Tag Archives: Earl of Oxford

Oxford’s authorship in a nutshell

This seems like the right time to restate the argument that lies at the heart of all the material collected here over the past decade and a half.  It’s a complex thesis, based on a multitude of lesser arguments.  A monolith like the Stratford biography, and all the anomalous notions that have accrued to it over the centuries, will not be replaced with a single article, blog, or book.

Stated simply, the argument, as presented here, holds that the name that adorns the works that laid the foundation for the English we speak today was purchased from its original possessor by the acting company that performed the “Shakespeare” plays.  That company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was forced to do this when, after roughly a decade of performance, it became evident that the plays would have to be published, which meant that there had to be a name on the title page where by tradition there could be seen the author’s name.  Since the real author could not be named (for a whole host of reasons), for the first four years of publication there was nothing but a blank on the plays published at that time where the author’s name should have been.

It was William of Stratford whose name was chosen to fill this slot primarily because it lent itself to a pun that describes the author as shaking a spear.  Thus, although it was a real name, one that a real living and breathing individual could answer to, it was also a signal to the handful of readers who cared about such things that it represented someone who found it necessary to hide his identity.  Such tactics were nothing new at that time.  One of the major failures of the academics who publish on this issue is their blindness to the constant use of anonymity, pen names, pun names, mythological names and initials that we see on and in all these early works, which said academics report without noting it as rather unique in the history of literature, thus relieving them of any need for an explanation.

The issue of who actually wrote these incredible plays, who was actually meant by the pun name Shake-speare, remained well below the horizon of public awareness until midway through the 19th century.  When it finally reached the public through Delia Bacon’s book it launched the present inquiry as one candidate after another was proposed and discussed until 1920 when a British schoolteacher introduced the Earl of Oxford, at which point all oddities and anomalies finally clicked into place.  We’re now three years from the centennial of that revelation, and still the argument remains just that, an argument.  So why keep trying?  Why is this particular argument so important?  

Because it matters who wrote the Shakespeare canon!  The shibboleth: “we have the plays, what does it matter who wrote them?” is nothing more than a tiresome excuse for ignorance. Does it really matter all that much to most of us whether the earth is round or flat, or that it goes around the sun, rather than the other way round, or that my desk is made, not of wood, but of atoms and electrons, or that the water in my glass is actually a combination of two kinds of gas?  If these matter, then surely the source of the language we share with millions of others all over the world matters!

Scorned for centuries as brazen, brash, and bawdy, it was not until a later generation of wits and poets discovered the depths in Shakespeare and the beauties of his language that gradually he’s become revered as one of the greatest psychologists of all time. Even so, the dullness of the philologists who have inherited the plays continues to maintain this ignorance of how he fought with his pen to keep ancient Humanism (Platonism) alive at a time when it was in danger of being destroyed by the ugly visions of hellfire and damnation thundered from the pulpit by Calvinists who, having commandeered the English Reformation, made use of it to spread their hateful doctrine.

If anything matters beyond the getting and spending of our daily dollar, surely it matters who it was that accomplished this amazing feat, plus others for which he’s yet to be credited.  For not only did he write these ground-breaking plays, more than any other single being, it was he who created the forum whereby they reached their audience, the rash of purpose-built theaters that housed what we’ll call the London Stage, at the same time leading the handful of writers and printers who launched the commercial periodical press, which we’ll call the British Free Press. Taken together, these two, the infant Stage and the infant Press, constituted the first manifestations of what today we call the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the people.  If Shakespeare was not the only harbinger of what we’ve come to call Freedom of Speech, he was certainly one of the most effective.

These plays were not merely entertainments spun to tease a lord or set a lady laughing. Even the comedies, but certainly the dramas and the tragedies, were pleas for human understanding (“O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!”) and at a moment in time when they were not merely welcomed but desperately needed.  Further, that they have been purposely and determinedly divorced from their true source, not just by the authorities at the time, but by the author himself and his closest supporters, is in itself a tale worth telling.  If we’re to fully understand the history of the English-speaking peoples, who they are and what they’ve done with the language he created, it’s essential that we know this story.  

Born into chaos

The author, it seems, was born into hiding. His father, scion of one of England’s oldest and most prestigious families, appears to have been the product of an ancient bloodline sliding into the decadence inevitable to such very old families, but from which Oxford was saved perhaps by his mother’s less rarified genes. His great uncle, the 14th Earl, an ignominious wastrel, had spent his heritage on a Disney World version of a feudal palace which collapsed into ruin not long after his death at age twenty-six.  The 15th Earl, stripped of several of his ancient prerogatives by the disease-crazed Henry VIII, managed to hang onto the earldom, but shortly before Oxford’s birth, his father, the 16th earl, came perilously close to losing it to the greed of Protector Somerset, uncle of Henry’s son, the Boy King, Edward VI.  

Although Earl John and his domain were saved by the palace coup of 1549 during which Somerset was overthrown by his own Privy Council, he and his domain remained vulnerable to whatever determined gang would next take over the Crown. That was John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, but with the death of the poor little King four years later, Northumberland and his followers were themselves overthrown by a nation nostalgic for a time not all that long ago when Church ales and merry-making had not yet become the road to damnation.  

The bloodbath, however, was far from over, as Edward’s sister Mary, a determined Catholic, proceeded to marry Philip of Spain, son of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Their interest in the marriage alliance was invested in the hope that they could reestablish Catholicism in what under Edward and Somerset had become the most dangerously heretical nation in Europe.  

As the merry-making that followed their marriage fell silent, and the nation prepared for a new round of treason trials, hangings and burnings, Earl John and his supporters did what they could to prepare. The Oxford domain was particularly vulnerable due to its location along the coast that faced those European nations where Protestantism had taken deepest root and was most threatening to the European Catholic hegemony.  Earl John himself was suspected of complicity in the first Protestant effort to overturn Mary’s rule, the so-called Dudley conspiracy of 1555.

As Shakespeare demonstrates in more than one of his plays, in nations ruled by the whims of heredity, underage heirs of monarchs, and of great noblemen as well, were particularly vulnerable during moments of national revolution. As the Christmas holidays of 1554 came to a close, and Mary’s henchmen began gearing up for the bloodbath with which she hoped to end the great heresy perpetrated on her people by her brother, the four-year-old heir to the great Oxford domain was removed from the dangers threatening his unstable father.  Quietly, without notice or surviving letter, he was placed with the man who would be his tutor and surrogate father for the next eight years of his life.

Thus it was due to the political chaos of the time that Sir Thomas Smith, former Secretary of State under Somerset, and before that Vice-Chamberlain of Cambridge University, was given the humble task of “bringing up” the boy who would give the world the Shakespeare canon.  It was this great educator, statesman, polymath and follower of Plato’s philosophy who gave Oxford the education that we see reflected in the works of Shakespeare, an education to which almost no one else in England at that time could have had access.  Among the hundreds of books in Smith’s library were the plays of the great Greek and Roman playwrights, Euripides, Sophocles and Plautus, favorites at that time for teaching boys Greek and Latin due to the fact that their plots and characters were better suited to capture the restless attention of teenagers than the proverbs of Erasmus or the letters of Cicero.

The hiding continues

With his removal to London in 1562, the twelve-year-old Oxford found himself a member of a coterie of young translators employed by Secretary of State Sir William Cecil and his friend Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, as they sought to get the major works of Calvinist doctrine translated from Latin and French into English. As for this crew of translator-poets, most of them six to ten years Oxford’s senior, would this budding genius have forced himself to sit by modestly, constrained by the tradition that forbade peers of the realm from competing with ordinary artists, or would he, unable to resist, reveal his talent by tackling the most demanding translation of all, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, famous as ancient Rome’s masterpiece of Latin literature, its first four books published just three years later under the name of his uncle, the translator Arthur Golding?  Is it just my wild imagination that hears in Golding’s Metamorphoses the same youthful voice, in a meter and rhyme scheme similar to the ground-breaking poem Romeus and Juliet (attributed to another member of the Cecil House coterie), and published almost as soon as he arrived in London?  

By 1573, desperate to escape the Court and those servants who were forever spying on him for his father-in-law, Oxford’s genius for disappearing is rather humorously revealed in Alan Nelson’s account of his preparation for a journey to Ireland (that never took place). Over five pages (100-104) Nelson details efforts by Burghley’s agents to pin him down long enough to get his signature on papers that, doubtless, put Burghley in control of his estates, should he die while overseas.  

Let them quibble as they would, by late 1574, Oxford had the Queen’s permission to travel to Italy, and travel he did.  While it’s unlikely that he managed to ditch all those who who seemed most likely to report back to Burghley, or that over the summer of 1575 he sailed the Mediterranean totally without companionship, there remains no evidence that he took anyone with him on that supreme adventure.  No one, at least, whose name has survived.

He vanishes from the record

With his return to England in April of 1576, followed by the sudden appearance in London of the first two commercially-successful purpose-built theaters in English history, the kind of reporting that tracks him during his early days at Court dries up almost completely. While a poem or two surfaces in anthologies, his own efforts to get himself and other poets published appear to cease.  Why?  Because he has begun what has become a lifelong concentration on producing plays for the Court, the public theaters, and most significantly, the parliaments that gathered in London every three or four years, and which provided him with his most influential audience, leading men of education and significance from all the shires and towns of England.

Playwriting had several advantages over publishing. First, since only a handful of Londoners could read at that time, plays could reach a far greater audience; second, it satisfied his appetite for dramatic action in ways that poems and tales were lame by comparison; and third, it did not rouse the anxieties of the authorities as did published works since no one outside the Court establishment paid any attention to who was writing the scripts.  His coterie knew; the officials knew; but neither the public nor the outside reading world knew, and most of these did not care. So long as he wrote nothing objectionable to the world view purveyed by the religious and political authorities of his time (most notably his in-laws) he was allowed to continue.  Even Burghley was doing what he could in 1580 to assist the Earl of Oxford’s acting company in gaining access to the universities (something the universities continued to reject).

Yet sooner or later a break was bound to come between two such differing world views.  With the banishment from Court that followed his affair with the Queen’s Maid of Honor in 1581, if it cut him off from Her Majesty’s favor, it also meant he was free to give vent to his own personal concerns in plays for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” from the eastern half of Westminster.  In works that erupted from his frustrations with the Court, his fury at the Queen and his rivals for her favor, and his knowledge of English and Roman history, it was then that he wrote The Spanish Tragedy, plus the earliest (now lost) versions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice, plays that would certainly not have pleased either the Queen or his Calvinist in-laws.

Brought back to Court in 1583, probably by his tutor’s old State Department friend, Sir Francis Walsingham, now Secretary of State, who needed him to help launch the newly formed traveling company, the Queen’s Men, for them Oxford wrote early versions of what would later evolve into plays like Edward IIIHenry V, King John, plus some that never made it into the canon, such as Thomas of Woodstock and Edmund Ironside.  

The coming of Shakespeare

When his wife died just before the attack of the Armada, Lord Treasurer Burghley, furious with his son-in-law for his perceived mistreatment of Anne, not to mention his mistreatment of Burghley himself as Polonius (and perhaps also Shylock), put a stop to his obnoxious play-making by seeing to it that his credit was destroyed.  Forced to sell his home of ten years and disband his staff of secretaries, Oxford spent three years, from 1589 through 1591, in penurious disgrace.  During this period, while the Stage too was under attack by his in-laws, he occupied himself with writing sonnets, some to his one remaining patron, the young Earl of Southampton, others to Emilia Bassano (Lanier), mistress of the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, who shortly would reinstate him as the main provider of plays for the newly-created Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  

Thus was launched the company that would bring fame to the plays that Oxford, doubtless glad to be back with his favorite team of actors and now, in his forties, at the peak of the matured style that we know from the First Folio, would mostly recreate from plays he’d written originally for the Court and parliamentarians over the past twenty years. Some, chiefly old comedies like As You Like it and Love’s Labor’s Lost, he revised to suit the temper of the times; some, like The Merry Wives of Windsor and Antony and Cleopatra, he wrote in response to current issues.

Because Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon worked hand in glove with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, both long time patrons of the London Stage, to bring an end to the theatrical chaos created by Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, who, now as Secretary of State was using his power to destroy the London Stage, they formed new companies which, doubtless they promised the Queen, would conform to their new set of rules. 

