Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . ?

And so we come to the end of the second full year of this blog.  Many thanks to those of you who’ve continued to pursue it thus far.  For the past six months you’ve actually been more attentive than I have, having been preoccupied with moving and other personal situations.  I’m gratified to see how, even without much input from me, many continue to read the blogs and pages that have accumulated over the past two years.  Much remains to be investigated, and much that’s been investigated remains to be told, so we’re far from done.

Actually my silence over the past two months has had more to do with time taken to research areas that I’ve spent less time on in the past, primarily the 1590s, which is, after all, when the name Shakespeare actually began to appear in print.  They aren’t nearly as much fun to put together as the 1580s, when our heroes––Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon and Mary Sidney––bursting with youthful zest, launched the London Stage and commercial press.  Nevertheless, the ’90s are the crux, the very heart, of the Gordian knot that is the story of the English Literary Renaissance.

Many sorrowful strands make up this knot, each twisted into and overlapping the others: Oxford in his forties, down on his luck, looking to the young Earl of Southampton to put him back in business; Mary Pembroke defining and publishing her dead brother’s work; Marlowe’s assassination and Lord Strange’s murder; Bacon gnashing his teeth at the Establishment that kept refusing to hire him; the great Queen aging and lonely, while above, tracing its astonishing trajectory and casting its shadow on everything else, the amazing story of the young Earl of Essex continues to unfold as his supporters and enemies alike hold their breath, waiting to see how it will end.  It’s taking time to work through this material, and will take even more to condense it into a few sufficiently cogent blogs and pages.

Meanwhile I’ve managed to get a few pages up on other topics.  There’s now some background on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the English Renaissance.  In anticipation of more detail on Fisher’s Folly, there’s a paragraph on each of the names that make up most lists of the University Wits and also a brief summary of the major events and personalities of the 1580s.  Added to the list of lectures and articles from former years I’ve added Southampton’s Hair.  Written originally to deal with the idea put forth by some Oxfordians that the Earl of Southampton was heralded with unusual vigor at Court, something that now seems less certain (most of it based on Peele’s “Honour of the Garter,” which when examined seems not all that exceptional).  In any case, it touches on an area of some interest to those readers focussed on Southampton.

And for those who might wish to make it easier to continue my research I’ve come up with a way that you can help.  Should you wish to do so, I do thank you with all my heart.

Finally, for our memories of those “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,”  we paid a heavy price this year.  Remembering Robert Brazil, Richard Roe, Verily Anderson and Elliott Stone, let’s hope that wherever they are, they’re learning things still hidden from the rest of us, and that in that grand and glorious library in the hereafter, young and healthy once again, that they run into each other from time to time and remind each other of the good old days here below.

And for those of us yet remaining, a most happy and healthful 2011.

Stephanie

Response to a Baconian

Recently Graeme Romans commented on my August blog, The Real Authorship Question, in which I explain why the AQ should be questioning, not just Shakespeare, but all the Elizabethan writers of imaginative literature.  As those readers are aware who’ve heard my lectures and read my articles on this blog and elsewhere, I see a handful of writers, six to be exact, providing most, perhaps all, of the important imaginative literature of this period.  The rest are mostly the names of proxies used by three or four of these writers to get their works into print.

I’ve gone into depth here a number of times on the reasons why they had to use this ruse, but the basic reason is simply the same one that writers have had to deal with, probably since writing first began, oppression by authority.  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, was little more than a gleam in the eye of 16th-century writers like Christopher Marlowe, and we know where that got him.

Why is this not evident in the history of the period?  Because the oppressors repressed not only the literature and those who created it, they also repressed the history of the period itself!  Having control of what paper survived to later generations of readers and historians, they determined what would remain to act as the framework for history and what would be “lost.”  This repression dealt largely with political matters, but in those days the world of entertainment WAS political, which is what Alec Wilder meant when he said, “Theater has always dared.  It has troubled princes and prelates alike.”  What Shakespeare dared was to satirize well known figures of the Court and government, something that could be hidden if his identity remained unknown.  What Marlowe dared was to confront the government, daring his fellow plebes to take matters into their own hands, something that could not be tolerated.

The collected works of Shakespeare, only the second collection of English plays ever published, was a carefully calculated move by a handful of literary patrons to overcome, or rather, sidestep, this repression, at least as regards the Shakespeare canon.  For that to occur, the suppression of the truth of its authorship had to continue.  We got the literature, some of the best of it anyway, but at the cost of its history.

As for the literary history of the period, there are efforts now among certain academics to look more deeply into the repression of the Catholic writers, one that promises to return writers like Robert Southwell to the mainstream where they belong.  This is a good thing that, we hope, will take hold and become part of the accepted history of the period.  But it will take a real revolutionary somewhere in the Academy to spread this kind of second sight to see though the repression of all the poets.  To crack the façade that protects what has become over time, the English Department’s holy of holies, that lifeless thing, the Stratford bio, will probably take some reckless young History post doc who sees value in placing Shakespeare where he belongs, at Elizabeth’s Court.

The super six

Among these six revolutionaries, the leading figure is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  He was the oldest, he was the great Renaissance genius of the imagination, it was he who took the first steps towards getting the English to write out of personal experience and feeling (not some Petrarchan formula) and who was also the major force in getting them to publish in print.  He was a moving force in creating the first fulltime commercial theaters in England; and he was also the major force in the creation of the commercial periodical press.  As the author of not only the Shakespeare canon, but the Robert Greene canon, the John Lyly novels, plus works attributed to George Gascoigne, George Pettie, and Barnabe Riche (among others), he also had the longest career.

The second most important figure in this group is Oxford’s cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, his junior by eleven years, whose contribution to the literature of this first breakout of the ELR (the English Literary Renaissance) was through the voices we know as Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe (and the John Lyly of the plays).  Bacon admired Oxford; he shared with him the dream of creating a great English language and literary tradition modelled on the French Pleiade; he worked for him and with him through the seminal years of the 1580s, writing plays for the children’s companies and pamphlets for the periodical press.  And although he assiduously created styles of his own as different from Oxford’s as possible, understandably he was unable to avoid adopting some of his mentor’s phrasing.  That the two writers went their separate ways in the ’90s is the age-old story of the gifted apprentice stepping out on his own.  So while Oxford continued into the late ’90s and early 17th century writing imaginative literature (i.e., plays), Bacon returned to his original dream, revolutionizing the English judicial system by becoming part of that system, and adopting its language in order to change it.

Taking Baconian Graeme Romans’s comment one sentence at a time:

Romans: These paragraphs [from my blogs on Bacon] suggest a respect for Bacon’s abilities that make it difficult to understand why you choose de Vere over Bacon in the Shakespeare stakes.

Me: I didn’t “choose” one or the other.  Oxford chose me; Bacon didn’t.  I have a great respect for Ernest Hemmingway, but that doesn’t lead me to suppose that, because they were working at the same time, he wrote the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald (or vice versa).  Like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Oxford and Bacon have very different voices.  Oxford’s was less a conscious effort than something that evolved over time as the language around him changed, while Bacon, from the first, delighted in creating styles as different as possible from his natural voice, as seen in the pseudo Chaucerian style of The Faerie Queene, then in the pseudo Mar-prelate style of Nashe.  Since this was a period when writers, Bacon among them, strove to create distinct voices (something playwrights do as a matter of course), we have to go beyond the styles to the basic beliefs and methods of particular authors, and here too, they differ in ways that style alone can’t determine.

Romans: Having acknowledged Bacon’s closeness to de Vere you acknowledge that much of your circumstantial evidence could be transposed into the case for Bacon.

Me: If what I said can be interpreted that way, I’m happy to be more plain.  What I meant was: first: that Baconians were the first to realize that the author of the Robert Greene canon was also the author of the Shakespeare canon; and second: that the author of the Spenser canon was Francis Bacon.  These are two separate insights.  Both are true (in my view), but not as evidence that Bacon was the author of the Shakespeare and Greene canons.

