers with an x, or that no member of his family had anything to say with regard to his fame as a playwright.

About his career as the author of the most popular plays in London, it seems his family and their neighbors knew nothing, for had they known there would certainly have been a record of it. The notion that his son-in-law Dr. Hall, who remarked in his diary on having treated their neighbor, the playwright Michael Drayton, might have mentioned his playwright father-in-law in notebooks that got burnt with the trash, is typical of how academics deal with the fact that Hall, who did mention his father-in-law elsewhere, never mentions his fantastic career.  The three passing references to William’s presence in London that are all the record provides as evidence of a London career (nonpayment of taxes in 1595 and ’96, and a sojourn of indeterminate length in 1604 with a family of haberdashers) that these are sufficient to support his theatrical fame would, for anyone but an Oxbridge historicist, be far from sufficient.  Nor is there any mention of valuable theater shares in his will.

Greenblatt’s version: nothing new

For those who haven’t read one of the orthodox Shakespeare biographies, Greenblatt faithfully follows his predecessors.  Bored with family life in provincial Stratford (parents, siblings, wife and three children), Will takes off for London.  Maybe hooking up with one of the London touring companies that pass through from time to time, the professional actors it seems do not hesitate to share with him the secrets of their trade, teaching him to sing, dance, fence, play an instrument, speak with a London accent, and memorize their repertory.

Or, another theory, maybe it wasn’t only boredom but trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy, that sends the youthful genius off to London, probably not for poaching rabbits as an earlier invention had it, maybe something having to do with religion, which, as Greenblatt mentions in passing, was something of a problem back then. This version has William, if not holding horses, then beginning by revising plays by an assortment of earlier (nameless) writers.

The University Wits

When it comes to the University Wits, Greenblatt willingly repeats a number of ancient falsehoods, among them that George Peele was a “reveler” who “died of the Pox,” something Peele’s biographer has proven to be a bad rap foisted on the early playwright after his death.  Playing fast and loose with a subject that nobody really knows anything about, Greenblatt claims the Wits were “snobbish” towards the self-educated William, who prudently held himself aloof when he “saw that they drank for days and nights at a time and then, still half drunk, threw something together for the printer or the players.”  He misses the joke in “Harvey’s” Second Letter, swallowing whole the tongue-in-cheek claim that their leading playwright, Robert Greene, died of an overdose of “pickled herring.” Is he unaware, or is he simply not interested in the fact that Pickle Herring was the name of a famous clown character, something like the Comedia’s Scaramouche?  Was Greene’s death a joke?  And who was Robert Greene anyway?  Questions like these are to be avoided.  Radioactive, they threaten the holy of holies, the Stratford biography.

Yet Greenblatt does see, as so many of his colleagues do not, how all (but one) of the Wits “quickly followed [Greene] to the grave”––even as he fails to acknowledge any connection between their disappearance in the early 1590s and the concurrent series of brutal attacks on Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, by the Privy Council under the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil.  Whenever any real drama threatens the peaceful tenor of his narrative, he quickly cools it with placid adjectives.  According to Greenblatt, for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, threatened by the loss of their means of livelihood in 1596, body blows like the loss of their theaters and the deaths of their patron and manager were nothing more than “disconcerting.”

William’s life in Shakespeare’s plays

Greenblatt’s attempts to locate events in William’s life in the plots of the plays are noteworthy for their utter irrelevance.  His notion that William’s shotgun wedding was the source for Romeo and Juliet’s romance is little short of pathetic.  His claim that the unhappy marriages in Shakespeare derive from William’s own marriage because they have “an odd, insistent ring of truth,” could be said of almost anyone.   He sees Prospero’s concern for Miranda’s virtue an extension of William’s concern for his own daughters, though it’s questionable how well he could possibly have known them, having, according to Greenblatt, spent their growing and marrying years in far off London.  As for William’s anger towards his son-in-law because his will shows a series of interlineations that cut him off, that hardly comports with Prospero’s intention to see Miranda happily married to the noble Ferdinand.  Nor, for obvious reasons, does he extend this imagined connection with his daughters to the venomous daughters of King Lear.

Other views are equally conflicted. Marlowe was a brilliant dramatist, the inventor of blank verse and a threat to the Crown at the same time that he was a spy for the Crown, a counterfeiter, and a violent brawler. Similarly Shakespeare, Jonson’s “soul of the age, the delight, the wonder of our Stage,” was a play-patcher who cribbed his ideas from lesser writers and worked in partnership with sundry co-authors while showing “little or no interest” in the fate of his published works.

There are a fair number of out and out untruths. It seems that Stratford’s Forest of Arden, backdrop for so many scenes in Shakespeare, was in fact little more than a few patches of woods; having long since been encroached upon by the growth of small farms, so that all that remained of it by William’s time was the name.  Nor was tanning John Shakspere’s trade, as Greenblatt states, because while tanning hides was tangential to wool dealing, it was a totally separate industry.

However limited by his precursors, Greenblatt is not entirely without logic when it comes to the plays themselves.  He sees that Shakespeare had no reverence for the Church as an institution and that his “powerful prelates” are uniformly “disagreeable.” Suggesting that Shakespeare could not allow Falstaff to have a scene or two in Henry V because that play had to remain true to its purpose to rouse patriotic sentiment, is probably at least partly why the popular character was killed off in the­ second act. (Another might be because Will Kemp, doubtless the comedian who made Falstaff a household word, had left the Company by the time Henry V took its final form, and no one up to the part had yet been found to take his place.)  He also grasps the purpose of the first seventeen sonnets and is aware that sonneteering was a “game of courtiers,” though he doesn’t try to explain how the humble Will managed to play the sophisticated game with such subtlety and skill.

How long, O Lord, how long?

When will someone of Greenblatt’s experience, intelligence and academic standing have the courage to admit the impossibility of proving that William of Stratford could possibly have written the Shakespeare canon?  When will the Academy turn its attention to what should have been the central question from the start: What happened to the records that could tell us who did write it?  There’s the story, folks.  There’s the missing narrative, the drama, the history, the pathos.  There’s where the truth lies, and where we’ll find it, and so much else, when we begin to look for it in the right places.

 

Another piece of the puzzle falls in place

The name Shakespeare emerges for the first time in connection with the London Stage on the title page of the second edition of Richard III, published in 1598, shortly after the first, anonymous, edition of 1597.  After several years of anonymous publication, why did the name appear at just that time and on that particular play?  We’ve been examining the phenomenon of Richard III from a political viewpoint, that of the war waged by Secretary of State Robert Cecil on the London Stage.  What about the play itself?  What can we learn from that?

Albert Feuillerat, writing in the 1940s and into the early 1950s, made an exceedingly close study, word by word, phrase by phrase, of Richard III and several of the other earliest plays in the canon: Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI parts Two and Three.  The earliest to be published, they were also the first to bear the name Shakespeare.  Feuillerat’s close attention to detail, to the meter and vocabulary of these plays, should command more respect than it does.  That one hears his name so little is probably due to the fact that the results of his study tend to point in a direction uncomfortable for the Stratford biography, cornerstone of the academic cult.