Henceforth there would be two licensed companies: the Lord Admiral’s Men, patronized by Howard, would operate out of the Rose Theater on Bankside; the other, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, out of Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch.  Plays that in times past had been shared between the two companies were to be divided, with those that Oxford was interested in revising assigned to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and those that he no longer cared about, or that had become so identified with Edward Alleyn, the leading actor at the Rose, assigned to the Lord Admiral’s company.  These they identified by stating on the title page what companies had performed that particular play.  

At this point the issue of what author’s name to put on the published plays arose in such a way that it simply could not be dismissed.  For the first four years, from 1594 to 1598, the Company simply ignored the problem by leaving blank the space where the author’s name was normally placed.  Then, in the fall of 1597, with the opening of the Queen’s ninth parliament, came the inevitable showdown between the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Robert Cecil, who had eliminated the most popular playwright in London and most recently saw to it that there would be no theaters available to them for the near future.  Clearly Cecil was determined to destroy his brother-in-law’s bully pulpit before it could trouble him during his first turn before Parliament as the Queen’s new Secretary of State.

Oxford shakes his spear

Faced with the loss of both their theaters, their father and manager James Burbage having died following the previous holiday season, and their great patron and protector, Lord Hunsdon, having also died recently and suddenly, Oxford unleashed the devastating power of his pen.  Revising his earlier and milder version of Richard III, now, with Richard Burbage as the evil King, adopting Cecil’s perpetual black attire, his manner of speaking and his wobbling walk , Burbage and Company trashed their enemy to such an extent that, despite the official heights to which, as first Baron Cranborn, then Earl of Salisbury, he eventually rose, there was from then on no more hated man in all of England.

This showdown, while almost totally erased from history, obviously demanded adjudication by the only one in a position to do it, namely the Queen.  Though missing from the record, the results clearly left Oxford and his company untouched (she could not do without her holiday solace), while Cecil, officially as powerful as ever, was forced to live from then on with his unofficial reputation utterly and permanently destroyed, a situation that must have lent a bitter and resentful force to the vicious brutalities with which he would rule England under King James until his death in 1612.

Interest in the authorship of this play, which must have thundered through the pubs and wine shops both in London and in the towns throughout England to which the MPs returned early in 1598, each with a copy of the published play in his pocket, must have been what finally compelled the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to publish a second edition of Richard III, this time with a name on the title page.  Thus was the name of the humble wool dealer’s son from the market town two days journey from London to escalate into a permanent and everlasting brand.  

Richly recompensed for the use of his name, the wool dealer’s son soon bought himself the biggest house in his hometown; for his respected sire he bought the crest that had once been denied him as “without right,” and ordered an impressive monument to be placed in the local church in which his father’s bust, clutching a sack of wool, dominated a spot high on the wall beside the altar.  

Years later, when both William of Stratford and his wife were past questioning, the vicar of Trinity Church, would enjoy emoluments brought him by a team from London whose job it was to replace the image of the mustachioed Shakspere Sr. with a more gentlemanly figure and the woolsack replaced with a quill pen and a pillow. Whatever had once been the message, if any, beneath the bust, was replaced by something in Latin that seemed to suggest that William Shakspere had been something of a modern Nestor, a character from ancient history whose only importance was due to how old he had been when he died.  Nothing to do with drama or literature.  No mention of Plautus or Euripides.

Meanwhile, the Burbages’ company, protected by the Queen and raised to an even greater level of importance by her successor, who demonstrated his patronage in a way that she never had by allowing them to call themselves The King’s Men, went on to ever greater acclaim and great financial success.  Of course by this time the official name of their playwright had become so installed in men’s minds that there could never be any possibility of changing it, even if the Company, or the Court, had wished to do so, which they most certainly did not, for reasons that were not only political, but deeply personal to those involved.  Thus was the brand name irrevocably wedded to the canon, and so was also launched the centuries of failed attempts to bring their location in time and their relation to the events reflected in the plays into alignment with the biography of the illiterate original owner of the name, whose birth date, sometime in April of 1564, presented such a problem when it came to dating the plays.

Our evidence

What evidence is there at for this scenario?  If there is as yet no “smoking gun,” there is certainly enough to support what we describe here.  Without the slightest doubt it’s the Stratford biography alone that is the sole cause of what the uber-academic E.K. Chambers identified in 1925 as the two major aspects of “the Shakespeare Problem”: “Problems of Authenticity”: i.e., who actually wrote the canon; and “Problems of Chronology”: i.e., the issues created by the 15-year displacement forced on scholars by the impossible birth date of William of Stratford.  

With the Earl of Oxford as the true author, all of these problems vanish.  The plays appear right where they so obviously belong in the timestream of historical events; all the early plays that “foreshadow Shakespeare’s style,” and that academics have been forced to attribute to various nameless or weaker writers, take their proper place as the missing Shakespeare juvenilia; and Shakespeare (the poet) is finally free to jump to the forefront as the original inspiration for writers like Marlowe, Daniel, and Chapman––not, as the Stratford biography demands, the other way round.

A word to the wise: the trolls retreat to Facebook

I appreciate it when defenders of the Stratford faith show an interest in my work, but inevitably it becomes impossible to maintain a cordial discourse where one side knows nothing of the other side of the argument, and clearly has no intention of pursuing it, or if pursued, only to focus on the sort of details that are all that they are capable of seeing from the low levels of understanding where their educational limitations have left them.

Arguments at this level quickly become a waste of time, as I know all too well, having made similar attempts over the years, for instance on HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare), the online forum for authorship discussion established many years ago by two Oxfordians, which I left when it descended to the level of a schoolyard brawl.  The same was true on SHAKSPER, where, despite the prohibition of any mention of the Earl of Oxford, we were allowed to discuss such questions as whether great literature can ever be produced without an emotional connection to the author’s own life and experience.  No amount of quotes from great authors or examples from their biographies were sufficient to sway the left-brainers from the absurd notion that no such personal experience is necessary or that it even matters––a clear case of distorting reality to fit a particular case, since nothing has ever been located that could connect the plots and characters of Shakespeare with the life of William of Stratford.

I created this blog in 2009 because it gave me control over a forum wherein I was free from this kind of frustration, and free I intend to remain.  Having recently cleared the decks of a handful of impertinent comments, I see that these rudeniks have retaliated by creating a group on Facebook for which they’ve appropriated the name of my blog, where they are free to amuse each other with the kind of comments that are no longer welcome here, on the real politicworm.  Readers who are curious to see what they have to say please keep in mind that while they may have appropriated my brand, I myself have nothing to do with these guys except for the rather pleasant feeling that to cause this kind of a ruckus I must be doing something right!

NB: Please understand that even probing comments will always be welcome if politely presented.  Also know that a particular question can often be answered by typing a keyword into the search field in the upper right hand corner of every page.  If I, or one of the authorship scholars whose works are posted here, has written on that subject, this will bring a list of posts and pages that deal with that particular issue, and in much greater detail than I go into when replying to a comment.

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Alan Nelson and the Howard/Arundel libels

Among the things that block our path to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, the most difficult to overcome has been the damning portrait of Oxford created by Lord Henry Howard and his cousin Charles Arundel in their desperate effort to evade the hangman. At the launch of the 1580-’81 winter holiday season, Oxford, at his peak as Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, had gone down on his knee before her and a panoply of England’s nobility and officialdom, to ask forgiveness for having gotten involved in their plot to overthrow the Crown. Taken by surprise, it seems the Queen had all three detained. Letting Oxford go the following day, she had Howard placed under house arrest with Christopher Hatton for four months, and Arundel in the Tower, where it seems he remained a good deal longer.

We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors; from questions Oxford gave Thomas Norton so he could question the accused pair; their statements in defense, commonly referred to as “libels”; and a mention here and there as a news item in other letters. The French ambassador waited some two or three weeks before writing about it to his King, doubtless because Oxford had implicated him as well, so he may have been waiting until he could be certain what was going to happen to himself. (Nothing, as it turned out, since it was Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, who was most guilty of conspiring).

The statements that Howard, Arundel (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their defense were labelled “libels” right from the start, since they consisted of little more than an all-out attack on Oxford’s character. Their strategy, it would seem, was less to attempt to prove their innocence than to portray their accusor as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his innocent friends whose every living thought was for the Queen’s welfare, yadda, yadda, yadda. The first question at this point should not be what if anything in these libels was the truth, it’s why the Academy has chosen to believe these traitors and not the historical record.

According to history, neither the Queen nor any of the officials involved believed Howard and Arundel since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under lock and key. According to history, Henry Howard was certainly guilty as charged, since Walsingham, having devoted the following three years to tracking down sufficient evidence to indict him, had him arrested on November 4, 1583, along with Francis Throgmorton, for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as Charles Arundel heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, he fled to the Continent, where he published the libel known as Leicester’s Commonwealth. (He’s also thought to be the author of an earlier libel against the Queen and her ministers, Le Innocence de la Tres Illustre Royne.)

So how is it that at the turn of the 21st century English Prof. Alan Nelson of UC Berkeley had no trouble in finding a publisher for his so-called “biography” of the Earl of Oxford, in which he casts every incident in Oxford’s life in the mold provided by these two miscreants?  Titling it Monstrous Adversary, a phrase from one of Arundel’s libels, Nelson, it seems, is so bemused by his anti-Oxford animus that he doesn’t realize that he’s chosen to follow two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of treason!

“The evil that men do lives after them . . .”

Nelson, however, is only the most recent of a long stream of academics who have played fast and loose with Oxford’s reputation. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labelled him and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites,” and Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Yet by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been in disrepute. Never mind that he was Elizabeth’s Lord Great Chamberlain; that he was one of her enduring favorites; that dozens of important books were dedicated to him; that he was patron to top acting companies over the course of 30 years; that he published one of the most important works of the European Renaissace, Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier; that he was praised by a string of respectable contemporary commentators; that many of these praises came from foreigners whom he met on his trip to Italy, famous scholars like Johan Sturm and princes like Henri III of France. Nothing to his discredit was ever recorded from his visits to foreign shores.

Yet every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention him in passing has felt it compulsory to connect his name with a pejorative, as in “the notorious Earl of Oxford.” “Profligate,” “obnoxious,” “violent,” “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable,” are only a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace in 1912, he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read in 1960 he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse in 1964 he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel.”

Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his early days at Court, leaving a record of fights and feuds with his fellow courtiers (no murders, though he was badly wounded in one brawl). After returning from Italy, having gone undercover to create the London Stage and the commercial press, because he did (almost) nothing that got recorded, there was (almost) nothing in the record to counter the effect of his early antics. Then of course there were his in-laws, the Cecils, whose control of the record for some 50 years meant that only those letters and other documents that reflected well on themselves (or badly on others) were retained, a paper trail that historians ever since have been forced to follow if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House, and 2) if they were to get published.

Even so, much of the problem is Oxford’s own fault, for it seems he was a past master at making enemies. If, as we believe, it was he who lampooned Leceister as Robert Shallow in Merry Wives, Philip Sidney as Master Slender, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Lord Cobham (and his son) as Falstaff, William Cecil as Polonious in Hamlet, or Robert Cecil as Richard III, there was even more cause to hate him (and for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to hide his identity). If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as history and their biographies attest, dealing with a genius is never easy.

But nothing has caused him the kind of damage that Howard and Arundel did with their libels, a long, slow-acting revenge, one that lay dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP (Calendar of State Papers) until Looney proposed him as the most qualified candidate yet for the tarnished Shakespeare crown, forcing the Academy to assemble a counterattack to protect the sacred biography and dating system, and prevent the loss of centuries of accumulated suppositions based on the life of William of Stratford.

As for Henry Howard

By the time Oxford went down on his knee to the Queen and company, Howard was already known as a dangerous intriguer.  Incarcerated in 1571 during the investigation into the Duke of Norfolks’s treasonable plan to marry the Queen of Scots, for which the unfortunate Duke was beheaded, Howard, though later released, was never freed from the suspicion that it was he who had gotten his brother involved.  In 1595, Anne Bacon warned her son Anthony, “Beware in any wise of the Lord H! He is a dangerous intelligencing man . . . and lieth in wait. . . . The Duke had been alive but by his practising and double undoing” (Dumaurier Lads 109-10). In fact, that Oxford had welcomed them into his coterie was probably an act of altruism.

