Tag Archives: Fisher’s Folly

The smoking canon

We hear all the time from both sides that we have no firm proof of Oxford’s hand in Shakespeare’s plays, no “smoking guns.”  The fact is that we have dozens, scores, hundreds of perfectly acceptable facts, the kind that in a less controversial inquiry would never be questioned.  Some are more obvious than others, but when they’re all connected they provide a perfectly understandable picture of Oxford’s creation, not only of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, but of the London Stage and the English periodical press that bore them.   The problem is not finding answers, we have the answers, it’s getting the media to pay attention.  Hey, this guy created you!  Aren’t you curious?

Lacking direct evidence, we turn, as does every historian working earlier than printing, with proximity, timing, identification, anomalous absence or a combination of these.  Here are a few of our “smoking guns”:

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s metaphors reflect all the special interests of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, with whom he lived and studied from age four to twelve.  The Law, Greek and Latin literature, English history, horticulture, distilling, medicine, astrology/astronomy, falconry, have all been noted by scholars as areas in which Shakespeare showed an unusual level of knowledge.

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s primary sources reflect titles in Oxford’s tutor’s library list.  Even some of the more arcane sources are to be found there.

Proximity and identification: Half of Shakespeare’s plays take place in the towns in Italy that Oxford visited in 1575, a personal experience reflected in the numerous references to things that only someone who had been to those towns at that time could possibly have known.  (Oxfordian scholars have provided all the evidence for this that anyone could ever require; hopefully some day some of it will be available in hardback).

Proximity and timing: The London commercial Stage, the venue in which Shakespeare’s genius took form, was created within months of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576. It came to life in two locations, the small private indoor theater for the wealthy in the Liberty of Blackfriars, which Oxford must have known from his documented involvement in Court entertainments in the 1560s and early ’70s; and at Burbage’s big public theater, located on land still largely controlled by his companion from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland.

Proximity and timing: The innovative round wooden theater built by Burbage in Norton Folgate in 1576 was based on a design by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (as shown by mainstream scholar Frances Yates).  During Oxford’s childhood with Smith he was privy to a Latin edition of this ancient work that he could easily have researched again on his return from Italy.  In a visit to Siena he may even have seen such a round wooden theater in action, built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio as a dry run for his great marble indoor Teatro Olimpico, built a few years later on the same Vitruvian principles of sound amplification.  The Italians were immersed at the time in creating the most beautifully resonant wooden stringed instruments ever made.

Identification: Shakespeare’s plays reflect events in Oxford’s life, most notably seven that focus on a situation that reflects the breakup with his wife that took place on his return from Italy in 1576.  Pericles, Cymbeline, All’s Well, Much Ado, A Winter’s Tale, and Othello, all involve a villain who breaks up a marriage or engagement by suggesting to a highly suggestible man that his wife has been unfaithful.  There’s even a hint of this scenario in Measure for Measure (Angelo’s cruelty towards Mariana) and in Hamlet (his otherwise mysterious harassment of Ophelia).  In Oxford’s life this villain was his cousin, Ld Henry Howard.

Identification and anomalous absence: Several early history plays that are commonly regarded as sources for Shakespeare’s history plays, feature Oxford’s antecedents in speaking roles: The True Tragedy of Richard the Second features the 9th Earl, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth features the 11th, and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third features the 13th; all of them playing, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles they actually played in history. While rewriting these plays in the 1590s As Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III, the author kept the characters based on the ancestors of other well-born patrons of the London Stage like the Stanleys (Ld Strange’s Men, Derby’s Men), the Pembrokes (Pembroke’s Men), and Howards (Ld Admiral’s Men).  He eliminated all the speaking roles for the ancestors of only one of these patrons, the Earl of Oxford.

Proximity: After returning from Italy in 1576, Oxford left his former residences in the West End and Central London, moving north and east to Bishopsgate where he renovated a manor walking distance from all four of the commercial theaters then in operation in London, to the south, the two City theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes, to the north in Norton Folgate, Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre and the smaller Curtain.