Romans: Yet Bacon is the more high-minded and the more likely to have sought to give the English a history of Kings, not to mention a common tongue enriched a thousand fold.

Me: Read what I’ve posted about Oxford’s education with Sir Thomas Smith, the number of history books in Smith’s library and the fact that so many of them are the accepted sources for Shakespeare’s history plays.  This is not to say that Bacon didn’t have access to these same books, he probably did, although we don’t have a record of it as we do with de Vere.  Bacon and Oxford’s educations were much alike since their tutors were members of the same Cambridge-based group whose own educations were based on the work of Erasmus, Luther and Calvin, a group that remained very much a lifelong community.

Apart from very differing personalities, another cause of their differing styles was the particular approach that their tutors would have taken.  Bacon’s mother (who had tutored King Edward VI ) would have started her son with Latin, the language in which most of the Reformation literature was written, with Greek coming later.  (Although the early Church fathers were often in Greek, to pious reformers like Anne Bacon, Greek was a dangerous language that could lead to knowledge of lascivious pagans like Ovid and Catullus.)  Smith, who was far more of a Renaissance humanist than a Reformation ideologue (and so could simply ignore what he didn’t like) was devoted to the Greek classics, and so probably followed Sir Thomas Elyot in starting little de Vere with Greek via Aesop and Apulius, then, as soon as possible, Homer.

Though Greek and Latin are closely related in many ways, there’s a considerable difference in what you might call the soul of the language.  I believe this difference is reflected in the nature of the voices that came from Oxford and from the work that Bacon finally began publishing in his thirties, beginning in 1596 with the Montaigne-like Essays.

As for “high-minded,” no one was more high-minded than Sir Thomas Smith, renowned for his erudition and his honesty.  Considering how long they were together, eight years, from de Vere’s age four to age twelve, Smith’s influence on Oxford would have been profound.  If the reason for your comment derives from the common notion that great writers are all noble humanitarians, I suggest you read the biographies of Rousseau, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, to name just four.  And however high-minded, Bacon, like most humans, had some very ignoble traits, something his promoters prefer to ignore.

Romans: I suspect you were an Oxfordian first and find it difficult to let go.

Me: No way.  My awareness of Bacon and my respect for him came long before I knew anything about Oxford or was convinced of his true career by the evidence offered by Looney, Ward, Ogburn, Miller, Clark, and Bowen.  Once I began to dig more deeply into the history of the period and saw how close they must have been––Oxford’s guardian William Cecil, his colleague Nicholas Bacon, Francis’s father, and his mother, Bacon’s wife and Cecil’s wife’s sister, having all been located within walking distance of each other on the Strand during the years Oxford lived with the Cecils––I realized there had to be some kind of relationship between these two budding young writers, the best in their time.  Birds of a feather, don’t you know.

That Bacon returned from France at age 18 just months before the Shepheard’s Calender was published with its erudite gloss by E.K., who could only have been Oxford, the basis for their relationship came clear: a passion for creating an English literature on the level of the French Pléiade and the ancients of Rome and Greece.  That Oxford was teasing Bacon as Francis the Drawer in Henry IV Part One fits so perfectly with Bacon’s situation as one who, due to his poverty, had to “draw” for clients and so was at their mercy, well, what else was there to think?

That Bacon was the author of  Nashe’s Jack Wilton, The Unfortunate Traveller, so obviously based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy under the name of his famous/infamous uncle, the Earl of Surrey; and that also as Nashe he was the author of the play performed for John Whitgift, his old Cambridge Master.  This, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, shows Bacon’s view of Oxford’s role in the life of the Court community: Ver, the Adonis-like lord of Nature, who dies (loses favor) only to be reborn (when the Queen needs good theater again).   (Read Summer’s Last Will; you’ll see he speaks of his “cousin Ned” in the first paragraph.  The whole first section about Ver (Spring) is about Oxford.)  Oxford’s view of Bacon comes through in his portraits of Puck and Ariel: the devoted page, assistant to the great magician in fairyland and the magical isle, both metaphors for the Stage.

To those who adhere to the single genius theory, that only one individual wrote all the important works of the period––whether Oxford or Bacon or Marlowe––I can only point out, once again, that no revolution was ever accomplished by the efforts of one person alone.  Like the Jacobins who revolutionized the government of France in the 18th century, or the Impressionists who revolutionized painting in the 19th, or the American jazz musicians who did the same for popular music in the 20th, it takes a whole village of revolutionaries to raise a culture’s consciousness.  In the small tight-knit community of 16th-century London readers and writers, it took six: Oxford, Bacon, the Sidneys, Raleigh, and Marlowe.  And, not least, their patrons, printers, actors, and stagehands.

Romans: I would like to hear what you would write about Bacon’s scrivenery and its likely output.

Me: I’m not sure what you mean by “scrivenry,” but I do have a great deal more to post about Bacon, and will at some point.  Meanwhile, I suggest that you read Spenser’s Mother Hubberd and Nashe’s Jack Wilton or Piers Penniless.  Of course I assume that you’ve already read a good deal of Bacon’s writing under his own name.  His Essays are a good place to begin.  They at least reveal a little hint of the humor that’s so completely suppressed in the works he published later under his own name, and that’s so wildly and delightfully rampant in “Nashe,” written in his wild youth when he was one of the lads at Fisher’s Folly.

Shakespeare’s search for silence

Writers are solitary creatures.  However gregarious some may be by nature, if anything is to come of their effort they’ll need long spells of unbroken solitude on a regular basis.  Unlike painters or sculptors, they need very little in the way of material things like studios or materials, what they chiefly need is privacy and time.  Writers need regular chunks of unbroken time, anywhere from two to six hours at a go, day after day, week after week, to effectively ply their craft.  Writers of fiction in particular need this if plots are to form and characters to take shape.  (With writers of modern television serials, something else maybe taking the place of time, cocaine perhaps.)

This is not the kind of thinking that can be done in bits and pieces.  It takes time to get “i’ th’ vein,” as they put it then and it also requires protection against interruption in order to stay in “the vein” (or “the zone” as it’s sometimes termed today) long enough for development to take place.  For a full-length novel or a play, these spells have to occur regularly enough over several days or more likely weeks for the process to continue until the story has acquired a life of its own.  A metaphor of giving birth was often used back then––literary gestation occurring in the darkness and silence of the womb of the mind.

It’s hard enough to find this kind of seclusion today, but apparently it was next to impossible in 16th-century England.  For as Lawrence Stone pointedly notes, there simply was no concept of privacy in 16th-century England:

This was a society where neither individual autonomy nor privacy were respected as desirable ideals. . . .  Privacy like individualism, was neither possible nor desired. . . .  Privacy was a rarity which the rich lacked because of the architectural layout of their houses and the prying ubiquity of their servants, and the poor lacked because of confinement in a one or two room hovel. . . .  The closest analogy to a sixteenth-century home is a bird’s nest” (4, 6, 7 Family).

His point about architecture is clear for anyone who has ventured into Hampton Palace, Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, or one of the great houses of the 16th century that remain in their original form, for the Elizabethans lived in houses where rooms circled a central meeting area, then, as the building grew, branched off in strings of rooms that opened directly each one into the next, so that to get to the last room on the chain it was necessary to go through every room in between.  With halls came privacy, but it seems that what we call a hall today (a hall to the Elizabethans was a room large enough to hold many people) was a thing of the future.  What privacy they got was achieved through the use of screens and the great curtained beds.  Nor did wealth and rank make privacy any more attainable, since the least private dwellings were those of the aristocracy, where they were also surrounded by herds of retainers, “bed partners” and “gentlemen of the bedchamber.”  This lack of privacy is one of the factors that made secrecy so important during this period.