What would continue to save Howard from permanent incarceration was probably the fact that he was so closely related to so many peers and highly-placed officials. During this early period his intrigues were aimed at assisting the continental catholics in their efforts to get a catholic on the throne so they could return to England and he and his relatives could return to the Howards’ former commanding position at Court. Years later, after his conniving had paid off with high office and titles under King James, he continued to foster intrigues, though the plight of his fellow catholics had become less important to him by then than weaseling his way as deeply as possible into the upper tier of Court officialdom.

“The end crowns all”

Howard’s final turn on the stage of history came in the second decade of the 17th century when his niece Frances (Fanny) Howard created the major scandal of James’s reign. Having encouraged her in her efforts to seduce Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, when Carr’s secretary, Sir Thomas Overbury, got in the way, Lord Harry persuaded the King to get rid of Overbury by sending him on an extended embassy to Russia. When the foolish secretary refused, the King had him incarcerated in the Tower. (Overbury was being difficult because he was in love with Carr. The entire upper tier of the Court at that time was gay, the King was gay, Carr, his official favorite, was mostly gay, Carr’s secretary, Overbury, was gay, and Howard, by then Earl of Northampton, was gay.)

When at a crucial moment in this gruesome tale the unhappy Overbury died in prison, supposedly of an overdose of poisoned tarts, someone squealed, and the wheels of the Law began to turn, inexorably moving ever closer to Fanny, now Countess of Somerset, and her hapless husband. Having been given a royal wedding by the King the following December, the couple were eventually indicted two years later, and though spared execution, they spent the rest of their lives either in the Tower or under permanent house arrest in the country.

As David Lindley shows in his excellent book on the subject, The Trials of Frances Howard (1993/96), it’s clear that the ultimate decision was reached through a plea bargain that saved the lives, if not the reputations, of those involved. Largely because of her mother’s involvement in the scheme (the reprehensible Catherine Knyvett), she and Fanny’s father, Lord Treasurer Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk, were disgraced as well. At least one benefit to literature came from this scandal, Carr’s fall opened his office of Lord Chamberlain to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, giving him, and his brother the Earl of Montgomery, control of the London Stage for the next two decades.

Although the documents generated by this long drawn-out court case prove that Howard was guilty of masterminding this bedroom coup through his power over his niece (as seen by the disgustingly salacious nature of his letters, read aloud in court for all to hear), that it was he, not Fanny, who sent the poisoned tarts was never pursued because Howard had taken the truth with him when, ever so conveniently, he died before the questioning began. As for poor Fanny, it may be that she would have been better off had she gone through with the trial. Having fallen from her status as her nation’s bejeweled princess to its most reviled and detested criminal, called every dirty name in the book, locked away in the country, she died utterly without friends including the husband who blamed her for his disgrace. (The only thing ever written in her defense, then or later, IMHO, was John Webster’s The White Devil.)

Back to the “great treason”

Shortly after Oxford’s revelation in December of 1580, Walsingham began to focus on the household of the French Ambassador, Mauvissiere.  With clues painstakingly gathered by means of spies in the ambassador’s household, it took three years of patient fishing before he got the evidence he needed to arrest Francis Throgmorton, Mary Queen of Scot’s contact, and Henry Howard, Throgmorton’s accomplice. Throgmorton withstood a racking, but when threatened with a second, came across with the information that Walsingham so desperately needed if he was to convince the Queen that there was a real danger that had to be faced, and overseas agents to be paid for.

From Throgmorton Walsingham learned that the plot in question was the creation of the great French grandee, the Duc de Guise, who, in concert with the Pope and the King of Spain, was planning an all-out attack on the English mainland.  According to Throgmorton, the French army was to invade England from Scotland at the same time that the Spanish navy struck at its southern coast.  As the two armies marched towards London they would gather with them the hordes of English catholics that, in their imaginations, were eager to replace Elizabeth and her ministers with the Queen of Scots and those they were promising to give a place at Court.  (Hutchinson 1o5).

In tracing the links that finally led the Queen’s Secretary of State to Howard and Throgmorton and “the great treason,” neither of Walsingham’s biographers, Conyers Read (1925) nor Robert Hutchinson (2007) mention Oxford, but it should be obvious that it was Oxford’s public “confession” that led Walsingham first to Mauvissiere’s household, then to Howard and Arundel’s involvement, then to the Spanish Ambassador, who was given his walking papers in 1584. England would not have another Spanish ambassador until 1607, when James signed a treaty with Spain.

That “monstrous adversary”

In examining the libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, most would seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than was wise, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had reason to hate, and may well have made some outragous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading courtier is absurd: obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any Court figure ever confirm any of Howard’s accusations.

However serious these charges may have seemed at the time, none of them would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years to come until it may be what has cost Oxford his reputation for so long, if not (as we hope) forever. This is the charge that he had “polluted” some of his young pages.

Oxford the homosexual

Among the pejoratives attached to Oxford’s name over the centuries, homosexual has been by far the most damaging, not because there’s any more substantiation for it than for any of the other charges, or that it was seen then as anything but yet another slander, or that it was true, but because of how a puritanized English society came to see it later, when homosexuality had become the foulest of crimes as well as a sin, and all that it took to condemn a man as a homosexual was for someone to accuse him.

Throughout the preceding centuries, sex between men (oficially a crime only since 1535), was almost totally ignored in Elizabeth’s time. In fact it could be said that there were no homosexuals then because the word homosexual, along with the concept that men who have sex with other men are a race apart, would not appear until the late 18th century (Bruce R. Smith, 1990).  Until then the term used was sodomite, which simply referred to anal sex, whether male-male or male-female, forbidden since biblical times, less perhaps for any moral reason than because it violated the ancient nostrum: “be fruitful and multiply.” (Primitive cultures are apt to allow male-male sex as a means of regulating population size since too many births could overwhelm the food supply.)

Until the 18th century, men who preferred to have sex with each other were no more scorned than men who spent too much time and energy having sex with women. It was the kind of sex that was the issue, not the kind of partner. During the reign of Elizabeth the only men on the record as indicted for sodomy were accused of abusing boys, but this was less because it was a disgusting violation of morals than because it was a cruel misuse of power, similar to beating a boy to death for misbehavior or not doing his homework. Sex between adult males was not an issue then, or at least, not what it would become later. As Jeremy Bentham noted during the most rabid period of English homophobia, if sex between men was in fact a crime (which he doubted) it was the only one that caused no one any harm.

That tone of hysteria

In reading whatever I could find from and about the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the documents in Volume IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage: “Documents of Criticism,” that had a certain tone with which I was strangely familiar. After awhile it came to me: it was the same hysterical tone we hear today in condemnations of homosexuality by evangelical preachers and politicians.  And it was the same tone used in the mid-to-late 16th century by preachers and city officials with regard to the bawdiness of plays and their reasons for banning them from London.

It was not until I saw a connection between other aspects of that period that the reason for this began to appear. This was the same general period when: 1) Calvinism took hold as the ruling aspect of the Elizabethan Reformation, spreading until it led to the Civil War and twenty years of Cromwellian puritanism in the 17th century, and 2) it saw the spread of the “great pox,” what we now call syphilis.  This was no coincidence!  This was cause and effect!

The ultimate in STDs, horrific in its effects if left untreated and without any truly effective cure (until the invention of the microscope and the discovery of penicillin), since it was first reported in Naples in 1495, syphilis had been spreading among the more sexually-active members of the population long enough that its horrific effects on partners and their children was known and feared by the time Calvinism began taking root, gradually spreading to affect the attitudes and tone of what was on its way to becoming the Church of England. To John Calvin and his followers, all sex was sin, and, as products of Original Sin, all humans were headed for the permanent and unremitting torments of hell unless they banned sex from their lives and thoughts (excepting only what was absolutely necessary to maintain the human race).

Of course there was a connection between the spread of this grim religion, with its emphasis on the evils of sex, the horrors of hell, and the hellish horrors of this incurable disease.  This explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women, and homosexuals that continue to haunt the still essentially puritanical nature of the dominant American culture (remember who first stepped off the Mayflower with what religion in 1620).  Why the original fear of sex should have shifted to gay men towards the latter half of the 18th century, culminating in the homophobia of the latter half of the following century, must have something to do with the tendency of humans to let the majority off the hook by turning some hapless minority into scapegoats.

The pillory

Louis Crompton, one of the first of late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its particularly insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were almost as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic Church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, England gave it a pass, entering instead upon the cruelest period of homophobia ever known in the West.

Most readers know what happened to Oscar Wilde, the wittiest, most successful playwright of his day, who, accused by his boyfriend’s father of a sodomitical lifestyle, was robbed of his name, his career, his family, his liberty, and really his very life. Few however are aware today of the extremes of cruelty to which this anti-sex hysteria drove, not just the handful of lawyers, jurors, and journalists who saw to Wilde’s destruction, but the nation that followed it with slavering excitement in the news media. For roughly 50 years, men accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. The excitement felt by people who believed that God hated sex (as they contemplated with sick enthusiasm thoughts of men having sex with each other) had become a psychological disease. There was a political aspect to this as well. Since some of the most capable politicians and businessmen were gay, this pogrom helped to eliminate them as competitors for positions of authority and power. (Still to this day a politician who craves to rise knows that he’ll do better with a wife and children by his side.)

Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope were subjected to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, their head held fast in one hole, their hands in another, forced to stand for hours in the most public of locations, they would be subjected to the hysteria of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands, who, screaming abuse, were allowed to pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even stones and bricks, for hours on end. Those who survived were often maimed for life. Some, like Byron, seeing themselves in danger of arrest, fled to live abroad in permanent exile. Others, fearing discovery, committed suicide. Nor was this for any actual act; since that of course was difficult to discover (since photography had not yet been invented) new laws were created that enabled the police to arrest and arraign men for “attempting to commit sodomy”!

Scapegoats

The barbaric nature of this punishment is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils, burning, drowning, or stoning to death a member of the community as a scapegoat. Frazer in The Golden Bough describes these rituals as he found them described in ancient Greek documents:

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, . . . At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments . . . and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then . . . stoned to death by the people outside of the walls.   The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats.

The word scapegoat shows how over time this ritual had been transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be michievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the poor creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the inhospitable wilderness.

Yet use of a human scapegoat has never been completely eradicated or shifted to a domestic animal, for it continues to errupt again wherever tensions get intense enough and humanitarian controls have weakened, the only difference being the nature of the chosen outcasts, whether witches for causing droughts, plagues, and the deaths or diseases of neighbors or domestic animals; catholics by protestants or protestants by catholics for heresy; communists and terrorists for anarchy; southern American blacks for speaking out in their own defence, and Jews and gypsies for almost anything. And still today in rural areas of the middle east, the law allows men and women accused of committing adultery to be stoned to death by their neighbors.   That 19th-century England found it useful to relieve public tension by giving mobs the opportunity to exorcise their frustrations by stoning one or two helpless men, sometimes to death, every year for a good half-century, is but one instance in the long history of these orgies of public violence.

“The love that dares not speak its name”

So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice in the 19th century, so dangerous was it even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest it for fear they too would get sucked into providing the Establishment with yet another scapegoat. So shameful had male-male sex become that it was shameful even to mention it. The DNB, launched in 1885, avoided any mention of the part sex played in the lives of their subjects; that someone “never married” was as far as it would go.   Men became afraid to show each other affection, or even to touch each other in public. The  handshake took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that could be construed by a prurient public, themselves starved for affection, from “getting the wrong idea.” Boys were starved of love, sent off by age six or seven to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they were far more vulnerable to molestation than they would have been at home.

Crompton attributes this to religion, which is certainly partly true, though it does not explain why France and the rest of Europe did not exhibit the same reaction (they chose instead to persecute women for witchcraft). Bentham, seeking an explanation, notes that it seems to have had something to do with protestantism, but he doesn’t go far enough. Protestantism yes, but one form in particular––Calvinism.

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

As a reaction against the corruption of the Church of Rome, Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of its supposedly celibate prelates, but that was only one aspect of a far more complicated campaign to gain for the northern states control of its lands and wealth, along with a great nostalgia for the simplicity and purity (they imagined) of the early Christian Church.  During the reign of Mary Tudor, when so many of the protestants who had overseen the Reformation under her brother Edward fled to Germany and Switzerland, when they returned under Elizabeth, they formed a party that influenced the nature of the English Protestant Church. Embracing the severities and rigors prescribed by John Calvin, governor of Geneva, they formed a block in the Parliament and on Elizabeth’s Privy Council passionately devoted to the kind of reforms promoted by Calvin.