One of the things Feuillerat brings out that should be a central point in Early Modern literary studies is the obvious fact that the repertory companies had to revise their plays every so often to keep their audiences coming back, a logical perception that should put paid to the academic nonsense about “bad quartos.”  Anyone with money can build a theater.  Anyone with a little chuzpah can grab a cloak and spear and do a turn on stage.  But not just anyone can write a play that holds an audience’s attention, particularly one that brings them back for a second or a third time.  So the plays had to be refurbished from time to time so that the producer could advertise them as “newly augmented” and thus continue to use them to bring the audiences in.

Of the six plays examined by Feuillerat, the three history plays have a further interest in that they’re closely related to a handful of anonymous plays known as the First and Second parts of The Contention between the houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedies of Richard III and of Richard Duke of York.  So perfectly do these fit the plots, characters, and much of the language of  Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard II, and the last two parts of Henry VI, that avoiding the inevitable conclusion that they are Shakespeare’s own early versions has required the kind of intellectual contortions that we’ve come to expect from the university English Departments.

The simplest and easiest and most likely explanation would be that Shakespeare wrote them himself; where else in literature do we find early versions of works by anyone but the individual who wrote the final version?  But because the Stratford biography has Shakespeare placed too late for that, some other explanation had to be found.  It was in search of this that Feuillerat spent 30 years deconstructing these plays, both the early versions and Shakespeare’s.  Feuillerat’s close attention to the language, meter, tropes, archisms, etc. of these plays, reveals that they display four separate and definite styles, each, according to him, easily distinguished from the others, and all of them most relevant to our thesis.

Feuillerat calls the three styles, or hands, as he terms them, that preceded Shakespeare’s versions: authors A,  B, and C; author A is the creator of the first version of the history plays while author C is the creator of the first versions (now lost, though traces remain) of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet.  Author A’s originals were revised at some point by author B, whose work he calls “Marlowesque” and whose job it was to regularize the uneven verse patterns of A into a tight iambic pentameter.  This version was then updated in the early 1590s by Shakespeare, who added humanistic touches,  Shakespearean imagery,  further refinements to the meter––and what Feuillerat sentimentally and not very accurately calls his “sober sweetness”––to the versions published under his name in the 1590s.  (Where is there any “sober sweetness” to be found in Richard III?)

Although Feuillerat makes no effort to affix dates to the originals by A and C, his descriptions suggest that those parts written by C may go as far back as the 1560s and 70s, while A fits better with the early 80s.  And although he claims at the outset that he’s able to discern where author B has overwritten A, and Shakespeare all three, he confesses in several places that he’s not all that clear where Shakespeare and C are concerned, as both are fond of similar tropes.  Nor does he make the slightest effort to identify any of the three, a significant ommission considering that he published several books and articles on Philip Sidney and also on John Lyly, whose dates, one would think, would make him a prime candidate for at least one of these hands.

One problem with Feuillerat’s scenario is that he’s forced to cast Shakespeare in the role of “play-patcher,” a ringer brought in in the ’90s to update old plays, who quickly works his way up to the role of Company playwright.  So once again the workaround created to deal with problems caused by the Stratford biography forces Shakespeare into a role not befitting the most creative force in English letters.  If Shakespeare didn’t write these plays, if he merely updated them, what about all the others?  What about Henry V, which is so obviously a rewrite of The Famous Victories?  Flatly dismissing the obvious connection between Thomas of Woodstock and Richard II, as “of no significance,” he never addresses any of these issues.  What about all the plays that don’t have previous versions by earlier phantom writers?  When did Shakespeare begin writing his own plays?  Apparently such questions are also “of no significance.”

Worse than this is the problem his scenario creates of identifying authors A and C, whose plays were so dramatically sound that, despite their questionable versification and awkward archaisms, rather than let them go, the actors saw to it that they were consistently revised over time, with improvement to the language, but rarely to the structure, placing them first among the plays to be upgraded with the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s men.  It would seem that these two original authors deserve a place in English letters close to Shakespeare himself, if only we knew who they were.  But of course we know who they must have been!

One of the things that struck me when I first began studying these matters was the immense disconnect between the fantasy Stage of the orthodox imagination and the limited reality of the times.  The size of the community that produced these first works of genuine literature does not allow for all the ghostly figures conjured up, first by the courtiers who used one phony name after another to get published, then by later historians who, like Feuillerat, have filled the record void with any number of brilliant if nameless writers.  The earliest days of the Stage, and of the popular Press that published its plays, was an outgrowth of what the Elizabethans called May Games, the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages that turned a few weeks in the heart of the winter into a fantasy world of feasting, masquing and role-playing.  The writers were simply distilling the ancient May Games into books, entertainment via plot and character compacted into little back marks on white paper, bound into a small package that could be taken on trips and read alone at night by candlelight, that is, by people who could read.

May Games, mumming and disguising, were means by which a community trapped in its own hard reality could transport themselves into another world.  Transformed by mask and costume into Faeryland, the Middle East, Africa, or, most often, Illyria, where, as Greek shepherds and nymphs they sang and played the lute surrounded by gods and goddessses.   But when the party ended, and the mummers were unmasked, whom did they see but their same old neighbors?  When Shakespeare’s audience demanded that the playwright be revealed, who was there to reveal?  Let the names without biographeis, the authors A, B, and C, fade into the shadows whence they came.  Let the masks come off.

Of course authors A and C were the same individual who, having turned 40 and, faced by the need to provide another Crown company with modish material, perfected his own earlier plays, the earliest in the style Feuillerat calls author C, the history plays by the one he calls author A.  And of course the “Marlowesque” author B could have been no one but Christopher Marlowe himself, who, brought to Fisher’s Folly by Walsingham in 1584, had been given the task of regularizing the meter of the Contentions and the True Tragedies for the benefit of his new company, the Queen’s Men, “the jigging mother wits” he scorned in Tamburlaine, with unrhymed iambic pentameter (aka blank verse) which had become, in the intervening decade, the industry standard.

Thus, thanks to Albert Feuillerat, French Professor at Yale in the 1930s and 40s, we have another and extremely important piece to add to that puzzle, the Birth of the London Stage, of the Popular Press, of the Fourth Estate, of the British Media, call it what you will.  Thanks to Feuillerat we have expert and thoughtful descriptions of Oxford’s voice from the early 70s, his voice from the early 80s, and Marlowe’s from the mid-80s.  At some point we hope to take a closer look at his description of these voices.

Those with a taste for intelligent word studies will find Feuillerat’s book of interest:  The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1953.  Some parts are available online for free, but there is a downloadable version for $10.

Note:  Archaelogists may have discovered the skeleton of Richard III beneath a car park in Leicester.  Wounds to the back and skull are relevant to those suffered by the King at Bosworth field.  The spine shows evidence of scoliosis, though not of a hunchback.  They hope to get an answer from its DNA.

