Tag Archives: Mary Sidney

Shakespeare’s small Latin

Poor Ben Jonson!  What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup.  Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church.  Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.

Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.

But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority.  It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever.  Mary was dead.  Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church.  It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it.  It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.

The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End.  Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them.  But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.

The printer was waiting.  He stared at the blank sheet before him.  This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language.  It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus.  Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?

How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education?  Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks.  They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature.  Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.

The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished.  But this was a flat out lie.  Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek.  Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek.  Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it.  Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.

Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet.  Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death.  It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career.  Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.

Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument.  The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?

This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.

Advertisements

Bacon and the Wits

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

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

The Group Theory

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

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

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

This is how I see it

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

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

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

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

Enter Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fisher’s Folly

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

The University Wits

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

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

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

Astrophil and Stella

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

Enter Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon shifts gears

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

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

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

Bacon goes legit

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

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

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

The Earl of Derby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A personal note

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

Oxford’s career

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of the London Stage

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

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

The evolution of his style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough comedies!

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

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

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

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

Trouble in Illyria

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

The Cecilian revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apologie for poetic license

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

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

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

The authorship scenario in a nutshell

For those who may be new to the authorship question or who haven’t been able to piece together a full scenario from the hodge podge of my necessarily brief posts and pages, here’s a quick overview (well, as quick as possible) of the structure behind, not just the Shakespeare authorship issue, but my view of the entire English Literary Renaissance.  For more on each point, follow the links.

1550: The true author of the Shakespeare canon was born into a dysfunctional aristocratic English family in northwest Essex at almost the exact midpoint of the 16th century.  Four years later, due to the unstable political conditions surrounding the transfer of power from the first Reformation government under Edward VI to the Catholic government of his sister Mary Tudor, those who were concerned about the safety of the heir to the great Oxford earldom arranged for him to be transferred to the care of the nation’s leading statesmen and Greek scholar, Sir Thomas Smith.

At the time that de Vere came to live and study with him, Smith was living at Ankerwycke, a renovated priory on the northern bank of the Thames, a stone’s throw from today’s Heathrow airport.  Smith and his recently married second wife had no children, nor is there evidence of any other child raised in their household, suggesting that de Vere had a solitary childhood in terms of relationships with children his own age and of his rank.  Like other isolated children, he found companions in the heroes whose adventures he read about in books in Smith’s library, many appearing later in plays by Shakespeare.

During the five years of “Bloody Mary’s” Catholic reign, Smith and the other Reformation activists from Edward’s reign who stayed in England kept quietly to themselves.  Though it’s very possible that along with Smith and his wife, de Vere attended holiday festivities at nearby Windsor Castle where he would have seen plays and concerts and spent time with his parents and other members of the large family into which he was born, it’s unlikely that, except for five months at Cambridge in his ninth year, he spent much time away from Ankerwycke during the years when  Reformers like Smith, among them his former colleagues, John Cheke of Cambridge and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer , were being rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and executed.

1558-9: Queens’ College Cambridge

With the death of Mary in 1558, eight-year-old de Vere was shuffled off to his tutor’s college so Smith could take part in preparations for Elizabeth’s coronation.  When it became clear that he would not be getting the appointment to the Privy Council that he expected, Smith returned to his new estate, Hill Hall in Essex, to which de Vere too then returned.  Two years later, when his father’s death handed his fate over to the Crown and the Court of Wards, the now twelve-year-old Earl of Oxford came to to live with Smith’s former student, Sir William Cecil, now Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary and Master of the Court of Wards, at his new mansion in London’s West End.  There he studied ancient Anglo Saxon poetry and law under Laurence Nowell and the arts of the courtier under various masters of dancing, music, fencing, horsemanship and French pronunciation.

As a member of the household, de Vere formed a brotherly relationship with Cecil’s six-year-old daughter Anne and came to know their relatives, the Bacons, who lived up the road at York House: Anne Bacon, Mildred Cecil’s younger sister, her husband Sir Nicholas Bacon, William Cecil’s colleague on the Privy Council, and their small sons, toddlers Anthony and Francis, who, with their mother as instructor, could already babble charmingly in Latin.  Later the following year the Cecil’s only son, Robert, was born, and shortly after that Oxford’s first close friend, Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland, joined the household as the second ward of the Crown to come under Cecil’s care.  There they made friends with the young translators who congregated at Cecil House, most of them six to ten years their seniors.

Although the evidence is slim, it’s possible that from 1564 to 1566, under the name “Richard Vere,” the 14-to-16-year-old Oxford studied at Christ’s Church Oxford under the care of Canon Thomas Bernard, where he wrote and directed the play Palamon and Arcite for the 1566 commencement (later revised by John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen).  Earlier he did the same for the 1564 commencement at Cambridge, writing and directing the (extremely juvenile) play Damon and Pythias.  Both plays reflect his friendship for Rutland (both were attributed at the time to Richard Edwards, master of the Children of the Queen’s Chapel).  In February 1567 Cecil had him enrolled at Gray’s Inn in Westminster, signalling his return to London, Cecil House, and the Court.

By 1565 Oxford had written two plays for the West End community performed at Christmas at Gray’s Inn: one a translation of the comedy I Suppositi by Ariosto, the other Jocaste, a loose translation of a Sophocles tragedy.  Also in 1565 he published the first four books of his translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, published as by his uncle Arthur Golding; an anthology of tales translated by himself and his friends at Cecil House from numerous ancient and Continental authors (most of them found in Smith’s library) titled Painter’s Palace of Pleasure; and a collection of poems (Eclogues) by his friend Barnabe Googe.

1567: Court and literary patronage

By seventeen Oxford was living and travelling with the Royal Court and involved with the production of Court entertainments.  Like many other underage peers, he was forced to borrow from money-lenders to maintain his image as a Court dandy and patron of writers, musicians and companions.  These last included his cousin Henry Howard, who introduced him to Catholicism.  Though drawn by the Catholic panoply of art and music, so absent from the Reformation culture that had surrounded him since early childhood, yet the ancient belief system instill in him by Smith remained that of a Greek cycnic.  Among those he employed were several of his father’s retainers that, following his death, Cecil had taken into his own employ, among them the son of one  John Lyly.  He may also have sponsored the actors from his father’s old company.