So harsh was the Calvinism promoted by the returned exiles, that it begs the question why were so many attracted to his message?  The answer surely lies in the increasing awareness of the effects of “the Great Pox,” syphilis.  One of the most insidious diseases ever to wreak its horrors on the human race, by Elizabeth’s advent the English had had plenty of time to understand all too well that it was spread through sexual intercourse, and to recognize the horrific effects this could have on its victims and their mates and subsequent children.  At a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this to be interpreted in any way other than as His punishment for their sexuality?

“The cause of plagues is sin and the cause of sin are plays.”

When Oxford, Sussex, and James Burbage set about to create public stages in London, they found themselves up against a wall of repression. The ruling parties in London disliked the advent of the public theaters in 1576 for different reasons: the officials were afraid of contagion from the plague and other diseases, while the preachers were afraid of God’s wrath, afraid that people who had enjoyed themselves at the theater might forget for the moment that having sex would lead them to the fiery furnace. (There was also the likelihood that too many would rather be at the theater than at church).

Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sexy nature of the plots, the suggestive postures of the actors, and the fact that men and women could sit next to each other in the audience.  In their view, the door to the theater was the pathway to perdition.  In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the Church’s outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin . . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays! (Chambers 4.197)

The almost 200 pages that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate the theaters and the sneering disregard of officials for actors and anyone involved in producing plays.  Clearly, anyone who had something to lose would have wished to keep his (or her) involvement with the public stage as quiet as possible.

Shakespeare and history

Shakespeare’s name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, but it only became famous after 1610 when his company, by then known as the King’s Men, was allowed to use their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars complex.  With King James as their patron and Queen Anne as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared. However, as time went by, enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I.  His wife, Queen Henrietta, raised in Paris, preferred the lavish masques then popular in France.  It was largely her overspending that led to the Civil War that closed all the theaters for twenty years, after which new audiences under Charles II saw Shakespeare as old hat.

Shakespeare’s reputation continued to diminish until the 18th century when a new respect was cultivated by the next wave of brilliant poets and scholars: Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Edmond Malone. But it was not until the turn of the 19th century that a new set of actors brought a new style of acting to the public stage and the public took to “the Bard” in numbers not seen since the early 17th century.  Awakened by poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Shakespeare’s genius, as his name approached the level of national icon, interest in his identity ground to a halt when Sir Edmond Malone published the Sonnets as originally written.

With the bowdlerized pronoun returned to the original “he,” horror struck the Establishment: the great Shakespeare was a homosexual!  With homophobia on the increase, all interest in uncovering the truth about the authorship withered away and the Academy bound the Stratford biography to itself with hoops of steel.  Better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite!

Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, other forms of repression continued. Still in effect were any number of anti-gay laws; it was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him. Sex-hatred was on the rise again, to peak in the 1950s. (Consider what was done to Alan Turing, the hero of British Intelligence who helped bring World War II to an end). Already in bad with the historians, Oxford’s threat to the sacred Stratford dating scheme set him up as ripe for posthumous scapegoating.

Shakespeare scholars, aware for at least a century of Oxford’s involvement in the early years of the London Stage as a patron and a playwright (“best for comedy”), not only did not dare to promote him, they were constrained to revile him! That’s where academics like Stone and Nelson acquired that hysterical tone in their comments on Oxford! The same tone heard in the sermons by the bishops lambasting the plays and actors in 16th century London! It’s the language of sex-hatred! The language of the Calvinist Reformation: sex as “filth”!  Sex as “pollution”!  No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, could hold out against the horrors of being called a homosexual!

“A wounded name”

It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s his accusation that Oxford forced himself on his pages that continues to deny the Earl of Oxford his true place in history!  While to Stone he was only a violent wastrel, Nelson has swallowed Howard and Arundel’s charge of pederasty hook, line and stinker!  Letting no opportunity pass to stick on more tar and feathers, he ignores Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy­­––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust.  The “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1582––testimony to his role as patron to the Children of the Chapel––more evidence of his sexual depravity.

Truly we must ask ourselves, is this evidence of Oxford’s diseased behavior?  Or isn’t it rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination?  He seems a little skewed in this regard in other areas, for instance describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for such a term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary reference I’ve ever seen to Anne’s looks was “comely,” and that, going by her lifelike image on Burghley’s great tomb, an exaggeration.

Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, the product of the Cecils’ outrage, the Howard libels, and the rabid homophobia still in effect, is the academic version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence, if only with words. That’s why he’s been bombarded ever since, not with the rocks and dead animals that killed and maimed the poor “inverts” pilloried in 19th-century London, but with every bad adjective any English-speaking academic could conjure up.  No matter that there’s no other record of these crimes, or that no one else (except for Arundel) ever came forward to back up Howard in these, or any other of his charges, all the homophobic needs to unleash his fury is an accusation.

Shakespeare and sex

The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. As the poet John Masefield wrote: “sex ran in him like a river.” And while there are hints here and there of male-male passion in the plays, most of the attractions he so convincingly dramatizes are between men and women.  John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was Love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the Sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; sex plays no obvious part in them as it does in those written to and for the Dark Lady.  What did he want from the youth?  Surely what he wanted was his love.  He says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and survivors of 19th century homophobia, love means sex.  If it doesn’t show, that’s just because the writer was being cagey.  Parse every sentence, search every etymology, there must be sex in it somewhere!

Love is not incompatible with sex, but sex changes it. Shakespeare says it himself in Sonnet 129, sex is “savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . . .” “Not to trust”––surely that is the point, true love is all about trust.  Separated by years, by reputation, only love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written after time has passed:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Where the Poet’s relationship with the Youth is harmed it’s because there has been a breach of trust, which he forgives on the youth’s part in some sonnets and, for which he asks for forgiveness on his own in others.  If there is sex in this then it’s regarded in a very different light than we regard it today.  As Shakespeare shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, sex in a relationship makes men vulnerable to jealousy, a destruction of trust that can lead to emotional agony, and to tragedy.

Maybe now that the English-speaking culture is attempting to eradicate the evils done during that long-ongoing spasm of sex-hatred, we can relax and see the Earl of Oxford in a clearer light.  The least we can do is to take him at face value, and not be picking through his verse in search of a reality that may be ours but that almost certainly was not his.  The Sonnets were written before the centuries of homophobia changed forever how the English, poets and academics alike, thought about sex. The imagery of the Sonnets, that so many have struggled to prove did or did not indicate sexual relations, cannot be taken as evidence, for we do not know, nor will we ever know, what exactly the poet had in mind when he wrote them.

Oxford and Southampton

But if, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, we do know a few things that the academics do not. The majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife dead, his in-laws out to deprive him of his access to the Stage and the Press. Living in a hostelry down by the river, in “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that can’t be faked.  Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he was enrolled at that time.  On his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love, not the sexual kind, but the unconditional love of a mentor, a father figure.  His own father was long since dead, he did not get along with his mother, and his guardian, Lord Burghley, was obviously mostly interested in what he could get from Southampton, if not entry to the peerage by marriage to his granddaughter, then a goodly chunk of his inheritance as a fine for having refused her.

Much as Sussex had been to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb and to be young, alone and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. It’s likely they first met when Burghley was urging the teenager to marry Oxford’s daughter, and Oxford, willing to assist, wrote the first seventeen sonnets for his seventeenth birthday in 1590, the so-called marriage sonnets. They met, and formed a bond out of their mutual need, one that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, by which time Southampton had reached his majority, grown a beard, and was capable of making his own way at Court.

No longer in need of a father, by 1594 the Fair Youth had turned to the one to whom he would (disastrously) pledge his allegience for the next seven years. By then Oxford, married again, living in the kind of luxury he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours writing sonnets, a good thing since he was no fan of the Earl of Essex, Southampton’s New Best Friend.

As for the nature of the passion expressed in the sonnets, why should we care? Homophobia had not yet made men overly cautious about the terms they used to express their feelings for each other, the rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a rather misplaced, prurient concern over something that shouldn’t really matter, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare first became acquainted with their same-sex context, a period poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired so long before by Calvin’s fear of syphilis.

Frankly what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who it seems was using makeup and dressing as a girl in his teens, was already well-versed in homosexual sexplay by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man, a surrogate father, helping this youth to accept his role as a lover of women, a necessity if he was to marry and continue his line, the Sonnets make a lot more sense, all of them, including those written for the Dark Lady which do address their sexual relationship in no uncertain terms, then as a wouldbe lover consumed with lust.

In any case, what’s important about these libels to history is not whether or not Oxford was a monster, but the fact that it was his “confession” in December of 1580 that put Walsingham on the track that enabled him to prepare for the attack of the Spanish Armada.  What’s important to literary history is not whether or not he had sex with Southampton, it’s that the time spent writing these sonnets, probably on a daily basis during a period when he had little else to do, gave him the command of the language he needed for the plays he would soon be writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, plays that would make his cover the most famous name in literary history.

Howard and Shakespeare

As for Howard, Oxford had his revenge, though sadly not seen by anyone but that rather small percentage of his audience who knew that he was the author.  There’s no doubt that at some point he came to realize that Howard was responsible for the rumor that broke up his marriage.  Proof of this are the villains in two of the plays that bear the Shakespeare name, and several others that came earlier.  That Howard was the model for Iago is beyond dispute.  That he was also the model for Iachimo and Lady Macbeth is almost as convincing.

One of the strongest arguments for Oxford as author of the canon is the fact, obvious to those who know both the plays and Oxford’s biography, that six of Shakespeare’s plays  involve the story of the breakup of his marriage, either as the main plot: Othello, The Winter’s Tale, All’s Well, and Cymbeline, and, as backstory: Pericles and Hamlet.   When the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays have been completely integrated into the history of the English Court during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we’ll have a fuller understanding of both––and not until then.

 

A little history is a useful thing

I’m back

It’s been almost four months since I’ve blogged or added anything to this site. Why? Because I’ve been in the final throes of finishing the book I’ve been working on for the past eight years, and have literally had no time, or room in this tired old bean, for anything else. Of course it’s not totally finished––polishing, fact-checking, eliminating redundancies, are yet to be done––but thankfully the heavy lifting is over and the bloody albatross cast free, to be trussed and roasted more or less at leisure, hopefully for your eventual reading pleasure. While beating my brains to custard, I’ve been grateful that readers have continued to read and even to comment. Many thanks for that.

Back in 1987, when Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William first gave rise to the question of “Shakespeare’s” identity in my not yet quite so old and tired thinking, I was left with two questions that he had not addressed: first, the Earl of Oxford’s learning: by what means did he acquire the vast Renaissance education that the Academy has been at such pains to deny for four centuries? Second: is it really possible that he was the only writer of that interesting time who managed to create whole canons by publishing under the name of an illiterate nonentity?

It’s taken 30 years to find satisfactory answers to these questions, and many of the pages on this blog, added since its beginning in 2008, address specific aspects of one or the other. But handfuls of clusters of connected puzzle pieces, floating in isolation, do not suffice when what is needed is a narrative, one that explains how such things could have happened, and why they happened as they did.

The question of Shakespeare’s identity is actually only the first of so many questions that have yet to be answered that a full century after Looney’s book we still find ourselves teetering on the brink of a dark, chaotic landscape. Is this merely the normal detritus of history as left by the passage of time? Or has there been a determined effort of some sort to prevent the truth from emerging? On page 123 of TMW Ogburn lists several areas in which a paper trail would disappear at a certain point, sometimes to reappear once the period in question is past. Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of similar anomalies, too many to ascribe to any sort of natural entropy. Yes, there can be no doubt, there has been a great deal of finagling throughout the history of Shakespeare scholarship, beginning with its very inception. The important question is why, and by whom. And although we don’t yet know the full answer to “by whom,” we do now finally have a sufficiently trustworthy answer to “why?”

Despite these breaks in the record, what I like to call “literary forensics” provides us with tools that, much like DNA and infra-red photography, work apart from what standard history deigns to allow. This approach allows us to broaden our examination of those areas where primary data is missing and so to project with some security what it might contain were it intact. Although history pretends to eschew conjecture, restricting itself to deal only with what facts remain, Science knows that where hard facts are not available, conjecture, which it dignifies with the term hypothesis, is not only acceptable, it is a necessity, for without it physics would never have arrived at Probability, Relativity, or a thousand other stepping-stones to our present understanding of the universe.