The Scenario that works!

Readers new to the Authorship Question will quickly see that the Shakespeare story as I tell it is considerably different from the one told in school and from the one told (or, more precisely, clumsily and obscenely aimed at) by the movie Anonymous.  So perhaps this is a good place to restate why I believe in the scenario I outline here.

First, I agree with the majority of those who can see from the utter impossibility of the Stratford biography that the best candidate for what came to be called the Shakespeare canon is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  While the rest may have a credential or two, he has them all.  But after 20 years of studying the matter I can no longer think of myself as just an Oxfordian––I’m an authorship scholar, by which I mean that I now question the authorship of (almost) every single work of the imagination published during the Elizabethan era!  To stop with Shakespeare gives the impression that he was an anomaly at a time when everything else was normal (according to today’s view of the world).  That’s simply not the case.  By today’s world of theater, writing and publishing, everything then was an anomaly.  He was only part of it.

Second, when you read Shakespeare here, understand that I mean the poet, not the man who sold him the use of his name.  Because it was de Vere, not William of Stratford, who made the name famous, de Vere’s the one who deserves it.  If I sell you my house, even if I rent you my house, if you make it famous as the place where something of great human significance occured, historically it becomes your house, not mine.

The third thing I began to realize as I dug more deeply was how little evidence there was, not just for Shakespeare, but for anything relating to the origins of the English Literary Renaissance.  There’s no argument about this; all scholars of the period are aware of the holes in their story, even if they don’t see how deeply or widely the lack of evidence extends beyond their particular focus.  So if I was going to figure anything out, I was going to have to cast a much wider net than those who concentrate just on Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Marlowe, or the history of the London stage.  Sooner or later I thought, I’ll find out what happened to all that evidence.  And I have.  I can’t prove it, not in the way it would take to overturn the Stratford monolith, not all by myself, but perhaps someday somebody will.

Of course the answer was there all the time, the Baconians were the first to see it, parts of it, but finding out exactly how and when it happened has proven to be the final, central, determining piece in the scenario.  As forensic scientists know, everything that happens leaves a network of clues that extend around it in time and space, so however much hard evidence is missing, there will be clues in the mainstream history, in biographies of those involved and of similar phenomena from other times and cultures.  Current studies like that of the psychology of creativity have added important insights.

And there are always the dates, that is confirmed dates, that function as linch pins for the sequences of events that create the network of clues that must take the place of the missing evidence.  Dates of events seen as “coincidental”––events within a particular circle that occur at the same time or close to it but are otherwise unrelated––are just about impossible in the small world that was the 16th-century London stage, periodical press, and Royal Court.  That such events are unrelated is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Fourth, I came to realize how very different life was then from what it is today.  While the subliminal backdrop to our view of literature and entertainment today is of hundreds of writers publishing hundreds of thousands of books by thousands of publishers and thousands of films made by hundreds of filmmakers written by hundreds of screenwriters, whose names change on a weekly basis as tens to dozens join the ranks or fall by the wayside, most of whose names mean nothing to anyone but their close associates (think of the long roll of credits that follows every film)––we must force our imaginations to provide a scenario where where there were two or three playwrights, six or seven professional-level actors, and seven or eight printers and publishers, all of whom knew each other or were at least very aware of each other’s existence over many years.

In other words, the illusion that Philip Sidney existed apart from Christopher Marlowe, Bacon apart from Nashe, Mary Sidney apart from Bacon, or any of these apart from the man considered by one of orthodoxy’s favorite supports, Francis Meres, to be “best for comedy” during the 1590s is just that, an illusion created by a lack of evidence.  If I live two blocks from a bakery, do we need an affadavit to prove where I buy my bread?  These people knew each other, had relationships with each other, relationships that drove the story of the blaze of literary splendor that was the English Literary Renaissance.  What was that story?  And why is it so obviously missing from the record?

The one and only Shakespeare

As an historian, I can’t go beyond the constraints imposed by these limits.  There were very few individuals during the early years of the English Reformation who could write engagingly in the 1560s and 70s, even fewer could or even wanted to get their own work produced or published, and as for those who could put on a risque and satirical play for the public and get away with it, the list narrows to one, however difficult it may have been all these centuries to identify him.  As for style, themes, and subject matter, biographies of other geniuses require that there be one Shakespeare and only one.  Just as no two people could have painted the Mona Lisa and no two people could have conquered Asia in the 3rd century BC, no two writers could have written (or co-authored) Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar.  There was, there had to be, only one da Vinci, only one Alexander, and only one Shakespeare.

Since all the other world-creating geniuses were leaders who left their arenas of endeavor permanently altered, causing those who came after them to imitate them, so the author of the Shakespeare canon must have been a man of great respect and high standing in the small literary circles of his time, and he had to have been born early enough that lesser writers who dealt with similar themes and subjects and whose styles show similarities to his, were his followers, and not he theirs.  That Shakespeare could possibly have imitated the lesser writers of his day, that he rewrote their works, is a cart-before-the-horse fantasy created by left-brainers who simply do not understand the nature of the thing they write about.

Yet it’s also true that great peaks in artistic endeavor are almost always driven by groups.  To develop, artists must have an audience on a level equal, or almost equal, to their own, colleagues who appreciate them, rivals who challenge them, enemies who drive them to retaliate.  Think of the French Impressionists, the Scribblerus Club, Bebop, Motown.  The films Ocean’s Eleven and The Seven Samurai have plots based on a group of talented individuals that come together to accomplish some goal.  But there’s always, there has to be, one or sometimes two, central figures.  The problem for the Elizabethan era is that the central figure is missing.  Some have tried to make it Sidney; others have tried to make it Bacon, or Marlowe, or even Mary Sidney, but in every case, while a few things may click, too many do not.  Those clicks are important, but it’s the collegial relationship with Shakespeare that they represent, not the poet himself.

With Oxford at the center, they all fall into place: Philip Sidney, a great writer, four years his junior, his first and most challenging rival, who refused (or was simply unable, largely for political reasons)  to follow him into the theatrical arena, and whose own achievements pushed  him more than once to go beyond himself; his cousin Francis Bacon, his partner in many ways and the second most important figure in the story, who eagerly followed him until he (Bacon) got the Court job he’d been striving for from the beginning, defended him during his hard times, and helped to edit his collected works after death; Stephen Gosson, an early neophyte who, like Marlowe later, betrayed him early on, selling out to the Bishops who were trying to shut him down; Lord Strange who, egged on by Leicester, was trying to replace him as the Prospero of the London stage;  Mary Sidney, who in his life loved and hated him, and after his death, helped save his work for posterity; and Christopher Marlowe who studied with him, adopted his style, rebelled against him, and foolishly refused to listen to his warning.