As he approached and then passed his 21st birthday he continued his publishing ventures by putting into print Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier and his friend Tom Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte, a translation from Latin of Gerolamo Cardano’s popular de Consolatione.  In 1574 he published the first of the early anthologies, One Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, a collection of his own poems plus some by his friends, the plays he produced at Gray’s Inn, and a tale in prose, “The Adventures of Master FI,” the first of the sort of pastoral novella he would later publish in series as by Robert Greene, the name of one of his copyholders in Essex.

1571-75: Marriage and Italy

At twenty-one, yielding to tradition (and fiscal necessity), he allowed himself to be married to his guardian’s daughter, poor Anne Cecil, who got caught right away in the tension between her husband and her parents.  By 1575, he was finally allowed to take the traditional finale to a peer’s education, a tour of European capitals, and he set off for Italy, visiting in turn every locale in France and Italy portrayed later by Shakespeare.

While Oxford was away, issues arose around his indebtedness to money-lenders and those members of his family to whom his father had granted large innuities.  He staved these off by demanding that Cecil, who had charge of his estates, sell enough to pay his debts, something that the tight-fisted Cecil, whose eye was on the future of his daughter and her progeny, stalled on doing so that the interest continued to mount. It was as much out of fury at this situation as at the rumors that Anne had been unfaithful that Oxford broke off with her and her father upon his return from Italy.  This meant that she and their daughter continued to suffer for years from ugly rumors that the child was the product of an illicit affair, a tragic ploy that would haunt him for the rest of his life and that would form the plot or subplot of at least six of the Shakespeare plays.

1576: Birth of the London Stage 

In the weeks following Oxford’s return, the first of the first two successful commercial theaters in England sprang to life, the big public theater built by James Burbage for Hunsdon’s Men in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, a short distance on the Bishopsgate road leading north out of Central London.  Five months after his return, the second successful commercial theater opened its doors, this one the small private stage created as a rehearsal space for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in the old Revels building in the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The first served the public of the East End, the other the posh community of peers and educated parliamentarians of the West End.  Titles of all but one of the anonymous plays performed at Court that winter by both the adult companies and the boys suggest Oxford’s authorship.

By 1580 Oxford was living at Fisher’s Folly, a manor just outside the City Wall, roughly halfway between the City theater inns and Burbage’s public stage.  That Christmas he felt compelled to reveal to the Queen and leading members of the Court the fact that he’d found himself drawn by his cousin, Henry Howard, into a Catholic conspiracy that seemed to pose a threat to her life.  He was forgiven, while Howard and his cohort Charles Arundel landed in prison, which caused them to launch a series of scurilous counter charges against Oxford that stuck with many members of the Court community and that have damaged his reputation with historians ever since.  Having escaped the immediate consequences of their libels, he proceeded to get caught in a sexual liason with one of the Queen’s maids of honor.  This sent him to the Tower for two months (March through May), at which point he was released to house arrest.

Banished from Court indefinitely, he turned his skills towards writing more personally satisfying plays for the adult companies to perform at the little Blackfriars theater school for his favorite audience, the West End community.  This did not go well with the residents of Blackfriars, and soon the teachers who ran the school and their patrons, himself included, found themselves threatened with the loss of the stage that gave them access to the Westminster audience.  Although the choristers school was forced to merge with the one at Paul’s Cathedral in 1584, the stage itself probably continued to function on a less public basis for another six years.  There Burbage’s adult company was able to perform early versions of plays like Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Hamlet for the West End community, plays they could never have performed at Court.

When Sir Thomas Smith died in 1577, his friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham took over as Secretary of State.  Six years later, when Lord Chamberlain Sussex died, Walsingham took over as patron of the Court stage, which, through Oxford’s activities and those of his patrons and actors, was in the process of developing into the London commercial stage.  Walsingham, who lived just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly, and who was under pressure to prepare for war with Spain, saw in Oxford’s household of secretaries and musicians a sort of unofficial propaganda office.

Funding it at first from his own pocket, then persuading the Queen to kick in, he had Oxford providing the newly-formed Royal touring company, the Queen’s Men, with plays to perform in the shires, plays that dramatized for the provincial English some notable moments in their history.  This it was hoped would raise their national pride to a level that those who still saw themselves as Catholics would decline, when the Spanish attacked, to sell out for religious reasons.  Out of this came the early versions of Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, and the three Henry VI plays, plus all the plays now assigned to Robert Greene and most of the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

1580s: Francis Bacon and the birth of the periodical press

During his banishment, Oxford took a step towards providing the reading public with some of the tales he had written in the ’60s and ’70s to amuse the Court, but it wasn’t until he was back in 1583 that he followed through, publishing the pamphlet Mamillia as by Robert Greene, the name of one of his Essex copyholders.  Its almost immediate popularity spurred him to publish others, and soon, perhaps to his surprise, he found himself with an enthusiastic and expanding reading audience.  Through the dedications to these Greek romance-like stories he found a convenient way to acknowledge Court figures that, for one reason or another, he thought deserved recognition, or who could reward the bearer of a complimentary copy (one of his secretaries?)  with a sizable donation.

Thus was Oxford not only Shakespeare, not only the intitiator of the London Stage, he was also the initiator of the English periodical press, a phenomenon that spread rapidly, developing in later centuries into regular newsletters, then newspapers and magazines.

