Tag Archives: Earl of Oxford

Who was Hamlet?

Hamlet has always been seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, his most fully realized character.  In calling him “the secular Christ,” Yale professor Harold Bloom makes the most extravagant comparison that a Christian culture can offer.  In fact, it may be that more has actually been written (in English) about this fictional being than has been written about the Savior.

Those who’ve looked into it have found it impossible to locate anything in the life of William of Stratford that corresponds in any way to Hamlet’s life and situation.  He would have had to get all of it from books, but all the literary sources tracked by Bullough and others were in Latin or French in his time, most in volumes that, even had he the Latin promised by T.W. Baldwin would have required connections to private libraries that academics can only assume, since there’s no hint in William’s real biography (as opposed to the fictional versions conjured up by academics) of any such connections.  The one possible reference to William’s personal life, the son named Hamnet that died at age 11, was obviously named after his friend, Hamnet Saddler, while the character in the play is just as obviously based on the life of a Danish prince named Amleth, whose story, far from popular, lay buried in a Latin history of Denmark written in the 12th century.

This and other primary souces for Hamlet Prince of Denmark are found in Oxford’s tutor’s library: the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, not translated into English until 1608; the Roman history of Titus Livius, Latin, not translated into English until 1600; Valerius Maximus (used in schools), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (both Latin rhetoricians).  Others connect with Oxford’s years at Cecil House: Beowulf, probably translated from Old English into Latin and/or English by Laurence Nowell for the benefit of his students at Cecil House c.1563; Seneca’s plays, the Agamemnon and Troas, translated by members of the Cecil House coterie in the mid-1560s and published by Thomas Newton in 1581. The plot of the play within the play, “the mousetrap,” based on the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was still a matter for Court gossip in 1575 when Oxford was traveling from one Italian Court to another.  Della Rovere having been Castiglione’s patron for many years, in his youth he formed one of the group whose conversation makes up the major portion of Castiglione’s book, The Courtier, also in Smith’s library in the original Italian (translated into miserable “drab era” English by William Cecil’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby while Oxford was at Cecil House.

While most of Shakespeare’s protagonists can be matched more or less easily to some phase of Oxford’s biography, the version of Hamlet as we have it from the First Folio (1623) seems to be a sort of overview of his entire life, a figure made up of his most personal view of himself, with a plot compounded of the central experiences of his life, the loss of his Earldom through the early death of his father; the loss of the Court Stage through the death of his patron; his troubled marriage; the enemies who were out to shut him up.  It is a tragedy much like the one that overtakes Oedipus, the unfolding of a dire situation into which he was born and from which he cannot excape.  But unlike Oedipus, whose tragedy turns on his ignorance of the past, Hamlet’s much-vaunted indecision seems more a stoic determination to see how things will play out.  Having confirmed what he has guessed by Claudius’s response to the enactment of the murder of Gonzaga, he senses that any further intervention on his part will only make things worse: “Let Hercules himself do what he may; the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”

Like Hamlet, Oxford was born into a troubled dynasty. It’s clear that his father, the sixteenth earl, though termed “the good earl,” was not up to the task of sustaining a feudal domain that was so obviously doomed by the political and economic forces assailing it.  Like Hamlet, Oxford was more interested in literature and science (returning to Wittenberg) than life at Court.  Like Hamlet, he was romantically and sexually involved with the daughter of the monarch’s primary court official, Polonius/Burghley.  Like Hamlet, he was jealous of her relationship with her father.  Like Hamlet, he used the Stage to explain himself to the Court while claiming to entertain it.  A thousand years of history had put the Earl of Oxford in the position he was in, one from which his only escape was to create two brand new arenas where he had free rein, the Stage and the Press.

In Hamlet Oxford dramatized his attitude towards William Cecil Lord Burghley, his father-in-law: “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”; his attitude towards his wife, Burghley’s daughter (Ophelia): “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny”; his bitterness over the Queen’s business-as-usual attitude while the Earl of Sussex was dying: “a beast, that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer”); his disdain for the Earl of Leicester (Claudius): “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; his astonishment at his brother-in-law’s (Robert Cecil’s) hatred: “What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever”; his disgust at how his unscrupulous friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), are conspiring to destroy him: “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”  Only the end differs, but when he first wrote it of course he had no idea how it would end.  Nor do we, 400 years later.

One would think that identifying Polonius as Burghley would lead, automatically, to the identity of his daughter, and from her to the identity of her lover/husband, i.e., Hamlet, but one would be wrong, for to the so-called literary critic, history is just another form of literary fiction, something to be trimmed or amplified as needed to fit their theories, leaving the truth to the historians of wars and political coups who, equally culpable, pay no attention to literature.  For who but the Earl of Oxford, England’s Lord Great Chamberlain by seventeen generations of inheritance, would have dared to describe the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”––and lived to write again?

Screwing with history

Hamlet is a prime example of how the Lestradian stupidity of the officials in charge of interpreting Shakespeare has skewed the history of an entire era.  While Nashe’s 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon gives clear evidence of a version of Hamlet from before that date, this must needs be seen as an “Ur-Hamlet,” written of course by one of their anonymous pre-Shakespearean ghost-writers who provided the lazy Bard with so much of his material.  And because no proper niche can be found for Hamlet in current events of the 1590s––where the Stratford biography has forced all dates of composition––nothing can provide anything either personal or popular that might have inspired the playwright to write the play, so the commonplace is that Shakespeare, despite his obvious connection to the Crown’s own company for forty years, never bothered his artistic head with what was going on around him.  Thus is historic accuracy set aside, a thing of small importance.

Moving even further from the particular to the general, this has led to a general agreement among the Lestrades of the 20th century English Departments that there is no such thing as a compulsion among, not just Shakespeare, but all the world’s greatest writers of fiction to base their creations on aspects of their own lives.  That this won’t work with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henri Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, etc., makes no difference.  One must never allow dull reality to get in the way of theory.

Recall George Orwell’s interpretation of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in his 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four?  Recall Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who scoffs at Alice’s inability to believe in the impossible, while she herself has managed to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Recall as well that her creator, Lewis Carroll, that is Charles Dodgson (his real name), was a math professor at Oxford, whence cameth most, perhaps all, of the characters Alice encountered in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Recall Alice’s ultimate response, which we should all take to heart, when she cries out at the end of Looking Glass, “Who cares for you, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

The play’s the thing

History records that throughout his twenties Oxford was riding high at Court. “The glass of fashion,” he was promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, rapidly assuming the role of Queen’s favorite: (Gilbert Talbot wrote his father 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.”)  He was the essence of Renaissance nonchalance, of sprezzatura.  He refused the Queen’s order to dance for the French envoys.  He called Sir Philip Sidney a puppy.  He turned the tables on his Catholic friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, for attempting to suck him into dangerous treason plots as they had the Duke of Norfolk.  But this ascent came to an abrupt halt when his lover, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, gave birth to his illegitimate son in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, sending the jealous monarch into a prolonged tantrum.  Playing the humiliated goddess for all it was worth, the infuriating revelation that her charms were not sufficient to keep her favorites in line meant the Queen must needs turn her erring Actaeon into a villain and sic the hounds upon him.

After two months in the Tower, commiserating with the ghosts of the kings who had preceded him, some perhaps in the very same room in which he found himself; after months of house arrest and an edict banishing him from Court for an indeterminate period, the notion that once back at Fisher’s Folly Oxford would simply sit on his hands for two years while the Queen got over her hissy fit is so unlikely, well, who but the White Queens of the university English Departments could possibly swallow such a notion?

Feeling abused and unappreciated, bored with writing comedies for children to perform for the unappreciative witch on the throne, he threw himself into creating plays for Burbage’s adult team, the kind of plays he would never have dared to produce at Court.  Some versions were created primarily for this team to perform for the public at Burbage’s big open air stage in Shoreditch (Romeo and Juliet); some were aimed at provincial audiences (King John, The Spanish Tragedy); most were aimed at the West End audience, the gentlemen of the inns of Court, performed by Burbage’s men on the little stage he and Lord Hunsdon had created in the Blackfriars complex shortly after his return from Italy in 1576.

Hamlet: the backstory

Having been appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1572, the Earl of Sussex had named as his vice-chamberlains Henry Hunsdon, later (1594) the patron of Shakespeare’s Company, and his son-in-law Lord Charles Howard, later (also 1594) the patron of Marlowe’s Company. Sussex was determined to replace Leicester, whom he detested, as leading member of the Privy Council, which meant, among other things, taking the Court Stage under his own jurisdiction, where by long tradition it belonged. The Revels account for the early 1570s suggests that this was when Oxford, backed by Sussex, began providing plays for the various children’s companies to perform during the winter holidays.

A decade later, during the period that Oxford was banished from Court (1581-83) the Earl of Sussex began to weaken from what has since been diagnosed as consumption. As Sussex faded, Walsingham, by then Secretary of State, moved to take control of the Stage before Leicester or one of his clients could take it back. In all of England there was only one playwright who Walsingham could be certain could charm the provincial audiences into backing the Crown against the Spanish Church. For this he had to have Oxford back at Court. History relates that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who persuaded the Queen to allow Oxford to return, though what is more likely is that Raleigh was acting more in Walsingham’s interest than in Oxford’s. If I’m right about the kind of plays he was producing at the Blackfriar’s Theater during his banishment, members of the Privy Council, including Oxford’s father-in-law, may have preferred, as the saying goes, to have the rascal inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.

Since 1572, when the Pope first issued the bull that guaranteed God’s forgiveness to whoever would rid Christendom of that Whore of Babylon, the heretical Queen of England, Walsingham was preparing for the inevitable attack by the Spanish Armada. Having spent years on the Continent, he was deeply aware (to an extent that Her Majesty and Burghley were not, neither having spent any time abroad), of the inevitability of a military attack. Having had a sophisticated humanist education at Padua, where the Roman theater had never completely died, Walsingham was also aware, as had been Sussex, of the power of the stage to win hearts and minds to a cause, in this case, patriotism over religion––for the coastal towns where the Spanish were certain to strike first, were still largely wedded to the Old Faith.

“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue”

Oxford had every reason to detest the Earl of Leicester. Not only was he a rival for the Queen’s favor, it was Leicester to whom she had given the use of his estates while he was underage; Leicester who had rudely cheated his mother of her portion of his father’s will while he was still too young and powerless to defend her. While his banishment from Court extended from months to years and his enemies were elevated in importance and allowed to attack him in the streets without reproof, Leicester, who had not only impregnated one of the Queen’s ladies but had married her in secret, was returned to favor while he had still to go about incognito in fear for his life.

From July to the end of October 1582, while he was still under banishment from Court, his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), 27-year-old Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), aka Lord Willoughby, was in Denmark to bring the Order of the Garter to the Protestant King, returning to England by November. Then again, in 1585, with the renewal of hostilities in the lowlands, Bertie was sent as special ambassador back to Denmark in October to urge the Danish king to contribute aid to the Dutch in their fight against Spain. This took some time. As the DNB puts it: “He filled his spare time with visits to Tycho Brahe’s observatory to examine the new comet the astronomer had just discovered, evidence of an enduring scientific interest.”

Having finally succeeded in getting a promise of troops, Bertie arrived at Amsterdam in March 1586, where Sidney got him a command, ultimately taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces when Leicester departed in December 1587. Oxford and Bertie were friendly enough that Oxford spent time with him and his sister in June 1582 (Nelson 281), and though no letters have turned up, it makes sense that, with Oxford’s interest in the stars, his brother-in-law would have discussed with him what he saw in Denmark after his first four-month visit in 1582, and would have written to him of more recent developments during the five months in 1585 that he waited around at the Danish Court for the King to respond to his request.

This then is the backstory to the first version of Hamlet. Out of the death of Sussex; the unseemly return to favor of the Earl of Leicester whom he and many others suspected (probably unfairly) of having Sussex poisoned; Saxo’s report on the mad prince Amleth of Danish history; the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had certainly been poisoned; his own dilemma with his wife and her family; the interest raised by Thomas Digges’s publication in the mid-1570s of evidence that the universe, rather than bounded by the ancient Ptolemaic nutshell, was actually an infinity of space filled with stars; plus reports from the Danish Court on Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Oxford created the first version of Hamlet, the one mentioned in passing by Nashe in such a way that suggests its popularity as early as 1589.

Returned finally to Court in June 1583, a week before Sussex’s death, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, contemplete life at Court without his major patron, Milord’s temper on his return was pretty much identical to Hamlet’s as the scene opens at the Danish Court, and that he too continued to dress, and act, as though in mourning. The “inky cloak” that shows Hamlet’s grief over the death of his father, mirrors Oxford’s refusal to show an interest in the holiday festivities that until his banishment had been his primary function at Court.

Just as Hamlet, while preferring to continue his studies at Wittenberg (the reading and translating in which Oxford had been immersed since his return from France and Italy), having yielded to his mother’s wish that he remain at Court, remains disaffected until, inspired by the actors, he creates a play that puts him at risk of assassination. Returned to Court by the efforts of Raleigh and Walsingham, having tasted the freedom of writing what he pleased, Oxford had no intention of churning out the kind of comedies that pleased the Queen. Enrolled by Walsingham in creating history plays that would help to turn the mood of the coastal towns away from religion and towards patriotism, he writes The Troublesome Raigne of King John, launching a series in which, encouraged by Walsingham, Smith’s close friend during their days together in the Secretary’s office, he finally gets to engage with genuine policy issues.