With Oxford as author the lives of the others involved at that early stage in the English Literary Renaissance also fall into place: the actor Edward Alleyn, whom he trained to play his youthful protagonists, and who deserted him to work with Marlowe; the secretaries whose names got attached to his early works: Anthony Munday, John Lyly, and Thomas Kyd; his friends from college days: the Catholic apologist Richard Rowlands, aka Richard Verstegen, and George Pettie, whose name he borrowed for two of his early works; the Bassanos, the Court musicians whose talents graced his early productions; their sister, the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier whom the world knows as the first feminist in English Literature and sees as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (and most certainly Cleopatra); the patrons whose protection allowed him to continue to write under increasingly difficult circumstances: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the Earl of Southampton, the Earls of Pembroke, and (to some extent) both monarchs.

Also clear are the enemies who appear in several plays as villains: his cousin Henry Howard, later Earl of Northampton, who trashed his reputation, and his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, later Earl of Salisbury, who used the power bequeathed him by his father, Lord Burghley, to destroy the evidence of his leading role in the great literary revolution that the Cecils were so determined to quash.  With Oxford as author, no falsification of evidence, no forced rearrangement of dates, no ignoring of documents, no overblown imagined scenarios, are required for all of these to fall easily into place around him.

The biographies of other great literary lights lead to the conclusion that despite what they may pick up here and there from their reading, all great writers, particularly poets, draw primarily from their own experiences for their major works.  Writers, great writers, write as a means of emotional catharsis, to explore an issue that affects them deeply, a philosophical dilemma that demands resolution, a situation that demands the truth.  Theirs are the pearls of literature, surrounded by the art of a creature irritated into self-protection.  The themes that they explore, particularly those they explore repeatedly, will always connect to something in their biographies.  The fact that so much of what Shakespeare wrote about fits the life of the Earl of Oxford requires either that he was someone very close to Edward de Vere, or, pace Bishop Ockham, that he was Edward de Vere!  Further, the fact that nothing in any of his works suggests the scenario crudely attempted by the film Anonymous demands that the real story, involving all these writers, a story far closer in nature to a spy thriller than this absurdly ahistoric soap opera, get its day in the court of public opinion.

The authorship scenario in a nutshell

For those who may be new to the authorship question or who haven’t been able to piece together a full scenario from the hodge podge of my necessarily brief posts and pages, here’s a quick overview (well, as quick as possible) of the structure behind, not just the Shakespeare authorship issue, but my view of the entire English Literary Renaissance.  For more on each point, follow the links.

1550: The true author of the Shakespeare canon was born into a dysfunctional aristocratic English family in northwest Essex at almost the exact midpoint of the 16th century.  Four years later, due to the unstable political conditions surrounding the transfer of power from the first Reformation government under Edward VI to the Catholic government of his sister Mary Tudor, those who were concerned about the safety of the heir to the great Oxford earldom arranged for him to be transferred to the care of the nation’s leading statesmen and Greek scholar, Sir Thomas Smith.

At the time that de Vere came to live and study with him, Smith was living at Ankerwycke, a renovated priory on the northern bank of the Thames, a stone’s throw from today’s Heathrow airport.  Smith and his recently married second wife had no children, nor is there evidence of any other child raised in their household, suggesting that de Vere had a solitary childhood in terms of relationships with children his own age and of his rank.  Like other isolated children, he found companions in the heroes whose adventures he read about in books in Smith’s library, many appearing later in plays by Shakespeare.

During the five years of “Bloody Mary’s” Catholic reign, Smith and the other Reformation activists from Edward’s reign who stayed in England kept quietly to themselves.  Though it’s very possible that along with Smith and his wife, de Vere attended holiday festivities at nearby Windsor Castle where he would have seen plays and concerts and spent time with his parents and other members of the large family into which he was born, it’s unlikely that, except for five months at Cambridge in his ninth year, he spent much time away from Ankerwycke during the years when  Reformers like Smith, among them his former colleagues, John Cheke of Cambridge and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer , were being rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and executed.

1558-9: Queens’ College Cambridge

With the death of Mary in 1558, eight-year-old de Vere was shuffled off to his tutor’s college so Smith could take part in preparations for Elizabeth’s coronation.  When it became clear that he would not be getting the appointment to the Privy Council that he expected, Smith returned to his new estate, Hill Hall in Essex, to which de Vere too then returned.  Two years later, when his father’s death handed his fate over to the Crown and the Court of Wards, the now twelve-year-old Earl of Oxford came to to live with Smith’s former student, Sir William Cecil, now Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary and Master of the Court of Wards, at his new mansion in London’s West End.  There he studied ancient Anglo Saxon poetry and law under Laurence Nowell and the arts of the courtier under various masters of dancing, music, fencing, horsemanship and French pronunciation.

As a member of the household, de Vere formed a brotherly relationship with Cecil’s six-year-old daughter Anne and came to know their relatives, the Bacons, who lived up the road at York House: Anne Bacon, Mildred Cecil’s younger sister, her husband Sir Nicholas Bacon, William Cecil’s colleague on the Privy Council, and their small sons, toddlers Anthony and Francis, who, with their mother as instructor, could already babble charmingly in Latin.  Later the following year the Cecil’s only son, Robert, was born, and shortly after that Oxford’s first close friend, Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland, joined the household as the second ward of the Crown to come under Cecil’s care.  There they made friends with the young translators who congregated at Cecil House, most of them six to ten years their seniors.

Although the evidence is slim, it’s possible that from 1564 to 1566, under the name “Richard Vere,” the 14-to-16-year-old Oxford studied at Christ’s Church Oxford under the care of Canon Thomas Bernard, where he wrote and directed the play Palamon and Arcite for the 1566 commencement (later revised by John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen).  Earlier he did the same for the 1564 commencement at Cambridge, writing and directing the (extremely juvenile) play Damon and Pythias.  Both plays reflect his friendship for Rutland (both were attributed at the time to Richard Edwards, master of the Children of the Queen’s Chapel).  In February 1567 Cecil had him enrolled at Gray’s Inn in Westminster, signalling his return to London, Cecil House, and the Court.

By 1565 Oxford had written two plays for the West End community performed at Christmas at Gray’s Inn: one a translation of the comedy I Suppositi by Ariosto, the other Jocaste, a loose translation of a Sophocles tragedy.  Also in 1565 he published the first four books of his translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, published as by his uncle Arthur Golding; an anthology of tales translated by himself and his friends at Cecil House from numerous ancient and Continental authors (most of them found in Smith’s library) titled Painter’s Palace of Pleasure; and a collection of poems (Eclogues) by his friend Barnabe Googe.

1567: Court and literary patronage

By seventeen Oxford was living and travelling with the Royal Court and involved with the production of Court entertainments.  Like many other underage peers, he was forced to borrow from money-lenders to maintain his image as a Court dandy and patron of writers, musicians and companions.  These last included his cousin Henry Howard, who introduced him to Catholicism.  Though drawn by the Catholic panoply of art and music, so absent from the Reformation culture that had surrounded him since early childhood, yet the ancient belief system instill in him by Smith remained that of a Greek cycnic.  Among those he employed were several of his father’s retainers that, following his death, Cecil had taken into his own employ, among them the son of one  John Lyly.  He may also have sponsored the actors from his father’s old company.