In 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon had arrived back in England for his father’s funeral.  Unable to return to Paris for lack of funds (his father died before providing him with a living), and with nothing more important to do, Bacon hooked up with Oxford, falling quickly into the role of Puck to his Oberon.  Oxford returned the favor by getting him connected with printers who would publish his poems, anonymously at first, then, with Sir Walter Raleigh’s help, as Edmund Spenser.  With the real Spenser far off in the wilds of southern Ireland, and with Raleigh willing to see to it that he got a regular stipend for the use of his name, Bacon was encouraged to publish a wide variety of his writings, including such divergent works as The Faerie Queene, written to entertain the Queen and her ladies, and Mother Hubberd’s Cupboard, an opening shot in his lifelong pushback against his uncle Burghley.

Lacking a paying Court position, Bacon was forced to provide for himself by working as a high level secretary to Court figures in need of politically sensitive, well-worded letters and official documents.  First among these was Sir Francis Walsingham, who, when Oxford refused to write for the Court in 1581, urged him to step in with plays for the boys to perform in a style that came as close as he could manage to the euphuism that the Queen enjoyed and that were directed and staged by Oxford’s secretary John Lyly.  By the end of the decade there were eight of these, which, like Oxford’s Euphues novels, were later published as by Lyly.

1587-88: Marlowe and Martin rock the boat

In 1584, 20-year-old Christopher Marlowe began showing up for training sessions with Oxford and Bacon, sessions intended to prepare the talented young poet to provide plays for the Queen’s Men.  These sessions took place for a few weeks each year until his graduation from Cambridge in 1587, at which point, rather than follow up on his promise to provide plays for the Court, he absconded with the fledgling actor, Edward Alleyn and the scribe Thomas Kyd to set up at Philip Henslowe’s new theater on Bankside where they entertained members of their own class with the dangerously anti-establishment play Tamburlaine.  Razzed by Oxford (Greene) and Bacon (Nashe) in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, Marlowe responded by adding a nose-thumbing prologue that referred to the Queen’s Men as “jigging . . . mother-wits.”

The following year the world of pamphlet publishing was rocked by the publication of the anonymous “Martin Mar-prelate” anti-cleric satires.  The bishops were furious, but their efforts to defend the newborn Anglican establishment only made them look pathetic.  In desperation they enlisted Oxford and Bacon to mount a counterattack.  Oxford’s lacked fire (probably because he found Martin hilarious), but Bacon, who had been struggling for years to find a genuine voice of his own, saw the light!  Adapting Martin’s slangy rant to his own purposes, he lashed out at Martin, fighting fire with fire with delirious abandon.

Martin was ultimately silenced by Cecil’s hounds, but Bacon had found his voice.  In 1589, using the name Thomas Nashe, he turned from the awkward pseudo-euphuism of An Anatomy of Absurdity to frolic in this new voice in a long preface to Greene’s latest pamphlet, Menaphon (another swipe at Tamburlaine).  From then on until 1596 when he finally got the respectable Court job he’d been yearning for, Francis published one work of comic genius after another.  Like Greene (in French, vert) or Shake-spear, Nashe was a pun on this wild new teeth-gnashing style. (The real Thomas Nashe had been a sizar at Cambridge, who, like William of Stratford and Edmund Spenser, got a stipend for the use of his name.)

1593: Marlowe’s death, Sidney’s sonnets, Shakespeare’s name

As the 1580s wore on, the impending threat of attack by Spain had brought a level of power to Secretary of State Walsingham that did not sit well with Lord Burghley, who by the Armada showdown had begun to see his former protégé as more of a rival than the obsequious junior he would have preferred.  With Walsingham’s death in early 1590 came the opportunity he’d been waiting for.   While he himself moved quickly to take over the public side of the Secretary’s office, he turned over Walsingham’s secret service agencies to his son, 27-year-old Robert Cecil.

Eager to show the Court in general and his frolicsome cousins in particular that he was a force to be reckoned with, Cecil created a sting that culminated in January 1592 whereby Marlowe could have been jailed under suspicion of coining, to be followed no doubt by the usual tribunal and execution.  When that failed to pan out, the next opportunity appeared a few months later when early signs of plague appeared.  Centuries of experience had taught the English that it would hit with full force the following spring, giving Cecil time to create another virtually flawless sting operation, which did in fact go off without a hitch.  Marlowe was caught, trapped, and either executed or transported overseas, with a corpse from another recent execution substitued in his place.

That Oxford had been warned in advance that trouble was on its way seems clear from the way that at the first warning of the plague in the summer of 1592 he rid himself of his Robert Greene persona.  That he included in Greene’s final “deathbed” pamphlet a warning that Marlowe was headed for trouble makes it almost a certainty.  That Bacon was frightened by Marlowe’s murder is evident from the fact that the book that he had ready to publish, the larky Jack Wilton, got set aside as he rushed to print instead the morose Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem.  A few months later, having recovered his nerve, he published that masterpiece of English satire, Piers (Purse) Penniless, in which he descants with stunning wit on his irksome poverty and the human devils that it forces him to deal with.

Burghley had already taken steps in 1588 (following his daughter’s death) to shut down Oxford’s operation by allowing his debts to the Court of Wards to be called in, forcing him to rid himself of anything that could be confiscated by the Crown or his other creditors, including Fisher’s Folly.  With bankruptcy hanging over him, Oxford found himself for the first time utterly unable to continue to support his staff (note the story of the grasshopper and the ant in Greene’s Groatsworth) or to raise any cash at all.  In fact, it seems that at one point he fell so low that he had to turn to his former retainers for handouts.

Feeling deserted and at a loss, when a young nobleman offered financial support for his new play (a revised Romeo and Juliet?), Oxford felt a gratitude that blossomed into love.  Now in his forties, his wife dead and with no heir to carry on his ancient name, his oldest and dearest friend gone, drenched with remorse over his treatment of his wife and his affair with his patron’s mistress, his heart went out to this handsome young peer.  In hopes of seeing him wed to his daughter, in 1590 he wrote 17 sonnets for the boy’s 17th birthday and gave them to him bound in velvet.  The youth’s response sent him into raptures of sonneteering.  Using the sonnet form created by his great uncle the Earl of Surrey, in verse after verse, a new voice began to appear.  Chasing the youth, chasing this new and powerful voice, he kept on writing.   As always in times of trouble, writing was his tonic, his escape.

