Tag Archives: Earl of Oxford

Stanley Wells quotes The Oxfordian

It seems that a watershed moment for Authorship Studies took place a year and a half ago at the 2011 World Shakespeare Congress in Prague, when Dr. Stanley Wells, the eminence grise of Shakespeare Studies, General Editor of the Oxford Series and honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, not only mentioned an article from the 2002 edition of The Oxfordian, but dwelt rather heavily on it in his lecture––even more surprisingly, naming its author, Andrew Werth, and the fact that he’s an Oxfordian; “For which we mustn’t condemn him,” said Wells, provoking an appreciative titter from the audience.  Hey, after centuries of being ignored, a little paternalism ain’t so bad.

The article in question, “Shakespeare’s Lesse Greek,” makes the case for the author’s knowledge of Greek, still widely regarded as an impossibility.   In an easy style, devoid of mind-numbing geek-speak, author Andrew Werth laid out the facts that make it evident to all but those indoctrinated from undergraduate days with Stratford cult beliefs, that there’s enough evidence of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek literature that during his time were not yet translated into Latin or English, that suggests that Ben Jonson’s dismissive phrase in the First Folio: “though he had small Latin and less Greek . . .”, was either a cheesy attempt to damn his rival with faint praise or, simply––for whatever reason––flat out lie about his education.

Some of Werth’s points are dismissed by Wells as “vitiated” by recent “discoveries” of Shakespeare’s collaboration with writers like Fletcher, Jonson, and Peele (our turn to chuckle) .  Yet, said he,  “in other respects they seem strong.”  As indeed they are!  Good for you, Dr. Wells, and good for me and Andy, and Dan, and Charles, and Bill, and all those who, years ago, when The Oxfordian was still in the planning stage, saw a moment like this as the very goal at which such a journal would be aimed.  There’s no way to know how Andy’s article reached Dr. Wells, but reach it it did!  And where one has gone before, others will surely follow.

Wells focuses in particular on the section of the article in which Werth deals with Sonnets 153 and 154, the final two of the collection.  As a pair, these two form a category all their own.  Though the versification of these two is no different from the rest of the sonnets, the subject and tone are unique.  The characters addressed in the first two long sections do not appear, nor are these final two cast in the same intimate and passionate mode as the rest.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Obvious translations, Wells mentions Helen Vendler’s theory that they were school exercises, another example of the current academic eagerness to amplify the capacities of the Stratford grammar school to the level of a university (and not a little ridiculous considering the poems’ naughty sophistication), but on point as impersonal examples of a poet’s expertise, the kind that, in Shakespeare’s time were the mark of an accomplished courtier.  Poems like these were usually written as a graceful gesture, possibly for the birthday of a patron, or for someone to whom the poet wished to demonstrate his ability to deal with a mundane topic in the most elegant possible manner.  First written by a fifth century Greek, the pair migrated from one collection to another, sometimes included, sometimes not.  Typical of the kind of divertissment on a minor topic that characterized such poems, these focus on the baths that the Greeks and Romans used as both healing founts and places where men could relax together.

Scholars have tracked Shakespeare’s source for this pair to the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrammata first accumulated sometime in the first century BC, and added to over the years, most notably in the tenth and fourteenth centuries, primarily in manuscript and almost always in the original Greek.  Since the beauty of an epigram lies in a tight blend of sense and sound that resists translation, the anthology had continued its passage through time mostly in its original language, with copiers doing as did Shakespeare, rendering personal versions in their own languages, until 1603 when a Latin version was published in England.  (Werth explains this in some detail in an end note on page 27.)

Thus the problem for the Academy has always been, where and how did Shakespeare come across these epigrams, and in what language?   Although almost as frequently referenced by poets as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s hard to locate anything resembling a solid publishing history for this famous anthology, for with its long history of manuscript distribution, of divisions of text in one version, amalgamations of texts in others, what’s most likely in my view is that the poet transcribed the originals from a manuscript in Greek, either one he himself owned, or that he borrowed from a friend.

Oxford and Essex

My personal view is that these two sonnets were written in 1589-91 as a gesture of friendship towards the Earl of Essex during his rise to power.  After inheriting Leicester House in 1588, Essex enlarged and extended it.  In 1590 it was recorded as having 42 bedrooms, a picture gallery, a banqueting hall, a chapel, and outbuildings, among them an old Roman bath built on a freshwater spring just steps from the river.  I recall seeing early photos of it in a book, which one I can’t remember (along, alas, with a great deal else).  It may be the one that still exists at the end of Strand Lane, just north of the Temple gardens.  Wikipedia dismisses the possibility that this is the bath in question because it lies where history places property belonging to the neighboring mansion, Arundel House, but so much has changed over the years on this valuable bit of turf, where boundaries that defined the original houses would change with the fortunes of their owners, so what belonged to Essex at the time may well have included it.  Certainly his name is all over that area.    Or there may have been another bath built over a second spring nearby.

As part of his campaign to raise himself at Court, Essex in the early 1590s was patronizing all sorts of people and projects at the same time that Oxford, having suffered a series of disasters, was in desperate need of support for his Stage.  Already pouring his poetic energies into sonnets for the young Earl of Southampton, that he would have recast these choice bits of literary caviar into sonnet form as a means of asking Essex for his patronage is as likely as anything.  If, as has been suggested, the poems refer to baths as a cure for the pox, for which Essex is thought to have required medication from the physician Lopez, this would date them to the period in question, before Oxford’s marriage to Elizabeth Tresham in 1592, certainly before 1594 when Essex turned so viciously on Lopez, or 1596 when he was in disrepute for having an affair with Oxford’s daughter, the Countess of Derby.  Whoever was responsible for publishing the Sonnets in 1609 must also have had a copy of these poems, and wanting to make sure they got published, stuck them on the end, after the two major sections.

Shakespeare’s Latin

Before exploring Werth’s argument for Shakespeare’s Greek, Wells spent time discussing the importance and universality of Latin.  T.W. Baldwin having assured him that Shakespeare must have been competent in Latin due to the probable curriculum of the Stratford grammar school, Wells is happy to accept evidence that allows the author at least some education.  According to Wells, the townsfolk of Stratford were wont to converse with each other in Latin while the boys at the Stratford grammar school were so fluent that they were not allowed to speak any other language during school time.  Optimistically he adds, “when we discover Shakespeare’s own letters, they will probably be in Latin.”

Certainly there were people in Stratford, and in every English town of any size, who could read and write and even speak Latin, but it would have been a fairly narrow circle consisting of the schoolmaster, his assistant, the town clerk, perhaps even the vicar and a handful of local bookworms.  Sixteenth-century Stratford was hardly an intellectual center.  It was a manufacturing town whose only importance beyond its own neighborhood was the market it held once a week, primarily to sell wool and other smelly products of sheep-raising like leather, charcoal and paint.  To that end,  it also brewed and sold a good deal of ale, another smelly process.  Students at Eton may have been required to speak Latin at all times, but Eton was a boarding school, which Stratford was not.

According to Wells, what Shakespeare didn’t learn from the Stratford School he learned from the University Wits: Marlowe, Peele, and Nashe, who kindly provided the poor fellow with a “surrogate university,” then were happy to collaborate with him on those plays that seem to lack the necessary Shakespearean verve.  That the Wits, who were so committed to mentioning each other in their dedications, never thought to mention their brilliant student and collaborator from Stratford has apparently not struck the good professor, at least, not hard enough to give him pause.  As for the local grammar school, surely it was capable of bringing bright boys up to the level where they could enter one of the universities, even further for a particularly brilliant boy, but again, there is absolutely no evidence that William was such a boy.  What evidence there is suggests he was unable to write even so much as his own signature.

That Shakespeare understood the lingua franca of all of Europe fits with Wells’s chosen topic: “Shakespeare as a Man of the European Renaissance.”  But oh dear, there’s that darned biography again!  While thoroughly Renaissance in his writing, it seems Shakespeare was “circumscribed” in almost every possible way.  He was not, like Sidney, a courtier, warrior, patron, the embodiment of chivalric ideas, etc.  He never travelled.  Nor was he versatile, like Bacon, a philosopher, equally fluent in Latin as in English and author of many varied works.  According to Wells, Shakespeare was “exceptionally limited”; circumscribed in both ambition and accomplishment, he wrote no books, no stories,  nothing but a few poems and plays for the public.

With Oxford as author, such peculiarities vanish.  The author is fully revealed as the thorough-going Renaissance man his works suggest.  Half the translations on which he based his plays and poems were more likely than not his own doing, published under other men’s names, as were half or more of the plays and novellas attributed to those University Wits that have no biographies to speak of, as well as the Italian tales from books attributed to William Painter,  Thomas Lodge and George Pettie.  With Oxford, Gulliver stands tall, and the Liliputians diminish to their proper stature.

Shakespeare’s Greek

While Andrew Werth, then an undergraduate at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, has gone on to higher things (a career in music), his opening thrust has since been followed up on by Dr.  Earl Showerman, whose series of articles for The Oxfordian and the online journal, Brief Chronicles, dig deep into the facts surrounding Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek drama, adding immensely to Werth’s opening salvo.

Stanley Wells, now in his eighties, is perfectly positioned to open the Academy to the Authorship Question by letting it be known that he would like to see it allow the question a place in the scholarly dialogue that takes place in journals and at conferences.  Authorship scholars have been shamefully mistreated for centuries.  If someone of Wells’s stature could tilt the scales a little our way, giving us a chance to speak at conferences and in mainstream journals about what we’ve discovered, Shakespeare Studies would take on a terrific new attraction for students, genuine research would begin, and whatever the truth may be would eventually come to light.

We may not have it ourselves, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but what we do have are solid answers to most if not all of the questions that academics have been asking ever since English Departments first came into existence at the universities, which in some cases was not until the second decade of the twentieth century.

A right jolly old elf, Wells has the power and possibly the wisdom, to see the potential to Shakespeare Studies of the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.  Who knows, people might actually begin to read again the classic sources that inspired Shakespeare and so many other great writers.  Who knows, those of us who still see ourselves as humanists might live to see another literary Renaissance, something our culture is so badly in need of.

Here’s Wells’s lecture at the World Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011.
(Many thanks to Earl and Marty for passing on the information.)