As he approached and then passed his 21st birthday he continued his publishing ventures by putting into print Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier and his friend Tom Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte, a translation from Latin of Gerolamo Cardano’s popular de Consolatione.  In 1574 he published the first of the early anthologies, One Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, a collection of his own poems plus some by his friends, the plays he produced at Gray’s Inn, and a tale in prose, “The Adventures of Master FI,” the first of the sort of pastoral novella he would later publish in series as by Robert Greene, the name of one of his copyholders in Essex.

1571-75: Marriage and Italy

At twenty-one, yielding to tradition (and fiscal necessity), he allowed himself to be married to his guardian’s daughter, poor Anne Cecil, who got caught right away in the tension between her husband and her parents.  By 1575, he was finally allowed to take the traditional finale to a peer’s education, a tour of European capitals, and he set off for Italy, visiting in turn every locale in France and Italy portrayed later by Shakespeare.

While Oxford was away, issues arose around his indebtedness to money-lenders and those members of his family to whom his father had granted large innuities.  He staved these off by demanding that Cecil, who had charge of his estates, sell enough to pay his debts, something that the tight-fisted Cecil, whose eye was on the future of his daughter and her progeny, stalled on doing so that the interest continued to mount. It was as much out of fury at this situation as at the rumors that Anne had been unfaithful that Oxford broke off with her and her father upon his return from Italy.  This meant that she and their daughter continued to suffer for years from ugly rumors that the child was the product of an illicit affair, a tragic ploy that would haunt him for the rest of his life and that would form the plot or subplot of at least six of the Shakespeare plays.

1576: Birth of the London Stage 

In the weeks following Oxford’s return, the first of the first two successful commercial theaters in England sprang to life, the big public theater built by James Burbage for Hunsdon’s Men in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, a short distance on the Bishopsgate road leading north out of Central London.  Five months after his return, the second successful commercial theater opened its doors, this one the small private stage created as a rehearsal space for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in the old Revels building in the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The first served the public of the East End, the other the posh community of peers and educated parliamentarians of the West End.  Titles of all but one of the anonymous plays performed at Court that winter by both the adult companies and the boys suggest Oxford’s authorship.

By 1580 Oxford was living at Fisher’s Folly, a manor just outside the City Wall, roughly halfway between the City theater inns and Burbage’s public stage.  That Christmas he felt compelled to reveal to the Queen and leading members of the Court the fact that he’d found himself drawn by his cousin, Henry Howard, into a Catholic conspiracy that seemed to pose a threat to her life.  He was forgiven, while Howard and his cohort Charles Arundel landed in prison, which caused them to launch a series of scurilous counter charges against Oxford that stuck with many members of the Court community and that have damaged his reputation with historians ever since.  Having escaped the immediate consequences of their libels, he proceeded to get caught in a sexual liason with one of the Queen’s maids of honor.  This sent him to the Tower for two months (March through May), at which point he was released to house arrest.

Banished from Court indefinitely, he turned his skills towards writing more personally satisfying plays for the adult companies to perform at the little Blackfriars theater school for his favorite audience, the West End community.  This did not go well with the residents of Blackfriars, and soon the teachers who ran the school and their patrons, himself included, found themselves threatened with the loss of the stage that gave them access to the Westminster audience.  Although the choristers school was forced to merge with the one at Paul’s Cathedral in 1584, the stage itself probably continued to function on a less public basis for another six years.  There Burbage’s adult company was able to perform early versions of plays like Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Hamlet for the West End community, plays they could never have performed at Court.

When Sir Thomas Smith died in 1577, his friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham took over as Secretary of State.  Six years later, when Lord Chamberlain Sussex died, Walsingham took over as patron of the Court stage, which, through Oxford’s activities and those of his patrons and actors, was in the process of developing into the London commercial stage.  Walsingham, who lived just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly, and who was under pressure to prepare for war with Spain, saw in Oxford’s household of secretaries and musicians a sort of unofficial propaganda office.

Funding it at first from his own pocket, then persuading the Queen to kick in, he had Oxford providing the newly-formed Royal touring company, the Queen’s Men, with plays to perform in the shires, plays that dramatized for the provincial English some notable moments in their history.  This it was hoped would raise their national pride to a level that those who still saw themselves as Catholics would decline, when the Spanish attacked, to sell out for religious reasons.  Out of this came the early versions of Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, and the three Henry VI plays, plus all the plays now assigned to Robert Greene and most of the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

1580s: Francis Bacon and the birth of the periodical press

During his banishment, Oxford took a step towards providing the reading public with some of the tales he had written in the ’60s and ’70s to amuse the Court, but it wasn’t until he was back in 1583 that he followed through, publishing the pamphlet Mamillia as by Robert Greene, the name of one of his Essex copyholders.  Its almost immediate popularity spurred him to publish others, and soon, perhaps to his surprise, he found himself with an enthusiastic and expanding reading audience.  Through the dedications to these Greek romance-like stories he found a convenient way to acknowledge Court figures that, for one reason or another, he thought deserved recognition, or who could reward the bearer of a complimentary copy (one of his secretaries?)  with a sizable donation.

Thus was Oxford not only Shakespeare, not only the intitiator of the London Stage, he was also the initiator of the English periodical press, a phenomenon that spread rapidly, developing in later centuries into regular newsletters, then newspapers and magazines.

In 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon had arrived back in England for his father’s funeral.  Unable to return to Paris for lack of funds (his father died before providing him with a living), and with nothing more important to do, Bacon hooked up with Oxford, falling quickly into the role of Puck to his Oberon.  Oxford returned the favor by getting him connected with printers who would publish his poems, anonymously at first, then, with Sir Walter Raleigh’s help, as Edmund Spenser.  With the real Spenser far off in the wilds of southern Ireland, and with Raleigh willing to see to it that he got a regular stipend for the use of his name, Bacon was encouraged to publish a wide variety of his writings, including such divergent works as The Faerie Queene, written to entertain the Queen and her ladies, and Mother Hubberd’s Cupboard, an opening shot in his lifelong pushback against his uncle Burghley.

Lacking a paying Court position, Bacon was forced to provide for himself by working as a high level secretary to Court figures in need of politically sensitive, well-worded letters and official documents.  First among these was Sir Francis Walsingham, who, when Oxford refused to write for the Court in 1581, urged him to step in with plays for the boys to perform in a style that came as close as he could manage to the euphuism that the Queen enjoyed and that were directed and staged by Oxford’s secretary John Lyly.  By the end of the decade there were eight of these, which, like Oxford’s Euphues novels, were later published as by Lyly.