Thus by acquiring enough “proxy data” to project the most likely nature of the missing content, we can create bridges of conjecture solid enough to connect those areas where established facts provide secure footage, and thus, finally, to a narrative that makes sense. Once established, such a narrative, I do believe, will be the final nail in the Stratford coffin. This of course takes a great deal of time, but where history is concerned, time is not an issue. In fact, however much be lost, Time tends to clear away the inevitable fog of political maneuvering to which History, despite its solemn demeanor of dispassionate rectitude, is uniquely vulnerable. And so let it be with the Authorship Question.

Much has come clear during this process, some of it only over the past twelve months. In reading around the question I’ve tapped into what appears to be a new wave of younger historians of the Tudor and Jacobean periods who seem to be chipping away at some of the darker areas that broach on the AQ. While Oxford remains the violent pet wastrel of historians like Lawrence Stone and Alan Nelson, it would seem that further study, plus a few blasts of refreshing common sense, are blowing the dust off the period when the works in question were being produced. Knowing more about Oxford’s surroundings at the time, the issues and personalities with which he had to deal, we can project with some confidence the reasons why he wrote particular works, thus bringing a new measure of exciting enlightenment, not only to the studies of Early Modern Literature, but to the history of the entire period, which at present lies stifled in layers of ancient political dust.

The present book began as the answer to the first question, where did Oxford get his learning, but in peeling away layer after layer of the truth about the period, his education was so obviously bound up with the politics of the period––and the continuing politics of the Academy––that the story simply had to be carried through to the end––that same End that, as Shakespeare has it, “crowns all.”

Despite all efforts to keep to the barest and most select minimum of evidence per point, trusting to the interested reader to follow up with the titles mentioned and the ample materials available now on the internet, the darned book has become so long that it looks like it will have to be divided into two, first: Educating Shakespeare; second: Shakespeare and the London Stage. (As for my other original question––were there others who used the same tactics to get published?––that must wait for a third excursion into the labyrinth of 16th-century literary politics.)

Will there be a publisher willing to publish such a lengthy report, and, not least, to provide it to those who care about such things, in hardback? Not that paperback or Kindle are out of the question, but for readers like myself, who need a hardback edition of any book that requires space for marginal notes, I simply can’t see it solely in “perfect bound” paperback. Since I desperately need to give some attention to my pocketbook after so many years of scraping by, I’m even thinking of bypassing book publishing altogether, selling it through Amazon a bit at a time. In so doing I would only be following in the footsteps of those heroic creators of the English commercial Press, pamphleteers Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

What thinkst thou, Dear Readers? I’m all ears.

Unravelling the Mystery: The Professor and the un-Countess

Reviewing Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe by Chris Laoutaris; Penguin, 2014

The great mystery, of course, is how and by what means the London Stage was brought to life during one of the most repressive periods in Western History. Laoutaris focuses on a small piece of that mystery, namely why the great Blackfriars theater, built in 1596 in the heart of London to stage the plays of Shakespeare, was shut down by order of the Queen’s Privy Council within weeks of its projected opening, then never allowed its use by the company that created it for almost ten years.

His premise, that it was the petition created by Lady Russell, Robert Cecil’s aunt and the self-appointed doyen of the Blackfriars district, that was what caused the Privy Council to close the theater, thus forcing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to move their operation across the river, is hardly new. Actually, despite the thundering claims of the title, there’s very little here that’s new, and what there is must be fished for in a sea of florid prose, almost 500 pages of it (in the paperback edition anyway), some of it in the cheesy “heart-pounding” style that literary historians have recently adopted from pop novelists like Dan Brown. I suppose this is meant to fool us into thinking that, like the optimist who dug his way through a room full of horse poop certain that there was bound to be a pony in it somewhere, the reader will eventually find satisfaction if the premise is simply repeated often enough. (Where are the editors? Where are the grammarians?)

Even the title is misleading: Shakespeare and the Countess, for of course Laoutaris, prize-winning professor from University College London, can show nothing that actually connects Shakespeare with Lady Russell or with anything, for that matter. Nor, in fact, was Russell ever a Countess, despite her great desire to be one. Nor was the move from Shoreditch to Bankside made by Shakespeare, but by James Burbage who never called himself “Shakespeare’s man.” In fact, the title is just another absurd effort, perhaps by the publisher, to use Shakespeare’s name to sell a book that has nothing to say about Shakespeare, certainly nothing new.

Laoutaris’s effort to make something out of some obscure connection between a member of a remote branch of the Arden family and the Throgmorton plot, plus his attempts to interpret bits of the plays in its light is just one more effort by the Academy to turn chalk into cheese. As for “the battle,” all Laoutaris dares to describe is a minor skirmish. He’s not about to go anywhere near the real fight.

The almost Countess and the not really Shakespeare

As everyone already knows who has been over this ground at least once, Elizabeth Hoby Russell ne Cooke, sister-in-law to Lord Treasurer William Cecil Lord Burghley and the aunt of soon-to-be Secretary of State Robert Cecil, was (probably) responsible for the petition that just before the winter season of 1596, robbed the Burbages of the beautiful new theater which they had just created in the Old Parliament Chamber in the Liberty of Blackfriars. Nor is it news that two years later it was the loss of this theater that led to the dismantling of their aging public stage in Shoreditch, and its resurrection across the river as The Globe. Nor is there anything new in the fact that the names of Shakespeare’s printer, Richard Field, and his company’s patron George Carey, were included in the list of signers, a fact that is certainly interesting––though hardly “astounding” or “shocking.”

All of this has been known for donkey’s years, though few may be aware that what we have today is not the original of the petition, if there ever was one, but a copy in which the signatures are all in the same hand! This is fine for those who can swallow whole the gargantuan anomaly that there ever was such a thing as a literary genius who couldn’t even write his own surname the same way twice. And although Laoutaris avoids the obvious conclusion offered by history that the closing of Hunsdon’s theater was something that Robert Cecil would have found a way to do had there never been a petition, he does provide us with some interesting new items that strengthen that conclusion.

History has gone along with the petition’s claim that the issue for the signers was the noise and disruption that a public stage would create in what they wished to keep as a quiet residential district. This is a dodge for at least two reasons. First, ever since the friars departed in the 1530s, the Liberty of Blackfriars was not and never had been a quiet residential district. Established as a “liberty” by Edward I in 1276, it had ever since enjoyed the freedom guaranteed such priories to provide folks in trouble with sanctuary from arrest by local officials. As such it was a place where social outsiders of all sorts sought refuge and ways to survive. All of the theaters built in the 16th and early 17th century were built in liberties, along with printshops, artists’ studios, and a variety of small manufacturies.

Second, Russell and most of her signers had personal reasons for wanting the theater shut down that had nothing to do with keeping the peace. Russell, who moved to Blackfriars in 1581 with her husband, Francis Russell, heir to the Bedford Earldom, was also attracted to what may have been the largest enclave of evangelicals to be found inside the City. Born as one of the five Cooke sisters, daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, tutor to Edward VI, his passion for the stricter forms of Calvinism was acquired in Strasbourg during Mary’s reign along with men like John Cheke, James Haddon, John Bale, and a handful of future deans and bishops of the English Church, Nowell, Grindal, Sandys and Aylmer.

This passion Sir Anthony transferred to his five daughters, whose educations in the Greek and Latin fundamentals of Church history placed them at the forefront of English evangelism. Four were then married to men who would soon be raised to power by Queen Elizabeth: Mildred to William Cecil Lord Burghley, Anne to Sir Nicholas Bacon, Catherine to Sir Henry Killigrew, and Elizabeth, first to Sir Thomas Hoby, then to John Russell, heir to the Earl of Bedford (who unfortunately died before his father, thus cheating his wife out of the title of Countess). Elizabeth in particular used her education and language skills to wheel and deal within a governing community uniquely trained to respect such things. Immediately upon moving to Blackfriars in 1581, she did what she did wherever she went, she took over the leadership of the little St. Anne’s congregation, where she encouraged the hiring of radical ministers.

The evangelicals vs the Stage

Blackfriars had been attracting radical protestants ever since 1550 when Edward VI’s grant of the district to Sir Thomas Cawarden, his Master of the Revels and a committed evangelical, gave him the freedom to dismantle the monks’ great church, mansions and quadrangle, and begin the process of rebuilding that resulted in the warren of residences, shops and little gardens that the precinct had become by the time the Russells arrived. For himself Cawarden had reserved one of the grander mansions and, as Master of the Revels, the west wing of the monks’ quadrangle which Henry VIII had used to store his party equipment. Bequeathing most of it to his neighbor and fellow evangelical, Sir William More, it was More who in 1576 had rented the old Revels apartment to Richard Farrant and his patrons for the little school that they turned into the first private theater in London. By 1581, when the Russells arrived, the little school’s rehearsal stage had been entertaining the surrounding community for almost five years, and, as Laoutaris notes, without complaints from their neighbors.

Lady Russell was bound to find the theater offensive; as a devout puritan she would have been against all theaters, and particularly alarmed by their increase. Still, she might have found it the better part of valor to have held her tongue, considering that so powerful a member of the Queen’s privy council, Baron Hunsdon, was involved in creating the Second Blackfriars theater, particularly since her son, Sir Edward Hoby, was married to one of his daughters. Instead she felt Lord Hunsdon’s presence as a threat to her control of the precinct. Laoutaris provides a quote from her letter of January 27, 1596, in which she urges Cecil to appoint the Earl of Kent to a particular position, “I beseech you, quod facis fae cita [whatever you do, do it speedily] or I fear one of the tribe will be before him Hercules Furens [with the energy of Hercules]” (228). Laoutaris explains that by “the tribe” she meant the “Tribe of Dan,” which he has discovered from other letters was code for Hunsdon and the Carey family. Russell, bent on using her influence with her relatives to bring Calvin’s Dream to life in England’s green and pleasant land, was using her connection to the Cecils to get fellow members of “the Elect” into as many key government positions as possible.

Laoutaris doesn’t bother to parse this, but what it suggests is that to Russell and her sisters, who saw all personalities and current events through the lens of their interpretations of the Bible, the Carey family were the equivalent of the biblical “tribe of Dan,” meaning that they were nonbelievers, Canaanites, Philistines, whose purposes were antipathetic to Calvin’s Dream. To the Crown politics in which she was ever inclined to dabble was added her attempts to control what happened within her local precinct, and to the moral disapproval of plays in general was added the religious loathing of a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist. For Lady Russell, the petition probably had very little to do with noise.

In January of 1596, Hunsdon still held the lofty post of Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household. Two years earlier, it was he who had organized the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and who, throughout the late 1580s, had become holder of the lease to the little school stage, the First Blackfriars Theater. By the time Russell created the infamous petition, Hunsdon had added to his earlier holdings other properties surrounding the Old Parliament building, doubtless as a move towards turning it into the great theater that he and Burbage were planning to establish within the City proper. Thus it may well be the case that in 1596, Russell had cause to see Hunsdon, not only of the “Tribe of Dan,” but as dangerously intruding into what she felt belonged to her and God.

By January 1596, when she wrote so dismissively of Hunsdon, the Court was being split down the middle by Robert Cecil’s power struggle with the Earl of Essex. With so many members of the Court community married into each others’ families, the split tore families into warring halves, particularly along generational lines, the older and more conservative standing (not always happily) with the Cecils, while the younger generally backed Essex. Russell’s family too was split down the middle, her sister Anne Bacon’s sons, Anthony and Francis, siding with Essex, as did her nephew Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford, and her son Sir Edward Hoby. The only one who stuck with her and the Cecils was her youngest son Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby. Outraged by the disloyalty of her family members, Russell was driven ever more furiously to advise her nephew Robert Cecil, perhaps because he was positioned to get her what she wanted, and what she wanted at the moment was control of Blackfriars.

Cecil’s triumph

But by November, Cecil having finally been appointed to the post for which he’d been striving the past six years, that of the all-powerful Secretary of State, it may be that the petition was not all that necessary, since Hunsdon was dead by then (having been suddenly taken ill after dinner, two weeks after Cecil’s appointment), and with Cecil’s father a permanent Council member, and Cecil’s own father-in-law, William Brooke Lord Cobham, given Hunsdon’s place as Lord Chamberlain, the Privy Council was now so heavily weighted in favor of the Cecils that Robert could probably have managed to get the theater closed without any help from his aunt.