Proximity and timing: By 1580, when Oxford set up housekeeping at Fisher’s Folly in the theater district of Shoreditch, he happened to be located one door from where 14-year-old Edward Alleyn lived and worked at his parent’s Inn, the Pye (later known as the Dolphin).  Later, as the lead in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Alleyn would become the first superstar of the London Stage.

Proximity, timing, and identification: In the 1580s, during his early years at Fisher’s Folly, Oxford’s secretaries included the authors of poetry, plays and novellas Anthony Munday (author of Zelauto, dedicated to Oxford), John Lyly (author of plays for Paul’s Boys), Thomas Watson (author of Hekatompathia, A Passionate Century of Love), and George Peele (author of The Arraignment of Paris) all known by historians as members of what they term the “University Wits.”  Other members of this group can be connected to the Fisher’s Folly group though less obviously, among them Thomas Lodge (author of Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It), Robert Greene (author of Pandosto, the source for The Winter’s Tale), Thomas Kyd (whose Spanish Tragedy has a close relation to Hamlet) and Christopher Marlowe, whose plays contain a number of shared tropes with Shakespeare.

Proximity and identification: All the other candidates for Shakespeare that one hears bruited about were individuals closely connected to Oxford in some way.  Francis Bacon was his cousin and his neighbor during his teen years; the Earl of Derby was his son-in-law; Mary Sidney was his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law; Emilia Bassano was his neighbor in her childhood and was raised and educated by his sister-in-law.  With Oxford as Shakespeare, all of these, most notably including Marlowe, can be even more closely connected.

Identification: The one identification that most mainstream scholars is that Ld Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet. They fail to mention that he was also Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, which suggests that his daughter, Oxford’s wife, was the model for Ophelia, that Queen Elizabeth was the model for Gertrude, and the Earl of Leicester was the model for the murderous Claudius.  Would you eager that everyone know that you had written something accusing one of the most powerful men in England of murdering a rival, or the Queen of complicity?  And these are only one example of other identifications of important Court figures that can easily be made if Oxford is seen as the author.

Timing and identification: The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they urge the “Fair Youth” to marry.  That the Fair Youth was the young Earl of Southampton has been agreed upon by enough scholars to accept it as fact.  These seventeen sonnets have been dated (by scholars unknown to each other) to the early 1590s at a time when the teenaged Southampton was being pressured by his guardian, Ld Burghley, to marry Oxford’s daughter.

Identification: Emilia Bassano, whose profile perfectly fits that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, grew up near Fisher’s Folly.  In her teens she lived with and was educated by the Countess of Kent, Oxford’s sister-in-law.  In her late teens and early twenties she was the mistress of Ld Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who founded The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company that grew rich on Shakespeare’s plays.  That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could also be seen as the company of the Lord Great Chamberlain is the kind of double meaning that Shakespeare was so fond of.  There are a number of contemporary documents in which the Lord Great Chamberlain is referred to simply as “the Lord Chamberlain.

All the world of London knew Oxford as the Lord Great Chamberlain, a title he was born to, one that represented 17 generations of support for the English Crown.  They knew he’d been the Queen’s ward, that he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, that he’d had the temerity to break off with his wife, Burghley’s daughter, and that he’d gotten one of the Queen’s maids of honor with child for which he’d been banished from the Court for three years.  All of London knew this about him.  So let’s consider how the Queen, Burghley, and the many other Court figures he portrayed, many in a less than kindly light, some as out and out villains, might have felt about all of London knowing that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain himself who, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra put it, had thus “boyed” them on stage for all the world to hiss or laugh at.

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

Shakespeare’s patrons-who were they?

Born as the crest of two waves, the German Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, crashed into each other, the great poet and playwright blended these two often incompatible energies into the culture that has been England’s ever since.  Under the constraints of the Reformation, the passions that went into painting, sculpture, and architecture in the Southern European Renaissance, in England went into language: a bare stage, good costumes, superb actors, and the great human stories we know as Shakespeare, stories whose sources are to be found in the libraries where the Earl of Oxford spent his childhood.