1587-88: Marlowe and Martin rock the boat

In 1584, 20-year-old Christopher Marlowe began showing up for training sessions with Oxford and Bacon, sessions intended to prepare the talented young poet to provide plays for the Queen’s Men.  These sessions took place for a few weeks each year until his graduation from Cambridge in 1587, at which point, rather than follow up on his promise to provide plays for the Court, he absconded with the fledgling actor, Edward Alleyn and the scribe Thomas Kyd to set up at Philip Henslowe’s new theater on Bankside where they entertained members of their own class with the dangerously anti-establishment play Tamburlaine.  Razzed by Oxford (Greene) and Bacon (Nashe) in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, Marlowe responded by adding a nose-thumbing prologue that referred to the Queen’s Men as “jigging . . . mother-wits.”

The following year the world of pamphlet publishing was rocked by the publication of the anonymous “Martin Mar-prelate” anti-cleric satires.  The bishops were furious, but their efforts to defend the newborn Anglican establishment only made them look pathetic.  In desperation they enlisted Oxford and Bacon to mount a counterattack.  Oxford’s lacked fire (probably because he found Martin hilarious), but Bacon, who had been struggling for years to find a genuine voice of his own, saw the light!  Adapting Martin’s slangy rant to his own purposes, he lashed out at Martin, fighting fire with fire with delirious abandon.

Martin was ultimately silenced by Cecil’s hounds, but Bacon had found his voice.  In 1589, using the name Thomas Nashe, he turned from the awkward pseudo-euphuism of An Anatomy of Absurdity to frolic in this new voice in a long preface to Greene’s latest pamphlet, Menaphon (another swipe at Tamburlaine).  From then on until 1596 when he finally got the respectable Court job he’d been yearning for, Francis published one work of comic genius after another.  Like Greene (in French, vert) or Shake-spear, Nashe was a pun on this wild new teeth-gnashing style. (The real Thomas Nashe had been a sizar at Cambridge, who, like William of Stratford and Edmund Spenser, got a stipend for the use of his name.)

1593: Marlowe’s death, Sidney’s sonnets, Shakespeare’s name

As the 1580s wore on, the impending threat of attack by Spain had brought a level of power to Secretary of State Walsingham that did not sit well with Lord Burghley, who by the Armada showdown had begun to see his former protégé as more of a rival than the obsequious junior he would have preferred.  With Walsingham’s death in early 1590 came the opportunity he’d been waiting for.   While he himself moved quickly to take over the public side of the Secretary’s office, he turned over Walsingham’s secret service agencies to his son, 27-year-old Robert Cecil.

Eager to show the Court in general and his frolicsome cousins in particular that he was a force to be reckoned with, Cecil created a sting that culminated in January 1592 whereby Marlowe could have been jailed under suspicion of coining, to be followed no doubt by the usual tribunal and execution.  When that failed to pan out, the next opportunity appeared a few months later when early signs of plague appeared.  Centuries of experience had taught the English that it would hit with full force the following spring, giving Cecil time to create another virtually flawless sting operation, which did in fact go off without a hitch.  Marlowe was caught, trapped, and either executed or transported overseas, with a corpse from another recent execution substitued in his place.

That Oxford had been warned in advance that trouble was on its way seems clear from the way that at the first warning of the plague in the summer of 1592 he rid himself of his Robert Greene persona.  That he included in Greene’s final “deathbed” pamphlet a warning that Marlowe was headed for trouble makes it almost a certainty.  That Bacon was frightened by Marlowe’s murder is evident from the fact that the book that he had ready to publish, the larky Jack Wilton, got set aside as he rushed to print instead the morose Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem.  A few months later, having recovered his nerve, he published that masterpiece of English satire, Piers (Purse) Penniless, in which he descants with stunning wit on his irksome poverty and the human devils that it forces him to deal with.

Burghley had already taken steps in 1588 (following his daughter’s death) to shut down Oxford’s operation by allowing his debts to the Court of Wards to be called in, forcing him to rid himself of anything that could be confiscated by the Crown or his other creditors, including Fisher’s Folly.  With bankruptcy hanging over him, Oxford found himself for the first time utterly unable to continue to support his staff (note the story of the grasshopper and the ant in Greene’s Groatsworth) or to raise any cash at all.  In fact, it seems that at one point he fell so low that he had to turn to his former retainers for handouts.

Feeling deserted and at a loss, when a young nobleman offered financial support for his new play (a revised Romeo and Juliet?), Oxford felt a gratitude that blossomed into love.  Now in his forties, his wife dead and with no heir to carry on his ancient name, his oldest and dearest friend gone, drenched with remorse over his treatment of his wife and his affair with his patron’s mistress, his heart went out to this handsome young peer.  In hopes of seeing him wed to his daughter, in 1590 he wrote 17 sonnets for the boy’s 17th birthday and gave them to him bound in velvet.  The youth’s response sent him into raptures of sonneteering.  Using the sonnet form created by his great uncle the Earl of Surrey, in verse after verse, a new voice began to appear.  Chasing the youth, chasing this new and powerful voice, he kept on writing.   As always in times of trouble, writing was his tonic, his escape.

Mary comes to town

November 1588 had seen the arrival on the London scene of 27-year-old Mary Sidney, Philip’s sister, who ended her two years of mourning for her brother by arriving at the Armada victory celebration in full Countess regalia and in a coach painted in Sidney colors.  Having produced the requisite heirs for her husband, the Earl of Pembroke, Mary was out to live life the way she wanted.  Quickly involving herself in writing (anonymously) for the stage, probably for Henslowe, whose theater was a short ferry ride from the Pembroke’s City residence, when Francis, determined to get the English Literary Renaissance moving no matter whom it upset,  published an unauthorized version of Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella, in 1591, she quickly saw to it that the book was recalled, edited her brother’s poems to suit her notions of what would pass for respectable, and had it republished  (minus the Oxford sonnet)––the first time in the Elizabethan era that a courtier poet of Philip’s standing was published under his own name.  That he was dead made it all right, but it still represented a crack in the monolithic taboo against courtiers publishing their own works.  More important, it forced Oxford to surpass everything he’d done up to then, and in so doing, find the voice we know as Shakespeare.

The appearance of Sidney’s wryly sweet and witty sonnets created an instant sensation with a reading public that, due to Greene (Oxford) and Nashe (Bacon), had grown by 1591 to sizable proportions.  Already adored as England’s warrior martyr, Sidney was now seen by Oxford’s reading audience as the greatest English poet since Chaucer.  Annoyed at being blind-sided by Bacon and Mary and, once again, upstaged by Sidney, Oxford, bent on taking back the preeminence he cared about the most, outdid himself.  By the end of the Elizabethan era it was clear that Venus and Adonis was far and away the most popular work published during that period.   How interesting that it was just at this moment, when his world was under attack, that Oxford finally found the voice that would spread the English culture to the ends of the world.