The version of Hamlet that we know from the First Folio is not, of course, the version that Nashe referred to in 1589 in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon with the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches,” or even the one Thomas Lodge referred to in 1596, referring to the ghost that cried at the theatre, “like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Nor even the one published in 1603, which suggests its publisher, Nicholas Ling, had waited until the Queen was gone.

The one we know is the one published the following year 1604, when the original models for all the principals but Laertes were no longer capable of being wounded. The Hamlet we know was revised from the perspective of later life, in full knowledge of the curve of events, and how “the end crowns all.” If the original “antique Roman” was Rutland, the name Horatio suggests that Hamlet’s plea to tell the truth about his “wounded name, things standing thus unknown,” was directed to his cousin Sir Horatio Vere, who in 1604 was achieving distinction on the battlefields of Europe. But not Sir Horatio, nor any other member of Oxford’s family or audience, had the audacity to broach the subject openly in print, then or for generations after. As Shakespeare put it, “the rest is silence.”

 

Oxford’s life in a very small nutshell

Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history.  Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot.  At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.

He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months.  As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place.  As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died.  Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.

Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper.  That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously.  In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials.  For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.

Bound to the Cecils by marriage

The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family.  If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage.  His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage.  Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers.  He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates.  Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.

In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad.  Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities.  Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.

Birth of the London Stage

Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season.  Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater.  Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End.  These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.

Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London.  The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.

Banished!

In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor.  Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End.  This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage.  Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.

Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack.  It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.

The Cecils attack the Stage and Press

Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter.  Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of  Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.

Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the  Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work.  By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records.  Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.

Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue.  With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare.  Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.

Cecil ups the ante

Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season.  Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.

The actors strike back

Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard III in which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.

Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard.  Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes.  Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Final years

With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.

Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story.  The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.

When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language.  Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.

Bacon and the Wits

I’ve been asked to elaborate on my belief that Bacon was Spenser and Nashe and how that fits with the University Wits.  Since I don’t have any more “hard data” than anyone else, the best I can do is what I’ve been doing from the beginning, seeking the scenario, the narrative, the motivation, that makes sense of what we’ve got.  Making sense of it means reading all these texts, which has been the project of many years, and since so very few readers will have had the time or the inclination to do this reading for themselves, all I can do is present my conclusions and hope that they make human sense.

Although it must have been clear for some time, probably centuries, to the intellectual community that William of Stratford could not possibly have been the author of the Shakespeare canon, Delia Bacon is credited with having opened the authorship question to the public at large in the middle of the 19th century.  Although her 1587 book is next to impossible to read today, it raised a hailstorm of excitement at the time, out of which came the first name to replace the illiterate William, the highly educated and brilliant Francis Bacon.

The Group Theory

But Bacon was not Delia’s choice.  She believed that the works were written by a group that was led, not by Bacon, but by Sir Walter Raleigh.  Bacon was involved, as were the earls of Oxford and Derby and others.  It’s interesting that through the fog of time, Delia perceived, if dimly, almost exactly the same group that makes up the leading candidates today.  How they were supposed to have worked together isn’t clear to me without reading her book.  (I’ve groped my way through many a tiresome text in pursuit of this story, but this book is too much even for me.)  The Group Theory is generally disregarded now, but Delia was right in that the English Literary Renaissance was the result of the work of a group, just not in the way she proposed.

A revolution in style is often made by a group of artists who come along at about the same time.  We see this with the Impressionists in France,  six originally, with others joining later, or at a distance, who all, though they shared the characteristics of plein air and warm colors, had very different styles.  It was true of the artists in 13th and 14th century Florence, of the Kit Kat Club of Swift and Pope, of the Austin High School Gang of jazz players in the 1930s, the Bebop generation of the 1950s,  and the “British Invasion” of the 1960s.  There are six names who have been considered candidates for Shakespeare’s laurel crown for some time, and from what I can see, though only one is Shakespeare, all of them are part of his story, in one way or another.

Members of such groups may work together for a time, but their main role is to act as competitors, critics, and most important, an audience for each other.  It is very difficult to write for an unknown audience.  A genius needs an audience that is close enough to his level to make it worth his while to keep reaching.  Oxford came to such a community when he was twelve, the young translators at Cecil House.  Francis Bacon came to such a community in 1578 when, as an 18-year-old, he returned from France and found himself at the center of Oxford’s coterie.

This is how I see it

Just as one of Shakespeare’s protagonists might switch clothes with his or her servant to avoid trouble, Oxford began borrowing the names of friends and servants to get his work published.  Print publishing was in its infancy, and the teenaged Oxford, full of youthful energy, jumped on it as a means of reaching a wider audience than the handful of poets and translators at Cecil House and Elizabeth’s Court much as young artists today are using the internet to find their audiences in ways that were unavailable to their predecessors.

Getting works of the imagination published at that time in English history meant confronting, not just one, but two powerful forces that were set against it.  The age-old tradition of keeping what was written by the Court and for the Court within the Court was reinforced by the Protestant Reformation, which saw anything pleasing or sexy as the work of the Devil.  Where the young translators at Cecil House had neither the funds to publish (very expensive then), nor the reckless courage to defy convention, Oxford had both.  Peers had unlimited credit, even underage peers.  He also outranked everyone else at Cecil House, even Cecil himself, and rank was important then to a degree we can only imagine from our experience with film stars, which can’t come close to the power of an ancient name.  For these reasons, even as Oxford assumed leadership in the movement towards Renaissance freedom, he did so through intermediaries.

As he finished his studies and moved to take his place at Court, he continued to publish his own and other men’s work.  Determined to get for himself and his friends an English literary establishment like the Court-based Pleiade in Paris , we see in the dedicatory letter to Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte his effort to enroll writers and translators of works of the imagination––poetry, stories and plays––to publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Thus begins the frequently repeated pretence, that a friend had the work published while the innocent author was out of the country.

Particularly annoying was the silence of the gifted Sir Philip Sidney, who wouldn’t publish.  As the Queen’s official favorite, his uncle the Earl of Leicester did not like the Earl of Oxford.  A man with old-fashioned tastes and ideas, Leicester would have been seriously displeased had his heir violated Court protocol by publishing his own poetry, even under another name.  While Oxford had the courage of his rank and his peer’s credit, the Sidneys were relatively poor, their father was only a knight, their mother was Leicester’s sister, and the family was steeped in the religion of sin and damnation.  It took a mighty shock to unchain Philip Sidney’s muse.

Enter Francis

Then in 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon returned from two years at the French Court.  Bacon’s genius was just what Oxford had been looking for.  Although he had no more money or rank than Sidney, and had been raised in a similarly puritanical household, eleven years his junior, separated for the first time in his life from his beloved older brother, Francis became (I believe) utterly devoted to Oxford.  Having been inspired by the French, he was equally dedicated to seeing England reach the same literary levels achieved in Renaissance France and Italy. This was the bond that kept the two working together as long as they lived.

Within weeks Bacon had prepared his own contribution to Oxford’s publishing effort, signing it Immerito––“without merit,” a reference to the fact that he had not been given a post at Court worthy of a man of his natural gifts, the son of the Queen’s recently deceased Lord Keeper.  Recalling the simple shepherds of Greek romance, The Shepheard’s Calender is in many ways a call to Court poets like Sidney, Dyer, Buckhurst, and Raleigh to set aside their political differences and see each other as fellow poets.  Calling himself E.K., Oxford filled out what would otherwise have been a very small book with an extended gloss, a useful insight into his prose style of the late 1570s.

Denied the serious job he craved, Bacon joined Oxford in entertaining the Court.  But where Oxford and Sidney drew inspiration chiefly from the Greeks, Romans, French and Italians, Bacon, seeking a style that was his own and had no hint of imitation, turned to the early English writers, Chaucer and Skelton.  He probably began writing the first installments of The Faerie Queene shortly after publishing Shepherd’s Calender. He continued to write new installments of FQ for a decade, finally publishing the earlier ones in 1590 as by Edmund Spenser.  The stylistic quirks that show how FQ matches with Bacon’s style are fairly clear once one looks for them.

There can be no possibility that Spenser himself was the author of FQ, or of anything published under his name.  Although making connections at this point seems impossible, it’s clear that FQ is filled with allusions to Court figures and gossip.  Located in the wilds of southern Ireland as a functionary of its English occupier, Lord Grey, Spenser could not possibly have had the kind of personal connection to the English Court he would have needed to write FQ.  And even if he had he would not have dared to play fast and loose with the personal idiosyncrasies of courtiers of rank and power, a role for which Francis Bacon was uniquely suited, having grown up at Court.  What seems to be the case is that Raleigh, who owned land in southern Ireland and so maintained an ongoing physical presence there, set up the Spenser cover for Bacon, paying Spenser for its use and using it himself to get some of his own poetry published.

The 1570s saw the rise of a style that’s come to be known as Euphuism, after the protagonist in the novel published by Oxford in late 1578 that he attributed to his secretary, John Lyly.  An embellished account of his own adventures during his year in Italy, the novel was also a polemic delivered in response to the puritanical dicta on style and learning pronounced by Roger Ascham in his book The Scholemaster.  Published a decade earlier, dedicated to Cecil just as he was embarking on the final years of Oxford’s education, it was vicious in its denunciation of Italy as the sink of all sin.  Oxford’s point in Euphues, admittedly not all that serious, was that men learn how to live correctly, not from reading behavior guides but by experiencing life for themselves.

The 1580s were all about keeping the nation Protestant within, and defending it without against the might of the Catholic Church as wielded by Philip II of Spain.  In 1572, Cecil, by then Lord Burghley, had passed his office of Secretary of State on to Oxford’s old tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, while he took over the office of the recently deceased Lord Treasurer.  A year later Burghley got Sir Francis Walsingham appointed as Elizabeth’s Second Secretary.  When Smith died in 1577, Walsingham took his place, gradually increasing the power of the office as the need to prepare for war with Spain increased.  Although Walsingham had begun as Burghley’s protégé, as he increased in power, Burghley became uneasy.  Having had little experience of life outside England, Burghley continued to hope, and to encourage the Queen to hope, that peace could be maintained by shifts and promises, while Walsingham, having lived and studied overseas, saw that the crisis was building and knew that it was sure to come and that the nation had to be prepared.

Despite the weak reputation bequeathed him by the Cecils through their control of history, Walsingham was in fact a man of superb intellect, broad education, and refined tastes.  Where Burghley had always handled his own propaganda efforts in secrecy, Walsingham, burdened by the thousand things required of a Secretary of State, particularly one faced with a violent confrontation with the Spanish Empire, created an office of Public Relations to deal with everything that required expert writing and translation, an office he kept secret because so much of what it did had to be done in secret.  With Raleigh’s help, he got the banished Earl of Oxford reinstated at Court, created the first official Crown acting company, the Queen’s Men, and gave Oxford the mandate to write plays they could perform in and near the port towns where the Armada was most likely to strike.  Oxford’s response included The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, Edmond Ironside, and The Troublesome Raigne of King John, all of which portray England as a proud nation with a long history of defeating Continental invaders.

Fisher’s Folly

Having been banished from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Oxford quit writing the comedies for the boy companies that the Queen had come to depend on for her holiday “solace.”  Upon his return to Court in 1583, either he refused to pick up where he left off in ’81, or Walsingham needed him to focus on providing material for the Queen’s Men.  Based largely on the similarity of the style of the Lyly plays to the style of The Faerie Queene, I believe Walsingham enrolled Francis to work with Lyly to keep the Queen entertained.  Those who find the Lyly plays interesting might try comparing them to the style and content of FQ.  This was period when pastoralism was a favored theme for masques, when Sidney was writing his Arcadia, Bacon was writing Faerie Queene, and Oxford was publishing pastoral tales under a variety of noms de plume.

The University Wits

Meanwhile Walsingham helped Oxford fund a staff at Fisher’s Folly that could assist with keeping these projects in motion.  There’s plenty of evidence that John Lyly and Anthony Munday were already part of Oxford’s team.  And there’s a fair amount of proxy data that suggests that George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Watson were members of this playwriting team to which Stephen Gosson belonged at one time, and which he later vilified as “the sink of all sin.”  Although whatever evidence that these last were connected with Oxford has been scrubbed from the books, it’s a matter of record that these were all members of what the academics have nicknamed the University Wits.

I suggest that among those hired at this time was the young Christopher Marlowe.  A prodigy who had already proven himself at Cambridge, it was to learn how to write for the Queen’s Men that Marlowe missed his studies during the theater seasons of 1584 through 1586.  Having graduated in 1587, Marlowe and his NBF (New Best Friend) Edward Alleyn, decamped for the new Rose Theater on Bankside where manager Henslowe was more than willing to produce Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, a rabble-rouser that it’s most unlikely that the Oxford-Burbage-Walsingham team would have allowed to be staged as it was written.  That it was a super-hit gave solid promise that the London Stage had a viable future as a way for writers and actors to make a living.  It was also a step towards disaster, for the newborn London Stage as well as Marlowe himself.

While still banished in 1581, ’82 and early ’83, Oxford, freed from having to entertain the Court, had turned to entertaining, informing and proselitizing the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the legal community of the West End, with plays probably performed by Burbage’s adult team, most likely at the little stage at the chorister’s school he had helped to create upon his return from Italy.  Angry at the Queen and the Court, this is when The Spanish Tragedy and early versions of Timon, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Romeo and Juliet first reached a (limited) London audience.  If these were ever performed at Court, it could only have been in versions revised to suit the Queen.