Oxford’s development and survival as an artist was largely due to his patrons, surely among the best a writer ever had.  He sank low at times, but not so low that he ever had to quit writing, at least, not for long.  One of the most important research projects remaining to be done is on these patrons.  Burghley, Sussex, Walsingham, Hunsdon, Charles Howard, Southampton, the Pembroke brothers, are the leading figures, but there were others as well who contributed to his survival in various ways.  Even when they were disgusted with him, as Hunsdon must have been when the bum took up with his mistress, they kept him afloat because they knew his value.  For the great ministers of that time who had the dreams and aspirations of both Italian and Reformation humanism alive within, he was the great instrument of their policy, though this would be fully realized only when he was gone, as so well expressed by Ben Jonson in his dedicatory Ode in the First Folio.

Historically Oxford’s role in Early Modern theater is as a patron, a role that tends to get lost in the argument over his role as a writer, but his involvement as patron of the arts and sciences went a good deal deeper than what shows on the historical surface.  He patronized musicians and composers as well as other writers, and was praised by them as one of themselves.  When looking for a model for Oxford within our own times, the composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, an entertainment genius of the same all-encompassing nature, only, shall we say, considerably less fearful of recognition.

One question that hasn’t been dealt with yet, so far as I know, has to do with the company maintained by Oxford’s father.  Were they, perchance, the one we know as Leicester’s Men in the 1560s?  When Earl John died in 1562, Elizabeth gave Leicester control of the Oxford estates.   Though there’s no sign of it (so far) in the record, that could mean that he inherited what had been the sixteenth Earl’s acting company?  Unlike our world today, the arts community was very small.  Leicester’s Men were a handful of Court actors, some the same men who later became the core of the company that called themselves Hunsdon’s Men and operated out of Burbage’s Theater, just up the street from Fisher’s Folly.  Were some of these the same men who, decades earlier, had performed John Bale’s King Johan in Ipswich in 1561, just prior to the Queen’s entertainment at Hedingham Castle?  It’s worth considering.

The Fight for the Court Stage

The Court Stage fell under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  A sort of super-butler in charge of everything “above stairs,” he was important enough to be guaranteed a seat on the Privy Council.  Elizabeth’s  first Lord Chamberlain, Lord Admiral William Howard of Effingham, an inheritance from her sister’s reign, was not only kept on but was given several lucrative posts by the grateful Queen: a close relative, he had been her staunchest protector on Mary’s Privy Council.  Later, his oldest son, Charles Howard, would play an even more significant role at Elizabeth’s Court as Lord Admiral, Privy Councillor, and patron of the company that made Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn superstars.

It was the Lord Chamberlain’s job to decide what kind of entertainment to provide for each event, great and small, daily or for grand occasions, and to make sure that they went off smoothly.  If properly used it could be a powerful political tool since it was the nearest equivalent to a Royal Public Relations office.  Such may not have been to Howard’s taste, however, for from her coronation, Elizabeth had allowed her favorite, Lord John Dudley, to have charge of it.

How much Dudley was actually involved with the entertainers, most of whom were also inherited from previous reigns, remains to be seen.  He was probably much more involved with the military aspects of his duties as Master of the Horse.  We can guage what kind of entertainments he favored while he was in charge by the bash he threw at Kennilworth in 1575 (the summer that Oxford was away in Italy)––lots of old-fashioned masking with skits where actors pretending to be spirits came out of the woods to sing or recite long dull poems to the Queen filled with lavish comparisons to goddesses along with the not so subtle suggestion that she ought to marry Leicester.