How Shakespeare saved Christmas

What has Shakespeare to do with Christmas? Falstaff bloggie  He only mentions it twice by name, and then only in passing.  It’s clear from the name that Twelfth Night takes place during the Christmas holidays, but nothing in the play itself connects the behavior of Sir Toby and his friends to a particular holiday, at least not to us today.  Yet of all the paths that lead to our present celebration of Christmas, the one forged by Shakespeare is the widest and surest, leading as it did through the barren desert of the puritan Reformation to give back to the English, not the feudal style of merry-making, but through his creation of the London Stage, the joys of Theater and all that has developed from it, school plays and amateur theatricals, films and television.  While the Stage began as a compensation for the loss of the old processions, it shows its origins through the furnishings of many of his plays.

No more cakes and ale

The puritans who represented the more extreme beliefs that were brought to England in the 1540s with the Swiss Reformation did not condone the kind of merry-making that had always been associated with Christmas and the period after it leading up to Lent.  With their insistence on a lifestyle and a form of worship that adhered to what they believed came directly from the Bible, they regarded all festivity as evidence of papistical excess, a backsliding into the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the worship of Baal, of witchcraft, sorcery.  Following Calvin, the reformers eliminated all but four of the scores of feast days associated with the Catholic saints.  While Christmas was one of the four, it was a Christmas sadly bereft of its pagan trimmings––no decorating of trees, no burning of yule logs, no St. Nicholas, no mistletoe, no wassail bowl, no filling the halls with boughs of holly––no fa la la la la.

The church itself, once their beautiful and beloved halfway house to Heaven, was no longer festive.  Painted walls were whitewashed over.  The gorgeously carved rood screens and statues of the saints were broken up and burnt in bonfires in the streets.  The stained glass windows that portrayed the lives of the saints were smashed to smithereens.  The gold and silver candelabra were appropriated or stolen; the use of candles for anything but necessary light was denied.  The raised altar was replaced by a plain table in the center of the nave.  Priests were not allowed to wear anything but black.  Processions were forbidden.

Difficult as this was to bear throughout the year, it was hardest of all during the holiday period that included Christmas, for centuries the major moment when the laboring classes got a much-needed break from the year-round struggle to wrest sustenance from the soil and the sea.  Most of northern Europe was frozen from mid-November through mid-March.  Forced indoors, farmers and fishermen spent the winter months mending gear, visiting friends and relatives, eating, drinking, dancing and singing––in other words, making merry.  Beloved traditions reflected origins in Stone Age rituals, in particular the processions that circled through the parish, from and back to the church again: mumming and disguising, the Boy Bishop, the Hobby Horse, the Morris Dancers, the Green Man––all forbidden.  Bishops who sided with their parishoners ended up in the Tower.

Although the rural districts far from London were better able to keep some of the old antics, Londoners, closely watched by a series of die-hard puritan Mayors, could not get away with anything that hinted at a return to making merry.  When the boy king’s death in 1553 put his Catholic sister on the throne there was a brief reprieve.  But with Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the reformers returning from their exile stepped directly into important political positions, their determination to see reform strengthened by having spent the years of Mary’s reign in Frankfurt, Strasburg or Geneva, listening to the most adamant creators of the Protestant Reformation.

An Elizabethan Christmas

When it came to Christmas and other holidays, Queen Elizabeth was in something of a hard place.  She owed her throne to the reformers, yet personally she was drawn to the Old Faith and its lavish celebrations, in particular music and dancing.  She was also bound to provide a festive atmosphere for the visitors and ambassadors from countries that still kept holidays in the old style.  A compromise was achieved early in her reign by switching from the expensive masques that had been the Court’s version of mumming and disguising to the more sedate, seated observation of holiday plays, interspersed with musical interludes, mostly provided by members of her staff and paid for by her courtiers.  The acting and singing were done by the boy choristers who sang for her and her entourage in the palace chapel during devotions, then entertained on a dais in the dining hall , the instrumental music provided by her staff of England’s most accomplished musicians.  With costumes provided by the Revels department, it was all done on the cheap.

All elements of this entertainment came from within the Court and its circle of providers.   Where then did the plots and characters, the text of the plays come from?  Though plays consist of nothing but talk, and talk is cheap, these plays were not all that easy to write.  They had to be entertaining without overstepping the bounds of Court etiquette or offending a laughter-loving but hypersensitive female monarch.  Plays require conflict to be interesting, but for these plays the conflict could not reflect the grim religious and political issues that were what she dealt with day to day.  They had to be funny without being bawdy.  In short, to succeed, they had to be written by someone aware of what would please and what would not, in other words, an intelligent and sensitive Court insider.

Unfortunately the strictures of the Reformation had left the English literary community at one of the lowest points in its history.  Known to historians as “the drab era,” the poetry was crabbed and dense, its themes morose and depressing.  This was not surprising considering that the Reformation tended to see poets (playwrights were called poets) as liars, and poetry (anything that qualified as imaginative literature) as an instrument of the Devil.  As with most Renaissance courts, all good courtiers wrote poetry just as they played the lute or virginals and could sight-sing complex madrigals, but these were pastimes and unfortunately writing witty plays requires rather more than an hour or two snatched from running at the ring or playing Primero.

Along came Shakespeare

Of course he wasn’t known as Shakespeare then, in fact he wasn’t “known” at all.  He was a member of one of the Court coteries that prided itself on its writing, but which member wasn’t always clear, except within the coterie itself.  Fearful that being labeled a poet would mean loss of any hope of advancement, at least one gifted young writer openly condemned it as a “toy,” vowing to give it up.  But the youth who would someday be published as Shakespeare had that ineffable gift that time and again meets the moment with just the right stuff.  Protected by his high estate from the slurs of the less able, he began providing the kind of dramatically exciting and witty entertainment for the winter holidays at Court that would someday make it one of the most famous in Europe.

The talented boys who performed these plays came from the middling levels of society.  Usually discovered by their grammar school teachers, they were brought to Court or to Paul’s Cathedral, given the equivalent of a basic grammar school education, and trained to work with her musical consorts, singing the complex works of composers like William Byrd so that the Queen and her entourage could move through the day accompanied by music, as we do today by means of ipods and radios.

Clever lads, the boys easily memorized the lines given them to perform these early comedies.  Enchanted by their little satin suits and mammoth ruffs as they trilled the witty lines that they themselves may not have fully understood, they would continue to be the favorite entertainers of the childless Queen throughout her reign.  However, since she was also a tightwad with everyone but her male companion of the moment, she and her ministers looked aside when the boys and their masters would continue to perform a play written for a Court holiday in the halls of wealthy householders whose donations helped to defray the cost of the boys’ upkeep.

Thus it was that the great breakthrough occured.  What began as a few holiday plays in the London homes of the wealthy spread, bit by bit, to more public venues like the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers trained to sing the Service were allowed to entertain the public during the holidays.  There’s nothing more exciting for a theater company and its patrons than an enthusiastic audience, so the temptation to go commercial was hard for these financially struggling music masters to resist.  That, plus the fact that Londoners were desperate for entertainment, plus the most important fact of all, that the plays were so good––so much better than the silly antics that in former years had been provided by amateurs recruited from the City guilds to provide holiday entertainment for the City.

Birth of the London Stage

Starved by the Reformation for the merriment they craved, the London public had begun to frequent the theater inns in ever-increasing numbers.  City inns built on a square, surrounded on three sides by two or three stories of rooms accessed by an open passage that faced the central courtyard, were able to show plays performed on the second level overlooking the courtyard.  Performances at the inns lasted through the winter holidays, ending with the beginning of Lent, and beginning again in June.  By adding this to travelling on the circuit to the bigger towns, actors began to get the kind of work that they could count on throughout most of the year.

Seeing this, patrons of the major companies, some of them members of the Queen’s Privy Council, began to plan how to take advantage of this growing public audience and the growing mastery of their acting companies.  Politicians at heart, they saw the advantage of going with the flow, working it to their own advantage.  The Church on the other hand hated it, and fought the growth of the London Stage with every weapon it could muster, but it had only itself to blame for denying its parishoners their beloved season of good cheer.

In 1575, royal permission was finally granted to the young lord with the golden pen to travel to France and Italy where he could discover methods of theater production along with ways that it might work for, not against, Authority.  Persuaded by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Elizabeth and her chief minister, Lord Burghley, saw an advantage in promoting a theater that could be monitored and controlled as opposed to fighting the one that was growing helter skelter without their consent.  Within days of the young lord’s return in 1576 the first purpose-built year-round commercial stage began rising on a well-travelled road just outside the City in an ancient Liberty where the puritanical City fathers had no control.  That summer the adult company that gathered around the builder of the theater, James Burbage, began entertaining the public, two to three thousand at a sitting. And whose plays do you think they were performing?

Six months later, a little stage in a school created to train the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in their holiday entertainments for the Court opened in the old Revels offices in the Liberty of Blackfriars, also outside City control, at the edge of the most important audience in England, the lawyers and parliamentarians who spent their days in or near the law courts of Whitehall in what today is known as London’s West End.  And whose plays do you think the boys were performing there?  And possibly also––occasionally, advertised only to a select few through word of mouth––by Burbage’s adults.

Thus it was that the youth with the gifted pen whose plays would someday be published under the name Shakespeare, began gathering the audiences that would make the London Stage the wonder of the western world, spreading his magic first to Germany, then to all of Europe, then to the world.  Born from the Queen’s need for cheap entertainment at the winter holidays, “speaking daggers” on government policy at the little stage at Blackfriars to the members of parliament during their Christmas break, Shakespeare brought to a nation starved for happiness in the winter holidays the London Stage and with it the English Literary Renaissance.

That Shakespeare understood and rebelled against the Reformation’s idea of what constituted good writing is clear from Oxford’s prologues to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte.  The ideal held out for writers by the Reform community was Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Castiglione’s Courtier.  Try reading a bit of it, or something by George Turburville, and you’ll see what Oxford was confronted with by his contemporaries as he came of age.  Luckily he had been trained to a higher level by his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  Luckier yet he had that adventuresomeness of spirit that allowed him to fly free, not only of the turgid style of his contemporaries, but of the ancient styles learned at his tutor’s knee, ever seeking a fresher vision, a more direct and immediate means of communication.

For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot!