Astrophil and Stella

During Oxford’s banishment, Philip Sidney was suffering an exile of his own.  Due to Leicester’s affair with Lettice Knowles, Countess of Essex, and their subsequent marriage and her pregnancy, Sidney found himself, not only out of favor with the Queen for his attitude towards her possible marriage to the Duc d’Alençon, but snubbed by those whose interest in him had been based solely on his relationship to Leicester while Leicester seemed likely to marry the Queen.  Unused to such treatment, Philip fled both the Court and his herd of supporters to hide away with his sister Mary at Wilton.  During an idyllic summer with her and her new baby, little William, something happened to Philip that gave rise to over 100 love sonnets about his relationship with a mysterious Stella that not only raised his standing at Court as a poet, but helped to diminish his reputation as sexually cold.  Eventually he married Walsingham’s daughter, and having followed Leicester to the lowlands war, was mortally wounded in 1586 at the Battle of Zutphen.

Enter Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe

At some point in the early ’80s, Oxford began publishing tales in the Greek romance style that he had written earlier to entertain the Queen and her ladies.  Some of these he published as by George Pettie, a fellow student at Oxford, some as by Thomas Lodge, one of the crew hired by Walsingham to assist him at Fisher’s Folly, some as by Barnabe Riche, another friend, but most were attributed to the ephemeral “Robert Greene.”  All but Greene are known to history, two of them writers in their own right, but Greene has never been located––although there was a man by that name who held a copyhold agreement to work a piece of Oxford’s land in Essex whose name suggests that he was a member of a local family that was once very close to Oxford’s father.

The Robert Greene of the title pages was the first and most prolific of the handful of pamphleteers who launched the first successful English commercial periodical press.  For a full decade, every year or two Oxford would publish a tale with a plot aimed at a female readership, laced with excellent poems.  Some bore the name of one of his associates, most bore the name Robert Greene.  In this way he became the originator of what one day would be the extremely influential and lucrative (though not for him) British periodical press.

Late in 1588, a new voice entered the pamphlet arena.  Using the pseudonym Martin Mar-prelate, the satirist used the new medium to harrass the bishops who were in the process of turning the Protestant Reformation into the present-day Church of England.  After a few pathetic attempts by the bishops to respond to the devastating Martin, Archbishop Whitgift, Bacon’s former master at Trinity College Cambridge, turned to Walsingham’s team for help.  Oxford’s response was a little on the tepid side, but Bacon, dazzled by Mar-prelate’s bold effrontery, found the voice he’d been seeking.  Using the name of a Cambridge sizar that provided a rather good pun for this new self, he gnashed his literary teeth, first at Mar-prelate, then, in pamphlet after pamphlet, at anyone and everything that gave him cause.

Railing was an art form then, something along the lines of today’s standup comedy; a wit who was good at it could count on being invited as a guest to expensive dinners.  Bacon, as Nashe, was good at it, at least in print; no one has ever been better.  If the world could realize who actually wrote Piers Penniless or Jack Wilton, these would soon become required reading for students of English literature.

Furious with Marlowe and Alleyn for deserting the Folly coterie, Oxford and Bacon did what they could by blasting them in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, but Marlowe, lashed to Phaeton’s cart, was not to be deterred.  His Latin motto, found on his portrait in 1955, translates as “that which nourishes me destroys me.” Following Walsingham’s death in 1590, with Cecil at his heels, he ignored the warning in Robert Greene’s farewell pamphlet, that unless he gave up his “atheism,” “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” Having eluded the Crown during an attempted sting in Flushing in 1591, Marlowe was finally nailed in May of 1593 during a deadly “visit” from three of Walsingham’s former operatives.

Meanwhile Mary Sidney, having mourned her brother for two years, arrived in London in the autumn of 1588, shortly after Leicester’s death, eager to do what she could for her family now that both Philip and their uncle were gone.  Mary has never been properly recognized for her immense ability as a poet.  Her translations of the Psalms are among the best poetry from this period.  They are also a clue to the dark nature of the puritanical protestantism in which she and her brothers were raised, and from which both of them, each in his and her own way, used their writing to fight free.

I also believe that it was Mary who, as Countess of Pembroke, was responsible for organizing the acting company known as Pembroke’s Men that stepped into the breach briefly during the theatrical disasters of the early ’90s.  I am also totally certain that everything written as by John Webster was Mary’s work, written and published throughout the latter half of the 1590s and through the first two decades of the 17th century.  While Webster the coachmaker’s son has next to nothing to offer in the way of a biography, the plays that bear his name reflect Mary’s own story in ways that once revealed, cannot be denied.  The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are the great masterpieces of Jacobean literature.  I only hope that someday they will be properly attributed to the genius who wrote them.

Mary is also the individual most responsible for making the first move to remove the barrier to publishing the poetry and tales written by courtiers.   By publishing her brother’s sonnets in 1591, she opened the door, first to Sir John Harington, who published his translation of Orlando Furioso that same year, to Bacon who followed suit in 1596 by putting his own name on the first edition of his famous Essays.  Some continued to hide behind pseudonyms and initials for another century or so, but the fortress of tradition was cracked.  Only time, and the crumbling of aristocratic isolation, would bring it down for good.

With the 1591 publication of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Oxford, in dire straits, having lost his ability to raise the funds needed to keep his theater enterprise going, now found himself in danger of losing what may have been even more precious to him, his place in the sun as England’s top courtier poet, for Sidney, whose stock was already sky high due to his heroic death in battle, was being touted as the new Chaucer.  His sonnets were selling like hotcakes.  Determined to protect his status, Oxford worked with Richard Field, who ran the print shop next door to the little Blackfriars Theater, to publish Venus and Adonis in a beautifully-designed edition.  Forced to seek a new cover name, having put paid to Robert Greene some months earlier, he used the name of a friend of his printer.  Unable to pay for it himself, we hear his gratitude to a new patron, the young Earl of Southampton, in the dedicatory note signed William Shakespeare.  This was located on the reverse side of the title page, an indication to those aware of such traditions, that since it wasn’t on the title page, it did not represent the author.

Bacon shifts gears

In the early 90s, after Oxford got rid of Greene, he and Bacon went a few rounds in a phony paper duel in which Bacon railed as Nashe and Oxford pretended to be Gabriel Harvey.  When Oxford found it necessary to rid the world of the fictional Robert Greene, he realized that Greene’s absurd deathbed mea culpa, Greene’s Groatsworth, was not going to be sufficiently convincing, so he faked a third party commentary on Greene which he attributed to Gabriel Harvey.  The infamous Second Letter, in which Harvey supposedly reveals the disgusting facts about Greene’s terrible lifestyle and pathetic death is sheer foolery, as we’re informed by the statement that Greene died of “a surfeit of pickled herring,” a clue that the whole thing was a joke.  Bacon, looking for an excuse to continue to rail in print, pretends to defend Greene by attacking the Harveys.  When scholars, seeking the horrendous insult in works by Greene, finally discovered it, there was nothing about it that could possibly cause such a reaction.

Harvey had been friendly with both Bacon and Oxford when the Shepheard’s Calender was published back in 1578.  Referred to as Colin Clout’s “especial good friend Hobbinol”; he was also the addressee of E. K.’s dedicatory letter, which urged him to promote the new poet’s work “with your mighty Rhetoric and other your rare gifts of learning.” But something happened between then and a year later when Bacon published some of Harvey’s personal letters to him in Three Witty and Familiar Letters, which caused Harvey a great deal of trouble.  His effort to respond in a light vein to this damning maneuver is particularly touching.  In my view, it was the last thing published under his name that he actually wrote himself.

I do not believe that a single pamphlet from the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet duel was actually written by Gabriel Harvey; they were all by Oxford, who, bereft of his credit, was dying of boredom.  For one thing, in the early 1590s Gabriel Harvey was in no position to take on these two powerful Court figures.  He had lost his position at the university, and his stipend, and so was in dire financial straits, with the added burden of having to fight with the widow of his recently deceased brother John for control of his brother’s estate.  It’s possible Harvey got some work in London, but at some point he retired to his home town where he continued to correspond with serious scholars, never commenting, in writing at least, on the rude way his name had been bandied about.

Bacon goes legit

In 1596, the Queen finally gave Bacon a job as her personal counsel. 1596 was a terrible year for Elizabeth, during which she lost the last remaining member of her family, Lord Hunsdon, and was more or less forced to yield to the Cecils’ demands to make them the supreme power on the Privy Council.  Perhaps in seeking a balance to the weight of the Cecils, Essex turning out to be unreliable, she had no one left to turn to but Bacon.  There was no salary, but for Francis, who it appears genuinely adored the Queen, it may be that finally having her ear was all he needed.

The effect this had on him was amazing.  Finally given the position he craved for so long, with Walsingham and Hunsdon gone and Oxford and his projects in trouble, it seems he was ready to quit his role as Court entertainer and satirist and to devote his talents to supporting the Queen and the Earl of Essex.  According to his biographer, his handwriting totally changed at this time.  Within a few months he published everything he’d ever written as Spenser, and after one final blast as Nashe in 1599 (probably for the sake of his printer, since it was the printer who made money, not the author), he seems never to have written another word as either Spenser or Nashe.

If, as history has it, Spenser actually arrived in person in London in December of 1598, fleeing the rage of the Irish, it must have caused something of an embarrassing situation.  If, as history has it, he then died a few weeks later, it was probably lucky for all concerned.  Following an elaborate funeral provided by Essex, he (or something like him) was buried in Poet’s Corner, and that was that.  By then Bacon was up to his ears in Court politics, where he continued to assist Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men whenever and wherever he could.  The surfacing of the Northumberland Manuscript in 1867 strongly suggests that he was heavily involved in getting Richard II and Richard III published during Oxford’s showdown with Cecil in 1597.

The Earl of Derby

One of the candidates whose name has been linked to Shakespeare since early on is William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby.  His older brother, Ferdinando Stanley, had been deeply involved in the London Stage as patron of various companies––most recently of the Lord Strange’s Men, the crew that produced Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in 1587––until his murder in 1594 passed the earldom to his brother William.  William’s marriage to Oxford’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, in January 1595, was (in my view) the occasion for a version of The Tempest in which Prospero bequeaths the magical isle to his daughter Miranda and the shipwrecked Ferdinand, just as it appears Oxford, weary of his role as Court jester, was attempting (or pretending) to bequeath the Court Stage to his daughter and her husband, so he could retire to the Forest of Waltham.

Efforts to cast William Stanley as Shakespeare appear to grow from records that show his involvement in the Court Stage in the late 1590s, in particular his patronage of the new Children’s Company that, through his efforts, got the use of the Burbage’s Blackfriars Theater in 1600.

That William Stanley did nothing to prevent rumors that he was the real Shakespeare, seems likely from the otherwise meaningless scene in As You Like It where Touchstone, in the repartee over his marriage to Audrey, the personification of the public audience that Oxford was now forced to entertain, having greeted William, Audrey’s other suitor (and only one of two in the entire named William) with “Cover thy head, cover thy head; nay, prithee, be covered,” after some even more obscure wordplay, continues: “You do love this maid [the public audience]?”

WIL:   I do, sir.
TOU:  . . .  Art thou learned?
WIL:   No, sir.
TOU:  Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that  drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.
WIL:   Which he, sir?
TOU:  He, sir, that must marry this woman [entertain the public].  Therefore, you     clown, abandon––which is in the vulgar leave––the society––which in the   boorish is company––of this female––which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female [the London Stage], or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit I  kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado, or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction; I will o’errun thee with policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart!

The audience for which this was written was the same audience for which Oxford had prepared the 1595 version of The Tempest, one aware of all the family connections and political issues addressed, so they would have had no problem understanding the meaning of this exchange, nor would William Stanley himself, who doubtless was present when As You Like It was performed for the Court while King James dallied at Wilton in August of 1603.  What then was the general opinion of the Court with regard to Stanley?  George Carey, who in 1603 was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, called him a “niddicock” [a nincompoop] in a letter written to his wife following Ferdinando’s murder.

A recent addition to the list of candidates is Emilia Bassano Lanier (or Lanyer), the first woman to publish a book of her original poetry under her own name. (Mary Sidney’s translations of the psalms remained unpublished in print in her lifetime.)  Although she was certainly not the author of the Shakespeare canon, Emilia played a most important role in the Shakespeare story as the most likely candidate for the Dark Lady of his Sonnets, and the figure of Cleopatra in his last great romantic tragedy.

The final figure in this coterie of writers who has been bruited as Shakespeare is Sir Walter Raleigh.  Raleigh’s excellent style as seen in his Ocean to Cynthia poems, his letters and his History of the World, plus the fact that, despite his need, and the Queen’s genuine fondness for him, like all the other Court poets, he was never given a truly important Court position, would be sufficient to accept him as a member of this group, but too little has been done to identify enough of his poetry to go any further.  It seems likely that the Amoretti sonnets and the Epithamalion attributed to Spenser in 1596 were Raleigh’s, written during his wooing of Bess Throckmorten in the early 1590s.  They certainly sound nothing like the other works attributed to Spenser.

These then are the members of the group who gave the world the English Literary Renaissance:  Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, the Sidneys, and probably Sir Walter Raleigh.  Born with Oxford, it matured and developed with help from the others, and died with the deaths of Mary Sidney in 1621 and Bacon in 1626.  Both Mary and Francis (born within months of each other), in my opinion, spent their final years assisting her sons, the Earls of Pembroke, and their good friend Ben Jonson  in his task of preparing Oxford’s collected works for print in 1623.

Of this group, only Philip Sidney never used a pseudonym.  (Marlowe’s name was put on several works after his death that do not sound like his plays.)  All the others published their works under a variety of names, Oxford using a good dozen at least before settling on Shakespeare; Bacon using at least three, Mary using at least one, and Raleigh, who can tell?  Of this group of current candidates, only Derby had nothing to do with creating a canon, though he did have something to do with the Court and London Stage.