Mary comes to town

November 1588 had seen the arrival on the London scene of 27-year-old Mary Sidney, Philip’s sister, who ended her two years of mourning for her brother by arriving at the Armada victory celebration in full Countess regalia and in a coach painted in Sidney colors.  Having produced the requisite heirs for her husband, the Earl of Pembroke, Mary was out to live life the way she wanted.  Quickly involving herself in writing (anonymously) for the stage, probably for Henslowe, whose theater was a short ferry ride from the Pembroke’s City residence, when Francis, determined to get the English Literary Renaissance moving no matter whom it upset,  published an unauthorized version of Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella, in 1591, she quickly saw to it that the book was recalled, edited her brother’s poems to suit her notions of what would pass for respectable, and had it republished  (minus the Oxford sonnet)––the first time in the Elizabethan era that a courtier poet of Philip’s standing was published under his own name.  That he was dead made it all right, but it still represented a crack in the monolithic taboo against courtiers publishing their own works.  More important, it forced Oxford to surpass everything he’d done up to then, and in so doing, find the voice we know as Shakespeare.

The appearance of Sidney’s wryly sweet and witty sonnets created an instant sensation with a reading public that, due to Greene (Oxford) and Nashe (Bacon), had grown by 1591 to sizable proportions.  Already adored as England’s warrior martyr, Sidney was now seen by Oxford’s reading audience as the greatest English poet since Chaucer.  Annoyed at being blind-sided by Bacon and Mary and, once again, upstaged by Sidney, Oxford, bent on taking back the preeminence he cared about the most, outdid himself.  By the end of the Elizabethan era it was clear that Venus and Adonis was far and away the most popular work published during that period.   How interesting that it was just at this moment, when his world was under attack, that Oxford finally found the voice that would spread the English culture to the ends of the world.

Bacon responded to Oxford’s crisis by publishing mournful ditties as Nashe to “Slumbering Euphues in his Melancholy Cell at Silexedra” and as Spenser to: “Our pleasant Willy” who is “dead of late.”  Along with his brother Anthony, who had returned from France in 1592, Francis opened his doors to what remained of the disbanded University Wits, he and his brother continuing their secretarial service out of their rooms at Gray’s Inn.  Mary helped by creating a new acting company in her husband’s name so that actors could continue to find work.  But Marlowe’s murder in 1593, followed by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, in 1594, sent the dire message throughout London’s little theater and publishing world that the good times were over.   Matthew Roydon disappeared; Thomas Watson “died”; Thomas Lodge went to France to study medicine; George Peele went to work for the Mayor; and Lyly began his lifetime of begging, unheard, for another Court job.

However low Oxford might fall it seems someone or something always came along to rescue him.  By 1592 the Queen had stepped in and arranged a second marriage with an heiress, Elizabeth Trentham, whose brothers were in a position to take over his shaky finances while his new Countess arranged for the purchase of a manor in the northern suburbs suitable for a person of his (and now her) rank.

In 1594 the ranking Privy Council patrons, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law the Lord Admiral stepped in to create out of the wreckage of the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men, two new companies.  The Royal company, with Hunsdon as patron, would have the advantage of Oxford’s playbook and the northern theaters, while the other, patronized by the Lord Admiral, would have some of his lesser plays, Henslowe’s theater on Bankside, and the advantage of Edward Alleyn as lead actor.  Oxford would be free to write for new audiences, in particular the gentlemen of the Inns of Court in Westminster who would soon be entertained in style in the grand new theater planned by Burbage and Hunsdon for the great Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars.

But this was not to be, for Robert Cecil, having acquired the wide-ranging powers of the Secretary of State in 1596, was not about to allow Oxford’s company access to the Westminster community.  As the winter holiday season approached and Burbage prepared the new theater for use, Cecil saw to it that the Privy Council honored a petition signed by the residents of Blackfriars requesting that the theater be prevented from opening.  This,  plus the loss of their old public stage in Shoreditch, plus the death in July of their patron Lord Hunsdon (two weeks after Cecil became Secretary of State), plus the death of James Burbage the following February, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in a very sorry state.

Bacon, with the help of Ben Jonson and perhaps also Oxford, fought back with a play produced at the new Swan theater on Bankside.  The response suggests that it dealt roughly with Cecil, whose recent appointment as Secretary of State tipped the balance of power on the Privy Council too heavily towards the Cecil faction for many at Court.  Concerned for his reputation with the Parliament due to convene in October, Cecil retaliated by closing all the theaters in London, which sent all the actors, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, on the road.  When they returned, it was to publish the Shakespeare version of Richard III, in which comparisons were so clearly drawn between the wicked king and Robert Cecil that, as history records, Cecil’s reputation was permanently blackened.  From then on he was stuck with the comparison, which sunk more deeply into the public psyche every time a new edition of the play was published, which occured with unusual frequency, eight editions in all, five of them before and a sixth joining the herd of libels that followed his death in 1612.

1598: The cover-up is launched

The uproar caused by the publication and production of Richard III in 1597 intensified the need by the scribbling rascality of the West End to discover who wrote it, which in turn forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put a name on the second edition, published the following year.   No other options having presented  themselves, they were forced to use the same name that Oxford had used four years earlier when he published Venus and Adonis, the name of one of printer Richard Field’s hometown neighbors.  That this cost the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or their patrons, something seems clear from the fact that it was at this same time that Field’s neighbor was suddenly able to afford one of the biggest houses in his hometown and to purchase the family crest that his dad had tried and failed to get twenty years earlier.