Did Shakespeare see his career as saving Christmas and all holidays for a people beaten into submission by a heartless, sin-obsessed Authority?  Perhaps not, but it seems likely that among the various forces that drove him over the years, one was the need to save for posterity some of what was good about the feudal culture that was under such severe attack by the Reformation, if not merry-making specifically, then the kind of hospitality, the noblesse oblige, that saw to it that widows and orphans were not forgotten, that everyone shared in the holiday, no matter how poor, when the true spirit of Christ, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” was not just cold words preached from a lofty pulpit, but actively lived at all the major turning points of the year.

In the upper Thames valley, where as a boy he had lived with Smith during Mary’s reign, the wild antics of the Hobby Horse and the Green Man could still have been seen in nearby towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday, May Day and Midsummer’s Eve.  Before Hamlet sits to watch the play that will catch the conscience of the King, his otherwise pointless cry, “For O, the hobby horse is forgot” must refer to the role of the Hobby Horse, some rural Robin Hood dressed in a horse costume, whose joyous duty it was to whinny as he charged at the homes and businesses of local evil-doers (bullies, wife-beaters, malicious gossips, avaricious money-lenders, loose women) as the rowdy procession passed them, to roars from the jeering crowd.  Was Hamlet using the play as in former times Oxford had seen when the Hobby Horse, given license by the ancient tradition, took the opportunity of the procession to  humiliate persons whose behavior was causing trouble within the community?

As the provider for so many years of the plays that took the place of the ancient forms of public merry-making, it’s not surprising that many show their origins in the old holiday folkways.  The sub-plot of Twelfth Night reflects what must have been a frequent situation during this time in many wealthy households, the battle between a widow’s overly rightous steward, and her old party dog of an uncle, with the jester, Feste––in Shakespeare’s position––caught between the two.  As Sir Toby puts it to the “baffled” Malvolio, “Dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?”  The Merry Wives’  torments of Falstaff end with what Oxford must have seen as a child in the villages in and around the Forest of Windsor near where he lived with Smith, a holiday ritual associated with the running of the stag, a relic of England’s Celtic origins.  That Shakespeare loved these holiday rascals is clear from how often they appear on stage and how long they stay there.  Falstaff and Sir Toby, if not based on the same individual, are certainly cut from the same cloth, as is Mine Host, and Bottom with his merry shout: “Where are these lads!  Where are these hearts!”

With his constant focus on love, many of the ancient traditions touched on by Shakespeare were courting rituals.  In As You Like It, the love poems Orlando pins on branches of trees would seem to reflect a courting tradition, though on what occasion remains a mystery, possibly St. Valentine’s Day.   The forest adventures of the couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect a similar tradition from ancient celebrations of May Day when girls would go into the wooded meadows alone, ostensibly to gather flowers for “Mary’s Day,” whence they would be pursued by the young men of the village.  This tender means of providing courting couples with an opportunity to meet privately in a romantic spring setting, was of course abhored and forbidden by the reformers, represented in the play by one of the fathers.  Other Reformation figures include Malvolio and Angelo from Measure for Measure.  Angelo’s message seems to be that it’s better to let the Old Nick come out in company for a few weeks a year than to keep it bottled up for years, finally to explode into some gross indecency with its aftermath of remorse.

True to the spirit of the masque, of the mumming and disguising that accompanied not only Christmas, but several of the ancient festivals, the great English Lord of the Dance hid his identity from the Blatant Beast, Spenser’s personalization of the Reformation, behind a sober mask contributed by a “prudent” burgher from the midlands, until his Book of Gladness, published in 1623 by the patrons who loved and cherished his work, spread it throughout England and from there to all the nations of the world.

Passing the plate

Those readers who enjoy these comments on Shakespeare, his identity, and how the English Literary Renaissance managed to find its way to the light despite the efforts of Reformation politicians to stamp it out, may find it in their hearts and pockets to help with this effort.  Unsupported by any organization or university, I’m sometimes at a loss to get the books I need or an occasional month’s membership to the online DNB.  If you’d like to make a modest contribution towards this effort, here’s how.

Thanks for your interest.  It’s what keeps me going.

The Authorship argument in a nutshell

First there’s the name

Yes, Shakespeare was a real name; yes it belonged to a real man who had ties of some sort to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that produced the plays and had them published.  But what must strike someone first who knows nothing about the myth is that the name is a pun, a classical play on words.  Not only is it a pun, it was often spelled with a hyphen on the title pages of plays, a standard way of spelling pun-names for comic characters like that female of easy virtue, Doll Tear-sheet.  In fact, the first time it was used on the title page of a play, it was spelled with a hyphen (the 2nd edition of Richard III, published in 1598, was the first play to bear the name William Shake-speare).

Not only is Shake-spear a pun, but, also like Doll Tear-sheet, it describes his vocation.  This author used the drama, as have so many before and after, to shake a spear at stupidity and evil.  Whether you see spear as metaphor for stage prop or pen, it works as a symbol for what he was doing.  How he, or more to the point, how those who published his plays managed to find a real person with a name that works as a pun and who was also willing to let them use it, is a separate issue.  What’s important at first glance is that the name that first became known as the author of the plays that were so popular in London in the early 1590s were ascribed to a man with what appeared to be a pun-name, a clear indication to those who could read that the publishers were not using the author’s real name.

There’s the content of the plays

At least half are based in Italy, many derived from Italian stories.  There’s no evidence that William of Stratford was ever in or could have been in Italy.  At the same time it’s clear that some of the Italian stories whose plots he adapted were not available then in English, which means that whoever wrote them was able to read Italian.  Academics attempt to bypass this by disdaining his knowledge of Italy, yet over time it’s been gradually proven, most recently and effectively by Richard Roe of Pasadena California, that Shakespeare knew Italy better than they did.   He knew it so well that he could place his characters with total accuracy in particular places in particular cities, while using Italian terms that only someone with personal experience could possibly have known.  He had to have been to Italy.

The plays are all about Court life and the lives of courtiers, kings and the nobility, written from the perspective of one who knew that life and those people intimately.  There’s his knowledge of games and sports, demonstrated partly by including them in his plays, partly by his use of their terms, partly by their use as metaphors, games and sports that were limited by law and expense to members of the Court community.  So knowledgable was Shakespeare about the intricacies and details of Court life that German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, Duke of Lautenberg and creator of the German Empire inherited by Kaiser Wilhelm, commented upon it.  Bismarck’s biographer notes that he wondered how someone,

however gifted with the intuitions of genius, could have written what was attributed to Shakespeare unless he had been in touch with the great affairs of state, behind the scenes of political life, and also intimate with all the social courtesies and refinements of thought which in Shakespeare’s time were only to be met with in the highest circles. (Whitman 135)

Yet no trace of a William Shakespeare has ever appeared in any record that shows that he was ever at Court for so much as a single moment.  Why, when earlier playwrights like John Hayward, later playwrights like Ben Jonson, composers like William Byrd, musicians like the Bassano brothers, actors like Richard Tarleton, all leave paper trails of Court involvement; why when individuals with names he used for his characters like Spinola or Petruccio, appear in Court records, why is Shakespeare himself absent?

There’s his knowledge of the Law, of Medicine, of Astrology, of Pharmacology, all displayed throughout his works, sometimes by direct description, many times by uses of their particular terms or by metaphorically comparing them to a host of otherwise unrelated situations.

There’s his obvious knowledge of languages other than English

Even if the Stratford grammar school did provide sufficient Latin, which, though likely, is still an assumption; and even if William did attend, which is not proven, nor provable, since so far the only writing in his hand that has turned up in 400 years of research are wobbly signatures on six legal documents, none of them related in any direct way to the London Stage, it doesn’t explain his knowledge of French, Italian and Greek.  Reseach into the sources of his plays, their plots and characters, shows knowledge of works in these languages, French and Italian stories, ancient Greek tragedies, that were not yet translated into either Latin or English in his time, and if translated, could not be found anywhere but in the libraries of educated noblemen.

There’s the lack of evidence of important patrons

In Shakespeare’s time, no writer from Shakespeare’s background ever got established without support from a wealthy patron, yet apart from his homage to the Earl of Southampton in the dedications of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, there’s no third party evidence that Southampton, or any other noble patron, ever did anything to help someone named William Shakespeare with his career as a writer or an actor.

The major share of evidence that he was an actor comes from five documents spawned by the Company that published works under that name: 1) 1595: when his name is listed once, and only once, as one of three payees for a production at Court; 2) 1603: in the official warrant for the establishment of the King’s Men; 3) 1604: in several yards of cloth given to all who marched in the coronation procession of King James; 4) 1605: in the will of one of the sharers of receipts from the Globe theater; 5) 1616: in a list of actors in two plays published by Ben Jonson; and 6) in a line that same year added to his own will bequeathing money for rings for the Company managers .  This is all there is; it’s limited to this one small group of men dependent on the fortunes of the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men; and it isn’t enough to take for granted that William of Stratford was, in fact as well as official fiction, a playwright and an actor.

There’s the lack of evidence of a training period in the theater

Four hundred years of research has failed to turn up any indication that William of Stratford worked with a theater company as either an actor or a writer before he suddenly began turning out hits with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s.   Scott McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean note that the Queen’s Men performed early versions of Richard III, King John, and Henry V, which suggests to them that Shakespeare must have been a member of their company, but though they have many of the actors from that Company, no trace of his name has ever appeared as working in any theatrical capacity in the 1580s.

There’s the lack of evidence of a life lived in London

No great playwright ever spent much time away from the center of his creative life, the Stage, yet there’s no evidence that William Shakespeare spent more than a few weeks away from Stratford.  As Ramon Jiménez has detailed at length, no one who should have known him as a writer and an actor ever mentioned him.  What great artist ever left no record of his relationships with the other great artists and patrons of his time?  The record of his life in London consists of measly accounts of tax evasion and a period of residence of an indeterminate length with a family of theatrical costumers.  No evidence of friendships with other writers and artists; nothing that comes close to what we know about Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, or even Shakespeare’s own (supposed) illegitimate playwright son, William Davenant.

There’s the lack of evidence that he owned theater shares

Along with the strange lack of any books in William’s will, the fact that neither he nor his wife, nor either of his daughters could write anything more than a legal signature, is the fact that he left no theater shares in his will.  The basis for believing that his financial success in Stratford was due to his shares in the receipts of two theaters where the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men performed, derives from his name on warrants for the second, and references to him as a sharer in documents generated by the Company.  Despite these, the fact that he left no shares in his will, and that in the litigation that attended the success of the King’s Men in the seventeenth century, where the fate of shares was the subject of lawsuits, no mention is made of what happened to his shares, suggests that he was recompensed for whatever it was that he did for the Company in some other way.