In addition, the Elizabethans had not yet developed the respect for writing as an art that we have today.  Writers were not expected to produce literature; writers were scriveners, clerks, men trained to put into simple language the thoughts of their illiterate or busy employers.  The small percentage of Elizabethans who were lucky enough to be taught to read and write acquired respect for the poets of ancient times along with their studies, but these were perceived as immortals––the notion that there might be equally great writers among their own friends and family members was a concept born with the Italian Renaissance, one that, when Shakespeare and his colleagues first began had not yet made its way to Britain.   As for poetry, anyone who could read and write could scribble verses for particular occasions.  Some may have been seen as better than others, but rarely so much better as to be worth saving.  So where and how Shakespeare got the respect and privacy he needed to create the literature he gave the world should be a major issue for authorship researchers.

With this as with so much else, we can but “see through a glass darkly”––still, as with all truths, once we know what to look for chances are we’ll find clues.  For instance, it wasn’t until Philip Sidney, wounded by the way he was being treated at Court, deserted his habitual entourage for refuge with his sister Mary that he had the breakthrough that put him on the literary map for all time (“Fool! Look in thy heart and write!”).  As a writer herself,  respectful of her brother’s talent and aware of the struggle he was having to express himself, Mary understood that what he needed most was privacy.  And as a Countess she was also in a position to see to it that he got it.

From early in his career Francis Bacon sought refuge from the noise and interruptions of London at his brother’s estate on the Thames that was eventually bought for him by the Earl of Essex, who certainly knew from his own life what it meant to need privacy.  By buying this writer’s refuge for Francis, Essex was compensating for failing to talk the Queen into making him Attorney General.  In actuality, the gift of Twickenham Park was the greater, at least where posterity is concerned, for it enabled the great Francis Bacon to keep on writing, something he might not have had time for had he gotten the Court job he craved.

If seen through the lens of a writer’s search for privacy, much about the Earl of Oxford’s life and nature is explained.

Early in life he would have developed the habit of solitude, living as he did with the scholar Sir Thomas Smith, who would himself have required such spells of silence and privacy for his own writing.  Without, it seems, companions of his own age and rank, what could be more natural than for the solitary boy to adopt his mentor’s habits.  It was only when “exempt from public haunt” and on his own outdoors he heard, speaking from within his own mind, tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and “good in everything.”

Having been transferred at twelve to the hotel-like turmoil of Cecil House in London, an atmosphere more like that of a foreign embassy than a private residence, this habit of solitude must have been sorely tried.  Cecil’s penchant for spying on his associates is as good as any other explanation for Oxford stabbing the undercook, something that, if we take the events in Hamlet as reflections of events in his life, may have been a hot-headed teenager’s reaction to the realization that he and his fencing partner were being watched, not by Polonius himself of course, but by one of his household spies.

The need for privacy may well be a factor in the way he behaved when, upon arriving back in England after a year abroad, he ignored the welcoming party arranged by Cecil, and hurried off with one of his pals.  If properly interpreted, his beef with Cecil seems to have been less the rumors about Anne than Cecil’s inability to keep private family matters to himself––allowing them to become, as Oxford put it, “the fable of the world.”  It’s hard to deny that his need for privacy had more to do with the five-year break with the Cecils that followed than any suspicion he may have had about his wife’s fidelity.

Ensconsed in his own household at Fisher’s Folly, surrounded by secretaries, writers and composers––who of course understood that when milord was writing he was NOT TO BE DISTURBED!––he was finally able to achieve a life for himself where he could get this kind of privacy whenever he needed it––one reason why this period shines as the most likely source of so many early versions of his greatest plays.  That this ideal environment was lost to him when he lost Fisher’s Folly in 1588 may help to explain Bacon’s title for Nashe’s introduction to Menaphon the following year: “Camilla’s alarm to slumbering Euphues in his melancholy cell at Silexedra,” and his reference the following year in Spenser’s Tears of the Muses to the fact that “Our pleasant Willy, Ah! is dead of late, with whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded and in dolour drent.” (Ugh! That godawful style!)

By 1594, remarried and so established once again in a household that could provide him with clean linen and regular meals, he began rewriting his old plays for a new generation of audiences, both Courtly and public, but one wonders how much privacy he was able to squeeze for himself from the constant call upon him for favors, interviews, etc., that were the daily business of a peer of the realm.

The likelihood that his young wife and the staff she provided had more interest in running a functioning estate than in making it possible for Prosper-O to conjure up the magic on a regular basis suggests his 1595 return to begging the Queen for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham.  This in turn explains, to me at least, why the strange lack of evidence that he actually died in 1604 suggests that, with his mortality facing him, he simply took a card from his own “fantastical duke of dark corners” and “died to the world.”  Having acquired from a King who understood, as Elizabeth had not, his need for privacy, he finally achieved a setting that would allow him to leave the world the masterpieces of English literature that , in some cases, it had taken thirty years to polish to perfection.

The Real Authorship Question

The Authorship Question is a lot bigger than just who wrote the Shakespeare canon.  Bigger, wider, broader, and deeper.  The problem isn’t just who wrote the works of Shakespeare, it’s more like who wrote everything that qualifies as fiction during the English Literary Renaissance?  We have half a dozen genuine candidates for the role of Shakespeare, what about them?  They can’t all have been Shakespeare.

Forget about the group theory, that is, any idea that a group of writers worked together on the plays the way they do today on screenplays.  That’s nonsense.  No great and unique work of literature every got written that way.  That’s just as idiotic as the idea that Marlowe came back from the dead or that a 16th-century woman wrote Shakespeare.  Let’s be serious.

And what about the other writers who have biographies just as weak as William’s?  What about Robert Greene, whose later works sound so much like early Shakespeare, yet who has almost nothing in the way of a biography?  Why should we know so much about Ben Jonson and nothing about Greene, whose career was only a little shorter than Jonson’s?  What about Edmund Spenser who somehow managed to escape Marlowe’s fate despite his transparently anti-establishment beast fables?  Or Thomas Nashe, who simply vanished after the Isle of Dogs disaster, unlike his co-authors who both wound up in jail?

What about John Lyly, who despite the popularity of his plays and Euphues novels, never published or produced another thing for the last 18 years of his life?  Or Francis Bacon, who published nothing for the first 36 years of his life?  What about the playwright John Webster, who has absolutely nothing in his documented biography to suggest that he was anything but the son of a coachmaker?  What about George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, Thomas Kyd, and all the other authors with dodgy or nonexistent writer’s bios?  And this is only the merest glance at the true size and scope of a question in which Shakespeare’s role is only one small factor, however large it’s loomed over time.

Since it seems the English Lit folks won’t, or can’t, make sense of this, it’s time to have a go at it from the History side.  Fitting together personalities, biographies, dates and locations, I’ve pieced together a broad overview that explains this mess, one that fills in the gaping anomalies and creates a scenario that accounts for almost all the problems that the authorship scholars denote, be they Oxfordians, Stratfordians, Baconians, or Marlovians.

But first it’s necessary to understand why it happened the way it did.

The nature of the Reformation

It always boils down to terminology, to words.  Much as they avoided the truth about the 20 years of war that tore the English society apart in the 17th century by calling it, or part of it, The Interregum, English historians have sugar-coated what should be called the English Revolution by calling it the Reformation. Yes, it was the English version of the Reform movement that was sweeping northern Europe at that time, but it was also, perhaps even more so, a political revolution.  And although it didn’t reach the chaotic depths of the French or Russian Revolutions in later centuries, for those who were most at risk, it was just as devastating.

Hundreds of English families were torn apart, sons fled to the continent, parents imprisoned, their properties confiscated.  Hundreds were burnt at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, for the crime of wishing to pursue the religion of their fathers, or of attempting to create a new one with only minor differences from that chosen by the State, or for assisting friends and family members who were in trouble.

Church properties were given away, churches and other religious buildings were torn down, their stone used to build houses for the reformers and their friends.  Law were passed, taking away the rights and prerogatives of those who refused to join the revolution, penalizing them with heavy fines, rewarding those who turned them in to authorities, thus opening the way for blackguards to destroy their neighbors and take their properties through false accusations.  Where is there a difference here between what happened during the Elizabethan era and what happened in France and Russia and is still happening in places like Somalia, Burma, and East Timor?