1604: Oxford escapes to the Forest

The troubles launched by the Cecils’ takeover of Walsingham’s office and the deaths of so many of his literary and theatrical colleagues, plus perhaps his own poor health, caused Oxford to begin planning his escape from Court.  As early as 1593 he was once again petitioning the Queen to return to him his inherited rights to the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham and the keepership of Havering palace.  Doubtless aware of her playwright’s intentions, the Queen continued to refuse it, but following her death in 1603, Mary’s sons, now the third Earl of Pembroke and his younger brother, found the new King easily persuaded to let the old poet have what he wanted.  Shortly after, Oxford invited his friends to a secret celebration to be held in the Forest on Midsummer’s Eve.  The following day, June 24th, 1604, word went out that he was dead.

With no reason to disbelieve the report, Cecil sent his agents to arrest the Earl of Southampton on the usual charge, suspicion of plotting to kill the King.  Finding none of Oxford’s papers, Cecil was forced to release Southampton.  He soon learned that Oxford wasn’t really dead, but by then there was nothing he could do but go along with a fabrication that was countenanced by the King.  When arrangements were made to wed Oxford’s youngest daughter Susan to the Earl of Pembroke’s younger brother, Cecil did what he could to prevent it, but again was overridden by the King, who liked nothing better than a wedding that seemed to bring together two Court factions.  Oxford spent the rest of 1604 revising eight of his plays for the wedding that took place that Christmas, four of them attributed by a Court scribe to “Shaxberd.”

1609: The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

He continued to live for another four years, polishing and revising his favorites for the King’s Men, among them Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet.  That he was dead by 1609 seems evident from the works published that year, among them Pericles and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, probably produced by Bacon.  Fascinated as he was by anagrams and codes, Francis is the most likely creator of the strangely worded dedication in which the name of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth, Henry Wriothesley, (Earl of Southampton) is spelled out through a particular arrangement of the printer’s type.  Cost and authorization were probably provided by the Earl of Pembroke––William Herbert––who was honored in the tradition of such publishing methods by being named as dedicatee: “Mr. W.H.”

With the author no longer around to provide more plays, the King’s Men turned some of his early pastorals over to Mary Sidney and John Fletcher to revise for audiences nostalgic for the “innocent” days of Elizabeth’s youth.  An uneasy alliance was formed among those who agreed that it was important to publish his collected works in a format that would guarantee their survival.  That this took a long time is understandable considering how controversial were some of the plays during Oxford’s lifetime, the concerns of his daughters who had their Cecil relatives to consider, friends of Oxford’s who may have held the best originals and who needed coaxing or payment, and booksellers who held the rights to some of the plays.  By the time the book was finally published well over a decade later, all were gone who might have caused serious problems.  Henry Howard and Robert Cecil were both long dead as was William of Stratford, although his wife was still alive until a mere two months before the book was available for purchase.

At about this same time, the monument to John Shakspere in Trinity Church acquired a plaque that explains in the kind of convoluted verse that was Ben Jonson’s forte that the subject was known for his wit.  It’s unlikely that either this or Jonson’s equally evasive wording in his dedicatory Ode to the 1623 Folio succeeded in quashing the authorship inquiry.  It seems the same concerns that dictated Jonson’s Ode continued to dictate the front material in both the 1633 and 1640 editions of his works, in which poets reiterated Jonson’s suggestion that room had been made for Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner.  The replacement of the bust of William’s father by a more writerly figure, with the woolsack evolving into a pillow and a pen, suggests that the paternal woolsack was presenting a problem.  Thus was initiated the series of renovations that has led to the present figure whose face Mark Twain felt resembled a “bladder.”

Among the fairly small community of art-lovers and aristocrats to which Oxford and his patrons belonged, his authorship must have been an open secret for two or three generations.  Then, as those who knew the truth for certain died, and their children died, fact faded to the level of a rumor, until the 19th century when a passion for delving into primary causes (Darwin, Marx, Freud) swept the culture at the same time that a renewed interest in his works turned Shakespeare into a cultural icon.  However, if one follows the chain of connections over the years from poet to poet and patron to patron,  it’s possible that the truth was known to the group that placed the statue in Poet’s Corner in 1741.

With Oxford so utterly lost to history, enthusiasts turned first to Francis, whose writing skills, interests and education seemed to qualify him.  The effort put into proving that Bacon was Shakespeare was the true beginning of authorship scholarship, as the Baconians published evidence showing how impossible it was that such a man as William of Stratford, with no education, no presence at Court, no legal training and no means of travelling to Italy, could possibly have written the works of Shakespeare.  They also located in the works of Robert Greene the missing Shakespeare juvenilia and made the connection between Bacon and the works of Spenser and Thomas Nashe.  Yet still the central truth, the existence of the Earl of Oxford, continued to elude them.

This was finally supplied in the years just following World War I when a British schoolteacher realized that someone so unknown to literary history must have been equally unknown as the playwright during his own time.  By creating a list of characteristics that Shakespeare reveals about himself in his works, and seeking in the right place, poetry anthologies, he found the Earl of Oxford, who fit the 18 characteristics in every respect.

Thus arrived the situation as it remains today.  Because historians and the left-brainers who run Wikipedia, based on what records the Cecils chose to leave us, continue to see Oxford as the kind of louche ne’er-do-weel the Cecils detested and did their best to destroy, we’re stuck with William, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Mary, or (God help us) Edmund Campion, or almost anyone but the guy who actually did it!

But refusing to deal with the facts about Oxford vs. William may not be the root cause of the problem, which is the utter refusal on the part of English historians to see the Elizabethan reign as a repressive regime dedicated to stamping out any glimmer of intellectual freedom.  Until the historians are willing to accept that as a given, we’ll continue to get nowhere with Oxford, for they will simply continue to ask why on earth should he, or Bacon, or Mary, any of the other writers, wish to hide their identities?

None are so blind as those who will not see.

Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.

I interview myself

Recently I had the privilege of telling some bits of this story to a team creating a feature length documentary on the authorship question under the direction of two long time friends.  I didn’t know what they would ask, so I wasn’t able to prepare.  I wanted to do something, so I decided as a warmup to interview myself.  As it turned out, the real interview was terrific fun.  Hopefully my dear readers will get to see me in action.  In the meantime I put myself on the spot.