Finally, there’s the way his biography skews the dates

Most problematic may be the way the biography of William of Stratford, with its late placement in the story of the English Literary Renaissance, forces on scholars too narrow a window of time into which to fit his career.  It forces them to hunt for clues to his development where they simply cannot be found.  To limit the start of his career to the early 1590s, or the late 1580s at the earliest, forces them to see him beginning to produce works at or close to genius level with no apparent period of training.  It forces them to interpret the early quartos of his plays as the work of earlier unnamed playwrights and others to a strange habit on the part of such an innovative genius to imitate later, lesser writers.  It forces them to see the plays as written immediately before publication, putting them way out of sync with their natural placements in time, for instance, placing Henry V with its clear connection to the effort to prepare for the Spanish invasion to sometime after the Armada, when there would be no point in the stirring call to arms of the King’s  St. Crispian’s Day speech.

One or two of these issues might be accounted for by the attempts of academics to arrrange the facts to fit the biography, but not all.  From the pun-name used to publish his plays, his obvious knowledge of the Court, Italy, foreign languages, the Law, Medicine, Astrology and Pharmacology, all things that he could not possibly have learned from casual reading; his lack of patrons, of any evidence of a life lived in London, of an early training period, of any real evidence of acting or earning a living through the Stage, of any books, theater shares, or relationships with other artists.  And finally there’s the way his dates have forced unnatural and strained interpretations of the plays and their place in the timetable of Elizabethan history.

Taken together, these loudly proclaim the obvious, that William Shakespeare of Stratford was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for the use of his punnable name so that they could profit by the publication of his plays while allowing the educated and sophisticated courtier who wrote them to maintain his image as nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a genial and harmless patron of the arts and sciences.

Another piece of the puzzle falls in place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Oxford translate some of Plutarch’s Lives?

Can the crossovers between North’s Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus be explained by Oxford translating this section of North’s book?

It’s a set piece of literary history that for the Greek and Roman plays, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s main source was Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Greek Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.  Having found similar repetitions in other supposed sources and apocryphal works where the likelihood is that Shakespeare, i.e., Oxford, was not stealing, but was simply repeating what he himself had written earlier, when years ago I read that in certain places, Shakespeare repeated North’s language word for word, it struck me that he might have prepared himself to write these plays by reading and translating Amyot’s Plutarch into English, then publishing it as someone else’s who could use the money.

We know from Burghley’s records that Oxford owned a copy of Amyot’s French translation since it’s one of the books he bought from Seres in 1569. He would have been well-acquainted with Plutarch even then, from eight years with his tutor’s library where it’s listed in both the original Greek and Latin translation.  In all probability, Smith followed standard procedure by using Plutarch to teach young de Vere good language use and ancient history.  Himself a Platonist, Plutarch’s Platonism would have been another plus for Smith.  Geoffrey Bullough, in his chapter on Coriolanus, includes the ancient Titus Livius and Dionysius of Halicarnasus as possible sources, both on Smith’s library list: Livy in the original Latin and Dionysius in the original Greek as well as Latin translation.  Because there was no English version of the latter in Shakespeare’s time, Bullough has to dismiss it as a direct source except as it influenced Plutarch, though he does include it, I suppose for that reason.  He attributes Shakespeare’s knowledge of Livy to a 1600 translation by Philemon Holland.

Plutarch was one of the major voices for the European Renaissance.  As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:

His Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, translated in 1579 from Jacques Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, has been described as one of the earliest masterpieces of English prose.   Shakespeare borrowed from North’s Lives for his Roman plays—Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus—and, in fact, he put some of North’s prose directly into blank verse, with only minor changes.  (2006)

And as North’s ODNB biographer puts it:

North’s fame, since Samuel Johnson’s contention that Shakespeare had read Plutarch in North’s translation . . . has rested in the dramatist’s having, among very much else, thrown “the very words of North into blank verse.”  Shakespeare’s acquaintance with North’s translation probably derived from the printing house of Richard Field, whose presses may have been at work on a 1595 edition of [North’s] Plutarch at the same time that they were printing Shakespeare’s Lucrece in 1594 . . . . North’s translation influenced profoundly not only the larger narrative structures of Shakespeare’s Roman plays but innumerable local shapings of their language . . . .

Jacques Amyot’s 1559 translation of Plutarch came from studying manuscripts in the Vatican.  North’s English translation, published by Vautrollier in 1579, was based on Amyot’s third edition, published in 1574.  Richard Field, Vautrollier’s former apprentice, published the second edition of North’s verson in 1595, and a third in 1603.  As we know, it was Field, whose print shop was spitting distance from Oxford’s Blackfriars theater school, who, two years earlier, had published Venus and Adonis, the first published work to bear the Shakespeare name.

Nothing directly connecting Oxford with North has come readily to light (although it’s clear the author of his ODNB bio found their names linked in a 1591 document with that of Sir Julius Caesar).  The younger brother of the first Baron North, Thomas North (his knighthood came later) appears to have struggled throughout his life with that bane of a second son, poverty, which is not to say that he wasn’t a genuine translator, though according to the author of his ODNB bio, his influential 1557 English translation of de Guevara’s Diall of Princes did have some authorship issues:

It seems likely, . . . from comments made by North in the second, revised, edition of The Diall (1568), that the first edition was not altogether well received for more literary reasons: “detracting tongues,” he wrote, had given out that the translation “was no work of mine, but the fruit of others’ labor.” (Lockwood)

If North was not the real  or sole translator of Diall of Princes, published in 1557, the real author could not have been Oxford, who at age seven was still living with Smith in Buckinghamshire.  (If nothing else this comment shows the kind of suspicions that were rampant at that time about the authorship of so much literature of the imagination.)  During the period that the Diall of Princes was translated, North was enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, where he remained until sometime before 1568, where, like so many other Inns of Court gents, he may have crossed paths with Milord during Oxford’s years at Cecil House (1562-68).  Oxford’s senior by 15 years; North’s nephew, Lord North’s son John, was Oxford’s contemporary, but he died before his father so the title passed to his son, North’s grandson, in 1600.

Lord North was a client of Leicester’s, and therefore not likely to have been particularly concerned with the young Earl of Oxford’s interests or welfare, but that’s not to say that his relations followed suit.  His grandson, Dudley, 2nd Baron North, was a member of the literary circle surrounding Prince Henry.  It’s worth mentioning that, during the Elizabethan era, Lord North owned the most gorgeous of all Chaucer manuscripts, the Ellesmere Chaucer, created in the 14th century as a gift for the 12th Earl of Oxford.

Shakespeare and Coriolanus

One of the Plutarch biographies from which Shakespeare borrowed most heavily, Coriolanus was probably written originally for the winter holidays, late 1582 to early 1583, the period when Walsingham and Sussex were engineering Oxford’s return to Court.  This required that he make amends to the Queen and his in-laws, for which the story of Coriolanus must have seemed ideal, providing a graceful mea culpa for the Court while for the public it functioned as a moral tale addressing the current civil unrest over rising food prices and the increasingly harsh punishments being meted out to followers of the Old Faith.

This would not be the first time Oxford had used Plutarch.  Following his return from Italy in 1576, freaked out by the realization of just how much trouble he was in financially, he had turned to Plutarch’s biography of Timon of Athens, pouring his bitter disillusionment with the Court and his fair-weather courtier friends into the earliest version of what someday would be known as “Shake-spear’s” most angry protagonist.  Then, following his banishment, aware that some were still contented to believe he was a two-faced traitor, he turned again to Plutarch to explain himself via Coriolanus.

Because Oxford’s enemies wanted him seen as a traitor, they promoted the story that he had been planning to run away and fight for Spain.  Coriolanus is evidence that this may be true, or at least, that he had talked rather recklessly about doing it.  Recall that following the untimely birth of his son, he was stopped on the road to Dover in an obvious attempt to flee the country.  To Spain, they said, where he intended to take advantage of an offer to lead a contingent of the Spanish army.  Though not in exactly the same situation as Coriolanus, he too was being charged with treason, something that, unlike the ancient Roman general, he had no means of confronting openly.  Like Hamlet and Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy (both first written about the same time) a play was his way of explaining himself to the Court and his West End community, with the onstage murder of the protagonist in the final act a form of symbolic suicide.

In the inevitable effort to place Coriolanus as late as possible, Bullough tries to connect public unrest in Republican Rome with that of 17th-century England, not all that convincing, public unrest having been endemic throughout the reigns of both Elizabeth and James.  Because the time period he’s chosen, 1605, falls just when England finally made peace with Spain, Bullough makes no effort to make the most obvious connection, namely the similarity of the threat to England from Spain  throughout the 1580s and ’90s to the fears of the ancient Roman authorities over the threat from the Volscians.  He also ignores the startling relevance of the martyrdom of the aristocratic Coriolanus at the hands of the hoi polloi to the calls for more freedom of speech from puritan members of Parliament.  The skewed dating forced on historians by William’s biography won’t permit even the most logical and obvious questions to be given consideration.

It struck me long ago that the role of Menenius could easily be one of Oxford’s more benign depictions of Burghley, while the realistic family scenes with Volumnia and Virgilia just might be snapshots of life at Cecil House.  If the militant Volumnia was meant to represent Mildred Burghley, it reinforces Peter Moore’s take on Oxford’s relationship with his mother-in-law.  Perhaps she represents a combination of all four of the Cooke sisters, including the ferocious Elizabeth Russell, whose proximity to the little Blackfriars theater school gave Lady Russell the power to torment Oxford during the period he was fighting to keep the little stage going, the same period when this play was probably written.

All of this is just the most cursory glance at what seems to me to be an important area of inquiry.  Has some scholar compared North’s biographies with each other to see if they display the same high level throughout?  Are some better than others, those perchance that were the ones used by Shakespeare?  Has anyone capable of the French involved compared the French of Amyot with the English of North to see how much North’s skill depends on Amyot, and how much was his alone?  We’re told the 1595 edition varies in some respects from the 1579 original.  In what way ?  What has been added, and to which of the biographies?  Shakespeare refers to incidents in a number of the Lives in his works, but only these four were the basis for individual plays.