Bacon responded to Oxford’s crisis by publishing mournful ditties as Nashe to “Slumbering Euphues in his Melancholy Cell at Silexedra” and as Spenser to: “Our pleasant Willy” who is “dead of late.”  Along with his brother Anthony, who had returned from France in 1592, Francis opened his doors to what remained of the disbanded University Wits, he and his brother continuing their secretarial service out of their rooms at Gray’s Inn.  Mary helped by creating a new acting company in her husband’s name so that actors could continue to find work.  But Marlowe’s murder in 1593, followed by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, in 1594, sent the dire message throughout London’s little theater and publishing world that the good times were over.   Matthew Roydon disappeared; Thomas Watson “died”; Thomas Lodge went to France to study medicine; George Peele went to work for the Mayor; and Lyly began his lifetime of begging, unheard, for another Court job.

However low Oxford might fall it seems someone or something always came along to rescue him.  By 1592 the Queen had stepped in and arranged a second marriage with an heiress, Elizabeth Trentham, whose brothers were in a position to take over his shaky finances while his new Countess arranged for the purchase of a manor in the northern suburbs suitable for a person of his (and now her) rank.

In 1594 the ranking Privy Council patrons, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law the Lord Admiral stepped in to create out of the wreckage of the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men, two new companies.  The Royal company, with Hunsdon as patron, would have the advantage of Oxford’s playbook and the northern theaters, while the other, patronized by the Lord Admiral, would have some of his lesser plays, Henslowe’s theater on Bankside, and the advantage of Edward Alleyn as lead actor.  Oxford would be free to write for new audiences, in particular the gentlemen of the Inns of Court in Westminster who would soon be entertained in style in the grand new theater planned by Burbage and Hunsdon for the great Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars.

But this was not to be, for Robert Cecil, having acquired the wide-ranging powers of the Secretary of State in 1596, was not about to allow Oxford’s company access to the Westminster community.  As the winter holiday season approached and Burbage prepared the new theater for use, Cecil saw to it that the Privy Council honored a petition signed by the residents of Blackfriars requesting that the theater be prevented from opening.  This,  plus the loss of their old public stage in Shoreditch, plus the death in July of their patron Lord Hunsdon (two weeks after Cecil became Secretary of State), plus the death of James Burbage the following February, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in a very sorry state.

Bacon, with the help of Ben Jonson and perhaps also Oxford, fought back with a play produced at the new Swan theater on Bankside.  The response suggests that it dealt roughly with Cecil, whose recent appointment as Secretary of State tipped the balance of power on the Privy Council too heavily towards the Cecil faction for many at Court.  Concerned for his reputation with the Parliament due to convene in October, Cecil retaliated by closing all the theaters in London, which sent all the actors, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, on the road.  When they returned, it was to publish the Shakespeare version of Richard III, in which comparisons were so clearly drawn between the wicked king and Robert Cecil that, as history records, Cecil’s reputation was permanently blackened.  From then on he was stuck with the comparison, which sunk more deeply into the public psyche every time a new edition of the play was published, which occured with unusual frequency, eight editions in all, five of them before and a sixth joining the herd of libels that followed his death in 1612.

1598: The cover-up is launched

The uproar caused by the publication and production of Richard III in 1597 intensified the need by the scribbling rascality of the West End to discover who wrote it, which in turn forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put a name on the second edition, published the following year.   No other options having presented  themselves, they were forced to use the same name that Oxford had used four years earlier when he published Venus and Adonis, the name of one of printer Richard Field’s hometown neighbors.  That this cost the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or their patrons, something seems clear from the fact that it was at this same time that Field’s neighbor was suddenly able to afford one of the biggest houses in his hometown and to purchase the family crest that his dad had tried and failed to get twenty years earlier.

1604: Oxford escapes to the Forest

The troubles launched by the Cecils’ takeover of Walsingham’s office and the deaths of so many of his literary and theatrical colleagues, plus perhaps his own poor health, caused Oxford to begin planning his escape from Court.  As early as 1593 he was once again petitioning the Queen to return to him his inherited rights to the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham and the keepership of Havering palace.  Doubtless aware of her playwright’s intentions, the Queen continued to refuse it, but following her death in 1603, Mary’s sons, now the third Earl of Pembroke and his younger brother, found the new King easily persuaded to let the old poet have what he wanted.  Shortly after, Oxford invited his friends to a secret celebration to be held in the Forest on Midsummer’s Eve.  The following day, June 24th, 1604, word went out that he was dead.

With no reason to disbelieve the report, Cecil sent his agents to arrest the Earl of Southampton on the usual charge, suspicion of plotting to kill the King.  Finding none of Oxford’s papers, Cecil was forced to release Southampton.  He soon learned that Oxford wasn’t really dead, but by then there was nothing he could do but go along with a fabrication that was countenanced by the King.  When arrangements were made to wed Oxford’s youngest daughter Susan to the Earl of Pembroke’s younger brother, Cecil did what he could to prevent it, but again was overridden by the King, who liked nothing better than a wedding that seemed to bring together two Court factions.  Oxford spent the rest of 1604 revising eight of his plays for the wedding that took place that Christmas, four of them attributed by a Court scribe to “Shaxberd.”

1609: The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

He continued to live for another four years, polishing and revising his favorites for the King’s Men, among them Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet.  That he was dead by 1609 seems evident from the works published that year, among them Pericles and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, probably produced by Bacon.  Fascinated as he was by anagrams and codes, Francis is the most likely creator of the strangely worded dedication in which the name of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth, Henry Wriothesley, (Earl of Southampton) is spelled out through a particular arrangement of the printer’s type.  Cost and authorization were probably provided by the Earl of Pembroke––William Herbert––who was honored in the tradition of such publishing methods by being named as dedicatee: “Mr. W.H.”

With the author no longer around to provide more plays, the King’s Men turned some of his early pastorals over to Mary Sidney and John Fletcher to revise for audiences nostalgic for the “innocent” days of Elizabeth’s youth.  An uneasy alliance was formed among those who agreed that it was important to publish his collected works in a format that would guarantee their survival.  That this took a long time is understandable considering how controversial were some of the plays during Oxford’s lifetime, the concerns of his daughters who had their Cecil relatives to consider, friends of Oxford’s who may have held the best originals and who needed coaxing or payment, and booksellers who held the rights to some of the plays.  By the time the book was finally published well over a decade later, all were gone who might have caused serious problems.  Henry Howard and Robert Cecil were both long dead as was William of Stratford, although his wife was still alive until a mere two months before the book was available for purchase.

At about this same time, the monument to John Shakspere in Trinity Church acquired a plaque that explains in the kind of convoluted verse that was Ben Jonson’s forte that the subject was known for his wit.  It’s unlikely that either this or Jonson’s equally evasive wording in his dedicatory Ode to the 1623 Folio succeeded in quashing the authorship inquiry.  It seems the same concerns that dictated Jonson’s Ode continued to dictate the front material in both the 1633 and 1640 editions of his works, in which poets reiterated Jonson’s suggestion that room had been made for Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner.  The replacement of the bust of William’s father by a more writerly figure, with the woolsack evolving into a pillow and a pen, suggests that the paternal woolsack was presenting a problem.  Thus was initiated the series of renovations that has led to the present figure whose face Mark Twain felt resembled a “bladder.”