ME: What first got you involved with the Authorship Question?

SHH: Ogburn’s book, the questions he left unanswered, my lifetime of reading the biographies of artists, my move to Boston and to working in the Public Relations Department of Boston University with access to their first class academic library.

ME: What do you consider your most significant areas of reseach?

SHH: Uncovering and publishing the facts behind his childhood, chiefly his education with Sir Thomas Smith and Smith’s own story, almost as interesting as Shakespeare’s.  One of the major arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare is that his tutor’s major interests are those areas where Shakespeare’s knowledge is almost infallible.

ME: What areas are those?

SHH: Smith was steeped in English and Roman history.  He had been the Greek orator at Cambridge in his early days, where, under Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, he soon became the first Chair of Civil law, which the Reformation wanted to see replace Church Canon Law.  Smith was fascinated with astronomy/astrology and had a library of books on the subject.  He was a passionate gardener, largely due to his interest in medicine, for which he had labs where he and an assistant distilled Paracelsian curatives.  He enjoyed hunting and falconry and, of course, reading his favorite works of Greek and Roman literature, among them Homer, Plutarch and Ovid.  Of all these things Shakespeare shows an intimate knowledge.

ME: What else have you discovered?

SHH: I believe it was Ogburn who mentioned the possibility that the answer to why we have no Shakespeare juvenilia is that Oxford published his early work under other names, so while I was working for BU I began examining the works of Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, George Peele and the other University Wits in the standard accepted editions.  At one point it became clear that some of the Wits, two being his secretaries, were Oxford fronts in the 1580s, most notably Robert Greene.

ME: What point was that?

SHH: When I realized that Greene supposedly died in September 1592 and Shakespeare’s name first appeared on a published work nine months later.  It’s this kind of connection, made through dates and locations, that make it possible to recreate the Shakespeare story, the real story.

ME: Why?  Orthodox Shakespeare scholars see no need to recreate the story.

SHH: That’s because they don’t understand what makes an artist tick.  The Stratford version makes no sense in terms of the life of one of the greatest artists who ever lived.  An artist on Shakespeare’s level would never begin by adopting the work of lesser writers or end by leaving the London Stage in the middle of a booming theatrical career to return to a hometown off in the sticks where he passes the time suing his neighbors over petty debts.

At a certain point you realize that there must have been a mighty effort on someone’s part to cover the author’s tracks.  Sure, this author wanted privacy (most writers do), and his patrons wanted his identity kept a secret for their own reasons, but beyond these there seems to have been a movement to completely extinguish all evidence, not only of his career but also of the people he worked with.  This is the main reason why we find it so hard to uncover the real story, not only about him but also about Marlowe, Peele and others, records that are strangely missing just where we would expect to find evidence.  This is true in too many areas for it to be purely coincidental.

ME: What do you think happened?

SHH: William Cecil Lord Burghly was a record-keeper.  Half or more of the records on which our knowledge of the Elizabethan era is based come from his years of collecting documents.  When he died in 1598, his son Robert inherited the collection along with his passion for collecting, and also, no doubt, for the control that came with them over what would become the history of the Elizabethan era.

Burghley would have had a cache of papers on his ward and son-in-law that he knew he would probably destroy at some point, keeping them until he was sure which ones he might want to save.  If, as I believe, Robert Cecil hated Oxford (with good reason, if he was aware that Shakespeare’s Richard III was believed by many to be a portrait of himself), he also had reason to destroy everything that connected him and his family to Oxford’s works, and probably, if he could, the works as well.  The Cecils have retained control of these papers ever since, where they still reside at Hatfield House, Robert Cecil’s home base.  As I write, no history of the time of any importance gets written without access to them.

In 1601, Cecil became the Chancellor of Cambridge University, giving him access to university records, including the buttery books where records of the presence or absence of Christopher Marlowe in the spring of 1586 are strangely missing.  There are also records missing for George Peele at Oxford that could shed light on his career with the Wits.  Nevertheless, I believe that despite this holocaust of the records, there is enough circumstantial evidence to claim that, largely due to his hatred of Oxford, Cecil also hated his team of writers and secretaries, known to us as the University Wits, and was determined to shut them up permanently.  The only two he didn’t dare to touch, at least not in person, were his relatives, his first cousin, Francis Bacon and his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford.

ME: What is the connection between Oxford and Bacon?

SHH: As adults they were colleagues within the Elizabethan writing establishment, but they had known each other since childhood.  Their maternal care-givers, Burghley’s wife and Bacon’s mother, were sisters, members of the female intellectual elite known as the Cooke sisters.  Bacon was 11 years younger than Oxford.  During Oxford’s years at Cecil House, a stone’s throw from York House where Bacon was born and spent his childhood years, he would have seen little Francis grow from toddler to child prodigy.  When at 18 Bacon returned from Paris in 1578, he found Oxford already working to create a vernacular literary English.  Both dedicated to the goal of English literary excellence, they worked more or less together for the rest of their lives to create the English literary establishment, writing and publishing both their own works and those of others, often at some risk.  Bacon wasn’t Shakespeare, but he was the pen behind two of the most important names in Elizabethan literature.

ME: What names are those?

SHH: Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe.

ME: That’s pretty radical.  Why them?

SHH: Neither one has a decent writer’s biography.  So somebody had to write the works published under their names and clearly it wasn’t the same mind or pen that wrote the Shakespeare canon.  The styles may differ, but when you examine certain factors, their timing, their attitudes and the purpose for which they were written, they fit Bacon to a T.  And they also fill in what he was doing during the years while he was waiting to get a genuine job at Court.

ME: How did Oxford come to use the name Shakespeare?

SHH: When Henry VIII left the neighborhood of Blackfriars in the 1520s, he turned the old monastery over to his revels master.  From then on the western range was used for rehearsals and storage of revels equipment and costumes.  This would have been where Oxford rehearsed with the Children of the Chapell when he got involved in holiday entertainments at Court in his late teens and early twenties.  When he returned from Italy in 1576, he helped start the children’s theater there, near the dance and fencing academies and a few hundred feet from Richard Field’s print shop, where he had some of the works he sponsored published.