Finally, there are two prefaces to North’s Plutarch, both signed Thomas North, January 1579, one dedicating it to the Queen, the other the traditional letter “To the Reader.”  Both sound for all the world like Oxford’s dedicatory letters, the one in English to Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, and the one in Latin for Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of  Castiglione’s The Courtier.  The same kind of points are made, the same opinions about what is important in literature, even his daring use of the word love.  I’ve read an awful lot from this time––in my opinion, no one else writes like this:

To the Reader

The profit of stories and the praise of the Author are sufficiently declared by Amyot in his epistle to the reader, so that I shall not need to make many words thereof.  And indeed, if you will supply the defects of this translation with your own diligence and good understanding, you shall not need to trust him; you may prove yourselves, that there is no profane study better than Plutarch.  All other learning is private, fitter for universities than cities, fuller of contemplation than experience, more commendable in students themselves than profitable unto others.  Whereas stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books as it is better to see learning in noblemen’s lives than to read it in philosopher’s writings.  Now, for the author, I will not deny but love may deceive me, for I must needs love him with whom I have taken so much pain, but I believe I might be bold to affirm that he hath written the profitablest story of all authors.  For all other were fain to take their matter as the fortune of the countries where they wrote fell out; but this man, being excellent in wit, in learning, and experience, hath chosen the special acts of the best persons, of the famousest nations of the world.  But I will leave the judgement to yourselves.  My only purpose is to desire you to excuse the faults of my translation with your own gentleness, and with the opinion of my diligence and good intent.  And so I wish you all the profit of the book.  Fare ye well.  The four and twentieth day of January, 1579.

To the Most High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth
By the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland
Queen, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Under hope of Your Highness’ gracious and accustomed favor, I have presumed to present here unto Your Majesty, Plutarch’s Lives translated, as a book fit to be protected by Your Highness and mete to be set forth in English.  For who is fitter to give countenance to so many great states than such an high and mighty Princess?  Who is fitter to revive the dead memory of their fame than she that beareth the lively image of their virtues?  Who is fitter to authorize a work of so great learning and wisdom than she whom all do honor as the muse of the world?  Therefore I humbly beseech Your Majesty to suffer the simpleness of my translation to be covered under the ampleness of Your Highness’ protection.  For, most gracious Sovereign, though this book be no book for Your Majesty’s self, who are meeter to be the chief story than a student therein, and can better understand it in Greek than any man can make it English, yet I hope the common sort of your subjects shall not only profit themselves hereby but also be animated to the bettter service of Your Majesty.  For among all the profane books that are in reputation at this day there is none (Your Highness best knows) that teacheth so much honor, love, obedience, reverence, zeal and devotion to princes as these Lives of Plutarch do.  How many examples shall your subjects read here, of several persons and whole armies, of noble and base, of young and old, that both by sea and land, at home and abroad, have strained their wits, not regarded their states, ventured their pesons, cast away their lives, not only for the honor and safety, but also for the pleasure of their princes.

Then well may the readers think, if they have done this for heathen kings, what should we do for Christian princes?  If they have done this for glory, what should we do for religion?  If they have done this without hope of heaven, what should we do that look for immortality?  And so adding the encouragement of these examples to the forwardness of their dispositons, what service is there in war, what honor in peace, which they will not be ready to do for their worthy Queen?

And therefore that Your Highness may give grace to the book and the book may do his service to Your Majesty, I have translated it out of French and do here most humbly present the same unto Your Highness, beseeching Your Majesty with all humility, not to reject the good meaning but to pardon the errors of your most humble and obedient subject and servant, who prayeth God long to multiply all graces and blessings upon Your Majesty.

Written the sixteenth day of January, 1579.
Your Majesty’s most humble and obedient servant,
Thomas North.

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Act IV

Academics are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end (with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s), for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain the West End in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy.  However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

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

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

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.   At a Court that worshipped height, shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who looked down on him, the tall, handsome men prefered by the Queen, men like Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex.  So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves.  Most of all he detested his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford.  Partly because Oxford outranked him, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and perhaps also out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.  Whichever was the overriding factor, ultimately both were stuck with a stalemate.

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

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction.  If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed such things to occur.  If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could––and did.

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

Theater of Blood

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

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 5 instead.)

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

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil was not yet on the Council.)  We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, Burghley’s granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the sixth Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage (the alliance with Oxford having produced only girls).  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, with so many Catholic family members of high rank, Lord Strange on the throne would be a disaster for the Cecils.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in 1572, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Stanley’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son George Carey’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been an element of revenge in his and Howard’s move to resusitate the Stage, or at least to use it as best they could to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

This is best summarized with a timeline:

  • May 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594:  The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signaling the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s.
  • Apr 4 1594:  The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning.  Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company came under the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594:  The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally licensed companies, what Gurr calls “the duopoly” that had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • February 4, 1596:  The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential West End.
  • July 5, 1596:  The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council.  Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596:  The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons.  Four months later . . .
  • November 1596:  The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, acceded.  Two months later . . .
  • January 1597:  The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.   Four months later . . .
  • July 28, 1597:  The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.” Either immediately before or after . . .
  • July/August 1597:  The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson and Robert Spencer.  The LCMen took to the road.  Two months later . . .
  • October 1597:  The opening of Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation.  Immediately before or shortly after . . .

. . .  came the publication of a new version of  the anonymous play Richard III in which the evil king is described in terms that clearly identify him with Robert Cecil.  This sold out so fast that it was only a few weeks before a second edition was in the bookstalls, this time with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it had appeared on a play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did somewhere seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time.  Fired with fury by the suspicious deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.

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

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

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

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, this was handed over to a new company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapel, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  1610, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, saw the beginning of its rise to a level of success never before seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

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

But even this is not the final act, the one that follows Oxford’s death.  For that we must wait to hear the story of the making of the First Folio, and of William of Stratford’s illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant, inheritor of his father’s phony fame and the primary engine of his investiture as the world greatest playwright.

For the first three acts of this drama: The murder of Shakespeare’s Identity

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Acts I through III

One of the reasons why it’s been so hard to convince the world that the Stratford story is a sham is that no one’s ever come up with a single strong reason why the true author’s identity had to be hidden.  Those who first drew the public’s attention to the subject in the 19th century pointed to his obvious knowledge of Court life, claiming that courtiers of stature would have hidden their involvement in the then déclassé public stage.  Certainly this is true, but for most it doesn’t explain why the cover-up had to continue so long after the author’s death.  Sir Philip Sidney’s work was in print, over his name, six years after his death.  Oxford’s uncle, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, was similarly published over his within ten years of his death.  So why not Oxford’s?

Most of the bigger things in life occur for more than one reason.  If you look at your own life, you’ll see that you went to college for more than one reason, that you picked a particular college for more than one reason, that you married a particular person for more than one reason, changed jobs, bought a house, divorced, always for more than one reason.  Nations go to war for more than one reason, and resist going to war for more than one reason.  Just so, the Shakespeare authorship got hidden for more than one reason.

Had this not been the case, had it not been first to one person’s advantage (his own), then his tutor’s advantage, then to his guardian’s advantage, then to an entire community’s advantage, and ultimately to the advantage of the company he started, one that initiated an industry that has come to be seen as the fourth branch of government, the voice of the people, the truth would surely have been revealed somewhere.  But it wasn’t, it didn’t, and some of these reasons have not faded with time.  For the fact is, that there never was, during Oxford’s lifetime, any advantage to him, to his family, to the theater companies he created and those who profitted by them on into succeeding centuries, for the truth to be revealed to the public; never any advantage to any of these, and plenty of disadvantages.

Not everyone who knew the secret knew it in its entirety, that is, some knew one thing, some another, but the likelihood is that no one knew all that he was writing, or later, all that he had written.  Even to this day there is disagreement over what was his and what was by some other writer or editor.  The committee that produced the First Folio could collect versions of the plays from the various friends, actors, and printers who held them, but how sure could they be of what was and wasn’t his?   Nothing was signed, and because like most men of his class, he dictated to secretaries, nothing was in his own handwriting.

Certainly the Queen knew that particular plays were his, at least since 1598, when the Meres book was published, at least of those plays named by Meres and most likely a dozen more, but it is very likely that of the 38 accepted plays and the 15 to 20 suggested early plays, there were some that she knew nothing about, and those she knew may very well have differed from the versions we know, because it was not advisable that she know the versions played for the West End audience, or on the road, or for a particular private gathering.

As Secretary of State, Oxford’s guardian (then his father-in-law) William Cecil/Ld Burghley had oversight over the press, so he knew all  about using both the stage and the press for propaganda; it’s a fact that he made use of both in his early years as Elizabeth’s first Secretary of State.  Burghley was instrumental in bringing printers over from the Continent to publish those works he considered essential to a reformation education.  Though unfortunately his biographer, Conyers Read, does not elaborate, he refers to the press as “the weapon Cecil knew best.”  Since Oxford lived with Cecil during the years he first began to publish, years when Cecil was doing his own propaganda, it was from him that he learned how to publish on the sly.  Knowing him as well as he did, he also learned how to work around him.

ACT I: Hidden in plain sight

When he first began to write, no one, including the boy himself, had any idea where it would take him or how important his work would turn out to be.  In fact the field in which he would flourish so luxuriously, English literature, hardly existed before he began transforming it.  Given the intense, bustling environment at Cecil House, surrounded by poets and translators in that important age group for a young artist, six to ten years his seniors; then in his late teens at Court, with a ready-made audience hungry for sophisticated, educated entertainment; what would end as the most important body of work since Chaucer two and a half centuries earlier began simply as a lark, a folie, a bit of “pickle herring,” something to entertain the lads at Cecil House, then the ladies at Court.

The authorship issue was never about writing anyway, it was always about publication.  So long as he wrote just for the Court community via the traditonal handwritten manuscript exchange there was no problem.  But creating hundreds of printed copies for sale to all comers meant making public what the Court saw as its own private pleasure, making it available, if to a far smaller public than today’s where almost everyone can read, yet it meant revealing it to the same 15 to 20 percent of the population most eager to pry into Court secrets.  And it was publishing that interested Oxford.