What happens to important writers during times like these?  Consider the atmosphere in 1775 when the members of the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the witticisms that accompanied the signing of what many believed would be their death warrant.  Others who believed in the new nation refused to sign out of fear of British vengeance, of what it would do to their families were they to fail.  Consider the fates of writer Alexander Solzenitzen and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov during the Stalin years, of playwright Vaclav Hamel during the Russian attack on the Czech Republic, of Chinese writers under Chairman Mao.  Consider the fates of Rousseau, Ovid, Cicero, the list goes on.  Why would England during its great revolution be any different?

Revolutions make changes in many other arenas than politics or religion.  Consider how the French called each other “Citizen” during the Revolution, how the Russians called each other “Comrade”; how Stalin banned all art but the monumental worker style, or the Nazis burned the paintings of the “decadent” German expressionists, allowing only a cheap calendar style based on German folk sentiment; how they allowed only works by “Aryan” composers to be played at concerts.

When Oxford began writing, the atmosphere wasn’t all that different from the attitudes of the German “reformers” of the 1930s and ’40s towards anything but sentimental folk art.  Fear of self-expression is evident in the works of Reformation pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham.  The standards during Oxford’s youth were different, but they were equally low––C.S. Lewis calls it the “drab era.”  That Oxford used his status to create an opening for Renaissance ideals and ideas, not only for himself, but for other younger writers in whom he saw talent, is demonstrated in the prefaces he wrote for Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan.  He knew from early on that he would have to dissociate himself and his name from the works he published.  He simply had no choice.  And thank God he did, or the English we speak today would be a different language.

Oxford used an age-old trick, publishing his and others’ works (chiefly Bacon’s though perhaps others as well) as though by someone who was not in any position to know the persons they were satirizing or the issues they were addressing.  Those in a similar position who came after him used the same tactic, Bacon until the late 1590s and Mary Sidney until 1621.  There may have been others as well.  This continued for a relatively brief period, beginning with the earliest publications in the 1560s, and ending at about the time the First Folio was published.

Which is not to say that no one ever used this ruse again, or that no one during the period ever published under their own names.  However, once the pattern is revealed, it becomes clear that those writers who wrote creative, original fiction, poetry, plays, pamphlets, novellas, and who stood to suffer if their identities were known, used pseudonyms or the names of persons they paid to act as proxies.  Those who refused to conform, either to a style that the government would accept or to the use of phony names, were doomed to suffer, as witness Christopher Marlowe and to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson.

This, then, is the reason for the mares nest that is the literary history of the English Literary Renaissance, and nothing that the adherents of the Stratford story have to say will make a particle of sense until they begin to accept this as the background to the creation and publication of the works of Shakespeare, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and a dozen others with similar problems.

Oxford and Bacon

Many Oxfordians try to ignore Francis Bacon, probably out of rivalry for the Shakespeare crown, but there’s no way he can be dismissed.  He was certainly a genius with words, as all of Europe but the English still recognize, and the second most famous English writer of the Reformation period, up there with Shakespeare on a pinnacle that far exceeds any others of their time.  Given that the writing community was small, that they were cousins and neighbors in youth, only 11 years apart in age, Bacon is not only a big part of the story of the English Literary Renaissance, he’s got to be part of Oxford’s story too.  The question is, how much and in what way?

As the first anti-Stratfordians, the Baconians did a lot of important preliminary work on the Authorship Question.  They were the first to strip William’s biography of its fantasy trappings and the first to question the anomalies that have stumped orthodoxy ever since.  They were wrong about Shakespeare (most of this research took place before Looney’s book on Oxford), but they were right about just about everything else, including Bacon’s authorship of at least two other canons that he, and only he, could possibly have written.

The 1910 book by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Bacon was Shake-speare, gives the major arguments both against Stratford and for Bacon.  Durning-Lawrence provides a short list of the leading lights he knew of then who scorned the Stratford authorship, among them Prince Bismark, who found it unlikely that someone of William’s background would have known, as Bismark himself certainly knew––and as he could see that Shakespeare knew––what life was really like at the Court of a Prince, not something that anyone, genius or otherwise, could possibly pick up from books or conversations in pubs. Durning-Lawrence discusses the paltry evidence for William’s presence in London, the six signatures, the damning (to William) preface to the 1609 publication of Troilus and Cressida, and other key points in the anti-Stratfordian argument.

Some of the most obvious anomalies in the Stratford story Baconians could explain via Sir Francis.  Unlike William, Bacon was a courtier and had every reason to hide his identity.  Unlike William, he had the kind of education that explained the Bard’s erudition.  They could explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of France by Bacon’s two years in Paris in his teens.  He was responsible for the Court’s entertainment at Gray’s Inn in 1595 where a version of A Comedy of Errors was performed, as he was also responsible, all or in part, for several Court masques under King James.  Certain intriguing manuscript documents have survived that connect him with Shakespeare, more directly through the Northumberland MSS, less directly though also intriguingly through his notebook, Promus.  Most significant is his comment in a letter to poet John Davies, on his way north to connect with King James VI, soon to be King of England, in which Bacon hopes that James will be kind to “concealed poets.” (Stratfordians quibble over his intentions, but fail to explain why else he would bother with this in a letter that was obviously meant to promote himself.)  Luckily there’s no need to prove wrong most of the arguments on either side.

One of the most obvious things about Francis Bacon is his intellectual energy.  From 1596 on he turned out a cornucopia of written works, some in English, some in Latin, some published, many not.  He seems determined to put England on the world map, not only of literature, but of jurisprudence, science and philosophy as well.  To rest content with the idea that this intellectual dynamo spent his youth doing nothing of note is more absurd than anything the Stratfordians have ever conjured up about William.  Most geniuses begin their careers in their youth, many in their childhood or teen years; most people are at their peak of energy in their twenties and thirties.  What was Bacon doing between 18 when he arrived back in England and 35, when he finally got a Court position?  Absence of information hardly means he was doing nothing!  Not Francis Bacon!

My scenario

Putting all the pieces together, both literary and historical dates, their shared high level of literary genius, their similar educations in Greek literature, English law and biblical studies, their family connection (Bacon was Oxford’s wife’s first cousin), their attitudes towards Essex and Southampton, Oxford’s passing reference to his “cousin Bacon” in a letter to Robert Cecil, plus a number of other clues from my own research that I intend to detail in later blogs and pages.  Through these I hope to show how close they were at times, and how involved with each other’s lives and fates.

By combining Oxford’s data with Bacon’s, we hear, once again, the swish of Ockham’s razor, simplifying, simplifying, simplifying, leaving us with two cousins, one, the elder, the leader, the other, his student and amanuensis who began his own great career by trying his hand at every form of writing that was the great adventure of the reading class in his time, in poetry, plays, and pamphlets.  This he did partly to impress his Court community, partly just for the fun of it and to extend his wings, but the forms used and the subjects chosen were chiefly to impress the “King of the Paper Stage.”  During this process of learning and development, how could he help but adopt in any number of instances, the language of his brilliant older cousin?

I believe that we can see where Bacon enters into both the literary history of the time, though under assumed names, and also where he appears in the plays, put there, not by himself, but by his cousin.  Most enlightening of all are the exhilarating exchanges published under cover of their adopted pamphlet identities in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a virtual feast of “Pickle Herring” that continued well into the mid-’90s, when finally, with Oxford silenced by his loss of credit and Bacon finally able to begin working his way into what he felt was his true calling, the retooling of the English legal system, their literary partnership came to an end.

Forced into ever deeper cover, Oxford would continue to fulfill his own unique literary destiny via the London Stage, using it to create and disseminate a modernized English language while Bacon continued his climb to high office.  Someday, further study may suggest one final “collaboration” in 1622-’23 when the Earl of Pembroke, following his mother Mary’s death and Bacon’s fall from grace, gave Francis the task of editing those remaining Shakespeare plays that required the master’s touch before they could be set in type.  If in so doing the weary wordsmith tucked in a few subtle references to himself it was as much for love and reverence of their author as his own battered ego.