Although I can’t put all the evidence for each of the standins used by Oxford and Bacon in a blog, I will do my best to do this at some point in the future.   This kind of proof is text-heavy and painstaking, and it is not always something that is going to capture everyone’s interest.  Right now it seems more important to present a scenario that makes sense.  Without the cream and yeast of a believable narrative, facts are like a bowl of flour as compared to a digestible loaf of bread.

A personal note

Many thanks to those who made a Christmas donation when I passed the hat a few weeks ago.  With the help of Rick, Francis, Kelly, Heike, Lynn and Kathleen, I now have $360 to help get the books and other materials I need through Amazon.com. Many thanks, dear readers. It’s your interest that keeps me going, but a little coin of the realm never hurts.

Oxford’s issues and Shakespeare’s plots

The biggest problem caused the so-called Shakespeare critics by the Stratford biography has been the way it skews the dates of the plays.  With no perceivable connection between the life of William of Stratford and the themes of the plays, there’s been no means of connecting the plots and themes of the plays to particular points in time.  Even an event common to all Englishmen, the victory over the Spanish Armada, August 1588, is too early for Henry V, which would otherwise be seen as the kind of patriotic call to arms most likely written in advance of the great showdown.  But no, Shakespeare cared nothing for the events of the day, or so we’re told.  How about King John, that ends with this otherwise pointless threat:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them!  Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

This they locate in 1596, when Essex, Raleigh, the Lord Admiral and hundreds of impressed sailors were in the process of attacking Spanish Cadiz!  As usual it’s not Shakespeare but the so-called critics who care nothing for the events of the day.

Anyone who studies the history of literature knows how anomalous it is that one of the world’s greatest writers shows no interest in the themes and events that dominate his own life.  Think of D.H. Laurence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Hemingway, Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Proust, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Arthur Miller.  Where in all the history of fiction is there another who shows so little interest in the events and issues of his or her own life, particularly the playwrights, who must capture the interest of an audience who must share to some degree the same stream of historic events?

While genre writers gather facts and themes from other sources, seeking primarily to entertain and sell books, great writers of literature seem to turn to writing more to pursue the questions that torment them than for any other purpose; the oyster creates the pearl from its anguish.  The thinker, desperate for direction in a particular area, will turn to philosophy while the artist will conjure up a plot that parallels his situation, peopling it with characters based on friends, enemies and mates, as much to see where the story ends as to tell it to others.

Surely this is one of the ways we can be most certain about Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, for by using what we know of his life as a frame of reference for the plays and poems it turns out that we have the best means yet for dating the plays, for apart from the Roman history plays, all of them, even the English history plays, fit perfectly as descants on his own situation at the time, as well as appropriate responses to the national events surrounding him.  When we know the dates of these events, both national and personal, we have a much more solid means of locating the plays in time.

From his life we know that he began in his teens and twenties by writing comedies for Court holidays and weddings.  With his banishment from Court in his early thirties he turned to writing more serious works for the educated lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End.  When this came to an end in the early 90s with the death of Walsingham and the ascent to power of Robert Cecil, he entered the final phase of his career, revising his early plays for public consumption via the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men.  This was the period when he produced the works then published as by William Shakespeare.

Here is a list of some of the major themes and issues of Oxford’s personal life as they relate to the origins of the Shakespeare canon:

1572: Loss of honor of his cousin Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, having been persuaded by his wicked brother, Henry Howard to plot with Mary Queen of Scots to overthrow Elizabeth, resulting in Howard’s destruction: Macbeth.

1576: Breakup of his marriage: he dealt with this in at least seven plays.  Of the evil rumour and his own suspicions: in Pericles and Hamlet; about the one who started the rumor: Iachimo in Cymbeline, Iago in Othello; about his own insane jealousy: Othello, Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado; his attempts to explain or resolve the problem appear in Much Ado, All’s Well, and Winter’s Tale.

1581: Accusations of treason by his cousin Henry Howard and Charles Arundel that he countered with two plays for the Inns of Court audience dealing with similar issues in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.

1581-1596: Love and friendship:  With the Earl of Rutland: Damon and Pythias, Palamon and Arcite (Two Noble Kinsmen), Two Gentlemen of Verona; Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton: Romeus and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Ann Vavasor: Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet; the Earl of Southampton: Merchant of Venice, Sonnets 1-126; Emilia Bassano: Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Sonnets 40-44, 127-152.

1595-1604: Troubles with his adult daughters: In a revision of The Tempest created in 1595 for the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth to the Earl of Derby, he substitutes a fantasy relationship between himself and his daughter for the reality of having abandoned her and her mother shortly before her birth; In King Lear he shows his anger at his two older daughters and their husbands, for how they’ve been treating him and his servants, along with his emotional dependency on his youngest daughter and perhaps his fears that she could meet with harm.

Financial troubles: His loss of inherited estates and rightful offices to the machinations of his in-laws and evil stewards is seen in:  As You Like It, The Tempest, and Hamlet; the loss of investments in Merchant of Venice; the loss of credit in Timon of Athens.

Murders of patrons and friends: fears that these were murdered: his own father, the sixteenth earl, in Hamlet; his patron the Earl of Sussex, also in Hamlet; his patron Francis Walsingham, his patron Lord Hunsdon, the manager of his acting company, James Burbage, perhaps even his companion in his teen years, the Earl of Rutland, in Richard III.  The death of playwright Marlowe is mentioned by Touchstone in As You Like It.

Models for his characters:

Issues with females: for his first love, Mary Browne, in the narrative poem Romeus and Juliet; for the poet Ann Vavasor, who gave him a son: Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado (before he was banished from Court for their affair), Cressida (when he believed she had wantonly given him up for another), Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet (having learned that she was still true to him), Desdemona (as a vital independent female); his wife Anne Cecil: Mistress Ann Page in Merry Wives; Ophelia in Hamlet, Hero in Much Ado, Hermione in Winter’s Tale, Virgilia in Coriolanus, Desdemona (as the victim of his jealousy); the poet and playwright Mary Sidney: Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in a late version of As You Like It; the poet and musician Emilia Bassano: the Dark lady of Sonnets 40-44 and 127-152, the Cleopatra of Antony and Cleopatra; Queen Elizabeth as Venus in Venus and Adonis, and as Gertrude in Hamlet; as the witches in Macbeth: Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret Douglass Countess of Lennox, and Bess of Hardwick.

Issues with male friends: Rutland as Damon in Damon and Pythias, as Arcite in Palamon and Arcite, as Valentine in Two Gents; Southampton as the Fair Youth of Sonnets 1-126, Bassanio in Merchant of Venice, Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida; Sir John Perrot as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One and as described in Henry V.

Satires of rivals:  The Earl of Leicester as Shallow in an early version of Merry Wives; Sir Philip Sidney as Silence in Merry Wives, as Aguecheek in Twelfth Night; Lord Strange as Petrucio in Taming of the Shrew; Ben Jonson as Caliban in The Tempest; Sir Walter Raleigh as Jaques in As You Like It; Francis Bacon as Puck and Ariel; the sixth Earl of Derby (his son-in-law) as William in As You Like It; the Earl of Essex as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida; George Peele imitating Marlowe as Ancient Pistol.  It should be noted that revisions of the comedies over the years means that some earlier satires were replaced by a later figure, which is certainly the case with Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as the original play would have been much too early for the spearing of Antonio Perez, a Court figure from the 1590s.

Spearing of enemies:  Christopher Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, perhaps as Osric in Hamlet; Henry Howard as Iachimo, Iago, Lady Macbeth, and Cassius; Roland Yorke as Parolles in All’s Well; the Earl of Leicester as Claudius in Hamlet; Robert Cecil as Richard III and as Laertes in the final version of Hamlet; either Mildred Cecil or her sister Lady Russell as Volumnia in Coriolanus.

Acknowledgement of patrons and contributors of their talents: of Benedict Spinola in Baptista Minola of Two Gents, and perhaps Benedick of Much Ado; of Queen Elizabeth as Portia in Merchant, as the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, the King in All’s Well, and the Abbess in Comedy of Errors; of the Bassano brothers in The Spanish Tragedy; and finally of King James as the Duke in the final version of As You Like It.

Portrayals of guardians:  Sir Thomas Smith as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, as Gonzago (and Prospero) in The Tempest, as the Duke of Gloucester in Thomas of Woodstock and probably also Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost.; William Cecil as Polonius in Hamlet, Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Feu in All’s Well, and Menenius in Coriolanus.

Is it any wonder that the actors, their patrons and Oxford himself all felt it necessary to hide his identity?

A hollow “Hollow Crown”

Did anyone see the BBC series “The Hollow Crown” on PBS?  If so, what did you think of it?  Unfortunately I missed the first two, Richard II and Henry IV Part One, but did manage to see a fair amount of 2HIV and Henry V.  “Fair amount” since sleep, which generally overcomes me shortly after 9 PM, took me captive, despite the charms of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  What did I miss?  From what I saw I thought both productions were good in some ways, but truly terrible in others.

The good was largely Hiddleston as the prince.  A product of Eton and Cambridge where he majored in Classics, he has a princely accent and attitude, a wide range of expression, and is the right age for the character.  Moving easily from moody pensiveness to rage to hilarity, he finds in Hal the depth of character and range of emotion that are the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s greatest characters.  This carries him through the complexity of the speeches––though some could have used cutting: I cringed to think that, as King, Hal would have kept the Mayor of Harfleur on his knees through that long pompous threat of what would happen to babes and daughters if the Mayor refused to yield the town.  But we must remember that this is very early Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons is a good Henry IV; the action is interesting and well-conceived, the camera-work expressive and unobtrusive, and the costumes remarkable for achieving a blend of period authenticity and what a modern viewer can relate to, at least for the courtiers.  Unhappily however, this last does not extend to the inhabitants and setting of the Boars Head Tavern, for what’s truly awful about this production––and  recent film versions as well––is the way Falstaff and his friends are portrayed as the scum of the earth, dirty, disheveled, dressed in rags, hanging about in a filthy tavern overseen by a slovenly madam who keeps a company whore even more ragged and slatternly than she.

Most awful is what this bucket-load of grunge has done to the image of Falstaff that has accrued over the centuries.  Here is the blurb with which Sparknotes online promotes the series: “A fat, cheerful, witty, aging criminal, [Falstaff] has long been Prince Hal’s mentor and close friend.  He pretended to have killed Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal–the actual killer–agreed to go along with the lie.  For this reason, everyone gives Falstaff much more respect than he deserves.”  Obviously this is what the author of this blurb has gotten from watching the series––Falstaff is a criminal and Hal is a killer!

Why on earth would the Prince of Wales, soon to be crowned as the great Henry the Fifth, choose to spend so much of his time with this unpleasant old rascal, dressed and directed as though he were a drunken Salvation Army Santa Claus.  His seedy surroundings, immense bulk, fusty beard, and rapid delivery distract from Shakespeare’s text, which tells a very different tale.  Unfortunately the audience, unless it already knows the play, will not find it easy to catch the import of the text, since the current practise of running lines at an unnatural speed in film productions, where action must replace the precision and clarity of a traditional stage performance, turns Falstaff’s wicked tongue and wit to the mutterings of a crazy old fool.  The idea that the Prince of Wales would prefer to spend his time in such a setting and with such an “old criminal” is so absurd that the viewing audience is more or less lost from the start.  What were the producers thinking?

If it was to create a contrast with the Court, that fails, due to two other bad things, namely the dull color palette and the choice of a vast empty hall as the King’s presence chamber.  Just about everything in the film, whether in the Court or the Tavern or on the battlefield is either brown, black, or gray; there isn’t a spark of bright color anywhere.  Where is the splendor with which the late medieval royalty surrounded itself, the purple, carnation, scarlet, gold and white, the “peach-color” of Poins’s stockings, the sun shining through stained glass windows?  Shot in the winter, with the trees bare and the sky gray, the outdoor scenes are just as bleak as those indoors.  As for the crew gathered in the Boars Head Tavern, it would seem that modern directors seriously mistake the intense teasing and rude familiarity of  people who have no fear of seriously offending each other as the brawling of thieves and streetwalkers.

Ignorant of the times, the ambiance they seek to recreate has caused Shakespeare’s meaning to escape them.  Why does it never strike them to wonder why Falstaff is so revered?  If he’s the shambling old nonentity he’s portrayed, why does the royal prince, with his princely education, desire his company?  Why does the hostess of the tavern pressure him to marry her?  Why does Doll Tearsheet demonstrate such love for him?  How can Falstaff dare to consider himself the Prince’s “true father”?  Bereft of the stature and bearing that the text suggests, missing the meaning of the rapid fire delivery, how are we to take Falstaff’s claim that he is not only witty in himself, but is the cause of wit in others?

If we pay attention to the text we find that this old stumblebum speaks to those around him with the arrogance and self-importance of a courtier (more notably in Part Two) , an attitude rendered ridiculous here by the seedy setting, his short stature, unkempt hair and undistinguished garb.  No more than a knight, where does he get the aristocratic attitude that he deserves to have whatever he wants?  Attempting to purchase satin for a suit, he curses the system when told he hasn’t the necessary security (credit).  Ignoring the Lord Chief Justice, he invites this high official’s companion, the poet Gower, to dine, despite his obvious inability to pay the bill.  Nor is this attributable to a lunatic’s Napoleonic complex, for were he the lowlife he’s portrayed, the Lord Chief Justice would hardly take the time to seek him in person, but would send a constable to fetch him for questioning (about the Gad’s hill robbery).  Confronting him, he would hardly waste words in one of Falstaff’s wit battles––he would simply have him arrested.