Laoutiras, of course, like most literary historians, has no grasp on the politics involved in the Cecil’s efforts to gain control of the London Stage, no notion of what it would have meant to Robert Cecil to have to face Parliament in October 1597 for the first time as Secretary of State, aware that as soon as the session was adjourned for the day, the MPs would be headed for a stage dominated by his enemies, one of them being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s primary playwright, his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford. By the early ’90s the Cecils had seen to it that Oxford could no longer use his credit as a peer to continue to support the Stage, but short of killing him, they could do nothing to prevent him from writing the Henry IV plays with which, the winter of 1596-97 he and his actors destroyed the reputations of his father-in-law, Lord Chamberlain William Brooke, and Brooke’s son, Henry Cobham.

Whether or not Cecil was responsible for the death of Lord Hunsdon, or six months later the death of James Burbage, or two years earlier the death of Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange, or three years earlier, the murder of Christopher Marlowe, or six years earlier, of Francis Walsingham, each death dealing a devastating blow to the London Stage, it would have been hard for the theater community, both actors and audience, not to have been suspicious. When certain writers and actors retaliated that summer with a play titled The Isle of Dogs, a title that points to Marlowe’s murder, Cecil closed all the theaters, forcing the entire theatrical community to hit the road.

So when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men returned in the fall to a West End filled with MPs gathered for Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament, they came loaded for bear. With their livelihood threatened, and their manager and major patron both dead, the actors hauled out the big gun, devised over the summer by their great playwright, and aimed it right at Cecil. A version of the True Tragedy of Richard III had been revised into his caricature. Having been given by one of their supporters space to perform in one of the mansions on the river, the MPs hadn’t far to go to see Richard Burbage, cast as Richard III but dressed and behaving like Cecil, create the role that would bring him permanent fame as a great actor. And there wasn’t a damn thing Cecil could do about it. He had to ignore it. Retaliation would only confirm it. His revenge would be to erase every trace of Oxford’s connection to the Stage from the records collected by his father or within his power to survey as Secretary of State, Lord Treasurer, Master of the Court of Wards, and Chancellor of Cambridge University under King James.

Hunsdon and Field

As for their seeming disloyalty to Shakespeare in signing Russell’s petition, Laoutaris understands that by November 1596, both George Carey, the new Lord Hunsdon, and Richard Field were in something of a bind. He details how Cecil undercut Carey, how Cecil blocked his inheritance of any of his father’s offices so that all that stood between him and bankruptcy were his desperate letters to Cecil, begging his help in relieving what he termed “the burden of a naked honour,” pleas that “fell on deaf ears,” while Cecil insinuated to Elizabeth that “some thought” that Carey was behaving in a treasonable fashion. As Laoutaris puts it, in November 1596, “Hunsdon was walking a tightrope. He could not afford to anger the Queen or his mediators in the Cecil faction [meaning Russell]. His livelihood depended on it” (241-2).

As for Richard Field, first of all it must be said that printers in general were rarely bound by their personal religious or political affiliations. Printing was a business and so long as a book was properly registered with the Stationers, they were bound to print it. Now in his forties, with his own printing establishment and a family of his own, Field desired to be seen as a respectable member of his community. In addition, by 1592 he had become an important member of the St. Anne’s congregation. Nor was this purely a business move, for years earlier he had been apprenticed by his father, the tanner of Stratford, to the London printer Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot who had fled religious persecution in France in the early 60s, when, with Burghley’s protection, he became the leading printer of works of Protestant theology. Thus Field was an evangelical by persuasion, not just because of where he was located. And finally, if he had ever had a particular relationship with the Earl of Oxford, or at any time had looked to him as a patron, by 1596 Oxford himself was in so much trouble that he would have been useless to someone like Field.

There is much of use in this book, for, however inadvertently, Laoutaris includes details that are important to the fullest possible picture of the period, particularly of the family into which Oxford married, and which both made it possible for him to create the London Stage and prevented his getting much satisfaction from it, including the credit for creating it. The only problem for those of us in search of such details is the miserable style in which so much of it was written.

Oxford and the London Stage

Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?

Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same.  Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.

From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out.  Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.

Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability.  Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines.  The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.

At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London.  During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through.  In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies.  Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience.  This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.

The Lords Chamberlain and the records

Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment.  It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.

Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle.  There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder.  Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two.  And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.

All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.

As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”

Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage.  These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.

Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time.  When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place.  Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.

By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies.  Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses”  in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines.  For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.

The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties

Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability.  Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.

The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys.  Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.

The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record.  Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies.  For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.

Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys.  There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII.  The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand.  That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.

Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.

Oxford and the Court Stage

This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley.  Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each.  Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries.  One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.

The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents.  On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain.  A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party.  Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.

Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary.  At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex.  All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.

Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games.  For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.

That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons.  One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men.  This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.

The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem.  Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.

Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.

Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin.  Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis.  Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources.  Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?

Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies.  The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed.  It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.

Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage

It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born.  In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne.  In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.

Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London.  Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.

It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC).  Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566.  As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.

It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.)  Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.

Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars

By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then. (click to enlarge)

An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.

Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End.  The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer).  Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.

The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.”  Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.

The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589

Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season.  Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign.  Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.

Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names.  All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.

Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy.  Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience.  A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s.  Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library.  On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.

On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest.  (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?)  Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius.  On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.

1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests.  On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy.  On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank).  Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English.  No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.

Trouble in Illyria

Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament.  Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel.  In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.

Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays.  Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to.  The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.

Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings

Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw.  The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber.  Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.

Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles.  Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.

Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something.  From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three.  The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests.  Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.”  The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style.  Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.

So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court?  What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns.  Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.

The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created.  Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85.  As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range.   He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.

Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it.  He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them.  So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters.  Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself.  As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.

Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham

Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return.  What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.

For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point.  In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders.  Who but Oxford could write such plays.  Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).

Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died.  For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage.  In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year.  The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida.  Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment.  After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded.  From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.

Another turn of the screw

In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.

Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity.  Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.

London in the 1590s

Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign.  With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.

As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.

As described by Lawrence Stone in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End.  That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.

The Cecils attack the Stage

That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.

Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils,  made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over.  Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.

Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.

Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City.  In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies.  Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men.  Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

So where was Oxford?

In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto.  Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.

In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son.  This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.

While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.

Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s.  Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.

In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.

Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.

Shakespeare and Christmas

One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.

For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.

We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth.  Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.

Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep  surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.

Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference.  Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.

Enter Paul’s Boys

Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.

Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.

While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.

At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays. 

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel

Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.

The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports.  But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.

Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name.  In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.

Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?

It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.

These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:

Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.

It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.

Reviewed: “Such Fruits Out of Italy”

Here’s another must-have for your Oxfordian book collection.  From 1998-2011, Noemi Magri, Professor of English at the ITIS School in Mantua Italy, published a series of articles on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy in the British Oxfordian journal, the De Vere Society Newsletter.  Now the German publisher, Verlag Uwe Laugwitz, has collected these in an affordable paperback that adds a host of details to what we learned from Richard Roe in his Shakespeare in Italy, details that leave no doubt as to Shakespeare’s, and Oxford’s, first-hand knowledge of Italy.  While Roe adds to the information he provides the pleasures of accompanying him on his investigations, a sort of literary whodunit, Magri, as a professor of literature and a native Italian, provides citable material in a scholarly format that writers of articles and lectures for professional journals can turn to without reserve when addressing Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy.  Her abundant end notes add detailed flesh to the bones of fact

For centuries, academics, aware of the importance of Italy and Italian works to Shakespeare, have focused, not on his knowledge of Italy, but on what they believed was his ignorance, one more instance of the disassociative thinking forced on them by the Stratford biography.  Since the humble provincial could not possibly have known Italy without leaving some record of his travels, ergo to wit: Shakespeare must have been ignorant about Italy, just as he must have been ignorant of Greek, Latin, French, etc..

The gulf that separates university studies of history from studies of literature is also to blame, for as Magri clearly shows, this ignorance of Italy is all theirs, for in every instance we find that it was Shakespeare who knew what he was talking about, not his critics.  Our Strat-watchers will report on any apparent response to Magri’s evidence, but the likelihood is that they will do as they’ve always done with the evidence provided by authorship scholars, simply pretend it isn’t there.  After all, who cares about a truth so arcane as who created the language we speak, in which we think, with which we communicate and in which all the great works of English have been written since the Bard first put pen to parchment?

Magri covers just about everything in Shakespeare that requires personal knowledge of Italy, its language, its geography, its history, its customs and its laws.  Major articles deal with his awareness of Italian paintings by Titian and Giulio Romano and the part these play in Venus and Adonis, Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew.  She provides the history behind The Merchant of Venice, his knowledge of Portia’s Belmont, of the precise distances and modes of transportation involved in getting from one place to another, and his knowledge of Italian law as demonstrated in the trial scene.  That he knew more about the geography of Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast than his critics she shows in articles on Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale.

She clears up the eternal confusion over his seeming ignorance of the geographic locations of Verona and Milan in her article on Two Gents, providing a great deal of useful background on the two cities.  She makes the point that Oxford, after visiting the German scholar Johannes Sturm, would have entered Italy via the St. Gotthard Pass rather than, as previously conjectured, by the Brenner Pass, since the St. Gotthard Pass was “the route usually taken by travellers coming down the Rhine valley into Italy” (111-2).  Stopping briefly outside Milan (he would only have encountered problems with the Inquisition had he lingered inside the City), he would have learned all he needed for the adventures of his two gentlemen. [At the time of Oxford’s visit, Milan was experiencing an horrific outbreak of the plague.]  These are but hints of the important information to be found in every article in this book, and in the end notes.

Evidence from Orazio Cuoco

One of the most important additions to our store of precise knowledge about Oxford is the evidence Magri provides of the Venetian Inquisition’s examination of Orazio Cuoco recorded in 1577, a few days after his return from the 11 months he lived with Oxford in England.  Magri provides a verbatim transcript of the original manuscript, located in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (201), in which the questions and answers are in Italian, the rest in Latin.  Facing this on the opposite page is her word-for-word translation.

As she reveals, the sole issue concerning the Holy See was whether or not Cuoco had been suborned by Oxford into giving up or ignoring his religion.  Clearly they were satisfied that he had not.  When asked “What made you go with him” to England, the record states that Cuoco replied, “He heard me sing in the choir in Santa Maria Formosa and he asked me if I wanted to go to England with him.”  When asked if he had asked anyone for advice on whether to go or not, he replied, “I asked my father and my mother and both advised me to go.”  Since both his parents died of the plague while Orazio was gone, it seems that Oxford (unwittingly) may have saved the youth from a similar fate.  Beyond that the primary concern of Orazio’s inquisitor appears to have been whether or not he ate meat on fast days; he did not, or at least, so he said.

Of most interest to Oxfordians in Cuoco’s statement is the evidence it gives of Oxford’s religious tolerance and his interest in Greek.  According to Orazio, while Oxford himself ate either meat or fish, on fast days he provided his household only with fish, and he also had “an attendant and a manservant who were Catholics.”  To more particular questioning on religious matters, he answered that he never was required (or desired) to hear “sermons of heretics” (Protestants), and that he was allowed to attend Mass “in the house of the Ambassadors of France and Portugal” (207, 209).  When asked if Oxford ever tried to convert him, he answered “No Sir.  He let everyone live as they wanted.”  When asked “Who associated with the Earl in this town (Venice)” he replied, “No one here from this town.  He used to go to Mass at the Church of the Greeks, and he was a person who spoke the Latin and Italian languages well.”  Well-acquainted with the church in question, Magri describes it as “the most important Greek Orthodox church in Europe” and “a center of Greek and Renaissance learning.”  Inaugurated in 1573, Oxford would have seen it “in all its splendor.”  Nearby was “one of the first printing presses” in Venice, one that printed books in Greek (214).

Magri vs. Nelson

In comparing the truth about Cuoco’s deposition to the version in Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, Magri reveals Nelson’s egregiously sloppy scholarship.  For some reason the good professor had a hard time getting right the spelling of Cuoco’s name, spelling it either Coquo or Cocco (and Cogno in an earlier article on the internet), all meaningless; Cuoco means Cook in English.  Although Magri had sent him the right spelling, Nelson continued to misspell it.  Where Nelson reports that Cuoco claimed that Oxford was a “great lover of music,” it’s clear from Magri’s word-for-word translation that the youth never said any such thing.  Where Nelson claims that “he attended churches,” Cuoco actually spoke of only the one church.  Where Nelson reports that the Service at the Greek Church was in Latin, Magri corrects: “The Mass (not the service) was, and still is, said in Greek” (215).  Magri was particularly peeved by Nelson’s description of the Greek Church as “notorious for attracting religious dissidents, a statement she labels “false, arbitrary and defamatory.”  The church was “a cultural center,” its location in Venice “a meeting place for literary men” (215).