Keep in mind that this is my scenario only (though borrowing much from the Baconians), and that I make no claims for it, other than the same one I keep making, which is that, whether true or not, my version accounts for most of the anomalies in four arenas:  Shakespeare, the Stratford biography, Bacon’s biography, and the Nashe Harvey pamphlet war, along with a myriad of lesser confusions in the general history of the times, both political and literary.  Unfortunately, Oxford and Bacon are being portrayed today more as opponents in the struggle for the Shakespeare Crown than as the partners and teammates that they actually were in putting English at the forefront of world literatures.

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?

The Authorship: the Big Picture

What are we to think about Shakespeare?  Is he who he said he was, who Ben Jonson and the academics say he was, or was he someone else?  Have we been diddled by Jonson all these centuries, and if so, why?  And does it really matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but then what does?  Does it matter who won Olympic gold this year, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court?  How many people care about these things?  What percentage of the population gives a damn about almost any question you can think of, including who killed Jack Kennedy?

It’s said that when George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there”––actually another authorship question since some think that a journalist made it up, but no matter who actually said it, it’s a good answer and it works for Shakespeare too.  For Shakespeare looms as large in the history of English letters as Everest looms on the Himalayan horizon.  Why do we want to know  the answer to the question of who actually created the language we speak?   Because it’s there.

Why “the big picture”?

If we knew who wrote the works we wouldn’t need anything but a little background along the edges, but not knowing, not knowing for sure, we must go to the background, for the truth leaves clues wherever it occurs.  As I got deeper into the story it began to expand, from the works themselves to the life of the supposed author to the lives of other English authors and their works, both those with writer’s biographies and those without, to the lives of the patrons and of the Queen they served, their politics, alliances, relationships and beliefs.

It spread to the story of the Continental poets and playwrights, to the history of the Reformation and beyond that of the European Renaissance.  From the works it spread to their sources (which, it turned out, were often in languages other than English), to the kind of education available to the writers, to the ancient and Continental works that inspired them,  and on to the realities of literature itself, how it gets created and by what kind of artist.  And finally to questions of freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise.  A big picture indeed.

Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary.  Not only will the big picture bring illumination to the history of the period, it may help to bring understanding to something that’s in danger of being lost, the important and true purposes of Art, the nature of artists––as different from other human creatures as are butterflies from bees.

To put it as simply as possible, Shakespeare’s identity got hidden because he was so closely involved with the history of his time and with its movers and shakers, those in a position to hide the things they wanted hidden, that his identity became one of those things.

Why Oxford hid his identity

Perhaps the hardest question that Oxfordians have to answer is why the author hid his identity.  No answer will satisfy a modern reader, who understands, quite rightly, that for today’s author, getting one’s name known is essential to success.  Was his anonymity forced on him by his rank?  By his family?  By the need to escape his enemies?  By the Lord Chamberlain Men as a business decision?  I believe all of these are true, but beyond all of these I also believe that right from the start, de Vere was an extremely private person.  Had he not had a reclusive streak from the start, he would not have been so easily erased from history.

This doesn’t mean that he was a recluse!  He had both a public face and a gregarious nature that enjoyed time with friends and admirers, but there was a shadow side to his nature, a hidden side, and he worked all his life to keep this side free from interference of any kind, as a child from Smith, as a teenager from Cecil, as a youth from the Queen, as a husband from his wives, as a man from various enemies and lovers, as a writer from tiresome grammarians, and as a genius, from everyone but persons with whom he was (briefly) in love or who provoked his interest in some way.

Raised in solitude, he was used to the kind of privacy that few Elizabethans enjoyed, so that when he entered the mainstream of public life at age twelve, and lost it, he became desperate to get it back.  To go from the solitude of Hill Hall to the hullaballoo at Cecil House, where he was viewed by all as the Lord Great Chamberlain of England and where his every move was monitored by Cecil’s household spies, must have been a profound shock, particularly to a budding writer whose greatest need was time alone.  Why was Cecil so quick to cover up the stabbing of the undercook in 1567?  Could it be because Oxford had freaked out at being spied upon, and like a lot of teenage boys, unused to the dangers of a deadly weapon,  he lashed out at one of these household spies in sudden fury?

Throughout his life we can see that he did everything he could to keep and protect his privacy.  Like the deer, the hare, and the snail, for whom Shakespeare had unusual sympathy, hiding was his most basic, gut-level response to life.  We see it reflected in many of his protagonists, who either hide, like Romeo, Timon, Duke Vincenzio, old Belarius, Orlando and the others who hide in the forest in As You Like It, or who, like Prospero, have been hidden through exile.  It may be that our lack of documentation of Oxford’s childhood is due to his having been virtually hidden by the Protestant community when placed with Smith during the period when Queen Mary’s ministers were about to begin their reign of terror.  Surely, like little Arthur in King John, he would have been aware fairly early that there was some kind of threat hanging over him.

What is the secret of successful hiding?  Never let anyone know where you are or what you’re doing.  In Oxford’s case, since he already had a persona handed to him at birth, it meant never letting the public know that he was responsible for what they were watching or reading.  It also meant never letting the Court community know exactly what he was up to.  Many knew something about him and what he did, but few had his entire confidence, perhaps only one.  That would have been Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland: Damon to his Pythias, Arcite to his Palamon, Valentine to his Proteus, Horatio to his Hamlet.  Among the few who knew him best would have been his “cousin Bacon”: Francis the Drawer to his Hal, Puck to his Oberon, Ariel to his Prospero.  Bitterest of his enemies would have been the friend who proved false, his cousin Henry Howard, Iago to his Othello, Iachimo to his Proteus, Edricus to his Ironside, Ateukin to his James IV.

Who Wrote What?

Ockham’s razor is a slang term for the simplification that takes place when the truth is finally located at the center of a mélange of clues and complicated hypotheses.  We can be fairly certain we have the truth when whole cartloads of contradictions start vanishing, leaving a simply, believable story.  But of course, first it’s necessary to stop ignoring the contradictions.

In the tiny community that was the English Literary establishment in the 1570s-90s, there were not a dozen different men (and/or women) who, over this 20 year period, wrote for a time and then ceased to write.  There were two who for reasons of social propriety and privacy, used a number of different names, most of them the names of friends, family members, or retainers.  These two, the pioneers, are Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon.  The other two giants of Early Modern English Literature, Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe, who both died young, did not take pseudonyms, though for very different reasons. Raleigh probably makes a fifth, if we only knew which of the anonymous poems in the anthologies were his. (Raleigh wrote only for the Court community, he didn’t write pamphlets or dramas; his primary art was seamanship and adventure.)  Mary Sidney is a transitional figure, carrying the torch from the first, gifted amateur generation to the following, which, if not totally professional in todays terms, was closer.  And then came those who, again for different reasons, were far more free to write under their own names, writers like John Donne and Ben Jonson.    

Why so much hiding of identities?

All that needs to be said here is that they did.  Yes, we don’t have much hiding of identities today.  Yes, it seems bizarre to us today that anyone would want to hide their identity when getting their precious work published.  The reasons why these folks hid are complicated; I’ve covered some of them in other essays.  Other scholars have also dealt with this.  All that needs to be said here is that there is no doubt whatsoever that during this period the hiding of identities by poets, playwrights, satirists, writers of romance tales, novelists, and anyone who wrote any sort of imaginative literature was rampant. We may question this, but the readers, writers, and publishers of 16th and 17th-century England certainly did not.

How can we be certain that an identification is correct?

Well, we can’t.  But we can come awfully close, much closer than any of the guesswork that’s gone into turning the handful of prosaic facts we have about William of Stratford into the lifeless biography that haunts us today. Our methods include the following:

Treating the information on title pages and front material with the same sort of rigor that we question anecdotes and rumors.

Understanding how very small were these early literary communities, and so realizing that there could only be a handful of writers involved in the beginnings of the commercial Stage and Press.