If Falstaff is in fact what his name tells us he is, someone who has carried the staff of high office and who has failed that office, then everything falls into place.  It makes sense of Hal’s interest in him.  It makes sense of the scene in Part One where, before the battle, Falstaff joins readily in easy conversation with the King.  It makes sense of  Mistress Quickly’s eagerness to marry him, for, however poor in cash, someone in high office would have estates to support him.  If Falstaff doesn’t see to his estates the way he should, that’s another aspect of his failure.  It makes sense of Hal and Poins’s devotion, the sort that rebellious youths are often inclined to give a fallen idol.  As for Poins, depicted here as only the best of the bad lot that congregate around the depraved Falstaff, as Shakespeare suggests, he’s Hal’s close and intimate friend––if not a peer himself, then close to it.  Ned Poins, named for a leading family of the day (usually spelled Poyntz) would not be hanging about in the Tavern, waiting for the Prince to appear, he would accompany him, going and coming.

As for Bardoph and Nym, Shakespeare does not intend them to be taken as Falstaff’s equals; it’s clear they are his servants.  A captain himself, Ancient Pistol is his sergeant, Peto his lieutenant.  All rely on his patronage, however uncertain.   Falstaff claims that he “bought” Bardolf at Paul’s Cathedral, where masterless men were known to gather in search of employment.  The little page treats Bardolph rudely, like one on his same level.  That Falstaff is meant to be elegantly dressed is clear from the comments by Hal and Poins on how Falstaff has turned the page into his “ape,” that is, he has dressed the boy like himself, and has encouraged him to join in the verbal fencing that they call wit.

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

The settings

Along with the anomalously huge and empty presence chamber, there’s the anomaly of the Boar’s Head Tavern.  Where did the directors of this production get the model for this dilapidated, low-ceilinged dump, tucked behind a battered old door like one of the blind pigs of Prohibition, lacking any touch of decoration or charm.  Don’t they bother to read any history at all?  The Boars Head Tavern was famous in its time as the finest inn in London.  Where is there any evidence of the “plate” and the “tapestry of her dining rooms” that Mistress Quickly fears having to pawn unless Falstaff pays his bill?  When she says, protesting the presence of his “swaggering” servant, “I must live among my neighbours: I’ll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best,” what could be “the very best” in such a place, and why should her wretched neighbors care, or she care what they think?

Of course, there were “stews” in London, neighborhoods where gangsters and their molls held sway (as Robert Greene depicted in his “renunciation” pamphlets), but this would not have been the sort of hostel where one might rub elbows with the Prince of Wales and his friends.  When, joking, Falstaff says he’ll get a wife from “the stews,” meaning the slums, would that make sense if his tavern was located in a slum?  Would Shakespeare waste the opportunity to adorn Doll Tearsheet with the finest up-to-date attire, or an exaggerated version of it, rather than what the BBC has given us, a beautiful actress made to look worse even than the lowliest streetwalker, who at least would be doing her best to dress in a way that she hoped would attract men.  This Doll, her hair uncombed, her colorless dress torn and unmended, qualifies for nothing better than an inmate of Bedlam.  What happened to the “fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta,” with which Hal teases Falstaff?

Far from the grungy dive it’s depicted here, the historic Boars Head Inn, located in central London in a neighborhood dominated by the halls of the powerful and wealthy trade guilds, was a classy establishment, probably from the very first.  History informs us that it was in the reign of Richard II, shortly before the period of the Henry IV plays, that one William Warder gave a tenement called the “Boar’s Head” in Eastcheap to a college of priests, founded by Sir William Walworth, for the adjoining church of St. Michael’s in Crooked Lane.  According to John Stowe, during Shakespeare’s time Eastcheap was “butcher’s row,” where the public houses had the most delectible roast meats to offer, and where, as Mistress Quickly suggests, it was  possible to order meat during Lent.  Lasting well into the 18th century, the Boar’s Head, that is, the one that replaced Shakespeare’s after it was destroyed in the great London fire, was noted as, “the chief tavern in London,” frequented by the likes of Alexander Pope and his brilliant coterie.

Who was Falstaff?

As for the historic Falstaff, unable to locate a model in history or literature that fits the Stratford biography, academics usually attribute this greatest of all his comic characters solely to Shakespeare’s imagination, but we heretics have a wider fund to draw on.  For instance, since we can accept that Shakespeare was fluent in French, the idea that the relationship between Hal and Falstaff was inspired by the violent and scatalogical wordplay of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel––while rejected by the academics because Rabelais wasn’t translated into English until the mid-17th century––works well for us.

The first character to play the role of Hal’s quarrelsome foil was Dericke, the clown from the very early play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.  Since documentation shows that members of the Queen’s Men, Richard Tarleton and William Knell, played Dericke and Hal respectively, we know that Famous Victories dates back at least to the 1580s (historian Ramon Jiménez puts it as far back as the 1560s).  But while Dericke is a standard vice figure left over from medieval times, Falstaff is clearly one of Shakespeare’s departures from tradition.  Among these departures was his method of creating important characters by conflating the traits of persons familiar to his Court audience with figures from literature and history.

That the Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV and V plays was originally Sir John Oldcastle is clear from, among a number of other clues, the appearance of “Old” as a character in the sloppily printed 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part Two, the phrase “Old Lad of the Castle” that remains in Henry IV Part One, and the Oldcastle (also known as Jockey) who joins the Gads Hill gang in Famous Victories.  Since there is also clear evidence that the Falstaff of Merry Wives was originally the same Sir John Oldcastle, we can assume that both plays were written (rather rewritten) at the same time, and that both saw the character’s name changed from Oldcastle to Falstaff in the mid 1590s (more precisely, late 1596 or early 1597) and for the same reason, because the Queen insisted that it be changed.

We have no reason to doubt that Her Majesty (and the entire Court audience), saw Shakespeare’s Oldcastle as a satirical character intended by the actors and their playwright to embarrass their newly-appointed patron, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, William Brooke Lord Cobham.  As Alice Lyle-Scoufos demonstrates in convincing detail in her Shakespeare’s Topological Satire (1979), Shakespeare combined damaging traits and events from Cobham’s life (including the true incident of the robbing of the Spanish courier by his sons during Oxford’s time at Cecil House) and the life of his renowned ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle (burnt at the stake as a traitor by Henry V) on purpose to demean Lord Chamberlain Cobham and show his son-in-law, Secretary of State Robert Cecil, that he (Oxford) wasn’t about to be bullied into silence.

As a character in the Henry IV and V plays, Sir John Oldcastle is historically accurate.  The historic Oldcastle had in fact been a friend to the historic Prince Hal, one who, for reasons of religion, turned on his former friend once he became King.  It was Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a braggart, liar and thief that was taken by all, including the Queen, as a blow aimed at Cobham, whose appointment to the office of Lord Chamberlain was understood by the actors and their playwright as a means of restraining them from engaging with the parliamentarians due to gather in the West End in the fall of 1597.   The truth about the historic John Oldcastle is still a problem for historians since early Crown historians saw him as a heretic traitor while early Reformation historians saw him as a saint, a precursor of the martyrs who inspired the Reformation.  Shakespeare obviously preferred the former interpretation.

Not only was Cobham the unwanted intruder who, following the death of their original patron, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, had replaced him, he was the previous owner of the rooms in the Blackfriars that had been the first Blackfriars theater and that had for a time included the great Parliament Chamber.  It was this chamber that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had just rebuilt as a large indoor theater with which they planned to entertain the parliamentarians who would be gathering the following October, the theater that Cobham, his son-in-law Robert Cecil, and Cecil’s father, Lord Burghley, now the dominating force on the Privy Council, had ordered closed.  Furious, the Company responded with rewrites of the plays in which Oldcastle, now a leading character, combined traits of Cobham, his troublesome heir and their treacherous ancestor.

By renaming the character Falstaff, the Company may have created a disconnect with the likeness to Cobham, his ancestor, and his heir, Henry Brooke, but they did nothing to reform his character.  As detailed by Scoufos, that Falstaff’s more despicable characteristics, his cowardice, his taking bribes so only the poorest and least battle-worthy recruits were taken up for the army, derive from the Oldcastle character, seems undeniable.

However, there is a side to Falstaff that doesn’t seem to fit with these aspects of his character.  His cowardice and lies, for instance, don’t fit with the respect inherent in Hal and Poins attentions; they tease and mock him, but something keeps them coming back.  Despite his inability to live up to his promises, the women continue to support and care for him.  Despite his penury and choleric temper, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol show no desire to find another patron.  His craven cowardice on the battlefield doesn’t fit with his reckless courage when confronted by authority, or his contemptible lies with his monumental self-opinion.  There seems to be a disconnect between his meaness on the one hand and his largeness of heart on the other (more noticable in Part Two than in Part One or Merry Wives).  Such contradictions may add to our fascination when properly acted and directed, yet they raise questions about his models.  Perhaps Falstaff is the result of Shakespeare’s conflation of the Oldcastle personality with yet another individual from the period.

Oxford and Falstaff

For answers we turn to historical dates and the biography of the Earl of Oxford.  We know that Milord was in trouble in the early 1590s, as were his actors and all the acting companies, due to the death of Sir Francis Walsingham and the rise of Oxford’s dangerous brother-in-law, Robert Cecil.  We can assume that during 1592 and ’93, Oxford was busy revising his earlier works for the benefit of a new company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, launched in June of 1594 under the auspices of Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon.  We know that the Henry IV and V plays are among the earliest of these, reformed and expanded from disassembled scenes from the extremely early Famous Victories (or perhaps later versions now lost).  In seeking who might have been the first personality to transform Dericke into a modern character, the one who immediately comes to mind is the intemperate and profane Sir John Perrot.  So perfectly does Perrot conform to those qualities in Falstaff that don’t fit the Oldcastle image that the identification seems without question.

A younger Sir John Perrot

Perrot was a major figure at Court from his first arrival during Henry’s reign to his final quietus in the early 1590s.  Tall, handsome, with the strength of a bull and the will of a lion, his likeness to the king helped strengthen the common belief that he was Henry’s byblow as reported by Sir Robert Naunton (though denied by his ODNB biographer).  Since Naunton was married to Perrot’s granddaughter, he would seem to have more authority than the ODNB biographer (the author of the old DNB bio accepts Perrot’s royal patrimony.)  From Perrot himself, when incarcerated and facing charges of treason, comes the quote: “God’s death!  Will the queen suffer her brother to be offered up as a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversary?” Described by a recent academic as “a bluff, heavyset man with a reputation as a hell-raiser,” the old DNB notes that he “held various offices under Elizabeth” and “united great physical strength to a violent and artibrary disposition.”  This sounds like the Falstaff beloved of Hal and Poins, of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet.

Although Perrot’s holdings in Wales and his various military and naval commands frequently took him away from London, he was enough of a figure at Court during Oxford and Rutland’s time at Cecil House and later at Court for them to have played the same role with Perrot that do Hal and Poins with Falstaff.  Oxford would have been attracted to Perrot for several reasons.  For one, he would have been the very sort of bad example that was attracting him in his teens and worrying Burghley.  For another, while in his teens, Perrot had lived for a time under the same roof with Oxford’s father, the 16th earl, so he had the kind of personal knowledge of his father that would be precious to a youth in search of an identity.  When first at Court and residing with the King’s Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, Earl John, then in his early 30s, had been remanded into Paulet’s keeping, doubtless as punishment for his reckless treatment of his (first) wife and his finances (DNB).

Then, in the early 1590s, while Oxford was suffering the slings and arrows of Robert Cecil’s rise to power, Perrot too fell victim to the Cecil roundup and destruction of their rivals.  Taking seriously the complaints of Perrot’s enemies, in 1590 they saw to it that he was incarcerated in the Tower and convicted of treason, where he died in 1592 from what many believed was poison (ODNB).  Thus it makes sense that in reaching for a replacement for the out-dated Dericke and other clownish characters from Famous Victories, Oxford did for Perrot what he did for his old tutor Sir Thomas (in Romeo and Juliet, Woodstock, and The Tempest), he brought his bombastic wit and defiance of authority to life for an audience that knew him very well.

So which came first, Oldcastle or Perrot?  Certainly it would have been Perrot, conceived in 1592 or ’93, shortly after his assassination.  The character thus created was altered for the worse in 1596 when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to use the Merry Wives and the Henry IV plays as a means of attacking the hated Cobham, causing the Queen to demand that the name be changed.  It would have been at this time that the weight ascribed to Falstaff was added, most likely a characteristic of Lord Cobham (in the only portrait I could find he is hidden behind a phalanx of women and children).  As for the Falstaff of The Merry Wives, it’s unlikely that he ever had anything of Perrot in him.  Merry Wives was most likely revised in 1596, when the Company used it to satirize Cobham’s cheating and conniving and his heir’s scandalous mistreatment of the women of the Court.

In questioning the source for Falstaff, a third influence can also be detected, the intrusion of the author’s own feelings and attitudes.  By the 1590s, although Oxford was only in his forties, it’s clear from the Sonnets that he was beginning to feel his age.  While in his twenties and thirties he would not have felt much compassion for the aging roysterer.  But with the loss of Fisher’s Folly and his crew of writers and secretaries in 1589, the loss of the credit that enabled him to produce plays and publish poems, even, if the evidence offered by Alan Nelson and Mark Anderson is accurate, that for at least a year or two from 1589 to 1591, before the Queen arranged for his marriage to one of her ladies in waiting, he was living in much the same circumstances as Falstaff, in an upscale boarding house in London with Julia Penn as his Mistress Quickly––he must have felt a kinship with his fallen protagonist.