Writing was no big deal, everyone he knew did it.  It was creating books that fascinated him; books, those magical vehicles of culture, that could carry a man’s life and reputation for hundreds, thousands of years into the future so that readers would come to know someone like Alexander the Great, or even the mythical Achilles, as though they had lived with him; knowing him better in some ways than they knew their own families. Publishing was also the best means of hiding his identity as author.  While handwritten manuscripts could be traced back, if not to directly to himself, then to someone who knew who wrote it, typeset print was anonymous.  All that identified the author was the name on the title page, or registered with the Stationers, and that could be faked a lot more easily than handwriting.

Taking advantage of the traditions of his class as patrons of the arts, Oxford began a long career of publishing what he regarded as important works, some by  his friends, some his own, some translations of famous foreign works, , some about science, or music, or psychology, or  but mostly works of the imagination, stories and poems.

In this he was also following in his guardian’s footsteps, although most of what he considered worth publishing differed considerably from Burghley’s view of what was important.  Reformation ideologues, William Cecil and his in-laws occupied the legal and social center of a deadly serious, extremely repressive Reformation culture that saw adherence to Protestant beliefs as paramount.  They also saw sex as filthy and satire as rebellion.  So Oxford’s first step in what would become the long and complex process of hiding his authorship began by persuading pals like George Gascoigne and his uncle Arthur Golding to let him use their names so he could get his plays and poems published without Burghley’s permission, possibly even without his knowledge of their source.

Though not aware of everything Oxford wrote, William Cecil must have been aware of his ward’s talent.  That would have been impossible to hide, and, as a propagandist himself, he probably saw the boy’s gifts as something he might put to future use.  The ward, however, was destined to take a different path in life, one he wanted his guardian, and his guardian’s wife, and her family (and perhaps even his own wife), to know as little about as possible.  In his teens, his writing was just a lark, something to entertain his friends before settling down to––as he would often term it––“a graver labour.”

By his late teens, when he was more or less on his own at Court, there was no need to hide from the other members of the Court things like his madrigals and interludes written for holiday performance.  On the other hand, satires or poems that touched dangerously on intimate matters, however discreetly distributed within his own circle, must inevitably have spread further, raising eyebrows along with the question of their authorship.  So long as none of this escaped the confines of the Court community there was no real harm in it.  But when, just before taking off for a year on the Continent, in a first of many anthologies, he published along with love poems by himself and his friends, a “tale” that dwelt too obviously on the sex lives of certain courtiers, it released a firestorm of furious retribution.  This did nothing to prevent him from publishing, but it did help to make him more cautious about what and how he published.

ACT II: Birth of a professional

Then in 1572, when the Earl of Sussex came on board as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, what had begun as a lark began turning serious.  At that time it was still the Earl of Leicester who ran the Court Stage, but Sussex, who hated Leicester, was determined to get the oversight of Court entertainment back where it had been for centuries, in the Lord Chamberlain’s hands, that is, under his own control.  And unlike Leicester, whose taste ran to more old-fashioned stuff, Sussex understood how important the Court Stage could be in winning hearts and minds, not only at Court, but with the influential West End community that lived and worked within walking distance of Whitehall.  Quickly bored by the constraints of what he could and could not produce at Court, it was this audience he was most eager to reach.  Thus it was that the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral, known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, began performing Oxford’s plays, first at Court, then for a week or two after, at the little theater connected to the Cathedral.

If a professional is defined as someone who works to a schedule, who provides for a public demand, who competes successfuly with others in the same line, as opposed to someone who merely hangs out a shingle, frames a certificate, and earns a living wage, then by age 25 Oxford was functioning as a professional dramatist.  Not that that was his ambition; not at all.  His ambition from childhood had been to follow his ancestors as his nation’s foremost military leader.  Fate, however, had other plans.  The times were not right for someone of his station to risk his life in dubious battle––not while the British Media was straining to be born.  Paul’s Boys were only one of a number of companies that sprang into being at that time, foremost among them the men who wore Leicester’s livery, but who were free to play for anyone who could pay.

As competition for space at the theater inns became intense, trouble with the City officials increased.  For them it was one thing to deal with the rowdy holiday crowds for a few weeks in December and January,  a tradition too old and too ingrained to stop, even for determined Reformation puritans, which is what most London mayors were at that time––but to allow it to continue on into the spring and summer was, so far as they were concerned, simply out of the question.  Their escalating demands to “pluck down” the theaters drove the Privy Council to seek solutions.  Thus it may well have been Sussex who persuaded Burghley and the Queen to finally let Oxford have his much desired tour of the Continent, particularly to Italy where he could see at first hand how the Italians did it.

To Sussex and his relatives on the Council, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard, the Stage as a factor in English society was obviously not going to be suppressed.  Rather than fight it, they must join it, regulate it, and use it to promote Crown policy.  That this was in any way the motivation for Oxford’s trip would have to be kept to themselves, since any sign to the City or the Clergy that the Council’s interest in the burgeoning London theater went beyond the Queen’s right to her “solace” would cause even more trouble than was already the case.  For Burghley this may have seemed like a way to keep his wayward son-in-law in the fold.  For enemies like Leicester and Hatton it meant getting him out of the way, at least for awhile.

Oxford had a lot of reasons for wanting to visit Italy.  Not only was it the source of the Italian Renaissance, of the western world’s most dazzling art and architecture, home to painters like Titian, scholars like Jerome Cardan and poets like Tasso, it was also where the immensely popular comedia dell’arte troupes were performing on the streets and in the halls of princes, and where the great architect Andrea Palladio was constructing experimental theaters of the sort that he and Sussex and Hunsdon thought might be the answer to their greatest need.  They had the actors, with Oxford they had the scripts, they certainly had the audiences, and in James Burbage they had both an actor and a builder who had already built one public theater that, unfortunately, had failed.  What they needed were better locations and better theater designs.   It may be that while Oxford was in Italy, they were already at work on plans for these.

That this was one of the most important reasons for Oxford’s trip seems obvious by how the first two commercially successful, yearround, purpose-built stages in England (possibly in all of Europe) began taking shape within weeks of his return.  With two theaters, several adult companies and three companies of boy choristers hungry for scripts, Oxford was now a fully fledged theater professional, duty bound to keep them satisfied, and desperately in need of assistance.  This came with his acquisition of the manor known as Fisher’s Folly located in the heart of the theater district.  With the financial assistence of patrons like the Italian banker Benedict Spinola, the music of artists like the Italian Bassano brothers, and the transcription skills of secretaries like John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and eventually Francis Bacon, Oxford was off and running.

It’s hard to see where he found time to write the first two novels in English history, Zelautoand Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit.  With these he performed the first of his great upward leaps in style.  What we call euphuism may already have been a fad at Court by the time that he both raised it to an art form and dealt it its death blow, for having taken it to its peak, there was nothing left but to turn it to satire, some of it his own.  It does give us an idea of what some of his plays from this period were like.  In any case, now that he had secretaries he no longer had to beg the use of their names from friends or family members.  And since no one at that time saw any point in publishing playscripts, the issue of their official authorship had yet to appear.

ACT III: Banished: The second leap

Court life was never easy for Oxford.  He tended to drink more than was healthy and spend more on clothes and luxuries than was wise.  He got caught up in dangerous intrigues and overreacted to the rivalries that surrounded him.  Young and handsome, the temptations of sex and the hungers of his heart got him involved with too many women, none of them his wife.   His Catholic cousins played on his sympathies and on his bitterness towards Burghley and Leicester for their use and misuse of his estates.  Believing himself to be in love with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor, he dreamed of escaping with her to Spain where he’d been promised military action and a decent income.  It all came crashing down when the dishonored Maid gave birth to his bastard in the Queen’s chamber, and he found himself in the Tower for two months, then banished from Court indefinitely.

However wounded his pride, exile gave him the space he’d been craving and rage gave him the impetus to take the second of the three great quantum leaps in self expression that would ultimately place him in the pantheon of the world’s top creators.  No longer bound to produce lighthearted comedies for the Court, he turned to writing tragedies for the West End, both the classic Greek and bloody Senecan varieties.  With Sussex dead and Walsingham pressing for history plays for the newly formed Queen’s Men, he took refuge in the familiar preoccupations of his childhood, studying the papers that Richard Field and others were preparing to publish in Holinshed’s name, some of which came from his old tutor Smith.  Reading and translating Roman poets and Greek plays, his style deepened.  Trimmed of euphuistic artificialities, the old fourteeners replaced by iambic pentameter, the most natural rhythm for English, he spoke more simply, directly, and powerfully to the audience he cared most about.

Although by June of 1583 he’d been accepted back at Court and had returned at least to the appearance of living with his wife, he was by then too deep in the production of the works that meant something to him, and to the lifestyle that allowed him to produce them, to ever go back to full attendance on the Queen.  She craved a return to the early days when he was always around, dancing attendance and producing the kind of entertainment he’d taught her to prefer, but there was no privacy at Court, and he had to have privacy to write.  So there developed a neverending tug of war between them, him straining for freedom, which she would continue to dangle before him but with no intention of giving him anything that might mean losing him.  He was the goose that laid the golden eggs that made her Court so popular, and at so little cost to herself.

Restless, seeking new outlets, it was during this period (1582-92) that Oxford launched the English periodical press with the series of pamphlets he published as by Robert Greene.  After 1589, when Bacon joined him with their joint attacks, first on Martin Mar-prelate, then on Marlowe and Alleyn, they kept the fun going with a phony pamphlet war in which Bacon’s fictional persona, Thomas Nashe, and Oxford’s fictional version of poor Gabriel Harvey (very much alive but in no position to do any kicking), taunted each other with hilarious abandon, thus establishing the first audience for what would evenually become the British tabloid press.  Unfortunately for the lads, neither the Cecils nor the Bishops saw the humor in this, and with Robert Cecil approaching an age where he could enter the fray, the stage was set for the final act in the birth of the English Stage, the creation of the fictional author, William Shake-speare, poet, playwright, actor and sharer.

Coming:  Act IV: Shakespeare: The third and final quantum leap

Theatrical birth pangs: 1776 to 1584

Early in April 1576, following a year of exciting adventures on the Continent, the Earl of Oxford arrived back in England to a sea of troubles.  During his final days in Paris, someone from home had prepared him for the gossip he’d encounter on his return.  Rumor had it that his daughter, born during his time away, was another man’s child.  Worse, it was even rumored that that other man was his wife’s own father, Lord Burghley, who, concerned that after five years of marriage there was still no Cecil heir to the Oxford earldom, had taken matters into his own hands.