Locating repetitive styles and themes:  There are habits and quirks that writers simply can’t eliminate and themes that they return to again and again.  When both of these continue to appear together in a series of works––no matter what their title page attributions––chances are we’ve located a hidden writer.  True, this was a period of experimentation, when styles came and went and when writers delighted in imitating the styles of others, either because they admired them or because they wished to satirize or annoy them.  Nevertheless, if there’s enough congruence of style and themes, a general profile will appear that goes beyond names. 

Locating connections between the names on title pages and the Court writers who had reason to hide their identities: Such connections include Oxford’s to John Lyly (secretary 1578-90), Anthony Munday  (secretary, 1576?-1580), Thomas Watson  (retainer 1583-92), Robert Greene (possibly Essex neighbor), Emilia Bassano (probably lover), William of Stratford (through Richard Field, his neighbor at Blackfriars), and Henry Evans (assistant); Mary Sidney to John Webster (her coachmaker, weak, but plausible) and to a fellow courtier (Fletcher); and Bacon to Spenser (fellow student at Cambridge), Nashe (student at Cambridge), Harvey (fellow at Cambridge), and Whitgift (tutor at Cambridge). 

Locating the connections between the themes and subjects of the works in question with the lives of these Court writers:  Most notably almost everything ever published under the name William Shakespeare can be connected rather neatly to persons and events in the life of the Earl of Oxford. Mary Sidney can be connected to Webster by the rather obvious reflection of her sons’ situation at Court in the events and characters portrayed in The White Devil and between her personal situation in 1601-1612 and the plot and characters of The Duchess of Malfi (and earlier by her personal knowledge of the events portrayed in Lady Jane, written for Philip Henslowe in 1602).  Bacon’s authorship of Nashe by his financial straits and the theme of Pierce Penniless, his authorship of Spenser by his relationship with Gabriel Harvey from days at Cambridge University and (as Nashe) their pseudo-pamphlet duel, and so forth.

And by connecting them in time:  It’s no coincidence that Robert Greene and Thomas Watson “died” just before Shakespeare appeared.  It’s no coincidence that Webster’s plays appear only at times in Mary Sidney’s life when she isn’t busy with family stuff.  It’s no coincidence that the works attributed to Spenser begin appearing just after Bacon arrives back in England but that Spenser’s name isn’t used for that or for The Faerie Queene until after Spenser departed for the distant wilds of Ireland.  It’s no coincidence that Nashe appears for the first time during the ferocity of the Mar-Prelate dustup, or that he suffers nothing for the Isle of Dogs, while Court outsiders like Jonson, Shaa, and Spencer go to jail.   The timing of these and scores of other events, set beside each other, form the pattern of a very interesting story, if we let them.

No single one of these points can stand on its own as evidence, but when we find that every item in every one of these categories points in a particular direction, we can be pretty sure we’re on the right track.

Midsummer’s Eve––1604

Did Oxford die on June 24th?

I don’t think so.  Because if he did die on that day it would be one heck of a weird coincidence, almost as bizarre as the author of the canon being born with a name that perfectly fits his role as militant teacher and awakener––“I will shake a spear”; or that the first two successful yearround commercial theaters in England just happened to open both their doors within weeks of the Earl of Oxford’s return from theater-savvy Italy.

As I got more familiar with Oxford’s biography I became increasingly suspicious of this date.  He could hardly have picked a more significant day to “pass on” than the day after the traditional summer solstice celebration in the pagan calendar, Midsummer’s Eve, or, in the Church calendar, on the Feast of St. John the Baptist.   To die on such a day seems most suspiciously like another gesture from behind the curtain of his anonymity.  But if so, what did it mean?

Suspicion increased upon noting that after being turned down for the Presidency of Wales in 1601, plus several other attempts to establish himself as something other than the bankrupt husband of Elizabeth Trentham, he drops all similar suits for properties, offices, and monopolies, setting his sights once again, as he has so often, on getting back his inherited rights in the Forest of Waltham.

Why the forest of Waltham?  There was some income associated with these offices (keeper of the Forest and steward of Havering-atte-Bower), but there must have been something about these forest offices that kept him coming back to them every few years.   For one thing the stewardship of the Forest was an office that had been his family’s for generations.  His father had lost it to the Crown under Henry VIII, but as was true of many aristocrats who had similar inherited offices in other forests, he considered it his.  Documents collected by Chris Paul make it clear that once he was given it back by James, he considered his role as forest official seriously.  It’s also clear from his letters that he was suffering from physical problems in his final years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was at death’s door.  Some people live and continue to function for years with all kinds of disabilities and pain.  After all, he was only fifty-four.

Letters of strange tenor

Months after his supposed death, eight Shakespeare plays are produced for the Court holiday season. One of these is Measure for Measure, in which a nobleman very like himself disappears on purpose.  Duke Vincenzio has large executive powers over his constituents, much like those recently acquired by Oxford over the inhabitants of the Liberty of Havering.  Six months after he was supposedly dead, Measure for Measure is performed for the Court the night his daughter marries Philip Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke, leading patron of Shakespeare’s company.

The play is replete with philosophical thoughts on death, and also on the duke’s disappearance.   Lucio complains, “It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state, and usurp the beggary he was never born to.”  Later, contriving the scheme whereby Claudio is to be saved and Angelo hoist by his own petard, a monk (the duke in disguise) tells the prison provost that the duke is coming back, that “within these two days he will be here” a thing that “Angelo knows not; for he this very day receives letters of strange tenor; perchance of the duke’s death; perchance entering into some monastery.”  Getting close to home here.

Another play produced for the Court that season was The Spanish Maze.  That this was a version of The Tempest has been convincingly demonstrated by Roger Stritmatter and Lynn Kositsky.  It portrays a great magician whose powers, limited to the creatures of a remote enclave, he voluntarily renounces upon the wedding of his daughter to a worthy nobleman to whom he gives his little kingdom as a wedding present. Again, awfully close to home.

Oxford’s powers have been demonstrated over the years by the all too obvious stage portraits of his contemporaries, some complimentary, some quite otherwise. As pseudo-Harvey put it in 1593 “all you that tender the preservation of your good names were best to please Pap-hatchet [Lyly], and fee Euphues [Oxford] betimes, for fear lest he be moved, or some one of his apes hired, to make a play of you, and then is your credit quite undone forever and ever, such is the public reputation of their plays.”

As far back as 1595 Oxford had announced to the Court, during the version of The Tempest he produced in January of that year for his oldest daughter’s wedding, “this rough magic I here abjure,” promising that as soon as he’s cleaned up certain problems, he’ll “drown” his “book.”  He follows this by reopening his suit for Waltham Forest at some point before October (Nelson 351), and a month later Roland Whyte writes to his boss, Sir Robert Sidney, “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead” (354).  So “Prospero-Vincenzio” may have tried to pull this disappearing stunt as early as 1595.  Which suggests the real reason why the Queen wouldn’t let him have the forest.  She knew how frustrated he was, but as long as he couldn’t get what he wanted she also knew that she kept him tied to her, a trick she used on many of her courtiers.

So what was he up to?

Leaving the historical evidence for another essay, let’s look at his plays. Here’s a writer whose protagonists, when stressed, tend to take off into the woods where they starve (Timon and Orlando), join up with bandits (Proteus and Valentine), take up with banished dukes (Orlando, Touchstone, and Jaques)––or, in happier times, chase girls (Lysander and Demetrius), pin valentines on trees (Orlando), get pinched by fairies (Falstaff) or control the inhabitants through their magic (Prospero and Oberon).

In Shakespeare, as in Oxford’s childhood, the forest, the wildwood, is never very far away.   In the history plays and most of the wedding plays, it lies just outside the circle of light on the indoor stage.  Although in Oxford’s time the great Forest of Essex that once blanketed all England was giving way to cottages and sheep farms, it happened that, of the largest portions that were left, Oxford spent his early childhood just across the Thames from the Forest of Windsor, and his later childhood at the northern edge of the Forest of Waltham.  Who approaching the end of life doesn’t yearn to return to the summer scenes of childhood?  Who wouldn’t do it if they could?