In 1593, when he turned to Field to publish Venus and Adonis and was lacking an author name for the title page, Field suggested a man he knew in his hometown up north whose family was scuffling.  Oxford could probably have found another front, but William’s name could be spelled so that it made a pun, “will shake spear.”  That’s what his plays were about, shaking a spear (meaning his pen) at the evil-doers and fools in his community in the ancient tradition of the Court jester.  This way he had a solid cover, but buried within it was a pun, a clue that the name was a front.  The name Robert Greene held similar clues.  Robert was the traditional name for a robber, as in Robin Hood (Robert of Lockesley), while Greene suggested the greenwood, ancient location of holiday pranks and merry-making.  Also, serendipitously, Greene in French is Vere.

ME: How many people knew the truth about the authorship?

SHH: The only people who would have known for certain were members of the Court community, and not all of them would have been in on everything he did.  The Queen and the Privy Council knew about most of his plays (though almost certainly not all).  He’d been writing for the Crown since the 1570s, in the ’80s for the Queen’s Men, then in the ’90s for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  So his identity as author of plays for the Crown companies was something of a state secret.

For the actor-sharers of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men it was a business secret.  As the primary reason for their financial success, their playwright’s identity was something they would sooner die than reveal.  It was also a family secret.  Several of the most popular Shakespearean characters were based on members of Oxford’s family and other important figures at Court.  Of course there may have been a greater number who found out, but were wise enough to keep it to themselves.  And even more who suspected, but again, thought better of any urge to share their suspicions, except among close and close-mouthed friends.

ME: Is this the reason why the coverup continued after his death?

SHH: Absolutely.  If Shakespeare’s Richard III was Robert Cecil, to Oxford’s daughters, it was a portrait of their uncle, their mother’s brother.  Polonius, that doddering old sycophant, was their grandfather.  Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was the still highly revered Queen Elizabeth while her longtime favorite, the Earl of Leicester, patriarch of the Sidney family and uncle of William Pembroke, Oxford’s patron during his final years and publisher of the First Folio, was the original for the murderous King Claudius.

We can only make these connections through scholarship today, but in those days, knowing that it was the Earl of Oxford who created these characters would have suggested the originals to too many for their identity to remain private for very long.  There was a lot of dirty family linen mixed in with the wonders of the Shakespeare canon that had to be either washed or eliminated before his plays could be put forth to a public audience.

ME: Is this why it took so long to get the First Folio out?

SHH: Anyone who’s ever had to dicker with the inheritors of a great writer’s estate in order to publish their collected works will understand how very hard it must have been.

ME: Many believe that Ben Jonson edited the First Folio.  Do you agree with that?

Pembroke would have given Jonson the task of preparing the front material that was intended to solidify the authorship with the front man, but his most logical choice for editor was his mother, Mary Sidney.  I believe that after her death, the editing was finished by Bacon, who had just lost his Court position and so had the time.  The Countess and the former Lord Chancellor were the only individuals that Pembroke could trust because only those who had known the originals were aware of the delicate issue of covering the identities of their caricatures.  Jonson was simply too young.  The front material was the means for creating the cover story, and in later editions, for making it stick.  It was also the means for telling his readers that Oxford had finally been buried in the Abbey, and that this was when it got the name Poet’s Corner.

ME: I understand that you don’t believe he died in 1604, why is that?

It’s a long story, but basically because there’s nothing in any of the letters being sent within his family circle at that time that addresses his recent death.  Yes, there are legal documents, but most unusually, nothing personal.  Also suspicious is the fact that his death supposedly occurred on one of the major turning points of the year, Midsummer’s Day, also celebrated since time immemorial as the Feast of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the Freemasons, who were famous for their ability to disappear when confronted with enemies.  Oxford had been angling for years for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, something the Queen denied him but that King James, probably with the encouragement of the Pembrokes, signed over to him in 1603, where he could live at peace and in safety from his enemies, polishing his favorite plays.

ME: What do you consider the most important points you’d like to make regarding the authorship?

SHH: That the question has got to go beyond Shakespeare.  There are at least two other Court writers who used fronts to get published, Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney, and there may have been others.  Some of Spenser sounds a lot like Raleigh.

The major point is that there was not one gifted writer at the Court of Elizabeth, but at least five: Oxford, Bacon, Philip Sidney, his sister Mary, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  These plus the commoner, Marlowe, were the force that singly and together, created the English Literary Renaissance.  Why did they hide?  For starters, we should note that the one writer who didn’t hide, Marlowe, got murdered.  I would say that’s a pretty good reason.

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

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.

Was Shakespeare a woman?

From time to time I’ve stated my opposition to the idea that Shakespeare could have been a standin for a woman.  In response to a request from a reader (Howard Schumann), I’ll go into a little more detail.

One can’t argue that “Shakespeare is such an obviously masculine voice,” because many women have written believably as men.  The best evidence for this is Mary Shelley, who once beat two very masculine writers in a three-way contest to tell the best horror story––her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron––when she created the still popular Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in 1816.  So it’s not because a woman can’t write believably in a male voice or create believable male characters.  They can, and do, every day.

Shakespeare has given us interesting women, but they are all seen from a male point of view.  It’s a thoughtful view, but it is still an outsider’s view.  Had Shakespeare been a female, she would have revealed more deeply the inner workings of a woman’s mind. Her women would have been as witty as her men, and been given as memorable speeches,  One would think that in her 38 plays she would have featured at least one major female protagonist or told at least one woman’s story.  Apart from giving them good lines, true of most of his characters, Shakespeare did none of these.