There’s not enough room here to detail all the factors that put these identifications beyond doubt.  That will have to wait for another venue.  But at the least we can assure the readers that someday, if all goes well, and a new generation of Shakespeare scholars are finally on track towards the truth, they will find the clues to these identifications thick on the trail.

To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

Shakespeare: an experiment gone wrong

Edward de Vere was something of a pedagogical Elyot bloggieexperiment.  In their Platonic desire for a Philosopher King, so eager were the humanistic reformers to educate the nobility, that, following Quintilian, Vives and Elyot, they sought to begin them as early as possible on Latin so that they would begin to absorb the wisdom of the ancients and early Church fathers while still young enough furnish their adult minds with the noblest and most idealistic thoughts.  So while the Marian reign had its horrors, it did produce one benefit––to humanity that is––it sent the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom, in many ways the most important domain in England, to Sir Thomas Smith, the most highly qualified Reformation teacher in the nation.  No doubt many were watching to see the outcome of this kind of training.  This being the Reformation, you can believe that not all were pleased with the results.

Oxford himself must have experienced this interest as pressure, subtle perhaps, but still pressure, as seen, for instance, in the kind of criticisms and suggestions offered by Roger Ascham in his book, The Scholemaster, written for Cecil right at the time that he was first responsible for educating Oxford and Rutland.  Oxford must have been aware from very early that all eyes were on him.  “To whom much has been given, much is required.”  What a disappointment it much have been to men like Cecil and Ascham and even to Smith when instead of another well-behaved, pious Sidney, who hadn’t begun his studies until the great age of seven, their prime experiment turned to poetry and plays, his vast education little more than grist for the mill of his comedies and love songs.

No doubt his elders gave him time.  Poetry was a pastime of youth, something that, as with Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurt would surely pass when the weight of mature responsibility awakened him to more important things.   But as Oxford matured, his interest in literature only deepened.  Scorned for his early efforts to join the international community of scholars, he channeled his talents into writing entertainments for the Court.  This Cecil tolerated, probably because they pleased the Queen, perhaps also because he saw opportunities for help with the onerous business of creating the propaganda that was one of his most important weapons in the fight to destroy the political power of the Catholics.

As a peer, born to be a patron of the arts, Oxford had fallen into the trap that Elyot and other pedagogues had warned about in educating the nobility, he became an artist himself, and as an artist, as is always the case with a true artist, he held nothing higher than Art.  This included rank and all the distinctions and constraints that it held dear.  Clear to him from reading Plato was the distinction between the external world and the truth he felt within himself: “for I have that within that passeth show.”  They wouldn’t give him the military command his patrimony required, nor the role in the government for which his training had prepared him, so he would fulfill the one thing he had, besides his rank, his inherited office of Lord Great Chamberlain.

The chamberlain of a Tudor household was a sort of glorified butler, one who ate at table with the family rather than with the staff.  Often a member of the family from a lesser social level, or one whose family was tied in some way to the fortunes of the family he served, he was responsible for the smooth running of the household, including its removals to other locations and its entertainments at the three big turning points of the year, Christmas/Carneval, Easter/May Day, and Midsummer/St. John’s Day.  At the Tudor Court, the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the same functions, plus the honor and responsibility of serving as a leading member of the Privy Council.  It was an appointed position, and although as with all such offices it was often given to the heir of the former Lord Chamberlain, that was only because having been raised at Court, he was often in the best position to fulfill the office.

England’s Lord Great Chamberlain was, and still is, a very different kind of office.  Except for a brief time during the reign of Henry VIII, it’s one of a handful of inherited positions, a vestigial remain from the Middle Ages, when even then all it signified was that this fellow, his father before him, and his heirs after him, was the official best friend of the monarch.  Since the earliest days of the Norman hegemony all that’s required of the LGC is that he appear dressed appropriately for processions in which his place comes after the Lord Privy Seal, and before the Lord High Constable, and that he act as personal attendant to the monarch at his or her coronation, something that generally occures no more than once or twice in a lifetime, or with a particularly long-lived monarch, not even that.  From the very beginning this honorary office had belonged to members of the Vere family, as it still does today, having been shifted to descendants of Oxford’s sister Mary’s husband, Sir Peregrine Bertie (the Earls of Lindsay), when Oxford’s line died out with the death of the 20th Earl.

Looking around for something that could define his ambiguous role in his community, Oxford took advantage of this rather empty office, turning it into something genuine and powerful.  It was probably as surprising to him as to anyone else when out of his genius and the great need of the English public for entertainment was born the Fourth Estate of modern government, what we call the media, which, in those days consisted of the London Stage and commercial Press.

There may be a kernal of truth to the rumor that Oxford ruined his patrimony out of revenge at Lord Burghley, though the proper wording would be out of the necessity to find something for himself in what he’d been left by his father.  Awakening gradually to the horrible mess left by that foolish father; aware, probably from the start, that Burghley, his one and only financial advisor, was more concerned about his own family, their wealth and prestige, than he or they were about him; raised by the parsimonious Smith, whose ascetic diet and modest dress were the foundation of a lifestyle that, once the peacock period of Oxford’s twenties was over, required little more than a secretary, ink and paper; he used his wealth, whatever it was (he could never be sure) and his credit as a peer (for as long as it lasted), to praise his friends, wound his enemies and influence national policy by way of his favorite audience, the lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End.  When his own credit and wealth ran out, he turned to the “angels” that every theatrical enterprise requires, chronologically: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, the Earl of Southampton and the third Earl of Pembroke, all of whom play an important role in their patronage of the great  experiment we call Shakespeare.

Tamerlan or Tamburlaine

Marlowe-bloggie

Everyone is thinking the same thought these days,“What possessed those Russian youths to kill and maim American families out for a good time?”  It seems clear that the elder was the motivating force, the one still alive pretty much just following in his brother’s footsteps  The elder, Tamerlan, was an energetic youth, who tried and did well at a number of things in his American life.  What turned him against the people of Boston?

Lacking an answer to that, we authorship scholars have something else we can think about, the man’s given name.  It’s an unusual name, but probably as common in his birthplace as Alexander is in the West, for the Tamburlaine of Asian history, a great conqueror, is on a par with our Alexander or Napoleon.  While the name means almost nothing to most westerners, it means a lot in the part of the world where the original Timur “the Lame” rose to power, a great conquerer who rose from the obscurity of a small local chieftan to oversee a vaster empire even than Alexander’s and a dynasty that lasted a lot longer.  A man from Chechnya with the same name might be subject to delusions of grandeur.  After all, what westerner would name their kid Napoleon?  Or Adolf?

Authorship scholars, focussed on on sixteenth-century playwrights, know the name Tamburlaine because it is the title of the play that made one of our subjects famous.  Just as Oxford unleashed his inner conqueror with Coriolanus and Hotspur, so after three years of apprenticeship with the Fisher’s Folly crew, Marlowe unleashed his with the monstrously heroic Tamburlaine.  For the boistrous apprentices of Southwark, the heroic image of Edward Alleyn as the working class conqueror was heady stuff.  Willing to pay to see it every time it was played, they made it the hit that turned the London Stage into a viable industry.

But the play was a disaster in another sense, it had crossed a line, one that threatened to shut down not only Henslowe’s theater, but all the theaters as well.  Reports reached the Cecils of the kind of play it was, and how when Tamburlaine drives across the stage, whipping the beaten emperor and his vizier who are being forced to pull his chariot on their hands and knees, the audience of young apprentices show their enthusiasm in a way that frightened the Cecils.  After all, Shakepseare’s Coriolanus and Hotspur came a to bad end, but Tamburlaine, as history confirmed, lived a long and successful life and died in bed.  Walsingham and Oxford were probably called to account, but there was little they could do.  They weren’t supposed to be in the theater business.

Marlowe had violated one of the unwritten rules for the theater of Elizabeth’s reign.  He had brought to life for an impressionable and restless audience a powerful rebel who overthrew his monarch and, what was worse, was never forced to pay for his heinous crime.  It didn’t matter that the rebel was a tribal chieftain from the steppes of Central Asia two hundred years and a thousand miles away, what mattered was that an acting company had dramatized how a poor subject with a powerful will could defeat and humiliate a monarch and get away with it.  Timur was no fiction, he was an historical reality, but not quite the kind of history that Walsingham had hoped to get when he hired him.

The playwrights and “Divine Right”

Uneasy lay the heads that wore the Tudor crown.  From Henry VIII on it was hammered home from the pulpit that an anointed monarch was sacred.  God had put him or her on the throne and it was up to God how and when to take them off.  Thus rebellion became heresy, and the depiction of rebellion, successful rebellion, was atheism, and atheism was treason.

Shakespeare was just as observant of this unwritten rule as all the rest.  In Shakespeare’s Derived Imagery (1967), John Erskine Hankins notes how he almost never fails to pair the words sacred or annointed with the words monarch or majesty.  Because Cecil was so clever (and his descendants throughout the centuries so powerful), and because literary historians pay no attention to mainstream history, and vice versa, this motive for Marlowe’s assassination has escaped them.  Point being: the Cecils simply could not afford to let Marlowe, (or his patron, Lord Strange) get away with it.  The rest of the company and the owner and manager of the theater where the seditious play was performed were let off the hook.  To kill a poisonous weed, or rebellion, you must pull it up by the root.

Unfortunately Marlowe’s effrontery had come at the same time that a satirist calling himself Martin Mar-prelate caused a similar ruckus with the newborn commercial press, humiliating the bishops, lashing them with witty invective, suggesting base practices, and at the same time, demonstrating better than anything the tremendous latent power of the press.

Clearly the writers were out of control.  Something had to be done.  The Cecils hadn’t long to wait.  Walsingham’s death in April 1990 opened the door to their acquisition of his papers, his staff, his agents, and his authority.  Burghley took on the work of administration while Robert went after their enemies.  Now in control of Walsingham’s black operatives, he used two of them to create a sting that was meant to charge Marlowe with attempting to hire one of them to help him make counterfeit coins to fund Catholic plots, a charge that would bring a stiff penalty.  The renegade playwright escaped this one, but he wouldn’t escape the next.

Timur the Lame

Marlowe had a yen for the Middle East.  We see that in two of his plays, the story of Tamburlaine, the great conqueror of the Scythian plains, and Barnabas, The Jew of Malta, where the great battle of Lepanto saw the Europeans under Don John of Austria stop the Ottoman Turks under Emperor Sulieman.  Drawn to the Middle East, he was also drawn to its ancient and noble wisdom tradition.  His name is connected with the group dubbed by historians “the School of Night” that included Sir Walter Raleigh, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, a group that Cecil hated.  This group had to be secretive because the scientific and philosophical matters they discussed were considered atheism by the Crown, but it wasn’t religion that inspired Cecil; his hatred was personal.  This is evident in the way he charged Raleigh and Percy, by means of his operative Richard Baines, with atheism shortly after nailing Marlowe.  He failed because they were still too strong for him, but later when he finally got enough power under James, he managed to put them both behind bars.

Aware that the Cecils were on the war path, Oxford put an end to his pamphletting as Robert Greene in September 1592.  In his last hurrah as Greene (well, almost the last) , Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte, as the supposedly dying Greene confesses his sins, he includes a warning message to the “famous gracer of tragedians” that he had better reject “diabolical atheism” and “pestilent Machiavellian policy,” or else, “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.”  Had Marlowe listened to reason and agreed to stick to less dangerous topics, perhaps he would have survived, but driven by an irresistable urge to connect with his audience, for whom he felt himself the mouthpiece, his next, and last, play dealt with another taboo subject, The Massacre at Paris, in which the leader of the French Catholic party, the Duc de Guise, is assassinated onstage. What’s left of the play gives no hint of what it might have been originally, as it’s about half the length of a normal play.

Oxford and Marlowe

We’ll never find any hard evidence of it, but it has to be that Marlowe was trained in playwriting by Oxford. Considering that this was the only place at that time where he could possibly have learned it,  it’s the only thing that makes sense.  In the early 1580s, Oxford and his “lewd friends” at Fishers Folly, where they had (probably) been enrolled by the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, to provide plays for his recently formed Crown company, the Queen’s Men, plays written to inspire patriotic enthusiasm in the inhabitants of the coastal towns where the Spanish fleet was most likely to attack.  Oxford was spread thin in the mid-’80s, writing for both the Queen’s Men and Burbage’s company, so Walsingham had arranged for Marlowe, word of whose abilities were spreading beyond Cambridge, to take time off from his lessons at Cambridge so the Fisher’s Folly crew could teach him to write for the stage.  It seems that the Cambridge dons knew that Walsingham was responsible, but wrong about what he wanted Marlowe to do.  They guessed it was to spy.  In fact (of course!) it was to write.  Why would Walsingham waste a brilliant writer on spying when he had an acting company that needed material?  In the end it seems that Marlowe never did write anything for the Queen’s Men, whom he jeered in the opening lines of Tamburlaine as: “jigging veins of rhyming mother wits, and such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.”

Something of a genius, Marlowe learned fast.  He came to the Folly just when Oxford was moving from euphuism to the style of The Spanish Tragedy, when he’d decided that iambic pentameter would be his basic meter.  Marlowe adopted Oxford’s style as written in stone and soon became proficient at it.