These are only a few of the six pages worth of mistranslations and arbitrary inventions that Nelson has foisted off on his readers as genuine scholarship, some of them obviously based on his need to represent Oxford in as dim a light as possible.  For those who desire to stick to the truth, anything Nelson has to say on Oxford’s time in Italy must be rejected in favor of Magri’s version.  His insinuation that Oxford’s motive in taking Orazio to England was sexual is replaced by something far more likely: that having heard him sing in the church choir, Oxford, in his capacity of prime provider of entertainment to the English Court, hoped to dazzle the Queen and the Court with Orazio’s singing .  Indeed, when asked, “Did you ever speak with the Queen?”Orazio responded, “I sang in her presence” (210).

Although Roe is unparalleled in his role as tour guide to Oxford’s travels in Italy, for those who dream of the day that rigorously-researched authorship articles and books will be accepted by mainstream academic publishers, it’s Magri’s standing as a PhD and a native whose deep roots in Italian culture and history will best provide the kind of support required for scholarly exegesis.  Unfortunately, both books lack an index.  For those who forsee the need to use her evidence as support for your own work, I suggest you keep a record of important points and pages numbers as you go.  You’ll be glad you did. (British Oxfordian Richard Malim has put together an index of Roe’s book.)

Don’t let too much time pass before getting this book.  Libraries don’t buy paperbacks (when they do they have to pay to have them properly bound so they can shelve them), and hard experience has taught me the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow nature of the publishing business.  As long as we remain a fringe discipline, we need to do what we can to keep the most important books available.  Orders can be made through Magri’s editor, Gary Goldstein, at his website The Elizbethan Review, or through amazon.com.  If the latter, don’t forget to add your own review or at least, click yes on the good ones.

Can we please stop calling him Lord Oxford?!

I have only one criticism of Magri’s excellent book, or any other in which he’s referred to as “Lord Oxford.”  Once or twice is understandable as it helps to identify him, but more than that is not only a bore, it’s actually detrimental to our cause.  Sure it’s a fact that “lordship” was his inheritance and that his contemporaries called him “Lord Oxford,” but his contemporaries were referring to him in his social role, not to his role as a playwright and a poet, which is what makes him important to us and, hopefully, to the entire world someday, once we can get past that dratted word Lord!  It would have been appropriate to call him Maestro, but that was impossible for the very reason that a lord back then couldn’t be a maestro, or anything but a lord.

For all the good it did him, for all the freedom, the time, and the credit with money-lenders that his rank provided, making it possible for him to write, produce and publish what would have been utterly impossible had he been born a commoner, it also did him and generations of readers a serious harm in the very area governed by his name, for it is largely due to his rank that his identity had to be hidden behind a pseudonym borrowed (for a hefty consideration) from the son of a provincial wool dealer.  It’s the very thing that for four centuries has made it so difficult to identify him as the author of the greatest works in English literature.

His given name, “de Vere,” is appropriate for his childhood, but as a constant term it lacks the power and strength of Oxford.  It’s also mispronounced: in a letter to Burghley the Countess of Southampton spelled it “de Vayer,” which, no matter how it was spelled, is surely how it was pronounced by himself and those who knew him personally.  (Consider how much Shakespeare liked the word “fair,” or that vert in French, meaning green, is pronounced vair unless the following word begins with a vowel, or, most telling, ver in Latin, which means truth and is pronounced veyr, as shown by the pronunciation of Latin words like veritas. )  As it’s invariably pronounced today, de Veer, it has no such associations.

Let’s call him Oxford.  It’s short, it’s easy, and by now everyone knows who is meant by it.  Apart from the town and the university, there’s no other Oxford with which he can be confused.  The earls of the second creation are more easily identified by their birth name of Harley.  Lord Byron, who certainly identified himself with his role as poet far more than with his rank, called himself Byron, as did all his friends, associates, readers, enemies and admirers.  There may be some who pursue this study because they have a thing for English lords, just like there are some who pursue it for the purpose of writing soap opera romances and screenplays, but let’s hope that there are at least some among us whose primary interest remains in seeing him established in history as the author of the Shakespeare canon.

By calling him Lord Oxford (and, the ultimate of damning him at the outset––introducing him as “the seventeenth blah blah blah”)––we are buying into the very mindset that has been keeping us from getting him accepted as Shakespeare, as immediately it places him, not with the writers of his era, but with the aristocrats!  As an introduction, all that need be done is to call him Edward de Vere (pronounced de Vayer), Earl of Oxford (dropping the totally unnecessary four-syllable phrase, “the seventeenth”), and from then on call him plain Oxford.

In his role as playwright, author of Venus and Adonis, Hamlet, and the other works that are the only reason we want to know anything about him, Oxford’s socio-political rank has about as much importance as the fact that his hair was auburn, that he was married twice, and that in later life he probably walked with a limp.  These are facts that belong to his biography, and however interesting, and however much they may bear on the attitude and subject matter of his works, they have nothing whatsoever to do with where he fits with Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley in the pantheon of English literary greats. Their social status has nothing to do with their greatness.  Neither should his.

Oxford’s life reflected in Shakespeare’s plays

That events in Oxford’s life so closely match the plots of Shakespeare’s plays is a chain of evidence that those who deny his authorship can only ignore, as the connections are so obvious that denial is impossible.  It seems that everything he wrote, everything that’s lasted at least, grew out of a current social or political situation with which his audience was concerned, plus some event in history, literature or folk tale, plus some circumstance in his own life.  By investing the protagonist with his own emotions, brought about by something in his personal life, whether earlier or ongoing, he invested the play with life.

Some of the evidence for this comes from additions he made to his source material, like Arthur in King John, the little prince who fears that Hubert, his tutor, will betray him, and who then dies in an attempt to escape, perhaps a reflection of his situation when Smith left him with Fowle at Cambridge for five months when he was eight years old, probably with no indication of where he’d be sent if Smith got what he was after, a place on Elizabeth’s Council.

Next he’s Romeo, the 15-year- old who yearns for 13-year-old Juliet, but is denied access to her by social barriers, as so many young people were then by the differences in their parents’ religions, and as Oxford at 15 was from Mary Browne, daughter of one of the most conservative members of Elizabeth’s Court, shortly before she was forced to marry the somewhat mad 2nd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s County Paris. Then comes Palamon whose friendship with Arcite is stressed by their common desire for Emilia, as is Euphues with Philautus and Oxford with Rutland over their relationship with Ann Cecil .

Into his late teens and early twenties he’s Hal, the prince who spends too much time hanging out in bad company and playing pranks as he waits for something important to do.  Having finally gotten his Grand Tour in Italy in 1575, he’s those cads, Bertram and Proteus, cruel to the good girl who loves him while chasing trollops around Europe.  Arriving home to a pile of debts and angry creditors, he’s Timon, who, naive at first, goes ballistic when he realizes he’s been taken for a ride by sycophants he had thought were his friends, and who now refuse to help him in his time of need.  Then, following his 1580 confession of having plotted treasonably with Howard and Arundel, he’s both Coriolanus, furious with his community and himself, and Brutus, who committed regicide for what he believed was the good of his people.

In his hotheaded thirties he’s valiant Hotspur and witty Mercutio, both dangerously quick to take offense.  He’s both Benedick (Mercutio overtaken by love) and Claudio, another Bertram-like cad.  As Oberon, he’s “King of Shadows,” the shaman in charge of the ancient holiday rituals that not all that long ago used to take place on May Day and Midsummer’s Eve in the sacred groves of the great Royal forest.  In his mid-thirties he’s Hamlet, Prince of Thoughts.  His world turned upside down by the cold realities of medieval power politics, he makes the Court Stage his personal Star Chamber.  Heart-broken over the death of his mentor and patron, the Earl of Sussex, he accuses Elizabeth of being Gertrude, Leicester of being Claudius, and Burghley of being Polonius, whom he kills in effigy for spying on him.  Deeply in debt, he writes The Merchant of Venice, in which he dramatizes the argument that the Chancery Court of Equity be given precedence over the Court of Common Pleas, where he was being screwed.

With the ’90s comes the attack on the Stage by Robert Cecil and the assassinations of Marlowe and Lord Strange.  Forced to call a (temporary) halt to his play-making and publishing, his credit cut off by Lord Burghley, he spends his days writing sonnets to his new patron, the young son of Mary Browne.  When Southampton turns from him to join up with the Earl of Essex, the sonnets become mournful, but in the process, a new and more powerful style develops. As Mark Antony, once again he loses the world for the love of a beautiful woman, one with curly black hair and dark eyes who represents all that he loves and misses about Italy and the Mediterranean culture.  The intense feelings that he suffers over these relationships get poured into sonnets, where they develop a new, more powerful, and more modern style.

When troubles with the Cecils continue to increase with the appointment of Robert Cecil as Secretary of State, followed by the deaths of his patron Hunsdon and the manager of his company, James Burbage, along with the loss of both of Burbage’s theaters, he fight back by revising his Henry IV plays to include a nasty caricature of Robert Cecil’s inlaws, a character eventually named Falstaff, a play on the name Shakespeare.  Now in his forties, weary of the struggle, for the marriage of his oldest daughter he revises The Tempest. With her as Miranda and himself as Prospero, king of the magical isle, banished from his true place at Court by wicked schemers, with the help of his Ariel he befuddles them with “rough magic,” which, he assures his royal audience, he intends to give up now that his daughter is safely married (though sadly not to the one he wanted).

Finally in his fifties, driven mad by the mistreatment of his two oldest daughters, he’s Lear, who, like Timon so long before, runs naked and raving into the wilderness.  But then, cheered by the advent of King James, whose young favorites, the Pembrokes, have taken him under their wings, like the vanquished hero in the old mummer plays, he leaps back to life as Duke Vincenzio, escaping the burden of his inherited responsibilities by retiring to a safe haven in the forest where he’s the courtier Touchstone who having fled the wicked Court to live freely in the forest with other Court escapees, grieves that he must spend his days courting that “unpoetic slut,” the public audience.

All these are metaphors for Oxford’s life.  As for being the real Shakespeare, those who knew, knew they had to keep the secret; those who didn’t know, didn’t need to know.  Who would have wanted to exchange so many wonderful fictions for the sad reality, a lonely man, crazed with longing and remorse?

The authorship question is not whether Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, etc. wrote the Shakespeare canon, it’s what each of them actually wrote!  Oxford wrote all the works we know as Shakespeare, plus Lyly’s novels, Greene’s tales, and a lot of earlier works published under the names of his secretaries and friends. Bacon wrote most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon, while Raleigh wrote that part of the Spenser canon that’s not by Bacon.  Sidney’s canon is valuable because it was never published as anyone’s but his (although it’s likely his sister made some changes and additions so it could be made public). Marlowe’s plays are all his own, but not the translations published after his death, the true authors Oxford, Bacon or Raleigh (or Buckhurst), who made use of Marlowe’s vacant name and persona to get them published.  Mary Sidney used her coachman’s name, John Webster; everything published as by Webster is by Mary Sidney. These are the great artists who, against all odds, created the English Literary Renaissance.

Update: THE BOOK ROOM, etcetera

Those who have purchased, or who plan to purchase, Richard Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and its Audience so we can read it together, please begin reading if you haven’t already, and taking notes, if you wish.  I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this and everything else in my life, due to a stream of events that has kept me on my feet for days, but I have been reading the book, and will be happy to respond to comments on the BOOK ROOM page.  I hope this works out.  If not we’ll try something else.

Having accepted the fact that Oxford had access to a number of the Latin works discussed by Beacham, we may find solid reasons for believing that these played a part in forming the London Stage in the mid to  late 1570s.  Could Oxford have been thinking about how to create such a theater as early as his childhood?  What do you think?  What other questions does the book raise for us?

Francis Bacon and the University Wits

It’s clear from the stats I get from WordPress that the pages here on  the Wits have the most interest for readers.  Years ago, when Ogburn’s Mysterious William first got me interested in the authorship question, I came away with two unanswered questions:  first: what was Oxford’s education and does it fit the extraordinary knowledge revealed by Shakespeare in his works?  Second: who were the other writers publishing when he began, and do any of them show the same anomalies in their biographies that we see in Shakespeare?  Having done my best with the question about his education and childhood, I hope to do the same with regard to the other writers, who for the most part can be grouped under the scholar’s rubric of “University Wits.”