For Shakespeare, the Forest is the matrix, the ancient and still-living heart of the long history of his homeland that was the canvas of his art.  In a world of change it remains the one place untouched by time.  It’s where, as a child, stuffed by his tutor with classical learning and Reformation rhetoric, he discovered that there were books in running brooks and sermons in stones.  The anger expressed in his January 1604 letter to King James about how Lord Grey was misusing the forest shows genuine anguish.  His plans for it show no sign of an approaching death.

Where did he live in the forest?

My guess, drawn largely from evidence provided by Chris Paul’s extremely important article on the subject, is that he was living somewhere in or near Hainault Chapell Walk (6), roughly ten miles east of Hackney and a stone’s throw from Havering-atte-Bower.  According to Paul’s research there was an old hunting lodge there, although it sounds a little too small and in too poor condition for a peer, even one whose only concern was peace and quiet (51).  But as is clear from William Addison’s book on Epping Forest, there were plenty of hunting lodges in that area built by and for various members of the Court over the years.  King James would have spent a good deal of time there since it was filled with homes of his courtiers, with opportunities for hunting a mere 14 miles from Greenwich Palace.

King James, Oxford’s patron

It’s obvious that King James had a more forgiving attitude towards Oxford than had the old Queen. Where she stalled him for years on his request for the Forest, James gave it to him as soon as he got to England, later referring to him as “great Oxford,” not a phrase that would ever have been heard from Elizabeth.  This can be explained as simply another instance of the new King’s excessive largesse on taking the throne and Oxford’s exalted status as 17th in his ancient line, but it can also be seen as a desire to provide security to a great artist not sufficiently appreciated by the English (who are rarely good to their great artists).

Possibly in grateful response we see an outpouring of revised plays, eight alone (that we know of) for the winter holidays of 1604-05, and more to come in the months to follow. Would the King’s Men have dared to produce eight old plays for the first holiday season for their new patron, the first new English monarch in over forty years?  Old plays might have pleased the royal newcomers, but there were also several hundred important courtiers, most of whom would have been well acquainted with earlier versions of all eight of these plays.  From a theater entertainer’s point of view, that all of the plays presented to the Court that winter were produced without revisions or additions is unlikely.

Oxford’s other patrons

James was good to Oxford, but he could not have been acquainted with him at the time that he assigned him his forest rights, so there had to have been someone close to the King and with him on a regular basis who could present his case so persuasively that the royal ear would be impervious to contradictory reports from Oxford’s enemies.

Wm Herbert, Earl of Pembroke
Wm Herbert, Earl of Pembroke

Luck was finally coming Oxford’s way, for on his side now were not just one but two of the most influential men near James.  These were the Herbert brothers, William, the 24-year-old Earl of Pembroke and his 18-year-old brother, Philip, sons of Mary Sidney, whose boyish charms had won the gay king’s heart.

Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery
Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery

William Herbert’s actions from this point on suggest that he was already considering how he was going to get his hands on the Court Stage.  In fact, with his interest in the theater (doubtless engendered by his mother while he was in his impressionable teens) he may well have been the chief factor in persuading the King to give London’s top three acting companies the kind of royal support they could never count on from Elizabeth. With Shakespeare’s company well-set with the King, their playwright too had to be made secure.

The Devil and his Dam

Oxford had made a lot of enemies over the years, but two were now particularly dangerous.  Most obvious was his cousin, Lord Henry Howard, termed by his wikipedia biographer “one of the most unscrupulous and treacherous characters of his age.”  Oxford had plenty of reasons to loathe Howard whose libels (carefully saved by the Cecils) are still the major cause of the permanent blackening of his reputation with historians.  While Elizabeth was alive, her dislike of Howard kept him from causing any real trouble, but by writing at length to James as she approached her final days, he succeeded in making himself indispensable to the insecure new King.   Now, loaded with honors and powers, the new Earl of Northampton was a real threat, not only to Oxford but to any playwright who might dare to satirize him on the public stage.  He could haul Ben Jonson into Star Chamber with impunity, but the Earl of Oxford required more subtlety.

Shakespeare’s most typical villain is a smooth-talker who takes pleasure in wooing then betraying his victims, the perfect image of Henry Howard.  It was he who had been the most likely source of the rumors that broke up Oxford’s marriage in 1576.   It was partly with his encouragment that his brother, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, embarked on the insane plan to marry the Queen of Scots that cost him his head in 1572.  Eight years later Howard almost succeeded in doing the same thing to Oxford.  In another ten years his interference would be the direct cause of a heinous murder that would surely have destroyed him and his reputation forever, as it did a dozen others at Court, had he not conveniently died before the poisoned tarts hit the fan.

That Henry Howard was the inspiration for characters like Edricus (Ironside), Ateukin (James IV), Iachimo (Cymbeline), and finally, two of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Iago in Othello, based on Howard’s destruction of Oxford’s marriage, and Lady Macbeth, based on the downfall of his brother, the Duke of Norfolk.  Can we imagine that Howard, so paranoid about how he thought Jonson might have portrayed him, couldn’t see himself in these characters, and so wouldn’t have done everything he could to prevent the publication of Oxford’s plays?

Even more dangerous to Oxford was his own brother-in-law, Robert Cecil. Having played the same game with James as did Howard over the months before Elizabeth’s passing, and now equally loaded with offices, honors, and powers, it seems that Cecil gradually lost all moral restraint (Handover) . By 1604, with Marlowe dead (or transported), Lord Strange dead, and his brother-in-law Henry Cobham and the great Sir Walter Raleigh locked up tight under charges of treason, he’d managed to rid himself of all his major enemies.  Freed from fear, and with the ugly network of spies and agents creating by Francis Walsingham at his disposal, his lower nature took over.  By 1604 he was well on his way to becoming the most feared and hated man in the nation.

Oxford's enemies, Howard and Cecil
Oxford's enemies, Howard and Cecil

Oxford could not have had Cecil in mind when he wrote the original version of Richard III (The True Tragedy of Richard the Third) in (at least) the early 1580s, when Robert was still too young to be of any concern. (Ramon Jiménez has reason to believe the first version was written as early as the 1560s; Cecil was born in 1563.) But with his rise to power in 1603-04, that Shake-speare’s wicked, power-hungry hunchback was modelled on himself, or even more distressing, that everyone thought he was, could not help but heap his envious heart with coals of fire.

The enmity of one of these nasty characters would have been bad enough, but to have them working in partnership must have caused the aging playwright some concern.  He pondered how to protect himself.  And his papers.

But why fake his own death?

Oxford must have been tired of the rigamarole of life as an earl, something he had never been very fond of anyway.  In a 1601 letter to Robert Cecil he refers to himself as a “hater of ceremonies”  (=33).  There was always something that had to be done, somewhere he had to put in an appearance.; someone was always after him, to pay a bill, to forward a suit, to ask his opinion; and to what end?  He was in discomfort, possibly pain.  He knew he didn’t have a whole lot longer to live. How was he to get the time he needed?  And now this deadly duo had to be dealt with.

Plague struck the summer of 1603, just as King James was on his way south to take over the throne.  It kept him away from London, at Pembroke’s in Wiltshire and other country estates until the winter.  Plague mortality rates in Hackney were 88 percent, suggesting that if Oxford did decide to move to the Forest of Waltham, the plague of 1603 may have had something to do with it.  Houses like King’s Place, made of wood beams and stone or brick, were not so likely to be infected as they did not have the kind of daub and wattle walls or thatched roofs that could so easily become infested with house rats, but of course at that time, no one knew that rats were to blame.  Oxford was probably never very happy at Hackney.  It was too close to the City to be peaceful and not close enough to the theaters to make up for the noise and congestion.  In addition it was located in the kind of swampy area that anyone who suffered from recurring malaria would fear.