Surrounded by irreverent wits like Oxford, Bacon, Lodge, Peele, Kyd and the Bassano musicians, the working class youth heard the kind of irreverent talk that such people indulge in when they’re together, some of it  fairly anti-establishment.  His stints in London in 1584 and ’85 coincided with the visit of the magus Giordano Bruno, who kindled enthusiasm in the English intellectual community for the Wisdom Tradition of the Middle East.  Without a doubt he was included in this group.

With important members of the Stage community and the aristocracy dropping by for a laugh, a drink, an evening of music, it’s hardly surprising that it went to Marlowe’s head, for as he grew in ability he also grew in self-importance.  He became restless with the restrictions imposed on writers by the Crown.  Both Oxford and Walsingham were well aware of what lines they could cross, where they could speak freely and where they could not.  They must have warned the youth, but he wouldn’t listen.  He felt himself standing on the threshold of power.  He knew he could bring the working class apprentices into the theater in a way that Oxford and Bacon with their Courtly themes and elegant styles could not.  Both about the same age, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had bombmaking materials and skills; Christopher Marlowe had bombastic language, a theater, and an audience.

At Fisher’s Folly Marlowe became acquainted with young Edward Alleyn who lived at the Pye Inn next door.  Still just a teenager, just learning the acting ropes from Burbage and his crew, Alleyn was a member of Marlowe’s own class.  A big fellow, with a big voice, Alleyn had begun around fourteen or fifteen playing Romeo to Richard Burbage’s Juliet, graduating as he matured to roles like the Bastard Falconbridge and Coriolanus.  Like Marlowe, Alleyn was restless and eager to fly beyond the confines of what Burbage and Oxford were working to build.  When the rebellious pair heard that Philip Henslowe was planning to build a big public theater across the river, the second in all of London, they made a break for freedom.  The play was a monster hit, probably the first to demonstrate that with the right material, actors, musicians, playwrights and theater owners could support themselves and maybe even a family.

With Marlowe no longer handy to warn in person, Oxford did what he could by inserting a warning in Robert Greene’s “deathbed” pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.  Addressing him politely as “thou famous gracer of tragedians,’ he urged him to leave off “diabolical atheism” and “pestilent Machiavellian policy.” Admitting that he too had been guilty of scoffing at religion, he warns him “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.”

Spring 1593

With the streets of the City emptied by the plague, Cecil’s agents were free to paste fake warning notices on walls around London that threatened violence to foreign workers.  One, pasted on the wall of the Church where the Dutch had their service, written in rhyming iambics, and referring slyly to the themes of Marlowe’s last two plays, was signed “Tamburlaine.”  His agents having warned the Privy Council, Cecil provided them with documents that painted Marlowe as a violent homosexual atheist.  Within days Marlowe’s scribe, Thomas Kyd, was arrested and racked until he condemned his former housemate.

Marlowe was questioned in Star Chamber, then let go on house arrest to the home of Thomas Walsingham, a cousin of the former Secretary of State. What Walsingham’s share was in the sting is hard to unravel, but that he had a share in it can’t be denied.  His agent was one of the men who “took care of” Marlowe in Deptford.  As soon as Cecil got the power of Secretary  of State he rewarded Walsingham with a knighthood and a place at Court, where, during King James’s reign, his wife developed a reputation, whether deserved or not, as Cecil’s procuress.

On the morning of May 30, Marlowe was “invited” to a dinner at a hostelry in Deptford, across the river from where the Court was getting ready to leave for Windsor to escape the plague.   After ten hours of hanging about for no obvious reason, the three agents whose job it was to “take care” of Marlowe, either killed him, or put him on a boat heading for the Continent (or, one hopes, for the Middle East).  If the latter, the bizarre ten hours may have been spent waiting for the corpse of John Penry to arrive.  Penry, having been accused of the Mar-prelate satires, had been hanged the day before on the road to Deptford.  If so it was a perfect plan, perfectly executed, and it netted the Cecils two enemy birds with a single sting.

Marlowe’s death has been examined by several notable literary historians, each proclaiming a different engineer, and all but one ignoring its only possible true creator, Robert Cecil.  The book that provides the most evidence is Charles Nicholl’s 1992, The Reckoning.  Nicholl’s choice for perpetrator is the Earl  of Essex, but then Nicholl is British, and the Cecil descendants have always been powerful enough to stand in the way of the truth about their ancestors coming out.  If he fudges on a conclusion, Nicholl  provides enough evidence to convict Cecil (though not all of it).  Considering the ferocious avalanche of filthy epigrams that followed Cecil’s death, certainly no one in his own time would have been surprised to hear that he got rid of a playwright back in the early ’90s, or just how he did it; he’d done the same thing to so many more important enemies since.

In considering what effect the name Tamerlan may have had on the young terrorist, it may be of interest to consider that, according to Wikipedia, scholars estimate that Tamburlaine’s brutal military campaigns “caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5 percent of the world’s population.”  Someone must have played on this while Tamerlan was in Russia, learning bombmaking from expert terrorists.  But while his namesake created a dynasty that lasted centuries, Tamerlan’s end was closer to something Shakespeare might have written.

Shakespeare’s hardy audience

To understand a person, or a peopleFamily
it helps to know what childhood was like for them and how family relationships were formed.  According to Lawrence Stone, author of The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), 16th-century English family relationships tended to be weak, that is, weak in real relationships, bound by genuine love and affection.  The social group of most importance was the extended family, the community.  Personal relationships were submerged in this wider group to an extent we see today only in a few isolated communities like the Amish or the Hasidim.  That these communities were often spread over a wide area, particularly on the higher levels, and considering the difficulties of travel then, that relatives might go years without seeing each other in person adds to the picture of a collection of emotionally cool relationships, connected by blood and self interest but little else.

If the Elizabethans were a hardy lot, withstanding the plague, malaria, wars, duels, the little Ice Age, and a diet that, except in summer, consisted of beef, bread and beer, it may be because the harsh treatment they recieved in infancy and childhood eliminated the weakest at the outset.  The death rate among infants and children was so high that it was not unusual for a woman to have anywhere from eight to twelve children in hopes that two or three might live to maturity.  If now and then this meant that so many lived that the parents went bankrupt raising, educating, and marrying them properly, it may have seemed less of a risk to dynastic-minded 16th-century parents than the disaster of leaving no progeny at all.

Birth was a dangerous passage for both mother and baby, due to the ever present threat of childbed fever, hemmorage, or both weakened by her poor diet and restrictive clothing.  Once past that hurdle the infant had another series of trials to overcome before there could be any assurance of its survival.  Immediately after birth it was placed with a wet nurse, often a poor woman who took in more than one baby.  It would be she who would see to its care for the first year or two (81).  Standard procedure was to keep the infant “swaddled,” that is, tightly wrapped in strips of fabric and bound to a board so it could not move its arms or legs (161).  The board could be laid flat or hung up on a peg, where the poor creature remained until its nurse had time to feed or wash it.

Once weaned  and potty-trained, it was returned to its parental home where it was consigned to a nursery along with its siblings or perhaps a cousin or two in the care of a nanny, most likely an unpaid member from a lower rung of the extended family rather than, as would be true in later centuries, a hired nurse or governess.  Here the child had little more than a passing acquaintance with its parents, whose busy lives prevented them from anything more than an occasional visit during which the children were expected to perform as before a panel of judges.

At seven or eight they were considered too old for the nursery, and so would be placed outside the home, the boys with a tutor, or a family that provided a tutor, the girls with a family who used her like a little servant (167).  While boys received some education, education for girls depended on the nature of the surrogate family.  Both boys and girls so placed were expected to serve the household in some capacity, whatever their rank.  The purpose of this placement was to enlarge the all important network of relationships with families higher on the social scale.  This was meant to guarantee both children and parents some degree of social advancement.

This is not to say that these surrogate families were necessarily cruel, in fact, they might have been kinder than the child’s own parents, who, according to Stone, apparently thought it proper to present the sternest possible surface towards their offspring.  Children were trained to give their parents almost idolatrous respect, addressing them with a ritual greeting, kneeling before them to ask their blessing (171).  Nor was this something that parents were in any way ashamed of, since displays of affection were thought to give children the dangerous idea that they could do as they pleased.  To this end they were flogged, sometimes brutally, on a regular basis, by governesses, parents, and schoolmasters, that the sins they were born with be driven out of them before they got too old for correction (163).  The famous book, The Scholemaster, by Roger Ascham, was written following a discussion over a goup of boys who had recently run away from an over-zealous schoolmaster.

In families of property, the oldest boy, the one who would inherit the family titles and estates, got the most attention, with some going to the second oldest, in case the oldest should die.  This hierarchy was impressed on the others, who were taught to give their oldest brother the same kind of respect they gave their parents, resulting in relationships fraught with jealousy and envy (156).  If, as often happened, the father died before the heir reached maturity, he (or where there were no sons, she) became the property of the Court of Wards, to be sold to the highest bidder, who had full use of his estates until he came of age, by which time he or she often found themselves married, will they nill they, to their guardian’s son or daughter (182).

Although Stone ignores the possible connection between these behaviors and the policies and beliefs of the Reformation, we can’t help but wonder if the notion of original sin didn’t have a great deal to do with their harsh treatment of their children.  Born in sin, it seems as though it was up to the little sinner whether or not he or she had the chutzpah to survive to adulthood.  The beatings and constant lectures sound like one more outcome of the soul-deadening regime imported from Geneva.  As much evidence shows, these processes left the nation’s children vulnerable to mistreatment of the worse sort, suggesting a society plagued by the kind of asocial griefs and horrors later dramatized by John Webster and John Ford.

When we contrast this with the childhood we envision for the Earl of Oxford, surrounded at birth and for the following four years by a community of adoring females, followed by eight years with a man who, if perhaps no more demonstrative than anyone else in his time, was clearly humane in his dealings with students and his own family, we have some ground for understanding the source of the joie de vivre, the sheer joy of living, that shines through his lighter works, and can better understand how gratefully audiences turned to his early comedies after the depressingly grim efforts of his immediate predecessors.

Oxford’s career

Its almost as though Fate arranged events so thatSirTSmith Oxford’s early years would lead to his particular achievement.  Having been tutored for eight years by the nation’s top Greek scholar, a renowned orator who owned in the original Greek the ancient poets Pindar and Homer and the ancient dramatists Sophocles and Euripides, this was followed by several years in London at Cecil House with Lawrence Nowell, the scholar who rediscovered Anglo-Saxon by reading polyglot manuscripts in both Old English and Latin.  During his early years in the country with Smith, Oxford had come to know country folk of every description, hearing their tales and learning what made them laugh, and after Cecil House came a decade at the royal Court where he experimented with poems, madrigals and stories performed by the choristers from Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed by a year in Italy where the Comedia dell’Arte was just blooming and Andrea Palladio was experimenting with the accoustics of round theaters made of wood.

Not only was Smith fluent in Greek, he was famous at Cambridge for his ability to recite passages out of Homer and other works in Greek and Latin.  Surely he would have been pleased to recite some of these for his little student’s benefit during the years when, exiled from Court, he had nothing else to do.  Thus we can assume that, not only was Oxford able to read these works himself as he got older,  he knew from very early how they sounded to the ear, having benefitted by his tutor’s recitations.  Smith would also have required that de Vere memorize some of these himself, for memorizing such works was the standard method in those days for teaching ethics and manners as well as style and grammar.

While with Smith, de Vere’s quest for interesting and exciting stories helped drive him to learn the languages in which they were buried as quickly as possible so he could read them for himself.  No doubt his rapid facility pleased his tutor, but it may also have caused him concern, for extraordinary abilities in the young were considered prodigies (like the hair and teeth ascribed to Richard III at birth) and as such could be seen by the ignorant as machinations of the Devil.  It seems that, as a boy, Smith had taught himself in much the same way, so his brilliant little student could not have had a more understanding or supportive tutor.  However, having invested so many years in the boy’s education, and having no interest in performance art himself, Smith must have been dismayed by the uses to which his star pupil was putting his education at a Reformation Court where having too much fun was frowned upon.

Oxford was living with his tutor at Ankerwycke during the years Smith was renovating Hill Hall in Essex, something that those who have studied its architecture ascribe in part to the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose book  (in four languages: Latin, French, Italian and Spanish) is listed in Smith’s 1566 library list, and in which the ancient genius describes how sound can be amplified in round theaters made of wood.  One of Smith’s friends was the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, while one of his students was that historian of exploration, Richard Eden.  Smith’s knowledge of the Law, Roman history, distilling, horticulture, medicine and hawking are also reflected in Shakespeare’s works.

Arriving at Cecil House at age twelve, Oxford was immersed in the excitement over translating into English important works in Latin and French for William Cecil’s campaign to educate the English in the ideals of the Reformation.  The young students from the nearby London law colleges who were doing these translations were also translating tales from Boccaccio, plays by Seneca, Ariosto and Machiavelli, and poetry by Petrarch, Ronsard, and Tasso.  This they did for each other, not for Cecil, whose interest in literature did not extend beyond Latin interpretations of Calvinist doctrine.  Of course Oxford joined in. A poet by nature, a patron of the arts by heritage, what else would he have done?