Dry runs for this will no doubt appear here as the work takes shape, but there is little room in a blog for outlining a particular chain of evidence, particularly one that has been so damaged by both time and the purposeful elimination of anything that might connect the Cecil family to the works of Shakespeare or the birth of the London Stage.  Nevertheless, as (ironically) Polonius puts it, the truth is the truth “though it were hid indeed at the centre.”  A perpetrator may wear gloves, but his fingerprints will always be found somewhere, that is, if one is looking for the right things and in the right places.

The major factor in our effort to revise history according to basic common sense is getting the authorities to accept the fact that during the period that Shakespeare and other writers were creating the English Literary Renaissance, they found it necessary to hide their identities.  Because they will not accept this, we are stuck at the very gate, for every phase of this argument is determined by this fact, which is fairly easy to prove, and certainly far from unusual in human history, that is, of course, if attention is paid to enough historical facts, which sadly in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question has not been the case.

D Day 1588

The revisiting seen on television over the past few days of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe by the British and American forces in 1944, the true beginning of the end of the Second World War, brings to mind the situation England found itself in the mid-to-late 1580s as it faced the certainty of an invasion by Spain’s great Armada in its crusade to keep all of Europe contained by the Roman Catholic power structure .  When we hear academics scoff at the idea that writers were able to keep their identities a secret, what about the fact that D Day, the greatest naval invasion in the history of the world, was kept a secret, not only from the enemy, but also from everyone else, including the international media.

In times of war and revolution, keeping certain matters a secret becomes a deadly serious necessity.  By disdaining to reference history, the academics have ignored the fact that when the writers who later took names like Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Nashe first began writing, they were locked in deadly combat with the Calvinist Reformation, that held that such works were the tools of the Devil.  It has also escaped them that Shakespeare was dealing, sometimes with passion, with the realpolitik of his time.  This misapprehension, largely due to the misplacement in time forced on the academics by the Stratford biography,  is the heart of our problem, and until we get it unravelled, and get the word out by publishing, online if not in print, we will continue to “perne in a gyre”  for another 100 years of getting nowhere with the authorship question.

Tolkien and Beowulf

The article by Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker on Tolkien and his immersion in Old English, written to acknowledge the publication, finally, of his translation of Beowulf (Houghton Mifflin), is one of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to this one magazine (the other major reason for an artist and page designer is the stylish and generally reader-friendly layout and their continued dedication to publishing the work of wonderful artists).

Thoughtfully Acocella recounts briefly the plots through which Beowulf defeats three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon.  Like the Reformation ideologues of Oxford’s time, Grendel, monster #1, hates the music with which the ancient Geats would make merry into the night, though his technique for stopping them––tearing them into pieces which he then eats––is rather more ghoulish.  Certain artists during Shakespeare’s time did have their heads removed by rope or axe, but nobody ate them.

By defining the prosody of the poem, what makes it distinctive as a style, for us this article raises the question of what Oxford may have taken from the opportunity he was given to study the Old English manuscript of Beowulf that Alexander Nowell had in his keeping during the period he was tutoring Oxford at Cecil House.  There’s no indication that Nowell himself translated Beowulf into either Latin or English, but how likely is it that Oxford and his translator friends at Cecil House would have passed up the opportunity to do exactly this, or at least some sections of the manuscript?

I have pondered at some length the comment by Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’em) in his Scholemaster that he preferred the Greeks to the Gothians, wondering just what he meant by the latter:

But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surely, to follow rather the Goths in Rhyming, than the Greeks in true versifying, were even to eat acorns with swine, when we may freely eat wheat bread among men.  Indeed, Chaucer, Th. Norton, my L. of Surrey, M. Wyatt, Th. Phaer, and other gentlemen, in translating Ovid, Palingenius, and Seneca, have gone as far, to their great praise, as the copy they followed could carry them, but, if such good wits and forward diligence had been directed to follow the best examples, and not have been carried by time and custom to content themselves with that barbarous and rude rhyming, among their other worthy praises, which they have justly deserved, this had not been the least, to be counted among men of learning and skill, more like unto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians, in handling of their verse.

If by this, written in 1563, he was describing a current fascination with the forms discovered in Beowulf and other texts by Nowell, first modern scholar to recover the sounds and meanings of Old English, a fascination  that has escaped the world of letters, this might resolve what it was that Ascham was condemning at the time that Nowell and his students were delving into the mysteries of Old English prosody.  One would think the appropriate term would be alliteration, since these Anglo-Saxon poems did not depend upon rhyme, at least as we use the word, but on a particular kind of alliteration, as described by Acocella.

Hope to hear from some of you shortly in THE  BOOK ROOM.

 

1597: The Showdown

Orthodox Shakespeareans are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end, with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s, for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain Gray’s Inn in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy, or the two narrative poems on sex he published with the help of the Earl of Southampton, Venus and Adonis, comic (it was not consumated), Lucrece, tragic. However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

However it happened, Oxford was to some extent both a product and a victim of the Cecil family. Whether by luck or design, eight of the leading noble youths of his time, himself and seven others, were, by the early deaths of their fathers, brought under the advising arm of Sir William Cecil through his office as Master of the Court of Wards. Whether by luck or design, the raising of these important social leaders by Cecil was a major move in the fight to turn the nation from Catholic to Protestant, from allegience to Rome to allegience to the English Crown. As the first of Burghley’s wards, Oxford became to some extent the leader of a faction that saw the Cecils as upstarts and political manipulators (“a politician did it,” said John Webster), out to take away their power and destroy their class. By his marriage to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford was also the most thoroughly embedded into their faction, a 16th century version of “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

Any society as small, closed, tightly-woven and barricaded against change as the power center of Elizabeth’s Court develops excruciating tensions that only increase over time, often continuing on past the deaths of the principals, who pass their rivalries and hatreds on to their heirs. This was the case with Lord Burghleyand the Earl of Leicester, whose rivalry got passed on to their heirs, Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, just as Burghley’s efforts to control the life and behavior of his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, and his nephew, Francis Bacon, got passed on to his son, Robert Cecil.

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.  At a Court that worshipped tall, handsome men, himself shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who (literally) looked down on him, men like Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves. Most of all he hated his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford. Partly because Oxford was a leading member of that hated class, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and partly because his father loved and admired him. Luckily for Oxford, out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.

Robert hated his brother-in-law for many reasons: because he had everything that he lacked, because he was admired by the Court for his social prestige, his good looks and his talent, but mostly because of the rude disdain with which he treated his father’s and his sister’s love. Although Court protocols and family solidarity required that they maintain a pretense of cordiality, as soon as the death of Walsingham in 1590 placed the reins of power in his hands, Robert began planning how to destroy the man who had broken his sister’s heart and, in his view, sent her to an early grave.

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction. If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed it to occur. If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could. Whether he acted with complete complicity with his father or to some extent acted on his own is a question that we probably can’t answer.

Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588, Burghley, as Master of the Court of Wards, had moved to have Oxford’s debts to the Court called in. This was less of an immediate threat to Oxford himself, who was already broke, than to the patrons who had backed his loans, and whose own estates were now threatened. What it did destroy of Oxford’s was his credit, that is, his ability to use the perquisites of his title to raise cash. Without credit he could no longer pay actors and musicians, stagehands and costumers. The Queen saw to it that as a peer of the realm he was saved from the humiliation of complete bankruptcy by arranging his marriage to an heiress in 1592, but apart from a few donations, most notably from the young Earl of Southampton, Milord was pretty much silenced.

Theater of Blood

In attempting to explain what happened to Marlowe during the plague of 1593, biographer Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning) resorts to a metaphor by which he compares the way governmental sting operations to plays. According to Nicholl, poets find spying an easy step because they live in the fantasy world of The Theater. This is absurd; would Kurt Weil have spied for the Nazis? Would Vaclav Havel have spied for the Soviets?  An artist of surpassing power and reckless honesty, Christopher Marlowe did not, could not, have agreed, or been forced, to spy for the Crown he detested.  But the metaphor works if placed where it belongs, with the other side, with Robert Cecil, for the plot with which he brought down the dangerous playwright in May of 1593 was just as creative as anything Marlowe himself ever produced for the stage.

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 3 instead.)

For Cecil, the removal of Marlowe, whether by murder or transportation, and without any blame attached to himself, was a magnificent coup, and for those who knew the truth, which must have been pretty much the entire Privy Council and London theater community, brought him another great benefit, the respect he needed to move with confidence in the brutal world of Elizabethan politics.  It also had the salubrious effect, salubrious to the Cecils, that is, of throwing the London Stage into a chaos from which they had every hope that it couldn’t recover, at least, not in its current form.

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen and the Council to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil had been on the Council since 1591.) We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that Catholic gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, his granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the 6th Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage.  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, as a client of Leicester’s, he too had inherited the hatreds of their rivalry.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in the early 70s, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Ferdinando’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been a motive to do something to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

The crisis that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put an author’s name on their plays  is best summarized with a timeline:

  • June 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594: The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signals the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s and Queens.
  • Apr 4 1594: The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning. Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company returned to the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594: The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally-licensed companies, what Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly” that from then on had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • Feb 4, 1596: The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential MPs the following winter.
  • July 5, 1596: The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council and the most powerful man in England. Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596: The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons. Four months later . . .
  • Nov 1596: The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, accedes. Two months later . . .
  • Feb 26, 1597: The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Four months later . . .
  • Jul 28, 1597: The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.”
  • June-Aug 1597: The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson. The LCMen take to the road. Two months later . . .
  • Oct 1597: The opening of Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation. Immediately before or shortly after . . .
  • Oct -Nov 1597:  the production of a new version of The True Tragedy of Richard the Third somewhere in the West End (since the Company now has no theater of its own) where the MPs can see it, in which Richard Burbage, by his dress and body language, makes it clear that the play is intended as a stab at Robert Cecil, who, as Secretary of State, is playing a new and important role in the Parliament then in session, and the publication of the anonymous first edition of the revised play, now named Richard III, which allows the MPs to share the play with others who haven’t seen it.
  • Jan-June 1598: The publication of a second edition of the play, now with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it has appeared on any play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did so seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time. Fired with fury by the deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.  We can also imagine the “tall men” stationed at each entrance, with an eye out for troublemakers.

Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue.  Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside early in 1599.

This chain of events suggests a bloody behind-stairs struggle for control of the London Stage.  Whether or not Robert Cecil was responsible, via the “projectors” he’d inherited from Walsingham, for the deaths of leading members of the Stage community––from Marlowe to his patron Lord Strange, to the “sporting” Thomas Kyd, to the grand-daddy of the Lonson Stage, James Burbage, to his patron Lord Hunsdon––is less important to our story than the actors’ suspicions.  It should be our suspicion as well, based on how the Master Secretary would go on to entrap and destroy other leading members of Court society, the Earl of Essex, his own brother-in-law George Cobham, and his former friend Sir Walter Raleigh.   The level of hatred and fear engendered by Cecil in his years of power under King James is clear from the stream of slanders and verse libels that deluged London following his death in 1612.

It should also be the clincher to the argument about why Oxford hid his identity. Had anyone during the first decade of James’s reign––anyone beyond the inner circles of the Court and Stage community, that is––known for certain who it was who wrote the 1597 version of Richard III, Oxford would have been as dead as Marlowe, Kyd, Stanley, Burbage and Hunsdon.  As it was, since the playwright was, as he kept reminding Cecil in his letters, a member of Cecil’s family, father of his nieces, etc., Oxford escaped, both with his life and with his papers––not an easy task, but one facilitated by the accession to power in 1603 of King James and his fondness for Philip Herbert, and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, who would make it their job to see to it that Oxford’s works, and the Stage he created, be secured from harm and eventually published.

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, with the management of Oxford’s son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, this was allowed for a newly-formed company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapels, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  After 1608, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, its rise to a level of success had never before been seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

These are only the most salient points in the story of this final showdown.  The thread presented here, the string of deaths, theater closings, constant publication of revised versions of Richard III (eight in all, over the years, every time Cecil got another office or title), the fact that it was the first play to be published under the name Shakespeare, must be correlated to several other threads, if all taken together, make a subject worthy of a full length book.  What part did Essex play? Bacon?  The Queen?  The printers?  The publishers?  George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir and the Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign? Where does the revision and publication of Richard II that accompanied the publication of Richard III fit in?  Hopefully time will tell.