Oxford would have been aware of the long tradition offered by the medieval Church that had allowed his ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, to “die to the world.”  By taking holy vows, a person gave up all worldly desires, contacts, and duties; from then on they were regarded by everyone, including their own families and friends, as legally dead.  Unfortunately this tradition was no longer open to the 17th Earl; Henry VIII and Edward VI had brought it to a halt when they closed the monasteries and nunneries.

But with the help of the Earl of Pembroke and the King, like Measure for Measure’s “old fantastical duke of dark corners,” he could simply disappear, if not for good then at least long enough to get something finished. With so many doors now closed to him, guarded by his enemies, he still had one thing left that he could control––his exit.

Well-versed in property law, Oxford would have known how to fix it so his wife and son couldn’t be touched by the creditors that were e’en at him.  Pembroke and Bacon would take care of the legal details.  They could see to it that he was registered as buried at Hackney.  It would be easy enough to have his name taken off the rolls at Parliament.   The various legal procedures were simply pro forma, those in charge operating on whatever information was given them.  His wife wouldn’t like it, but if she was to see her dynastic dreams bear fruit she would simply have to go along with it.

What a relief, simply to go off into the dark, silent forest with a bundle of paper, a pot of ink, a secretary to take dictation, a cook to provide simple meals, and a lutenist music meant he could look forward to the kind of uninterrupted peace and quiet that a writer needs more than food or drink.  With the King, his friend, the sovereign of the Liberty of Havering, and a couple of “tall men” to ensure his safety, what a relief it must have been to be free to write and think from dawn to sundown, every day, with breaks for food and sleep and visits from only those he chose to see; no creditors to hide from, no suits to pursue, no begging letters to write to men whose guts he hated.

Who doth ambition shun, and loves to live i’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats, and pleased with what he gets;
Come hither, come hither, come hither;
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

As they liked it

As Chris Paul tells us, Havering Park was unique in that it was a Liberty, “entirely independent of the ecclesiastical or civil jurisdiction of the county [of Essex],” having been so declared by Edward IV in the 15th century.  No inhabitant could “be compelled or forced or bound to answer before any other justices, judges, or commissioners, but only in the Court of the said Manor” (18).  The steward––Oxford in this case––had “full power and authority to hear and determine pleas, debts, accounts, covenants, trespasses.”  Any interference by the Sheriff of Essex or JPs was “specifically forbidden.”

As if this weren’t sufficient, on April 4, 1604, King James reconfirmed the Havering charter, “including the provision that the tenants ‘shall have one fair every year at the village of Havering, the same to last three days, that is to say in the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist and two days then next and immediately following . . .’” (ERO Q/AX 1/1/2).  Paul asks, “Could it have been, at least in part, because of these unique protections that the Earl of Oxford was determined to acquire the stewardship of Havering-atte-Bower?” (19).  I would add, “protection from what”?  The answer wasn’t long in coming.

What could have been the reason why someone felt called upon at that particular time, April 1604, to get the King to sign the charter stating that any celebration that took place in the Liberty of Havering on the 23rd of June would be legal and must not be disturbed?  I suggest that, with Midsummer’s Eve parties taking place all over England, a special celebration took place that night in the Forest.  There, surrounded by good company, entertained by the very best actors and musicians, Oxford, his patrons and close friends, without fear of disturbance, could gather around the traditional bonfire to toast the end of the Festival Year––and also, although most of them probably didn’t know it yet, the end of a great era in English letters.

The next day the word went out: the Earl of Oxford was dead.

Less than 24 hours later, government agents would collar Shakespeare’s “Fair Youth,” the Earl of Southampton, and five others, placing them under house arrest “at the King’s request.”  Mark Anderson quotes the Venetian Ambassador in a letter sent back to Venice on June 26: “On Sunday night [June 24], by order of the King and Council, the earl of Southampton, Baron Danvers, and five others were arrested and each one confined in a separate house.  Yesterday morning [June 25], after undergoing several examinations, they were set at liberty . . . .” (359).  The reasons given were that charges had been made by unidentified persons that these former supporters of the Earl of Essex were plotting to slay several of the King’s Scottish attendants.   A later historian of James’s reign (attributed to Sir Anthony Weldon c. 1650) blamed it on Robert Cecil, who had “put some jealousies into the King’s head.” (Anderson 360).

No further explanation was ever forthcoming, either from the no doubt embarrased King or anyone else.  But dates don’t lie, and sometimes they reveal greater truths than on first glance.  Like Hamlet, flushing out his uncle’s guilt with a play about the murder of a king, Oxford reveals––to himself and probably also to the King––what he’s suspected but needs to have proven, the dark nature of his brother-in-law’s intentions.

Why would Cecil have Southampton arrested on a trumped up charge (the other men were simply window dressing) the very day he learns his playwright brother-in-law is dead?  Why, if not to dig through the Fair Youth’s papers in search of something––exactly what is anyone’s guess––but, with Oxford gone, something he suspects is now in Southampton’s possession?  What else could it be than something that relates to the Earl of Oxford?  How many coincidences does it take to make an educated guess?

Dates may not tell the whole story, but sometimes they can suggest its general outlines.

When did Oxford really die?

How long would Oxford have continued to live on out there in the woods, working on the final versions of his favorite plays, before death finally caught up with him?  The best guess at this point is at least four more years, possibly five.  Several things happen in 1609 that probably wouldn’t have were he still alive:, among them: his wife’s sale of King’s Place, and two of Shakespeare’s most personal and the publication of two of his potentially most damaging works, the Sonnets and Pericles.

How would his patrons, his family, and the actors react, once they know he’s gone for good?

My suggestion: led by the Earl of Pembroke, a core group of his supporters formed an ad hoc committee to see to it that both he and his works were treated with appropriate––if private––love and respect.  He was buried without fanfare, possibly in the forest, but it’s accepted from the beginning that his final resting place will be somewhere in Westminster Abbey and that, as soon as is feasible, his collected works will be properly published.

Time drags on, but Pembroke can’t act until he’s secure in the office he seeks, which doesn’t happen until the end of 1615, by which time both Cecil and Howard are dead and he’s now, finally, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, with authority over the King’s Men, their plays, and to a large extent, the London Stage as well.

An Abbey funeral could not have occured before the internment of Francis Beaumont in 1616 since Beaumont’s tomb is mentioned by Ben Jonson in the dedicatory Ode to the 1623 Folio.  That it was no later than 1619 seems likely from his cousin Percival Golding’s tract on the Vere family wherein it states that the 17th earl was buried in the Abbey, written (according to Robert Brazil) during or before 1619.

What about his papers?

The burning question of what happened to the holograph versions of Shakespeare’s plays is one more of those things that remain a mystery.  With his daughter married into the Pembroke family, it’s most likely that Oxford’s papers went to the Pembrokes, who were responsible for having them edited, for getting the best copies from whoever might be holding them, and for obtaining the rights to publish from the various publishers currently holding rights to their publication.  As anyone knows who has followed the process of getting a controversial author’s papers published, this can take a very long time.

It’s most likely that Mary Sidney was the chief editor.  Having spent years editing and publishing her brother’s works and her own as well, she had the credentials.  Not just any scrivener would be allowed to tamper with the great man’s words, not even Ben Jonson.   She also had an insider’s awareness of what would have to be cut or changed to satisfy her community’s anxieties about the possible revelation of family secrets.  Most likely she had help in this from Francis Bacon, who would have stepped in to finish the job following Mary’s death.  Both of their biographies fit well with the timetable of First Folio production.  Ben Jonson was probably involved only in writing the front material.

As for the fate of the holograph versions of the plays, what makes the most sense is that, once the First Folio was finished and published, they were burned.  To satisfy the many individuals who had been satirized in the plays, or whose parents had been satirized, there would have to have been some such agreement.  Unfortunately for us, the rest, as Hamlet put it, has been silence.

There’s a great deal more to be said on the subject of Oxford’s death.  For some of it, click here.