Surely one of his first acts as a patron was to arrange for the results of these translations of Renaissance artistry in the first of the anthologies that began to appear at that time: Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, published in 1565.  Included were stories related by Herodotus, Boccaccio, Plutarch, Aulus Gellius, Aelian, Livy, Tacitus, Quintus Curtius, Giovanni Battista Giraldi, Matteo Bandello, Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, and Queen Marguerite de Navarre, most of them found in either Smith’s or Cecil’s library, and from which in coming years he would take many of the plots and characters for his comedies and dramas.  The sources for both his English and Roman histories were also to be found in Smith’s library, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans in several languages, Edward Halle’s history of the Wars of the Roses, plus all of the original sources that went into creating Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Birth of the London Stage

His plays were too popular to contain within the walls of the Court.  A public bereft of its traditional mummings and processions by a harsh Reformation government was hungry for entertainment, so during the 1570s his plays began to escape the Court by way of the choristers, who, after performing them for the Queen, would head back to the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral to perform them for Londoners for several weeks throughout the winter holiday.  The young choristers at Paul’s had been playing for the public for some years before Oxford got to London.  They were the first to perform plays at Elizabeth’s Court, replacing the masques that were her chief entertainment during those early years in the 1560s.

Like other noblemen of his rank, Oxford’s father had maintained a corps of musicians and actors who entertained his friends and constituents in other parts of his domain, and probably also at Court.  When he died, these actors and musicians had to find work elsewhere.  It’s possible that some of them ended up with the Earl of Leicester who had been given by the Queen, via the Court of Wards, the use of the Oxford estates while de Vere was underage, so that the company that’s gone down in history as the first to be identified in Elizabeth’s reign, Leicester’s Men, may have included at least one or two actors who had once been members of the 16th earl’s retinue.

The evolution of his style

The earliest evidences of Oxford’s style are, if not all of Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then those parts that appear later in Shakespeare, and Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, published around the same time, where the similarities in style are so close to the Ovid that that alone should claim it for the same author.  The translations of Ariosto’s I Suppositi as The Supposes, which appears later as the sub-plot in Merchant of Venice, and Jocasta, a translation of a French translation of Euripides’s The Phoeniciae, also has echoes in Shakespeare.   Poems like “Framed at the front of forlorn hope” or “Fain would I sing but fury makes me fret” from his mid-teens, reveal the kind of verse that was popular when he first came to Cecil House.

Unlike others writing then, Oxford dares to vary the numbing drumbeat of the traditional fourteen-syllable iambic line by adding or removing syllables.  Traces of the euphuism that will peak in the late ’70s with his Euphues novels can be heard in the introductory verse to Barnabe Googe’s Eclogues, published, probably by Oxford, in 1563.  Later, in searching for a style that could match or equal the styles of the Spanish, French and Italians, he and the other creators of the English Literary Renaissance would experiment widely, not only with versification and syntax, but with every other aspect of style.

Because the academics are so clueless when it comes to understanding the rebellious, anti-establishment nature of the dawning ELR (Elizabethan Literary Renaissance), they not only fail to see their need for anonymity, they fail to understand their efforts to develop, not a recognizable style, as would later writers, but in their efforts to hide their identities, a flexibility of style, even a variety of styles.  In our hunt for the truth behind the pseudonyms, the initials, and the proxies, we must dig deeper than surface characteristics to the personalities, the beliefs, themes, passions, hatreds, that motivate an individual’s creativity.  Just as it can be difficult to discern the difference between a late Mozart and early Beethovan, it can be difficult to separate one voice from another, and indeed, one writer’s early voice from his or her later voice (Yes, her––Mary Sidney was a founding member of this crew of ELR instigators)  or even, as in Bacon’s case, from one pseudonym to another.  By his early twenties Oxford’s style had evolved to the kind of poetry found in his Hundreth Sundrie Flowres and his introductory poem to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comfort.  Clearly he had moved away from the incessant alliteration of the 1560s and was broadening his language.

With the return to England of his cousin Francis Bacon in 1578, Oxford was glad to help the eighteen-year-old get started by publishing his Shepherd’s Calender, under the pseudonym Immerito, the kind of insider’s pastoral portrait of the literary community of the Court he would continue to produce during his youth as The Faerie Queene, both later attributed to a government functionary off in the wilds of southern Ireland named Edmund Spenser.  Calling himself E.K., Oxford beefed up the slender volume with a lengthy “gloss,” a running commentary on Bacon’s characters, language, style and archaic words.  When this is compared with his introduction to works he published by his friends, Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s English translation of Cardan’s Comfort, it’s clearly the same voice.

There are touches of the elaborate style that will come to be known as euphuism in these early works that will increase until they hit a peak with his Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, a romanticized version of Oxford’s adventures in Italy, published in 1578 and attributed to his secretary, John Lyly, followed two years later by Euphues His England, also attributed to Lyly.  Oxford did not invent euphuism, it came to him from several sources, but it had become a fad at Court, where much like the later phenomenon of préciosité at the Court of Louis XIV, courtiers attempted to converse with each other in the kind of witty figures of speech that he came close to parodying in Euphues, and several earlier works like Pettie’s Petite Pallace, attributed to George Pettie, possibly his former classmate at Oxford, and Zelauto, a dry run for Euphues, which he attributed to another secretary, Anthony Munday.

Euphuism was such a hit that when the children performed for the Queen at Christmas in the 1570s, they were expected to speak in this style, so when Oxford was banished from Court for impregnating Ann Vavasor, I believe that Francis Walsingham, then Secretary of State, gave Bacon the task of providing these plays.  Despite his stylistic flexibility, euphuism did not come easily to Francis, whose tendency to ramble was the antithesis of the rapid twists and thrusts of Oxford’s euphuism.

The plots and characters of plays like Campaspe and Endymion were based, like the plots and characters of  The Faerie Queene, on Court gossip.  Distressing reactions by the Queen had taught those in charge of her entertainment that although she enjoyed seeing her Court portrayed in a humorous and gently teasing way, if a playwright crossed the line her anger could be deadly, so holiday plays had to be written by someone not only well-versed in insider gossip, which someone like John Lyly was not, but sensitive enough to know where and how to draw the line.  Such a writer was Francis Bacon.

Enough comedies!

While exiled from Court in the early 1580s for his affair with Ann Vavasor, Oxford, now based at Fisher’s Folly in Shoreditch, turned away from euphuism, child actors, and Court comedies to create philosophical and political works for Burbage’s adult actors to perform before the audience that meant the most to him, the “gentlemen” of the Inns of Court, the lawyers and parliamentarians located in the West End.  For them he wrote early versions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice, and Coriolanus, all of which touched on issues that were important to his audience, his patrons, and to him personally. These he produced at the little school theater he and his patron, Lord Hunsdon, had built in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just over the City Wall from the West End.

This, his first quantum leap in style, was motivated by anger at the Queen and Leicester and rebellion toward the Cecils.  Possibly excepting the 1603 quarto of Hamlet, none of these early versions are still in existence today.  A clue to his style of the time is The Spanish Tragedy, later ascribed to Thomas Kyd,  probably one of his secretaries at that time.  Several scholars have detailed its similarities to Hamlet.

With his return to the Court in 1583, sponsored by the new Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, Oxford developed another style, one that could communicate more easily with provincial audiences.  Walsingham’s need for plays that the newly formed Queen’s Men could take to the coastal communities where it was feared that Catholics might welcome the Spanish, gathering to attack, spurred early versions of what became Shakespeare’s history plays.  Again, we know most of these only from their later versions, but the early quarto of Henry V, known as The Famous Victories, can give us a sense of their original style, along with two that never made it into publication.  These were Thomas of Woodstock, the prequel to Richard II, and Edmund Ironside (aka “War hath made all friends”) which portrays the struggle of one of England’s earliest kings against the Danish invaders.

Also in the late 1570s and early 1580s Oxford began publishing stories modeled on Boccaccio and Greek romances.  Some he published as by George Pettie, some as by Thomas Lodge, most as by “Robert Greene,” these inexpensive paperback pamphlets were the earliest peeps of what one day would become the British popular press, and where within a decade Oxford’s early plays would find their path to publication via the so-called early quartos.

Trouble in Illyria

Like the single cell that doubles when the organism reaches a certain size, the burgeoning London Stage saw a second round theater created in 1587, this one created by the entrepreneur Richard Henslowe, where Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn entertainmed the working class apprentices south of the Thames with the popular Tamburlaine, too popular where the Crown was concerned.  Soon more trouble arose when a clever dissident calling himself Martin Mar-Prelate began publishing witty diatribes against the Anglican Establishment.  Oxford and Bacon pitched in against both, but the damage was done.  Seen by the Cecils and other Court conservatives as responsible for the creation of the media, the London Stage and the commercial Press, Oxford and Bacon did their best to put out the fires started by Marlowe and Mar-prelate, but they were helpless to prevent the calamities heading their way.

The Cecilian revenge

With the death of Oxford’s wife in 1588, Anne Cecil, her father moved to cut back Oxford’s power, calling in his debts to the Crown so he was forced to sell Fisher’s Folly and dismiss his secretaries.  Then with Walsingham’s death in 1590, the Cecils took over his offices, Burghley filling in as Secretary of State while Robert took over his crew of black ops agents.  Together they went after the theater community that, in their view, had gotten out of control.  They shut down Paul’s Boys, dissolved the Queen’s Men, and damaged Henslowe’s operation at the Rose Theater by arresting Marlowe on a charge of atheism and  having him either murdered or transported out of the country.

Cut off from his power base, Oxford turned to poetry, writing Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, which he dedicated to the young patron who helped pay for their publication, and whom he hoped to see married to his daughter.  Burdened by debt, grief, fear of old age and remorse for the wife he’d mistreated, at a loss with no company to write for, he filled in the empty hours by writing sonnets to his young patron and the mistress who was giving him another sort of grief.  As he wrote a new voice began to take shape, an amalgam of all his earlier experimenting.  Thus occured his second quantum leap in style, which in a few years would be producing the earliest of the works we know as Shakespeare.

Having rid himself of the Robert Greene insignia in advance of the coming Cecilian pogrom, when he saw that to rescue his reputation as England’s greatest poet from his old rival Sir Philip Sidney, whose sonnets were thrilling the reading audience that he and Bacon had created, he was driven to publish Venus and Adonis, his printer helped out by offering the name of one of his hometown neighbors, a name that could double as the kind of pun that would alert Court and Inns of Court readers to his identity as author while maintaining his anonymity with the general public.  The following year one of his old patrons stepped in to create a new Crown company, one that required revisions of his old plays.  Establishing ownership through registration with the Stationers, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with James Burbage and his son Richard at the helm, began planning to turn the Parliament Chamber at BlackfriarsParliament Chamber theater into a grand new theater in time for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments, due to open in October 1597.

But unfortunately for the Company, having finally squeezed the office of Secretary of State out of the nervous Queen, Cecil now had the power of the most potent post in the government.  One after another he removed the theaters and patrons that Oxford relied on to see his works performed, including the Blackfriars stage where they would have been able to entertain the members of Parliament.

Whether or not Cecil was in fact responsible for the deaths of Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon in 1596 or theater manager James Burbage in early 1597, or the patron of Marlowe’s company, Lord Strange, in 1594, their suspicion plus the simple need to survive drove the Company to publish a brutal new version of Richard III in which the members assembling for the 1597 Parliament could not possibly see the wicked tyrant as anything but a portrait of Robert Cecil.  Cecil would continue to gain power through his manipulation of the Queen and then King James, and his destruction of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and his own Cobham inlaws, but his reputation was damaged beyond repair.

Thus it was largely to protect himself from Cecil that, with the death of Elizabeth and the advent of King James, he obtained the right to remove himself to the safety of the Forest of Waltham, where given peace and quiet and the protection of the King, he experienced the final quantum leap in style, the glorious versions of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, some of them in time to see his youngest daughter Susan (his Cordelia) married to the nephew of his old adversary, Philip Sidney.  To achieve the total privacy he needed to complete his great work, he arranged that the records would reflect that he had died, a ruse he portrays in one of his last plays, Measure for Measure.

That he chose June 24th for this disappearing act was another signal to his literary and Masonic community that he was only dead in name, that being the traditional date for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Freemasons and one of the four major holidays of the seasonal year.  That he actually died on this date was a coincidence so unlikely as to be impossible.

For three decades the Company continued to produce the plays he left them, most of them years of great success, far beyond what most theater companies have ever managed to achieve.  When his son-in-law, the Earl of Montgomery, and Montgomery’s brother, the Earl of Pembroke, finally published his collected works in 1623, the obvious fact that so many of his characters were based on Court personalities was papered over by hints that directed attention towards the man with the punnable name, a provincial who could not possibly have known enough about the Court to have portrayed those leading figures whose relatives were still alive, and whose descendants would continue to desire anonymity for generations, right up to this very day .

Thus the major problem of Oxford’s final years, keeping his papers safe from the Cecils, was accomplished and the great plays were saved for posterity, though sadly, at the cost of his name.

Apologie for poetic license

This overview of a long and complicated career will be considered merely another one of my “flights of fancy” by those Oxfordians who have dedicated themselves to imitating the philologistical left-brainers who claim authority over anything related to Shakespeare, an exercise in futility in my view.  As the great Duke Ellington once sang, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” which is as true of history, even literary history, as it is of life, swing here meaning story.  Without story there’s no drama, no motivation, no clash of wills, no paradox, irony or pity.  There’s nothing but data, a pile of facts, a Frankenstein’s monster without a heart, the only thing that, however sturdy his arms and legs, will bring the wondrous monster to life.

With overviews like this, statements of fact must by necessity be heavily condensed and bridged with conjecture, but be assured that my conjectures about Bacon, Mary Sidney, Marlowe, Alleyn, of Oxford’s flight to the Forest of Waltham, are based on evidence too massive and detailed to be included in a step by step account of his career in anything less than three volumes in very small type for which I have no time or energy and can imagine no readers.

I’ll always be more than willing to respond to requests for specific references.