This of course was nothing more than foulest, cruelest rumor, and Oxford would have cause to work different versions of the dreadful story into six plays over the years, but in his hot youth, when touched where he was most vulnerable, he was all too easily roused to unthinking fury.  Brooding on this and other worries, his mood was hardly improved when the ship that carried him accross the Channel was boarded by pirates and all he had with him was lost.  Ignoring his well-intntioned brother-in-law, Thomas Cecil, who had come to meet him at Dover, he returned to London with one of the “lewd friends” that Burghley so disliked.  Refusing to have anything to do with either his wife or her father, he rented rooms at the Savoy and turned his attention to plans already in progress to create the suburban theaters that he and Sussex and Burbage agreed were the only way to accommodate the burgeoning London theater audience in a way that would stop the constant interference by the Mayor and other London officials.

Once Oxford calmed down, the truth about his daughter must have been obvious, but by then he also realized how important it was that he break off as completely as he could with Burghley, whose habit of prying into everything he did or said was driving him mad.  He was not in love with Anne, never had been, and although he was sorry for her, stuck as she was between her husband and her father, he had his life to live.  If Burghley wouldn’t let her go, then let him keep her, “for there, “ he wrote, “as your daughter or her mother’s, more than my wife, you may take comfort of her, and I rid of the cumber thereby.”  The future Shakespeare was never one to mince words when he was sore.

Within days of his return a huge new theater began taking shape in the outskirts of northeast London.  Based on temporary stages he had seen in Siena built by Palladio and on plans for theaters in the ancient Latin tract on architecture he borrowed from his tutor, the innovative yearround theater, the first of its kind in England (and possibly in all of Europe) was built to hold somewhere between two and  three thousand paying customers at a time.  Meanwhile plans were in progress to turn one of the apartments in the Revels section of the Blackfriars compound on the Thames into a school for the Queen’s boy choristers, where the little stage meant for their rehearsals could be used from time to time to entertain the audience that meant the most to Sussex and his vice Chamberlains, the lawyers, scribes, and parliamentarians of Westminster.

The summer of 1576 saw audiences flock to the big round public theater in the East End, where herds of apprentices and tradesmen and their wives and sweethearts were eager to pay their pennies to see plays they were told had been performed for the Queen.  Burbage and his crew grew bold as they collected the money that had always escaped them at the theater inns, where they could only pass the hat at intermission.  That winter those residents of the West End who could afford it were charmed by the boys at the little stage at Blackfriars where they paid a substantial fee to see, by candlelight, richly furnished early versions of A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens.

The residents surrounding the new theaters were not so thrilled by the litter, the noisy crowds and late hours––but with powerful privy councillors like the Earl of Sussex and Lord Hunsdon as patrons (Hunsdon now living next door to the little theater), and the Earl of Rutland, whose City manor stood a few yards from Burbage’s stage on land that until recently had been his family’s heritage, and where he still held rights––there was little the neighbors could do, at least, not right away.

For six years, all went relatively smoothly for the newborn London Stage and its patrons. Then in 1581 Oxford got himself bounced from Court for impregnating a Queen’s Maid of Honor.  Furious at how he was being treated by the Queen and the Court; fearful for his life and the life of his retainers at the hands of his mistress’s angry relatives; bitter at his mistress for what he saw as her willingness to drop him for a better prospect––he refused to continue to write for the Court and began turning out plays filled with personal passion and aimed at the West End audience.  This probably meant using the little theater at the Blackfriars school, probably with adult actors from Burbage’s and Worcester’s Men, and probably fairly late into the night.

These were not the kind of plays that he could have written for the Court.  Angry at Ann Vavasor for what he believed was her perfidy in taking up with another man, he rewrote one he’d written earlier about the Trojan war, lavishing it with irony, and pouring all his pain over his mistress into the plot and characters in Troilus and Cressida.  Furious at his cousins for accusing him publicly of treason, he dramatized the assassination of Julius Caesar, with Brutus in a situation similar to his own, and Cassius, whose “lean and hungry look” identified him as his cousin Henry Howard.  Frightened by the determination of his mistress’s male relatives to kill him, he wrote another in which he portrayed himself as already dead, observing from above as an imaginary father takes bloody revenge on his killers by means of a play within a play (The Spanish Tragedy).  Then, with the discovery that his mistress still loved him, he poured his lonely heart into a blazing new version of Romeo and Juliet.  Finally, as his patron and surrogate father, the Earl of Sussex, sickened and died, he accused the Earl of Leicester of poisoning him by drawing parallels between him and King Claudius and between Elizabeth and Queen Gertrude in a first version of Hamlet.

Since the Blackfriars theater was cheek by jowl with the City manors of Lady Russell, Mildred Burghley’s termigant younger sister, and of Sir William Brooke Ld Cobham, longtime supporter of Ld Burghley and Robert Cecil’s future father-in-law, that it wasn’t long before they became aware of what sort of plays were now taking place next door should go without saying, as should the probable fact that this was the real reason why the Blackfriars landlord, Sir William More, began petitioning the privy council to shut down the school, for Sir William, determined to rise at Court, would never have taken on councillors as powerful as Sussex and Hunsdon had he not had some hefty backing of his own.

The War with Spain and the rise of the Stage

As the threat of attack from Spain took center stage at Whitehall, Secretary of State Francis Walsingham moved quietly ahead of Burghley, Sussex, and Leicester as Privy Councillor with the most important duties.  Then, as Lord Chamberlain Sussex’s health began to fail, Walsingham moved, again quietly, to take his place as major patron of the Court Stage.  Although not in his job description, the Secretary, whose shoulders bore the responsibility of preparing for the inevitable attack from Catholic Spain, had a vision whereby a Crown company made up of the leading actors from Burbage’s and other companies could bring the kind of plays that Oxford was capable of writing to the hinterlands, plays that mixed entertainment with English history and anti-Spanish propaganda.

Himself a student of history, Walsingham understood that nothing binds a people together like a shared past.  What past was being shared then by his largely uneducated countrymen were stories from the middle east, told in the Bible.  Rouse their emotions with English stories, whether proud or bitter, and they’d be British first, Catholics second.  That this was clearly the mandate for the creation of the Queen’s Men can be seen by their travel itineraries for the years 1582 through 1588.  These show that the company spent more road time than anywhere else in towns along the southeastern and western coasts where the Spanish were most likely to attack (McMillin 175-78).

It should be clear that plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and Edmond Ironside were written for the same reason that, during WWII, when little was being filmed in England due to the stringent economies forced on the British by the war, the government made it possible for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V to be lavishly costumed and filmed in expensive color.  During the war the American military did the same thing, enrolling director Frank Capra and others to produce propaganda films, while giving movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Paul Heinreid deferments so they could continue to play roles in anti-Nazi films like Casablanca.

As a close friend and colleague of Oxford’s tutor, the former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, Walsingham understood that Smith’s former student badly needed something useful to do, something to keep him from continuing to cause trouble for the Court.  Writing for the Queen’s Men would keep him busy in a worthy cause.  It also made use of his knowledge of English history, knowledge stored in the papers and manuscripts he inherited from his father, passed down from one earl of Oxford to the next, papers that he kept closely guarded, allowing only those closest to him to know what they were.  No one was in a better position to turn the story of England’s past into exciting drama, an argument that helped him get the majority of the Privy Council behind the Queen’s Men, and finally, to get the Queen to fund Oxford’s crew at Fisher’s Folly, as neither he nor the improvident earl could continue to fund the stage on their own for much longer, now that Sussex and his wealth were gone.

For the adult actors this was a major step forward.  In previous years they had to share the Court stage with the children’s companies.  More recently they suffered from the heavy competition from the other companies that were springing up like mushrooms to meet the public demand for more plays.  So although they couldn’t have been pleased by the prospect of so much travelling, the fact that they were guaranteed first place at Court with fees, props and costumes supplied, was a terrific boost.  Also, when in London, no longer to be confined to the little school stage at Blackfriars, but as the Queen’s own company, to be guaranteed the Belle Sauvage Inn as their primary winter venue meant they were guaranteed London’s best holiday audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.

Since Francis Bacon, too, was without a job, and since he too was a gifted writer who was already successfully entertaining the Court with installments of his Faerie Queene, Walsingham put him to work writing the holiday comedies for the choristers that Oxford no longer cared to bother with.  These had to be written by a courtier steeped in Court gossip, one who knew how to amuse without offending the great ones in the audience, how to tease without wounding their equally great and touchy egos.   It was this last factor that Walsingham failed to consider well enough when he brought young Christopher Marlowe on board as an apprentice to Oxford and Bacon.  Talented he certainly was, and a quick learner, but, to everyone’s grief, including his own, Marlowe turned out to have a very different agenda than what Walsingham and Oxford had in mind for him.

Shortly before the beginning of this turbulent period (December 1580), Richard Farrant, the school master in charge of the children’s school at Blackfriars, died, leaving his wife with the boys to care for, and nowhere near enough money for them or her own family.  As More continued to press for the power to close down the Blackfriars theater through 1581, ’82, and ’83, its lease got passed around, from Farrant’s widow to Henry Evans, assistant master in charge of the boys; then from Evans to Oxford, who by then was back at Court; from Oxford to his secretary, John Lyly; and from Lyly to Lord Hunsdon, who joined with Walsingham to keep the school, or the theater at least, from going under.

Officially the school came to an end in April 1584 when the court decided in favor of the landlord, though proxy data suggests that the little stage may have been allowed to operate as a private theater until Hunsdon’s leases were up in 1590.   It’s hard to believe that this important space, which for most of its existence over the past fifty years had been used to rehearse or store props for Court revels, would have continued to stand silent and empty for the first six of the ten most important years in the birth of the London Stage: from 1584 to 1590, most particularly from November 1584 to March 1585, when the West End was crammed with important men from all over England, gathered for Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament.  Oxford, Hunsdun, Charles Howard, Rutland, Bacon, Beale, and Raleigh, were all present and took part, as is shown by the journals of the houses of Lords and Commons in the records online. (Comes Oxon. Magnus Camererius, means Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain.)

