Tag Archives: Anonymous

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.