Among the fairly small community of art-lovers and aristocrats to which Oxford and his patrons belonged, his authorship must have been an open secret for two or three generations.  Then, as those who knew the truth for certain died, and their children died, fact faded to the level of a rumor, until the 19th century when a passion for delving into primary causes (Darwin, Marx, Freud) swept the culture at the same time that a renewed interest in his works turned Shakespeare into a cultural icon.  However, if one follows the chain of connections over the years from poet to poet and patron to patron,  it’s possible that the truth was known to the group that placed the statue in Poet’s Corner in 1741.

With Oxford so utterly lost to history, enthusiasts turned first to Francis, whose writing skills, interests and education seemed to qualify him.  The effort put into proving that Bacon was Shakespeare was the true beginning of authorship scholarship, as the Baconians published evidence showing how impossible it was that such a man as William of Stratford, with no education, no presence at Court, no legal training and no means of travelling to Italy, could possibly have written the works of Shakespeare.  They also located in the works of Robert Greene the missing Shakespeare juvenilia and made the connection between Bacon and the works of Spenser and Thomas Nashe.  Yet still the central truth, the existence of the Earl of Oxford, continued to elude them.

This was finally supplied in the years just following World War I when a British schoolteacher realized that someone so unknown to literary history must have been equally unknown as the playwright during his own time.  By creating a list of characteristics that Shakespeare reveals about himself in his works, and seeking in the right place, poetry anthologies, he found the Earl of Oxford, who fit the 18 characteristics in every respect.

Thus arrived the situation as it remains today.  Because historians and the left-brainers who run Wikipedia, based on what records the Cecils chose to leave us, continue to see Oxford as the kind of louche ne’er-do-weel the Cecils detested and did their best to destroy, we’re stuck with William, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Mary, or (God help us) Edmund Campion, or almost anyone but the guy who actually did it!

But refusing to deal with the facts about Oxford vs. William may not be the root cause of the problem, which is the utter refusal on the part of English historians to see the Elizabethan reign as a repressive regime dedicated to stamping out any glimmer of intellectual freedom.  Until the historians are willing to accept that as a given, we’ll continue to get nowhere with Oxford, for they will simply continue to ask why on earth should he, or Bacon, or Mary, any of the other writers, wish to hide their identities?

None are so blind as those who will not see.

Review of Anonymous

Nice sets.

The real authorship conspiracy

Yes, there was a conspiracy connected with the authorship of the Shakespeare canon, but its major impetus came from a very different source than the author himself or his patrons.

As I keep repeating, one of the important factors to consider while attempting to recreate the missing portions of the history of this period is the very small size of the community we study.  Accustomed as we are today to vast numbers of writers, actors, theater companies, publishers, agents, and so forth, we find it hard to see clearly the truth about a time when the commercial stage consisted of a single public theater, then two, then three; of a single indoor private theater, then two, then none, even, at the very beginning, a single playwright and a mere handful of actors anywhere close to what we mean today by “professional.”

This blindness of historians to the implications of the small size of the theater community and of the “authorities” who fought its inception and growth contributes to the way they miss what may have been the most basic reason for this long struggle for control, which was not merely the fear of sin or epidemics or riots, but the power of the stage to communicate a message to thousands at one sitting, a power the authorities did not want in the hands of unreliable poets and actors.  How new was this power, how astonishing to both those who wielded it and those who feared it, can be seen from the preface to the posthumous pamphlet published under the intitials “B.R.”:

I am the spirit of Robert Greene, not unknown to thee (I am sure) by my name, when my writings, lately privileged on every post, hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.

The printing press was becoming a powerful tool in the hands of those who knew how to use it.  Not only did it give access to “infinite numbers of people,” but by rendering text in an anonymous type, it could obliterate the trail that led to the hand of the author, or his secretary.  At the same time, from a public stage that reached thousands at a sitting, too many for anyone to locate individual listeners, a message could be broadcast with a speed and a volume never known before, and none but a handful of worried officials would have cared who wrote it.

We’ve described how the London Stage came to fill the empty place left by the Reformation’s destruction of the Church calendar, causing the holiday entertainments created for the Court to migrate to the new commercial theaters and acting companies.  We’ve examined the reasons why this was seen as a threat by both the City fathers and the Church authorities, why they tried so hard to stop it from the start, and why they kept trying long after it was obvious that the theaters were there to stay.  But we haven’t seen much to show why and how, in the face of so much opposition, the stage managed to survive.

There were four faces to the English establishment in London: the Crown, the City, the Church, and the People.  The Crown and Privy Council held sway in the then separate community of Westminster; the City fathers ruled within the old walls that defined Central London; and the Church, that is the bishops, chief among them the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, had a voice in both arenas.  As for the people, however disorganized and without representation, they made their needs felt through the threat of riots at the ancient turning points of the year, the traditional moments for feasts, toasts, plays, music, dancing and physical competitions, that is, for the kind of merry-making that led to satires, pranks and, in times of duress, riots.  Since the Reformation had terminated this form of social release, the stage became the focal point for popular discontent.  Any move to close it for anything but the plague was sure to meet with trouble.

From the first appearance of the London commercial stage in 1576, while the Church and the City fathers were against it, the balance remained (precariously) with the actors and the people.  This was due to the influence of certain patrons on the Privy Council whose mandate it was to provide entertainment for the Queen, and who saw the power that the stage was gaining with their suburban constituencies.  (Howard was Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, where the Bankside theaters––the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe––were located.)  During the 1580s, under the patronage of Privy Councillors Secretary of State Walsingham, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the commercial press was born while the commercial stage continued to expand by leaps and bounds.  Towards the end of the decade, both stage and press shot beyond what the conservatives on the Privy Council considered safe.  The alarming excitement aroused first by the anti-establishment play Tamburlaine, then by the anti-clerical Mar-prelate pamphlets, threatened their heretofore close to total control of what London, and the nation, saw and read.

Once past the crisis of the confrontation with the Spanish enemy in 1588, the attention of the “authorities” turned to the enemies within, the Catholics, the Protestant dissidents, and the pesky actors and pamphleteers.  With the death of Walsingham in 1590, the aquisition of his agencies by Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil put the Cecils in a position to to eliminate these through a series of strikes, that, due to their almost complete control over the record, they were able to portray as unconnected to themselves or to their agenda.  This campaign to eliminate the connection between cause and effect has left the close relationship between the newborn media, the stage and press, and the politics and issues of the day so blurred that historians ever since have failed to see them.

Orthodox historians are fond of mocking our efforts to clear up the history of this period, deriding the questioning of the authorship of the Shakespeare canon as a “conspiracy.”  Yes, there was a conspiracy, but it wasn’t the hiding of the author, it was this campaign by the Cecils, working underground and sometimes “at a distance” via agents, to destroy the genius of Oxford and his actors.  That was the real conspiracy.  Had they left the record intact, the native curiosity of historians would have put together the true scenario long since.