Oxford’s earliest contributions to Court entertainment most likely consisted of musical numbers and interludes, brief comic turns that led one song or dance to the next for the various children’s companies to perform on holidays.  These, the Children of the Windsor Chapel, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and Paul’s Boys, were the Queen’s favorite performers.  Each little troop consisted of eight to twelve boys whose chief job during Catholic times had been to sing the Royal Mass, but who were also taught by their masters to dance and enact “dumb shows” (pantomimes) and comic “interludes” for special occasions.  Both the London prep schools performed plays as well, sometimes for the Court.

Enter the Earl of Sussex

But Leicester’s (Dudley’s) control of the Court Stage was threatened when the Earl of Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain.  History ignores this, as it ignores most of Stage history, but we can be certain that Sussex was determined to return jurisdiction over the Court Stage to his office, that of Lord Chamberlain, where it belonged by long tradition.  Leicester and Sussex had hated each other for years, and neither was going to let the other have any more power than he could help.  As noted by McMillin and Maclean: “What happened to Leicester’s Men after 1574, when they would seem to have had the future in their hands, is one of the mysteries of theater history.  Leicester’s Men lost their dominance at Court during the middle 1570s. . . .” (15).  I hope to take a close look at some point at the probable scenario behind this mystery.

In any case, to facilitate his effort to resume the office that was his by tradition, I believe that Sussex invited Oxford, well known to him from the 1569 war with the border earls, to expand his contributions to Court entertainment to include full scale plays and probably also concerts, dances, and poetry readings.  As a result, 1573-79 was certainly Oxford’s heyday at Court.  By 1579 he would have been writing for both the boys and for the adult actors who in five years would be heading the Queen’s Men.  They were termed Leicester’s Men in the record books, but in reality at this early time they were simply the actors who provided most of the adult entertainment at Court.

Literary historians have been limited by their adherence to the names of acting companies, derived from their patrons.  To see the reality it’s necessary, whenever possible, to look past the names to the individual actors, particularly the lead actors, their patrons, and the always changing circumstances.  The continual focus on the company names by historians has caused no end of confusion.  History is made by individuals, not names.

Enter Walsingham

In 1581, shortly after the winter holiday season, the Queen banished Oxford from her “Presence” for getting her Maid of Honor pregnant and (not least) attempting to escape to Spain.  This left no one to write the witty holiday plays that she had come to expect.  The various children’s companies, some from local schools, filled in that December with old plays and material by their masters––Gurr calls it “the quiet season of 1581-82” (Companies 175)––but everyone involved in Court entertainment knew something had to be done to improve the situation before the next holiday season rolled around.  Since that was about the time that Sussex began to fail, Walsingham, the Queen’s Principal Secretary, may have already have begun to consider a solution.

Walsingham was living at that time at The Papey, a manor just inside the Bishopsgate Wall and just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly on the other side of the City Wall.  Plans to create a Crown company, the Queen’s Men, came to light early in 1583, but, like most things, they would have originated earlier, possibly from conversations between  Oxford and Walsingham at The Papey, at Fisher’s Folly, or even at The Pye, the inn that lay between the two houses.

This was the period when Walsingham was beginning to get special funding for the anti-papist campaign he and Burghley were urging on the Queen and Parliament.  New funds would have enabled him to privide Oxford with money to hire secretaries and apprentices.  This would explain why these writers, later known to literary history as “the University Wits,” dedicated their works to Francis Walsingham, calling him their Maecenas, a traditional term for a patron.  From the Wits at the Folly Walsingham hoped would come plays both for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen, and for the Queen’s Men to take on the road as a public relations maneuver, winning hearts and minds in advance of the attack from Catholic Spain that he knew was coming (McMillin).

With fears of the newborn commercial theaters rising among Church and City officials, with the excitement surging through the acting community from the power this was giving them, Walsingham may have feared that he was about to ride the whirlwind.  A nervous man, in constant pain from an ulcer or other painful condition, his need to keep everything as hidden as possible has also hidden the courage with which, much like Churchill three centuries later, he faced one of England’s most crucial showdowns with Continental power.

Why was it so hard to protect the newborn commercial stage?  Why such need for secrecy?  Read on.