Parliament’s holiday break that year lasted from Dec 21 to Feb 4.  This would have been the ideal time for plays aimed at the visiting members to receive their greatest attendance.  The Revels accounts show that the Queen’s Men produced four plays at Court that winter, so we would assume that these were performed later at the Belle Sauvage.  Oxford’s name is unusually prominent in the Revels account for this holiday season,  along with the traditonal “activities” (acrobatics), he’s listed as patron for two plays, one by his “servants,” the other by his “boys,” who produced, on St. John’s Day, December 27th, a play titled The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, which E.T. Clarke suggests was probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These, or others not appropriate for the Court, would, like the plays performed by the Queen’s men, have been performed somewhere handy to the West End during the same time period.  That “somewhere” would either have been the little stage at Blackfriars, or in a hall in one of the waterfront mansions on the Thames, the most likely being Somerset House.  Then the primary London residence of Lord Hunsdon, it was located directly across the Strand from Cecil House.

“King of Shadows”

Like the anthropologist who spends thousands of hours sifting through tons of rubble beneath a cliff-side, seeking bits of bone no bigger than the end of a thumb that she hopes will fit the skeleton she’s piecing together of a proto-human aboriginal, so we sift through the texts of the period and, at second hand, through modern critical texts, seeking evidence of things that we have no other means of accessing as we strive to piece together the truth about a great artist.  The bits of bone we seek are often no more than a single word, one that bears a particular significance.  In our search for the truth about Shakespeare, one such word is shadow.

The word shadow meant more things in the sixteenth century than it does today.   Besides a term for the patch of darkness created by blocking the sun’s rays, or a slang term for someone who sticks too close to someone else, or a 1930s Hollywood verb for a spy technique, in Shakespeare’s time it was a metaphor for any kind of reflection.  You saw your shadow in a mirror; painters created shadows on canvas: in his 1579 diatribe School of Abuses, Stephen Gosson wrote: “Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts] to vanquish the taste, nor painters in shadows to allure the eye, than poets in theaters to wound the conscience.”  Some uses may reflect Plato’s vision of human beings as mere shadows on the wall of a cave, reflections of multi-dimensional spiritual realities in a three-dimensional world.

Shakespeare used the word shadow for all of these; the account in Schmidt’s lexicon of the specific uses in his works fills well over a full page in very small type.  He was especially fond of the biblical phrase shadow vs. substance, which for him expressed a world of meaning.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he uses shadow several times to refer to plays or actors.  Replying to Hippolyta’s description of Pyramus and Thisbe as “the silliest stuff that ever I heard,” Theseus opines: “The best [plays] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” When Puck bids adieu to the audience after the last act he uses the term to refer to the characters created by the actors: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. . . .”  Twice Puck calls Oberon, “King of Shadows.”  Years earlier, the True Tragedy of Richard III, the first version of Shakespeare’s play, opens with:

Enter Truth and Poetry. To them appears the ghost of George, Duke of Clarence.
POETRY:    Truth well met.
TRUTH:     Thanks, Poetry; what makes thou upon a stage?
POETRY:    Shadows.
TRUTH:     Then will I add bodies to the shadows.  Therefore depart, ………………and give Truth leave
 to show her pageant.

In his prefatory letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, Oxford uses the word to mean the reflection of a patron or friend if mentioned in a work of literature that lives for generations long after the friend himself is departed.

Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs, whereby when they be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument.  But with me it happenth far better,  for in your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone.

“That shadow of thine”

One of the thousand and one smoking guns provided by authorship forensics is the handwritten note in the Cecil papers from one Thomas Vavasor to the Earl of Oxford, insulting him and taunting him to a duel.  Dated January 19, 1585, it’s the final piece in the record of assaults on Oxford and his men by members of the Howard, Vavasor, and Knyvett circle in retaliation for Oxford having “ruined” their cousin, sister, niece and former Queen’s Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, who, in March 1581, gave birth to Oxford’s illegitimate son in one of the royal bedchambers.

Following two months in the Tower and many more under house arrest, Oxford and his retainers were subjected to a year of attacks in the streets of London by Ann’s uncle, Thomas Knyvett, and his men.  There were four of these “frays” that reached the record, the first March 3, 1582, the final February 21, 1583, three months before Oxford’s reinstatement at Court.  Several on both sides were killed, and Oxford himself was seriously wounded in the first.  There may have been other lesser incidents that escaped the record, but once milord was back in the Queen’s favor it’s unlikely the Knyvett faction would have dared to continue their vendetta.

The note, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, was found among Burghley’s papers.  If the date added (in Burghley’s hand), January 1585, is anywhere near the date it was written, this puts it almost two years after the last recorded street fight and Oxford’s reinstatement at Court.  But in fact it could have been written at any point from 1582 on, having come into his possession at any time after that.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the note itself.  Here’s the text (spelling modernized) as reproduced by Alan Nelson in his fact-filled if negative biography:

If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown.  I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits.  Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting mind?  Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels?  If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers.  But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse.  For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer. (Nelson’s brackets, 295)

Let’s have a close look at what Vavasor is saying:

If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown.

According to Vavasor, if Oxford’s looks were as bad as his morals, his sister would never have been seduced; one more bit of evidence that he was considered good-looking; also testimony that he was not an instigator of the street brawls.

I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits.

In Vavasor’s view, Oxford is “base and sleepy” (cowardly and unresponsive) because he is “wedded” to (totally involved with) something he calls “that shadow of thine” that prevents him from doing his chivalrous duty as a nobleman and answering Vavasor’s challenge.  Nelson states as fact that by “that shadow of thine” this he means “an unnamed male relative of Oxford’s,” as he scrambles among the names mentioned in connection with Oxford for one that might fit.  This is a possibility because the use of shadow then did include such a use.  However, that he was unable to come up with a name suggests there wasn’t any such person in Oxford’s life at that time.  Having just recovered from two years of banishment and so most likely exhibiting extreme caution with regard to unseemly companions, “that shadow of thine” must be something else.

Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting [unknowing] mind?

The “revenge” taken of Oxford’s “vileness” must refer to the wound dealt him by Thomas Knyvett during the first recorded brawl three years earlier.  However unwilling to engage in street fights, Oxford has done something to provoke the “unwitting” Vavasor.  What might he mean by “unworthy instruments”?  Since this sentence follows directly on the reference to “that shadow of thine,” it seems most likely that the shadow and the unworthy instruments are connected.

Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels?  If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers.

This must refer to one of the recorded “frays” in which only Oxford’s retainers were involved, or to some other for which there is no record.  This also shows that his financial straits were already a matter of Court gossip.

But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse.  For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer.

It’s unlikely there ever was an answer.  Either Oxford handed over the threat to Burghley, as Nelson suggests, or more likely, whoever was supposed to deliver it thought better of it, and gave it directly to Burghley, either immediately or after holding on to it for some time.

What “unworthy instruments”?

If, as we believe, based on a great deal of evidence provided here and in other locations, that during the mid-1580s, Oxford was not only the playwright who in later life would publish under the name William Shakespeare, he was the primary creator of the London Stage, the author of most of the plays then being performed by the Queen’s Men, as well as the comedies performed by Paul’s Boys at Court in the 1570s, then what Vavasor meant by “that shadow of thine” must be the stage, which was certainly considered an “unworthy instrument” by many of their contemporaries, particularly by those who’d been publicly skewered by one of milord’s satires.

As for the more recent provocation mentioned by Vavasor, I believe this was the original production of Romeo and Juliet.  Written (I believe) during a rush of feeling following the realization that the silence and lack of response from his lover following her release from the Tower was not due to the perfidious change of heart he so angrily depicts in Troilus and Cressida, the first version of which (I believe) he wrote during the early days of his house arrest, as soon as he was back at Fisher’s Folly with his staff, musicians, and actors.

Most likely the play was ready for production by late 1584 for the audience then gathering in Westminster for the Parliament that would run until the following March.  With the 18-year-old Edward Alleyn as Romeo and the 16-year-old Richard Burbage as Juliet, the play would have been performed at the original Blackfriars Theater, located just above the fencing academy where Oxford and his friends were given to practising the routines demonstrated in the play (Richard Tarleton was reputed to be a genuine fencing master).  Impelled by the added passion of relief and a deep desire to make amends to Ann for having portraying her as Cressida, Romeo and Juliet expresses the love that got them both into so much  trouble, not so fatal as what doomed the Veronese lovers, but trouble nonetheless.  Such were the emotions contributing their force to what has been described as the “lyric rapture and youthful ecstasy” of one of the most loved plays in all the literature of drama.

Hardly anyone who writes about the close connections between Oxford’s biography and the plots of Shakespeare’s plays fails to connect the street brawls between the Oxford and Knyvett/Vavasor crews and that between the Montagues and the Capulets, or Oxford’s wound with Mecutio’s death.  The strong resemblance between Friar Lawrence and Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, is another important link.  Less strong but still relevant are others such as the fact that Arthur Brooke, author of the narrative poem that served as a basis for Shakespeare’s play,was a nephew of George Brooke, Lord Cobham, Burghley’s close friend and his neighbor during Oxford’s years at Cecil House in the 1560s.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, neither Edward nor Ann died, they were not married, and Ann was pregnant as Juliet was not (or she died too soon to know), in any case, these unromantic differences aside, there’s too much that’s similar between the play and the events of 1581-’85 to brush off the similiarities as mere coincidence.

As for Ann, exactly where she was at this time we don’t know, but following her release from the Tower, the most likely place, based on what usually happened in such cases, would have been to stay with an older, dependable relative, closely connected to the Court, where she would be under surveillance (as her poem reports) until the Queen could decide what should be done with her.   At some point she ended up with Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s champion, perhaps as a sort of prize for his years of service.

For Ann’s view of the situation, we have her poem, written to explain why she was behaving as she was.  Other interpretations and attributions have been placed on this poem, but why not follow the most natural?  Poetry is always the quickest path to the heart of a poet, and in those days, it was the path most often taken in matters of the heart, even by those who would have done better to stick to prose.  Oxford’s later attachment to another female poet, Emilia Bassano, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, plus the witty female characters he created as Shakespeare, suggests that a clever tongue in a woman had a great attraction for him.

That the play was written for some other audience than the Court should be obvious, for there were lines in it that would have infuriated the Queen, had she heard them.  Or, if it was at some point produced for the Court, lines that remained in the First Folio, such as Juliet’s in Act II Scene 1, “O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,” or Romeo’s a little later:

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

Elizabeth’s colors, as everyone knew, were green and white.  Words like these would have been cut for a Court performance.  Oxford was reckless at times, but he was not insane.

The Scenario that works!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one and only Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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