Good lines and understandable motivations are true of most of his leading female characters, but even plays that derive all or most of their thrust from a woman’s predicament, plays like As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well, or Measure for Measure, show little more than one side of their characters, however attractive (or repellent) that side.  And some behave in most unnatural ways, like Lady Anne who allows herself to be won over by her husband’s murderer, Richard III, in a matter of minutes, or Kate, whose anti-feminist speech at the end of Shrew continues to make problems for modern directors.  In contrast to the finely tuned portrait of Hamlet, a masterpiece of character development, Ophelia got short shrift from her creator.  Possibly the result of several revisions, or even posthumous editing (though some tempting hints remain in her mad speech), Ophelia is an almost impossible role for the young, still inexperienced actress who’s required to give it a coherence that’s not in the text, something that would not be true had she been created by a woman who had teenage griefs of her own to draw on.

Shakespeare’s stories

The question of story goes a little deeper.  There have always been stories that speak most clearly to one or the other sex.  We see this in fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk for boys, Cinderella for girls, and in folk tales like the Iron John stories for men, as noted by poet Robert Bly, and for women, stories like Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady or the Thousand and One Nights of Sheherazade.  Had Shakespeare been a woman, one would think that at least one play would be told from a woman’s point of view as Chaucer did with his “Tale of the Wife of Bath” and Christopher Morley did with Kitty Foyle.

But although the Bard created a few strong, multi-dimensional female characters like Juliet, Kate, Rosalind, Beatrice and Cleopatra, all but Rosalind are paired with an even stronger male character, and like most female characters created by men, in terms of the story being told, most are largely adjuncts to their lovers’ stories.  The exceptions, Rosalind, Imogen (from Cymbeline), Julia (from Two Gents), Helena (from All’s Well), and Viola (from Twelfth Night), are basically all variations of the same persona, and while it is how they deal with their predicament that drives the action in either the main or the subplot, they do most of it pretending to be men.

All of Shakespeare’s plays are in fact gender specific, the gender being that of a 16th-century male aristocrat.  Ah, you say, although 16th-century London was a male-dominated society, since women can write like men, a talented woman could have faked a male voice.  But Shakespeare’s first audience was the Elizabethan Court audience , which was dominated by women; the Queen of course, plus her corps of female attendants, set the tone for all the entertaining done at Court.  In fact, most, perhaps all, of Shakespeare’s comedies were written originally for this audience, which helps to explain why so many of them have girls or women as important characters.  The tragedies were written for the masculine West End audience known as “the gentlemen” of the Inns of Court.

Shakespeare’s male bias is quite evident in his two long narrative poems.  Though both are focussed on a woman’s predicament, both are clearly written from a male viewpoint.  Unless our female Shakespeare was a lesbian it’s hard to see a woman describing the goddess Venus in so enticing a state of sexual arousal.  It’s also hard to see a female writer suggesting that, following her rape by Tarquin, Lucrece’s only decent option was suicide.  Even today, when roughly one out of five, four, possibly even three women suffer rape at least once during their lives, if all since Shakespeare had taken the course suggested by his “graver” effort, the human race would have vanished long since.

The Jacobean playwrights

Ignoring the skewed dating of the plays preferred by academics and listening only to his voice, it’s clear that Shakespeare was an Elizabethan first, last, and always.  Nor was the revising that he did for his Jacobean audiences after 1603 a great deal different in tone from the nature of his earlier work.  By 1603, the (53-year-old) leopard did not, could not, change his spots.  But, Shakespeare––and Ben Jonson––aside, the rest of the Jacobean stage was much different from what it had been in Elizabeth’s time, and interestingly one of the ways that it differed most obviously was in this very area, for a number of Jacobean plays look at life from a woman’s point of view.

The subject deserves the kind of detailed treatment that I can’t give at this point, not having given it sufficient study.  Suffice it to say that the trend is most obvious in John Webster’s two masterpieces, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), both so obviously written by a woman that when I first read them back in 2002 I was astonished that no one, so far as I could see, had ever noticed it before.  Having been inundated with male literary notions of women for most of my life, the realization that this, whatever the name on the title page, was the work of another woman hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  That that woman had to be Mary Sidney became evident as soon as I began comparing the plots and characters of the two plays to incidents and situations in her own life.

The style of these plays, and other works attributed to Webster, are so idiosyncratically Mary Sidney’s that there’s simply no possibility that she could also have written Shakespeare.  No one in his or her right mind could suggest that the same person wrote both canons.  I do hear the Webster style in a play attributed to John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize, one that, as George Swan shows, was written as a satire on Oxford.  I also think it’s likely that Mary did some editing of Shakespeare’s plays before her sons got them published, but like most accomplished writers she would have been a sensitive editor and so refrained from tampering with what, by then, the rascally author being long departed, she must have realized were masterpieces of English literature.

Throughout 2003 I devoted all lectures and articles to showing why these works had to be, not only by a woman, but specifically by Mary.  Coming to know her as I have, I feel certain that she would be furious to think that she was being “accused” of writing the works of Shakespeare, and not the ones she actually did write.  Her credentials as a writer have probably been well-covered by those who promote her as a candidate for Shakespeare, but even with only the few things that she published under her own name to go by, it should be obvious that her very unique style is so unlike his that such an identification is, or should be, moot at the outset.

Where Shakespeare is copious in his poetry, she’s spare, reflecting the puritannical nature of her upbringing.  In fact her verse can be so condensed that it’s hard to grasp her meaning.  Shakespeare’s style in his plays is a magnficent blend of the styles admired by his tutor with, probably, street talk from his early years.  Mary (Webster) on the other hand, speaks in a kind of London slang that must reflect the kind of talk she heard around her, both at Court and in the streets surrounding her London establishments, a style that had changed considerably, as styles tend to do, since Oxford began writing.  It’s almost as though she purposely set out to write in as opposite a style to his as she could,  a motivation that could have sprung from the long-standing literary antagonism between her brother and the Earl of Oxford.

Mary Sidney played a hugely important role in the creation and development of the Elizabethan/Jacobean Stage, one I’ll go into detail about in a separate essay, but it was not to write the plays of Shakespeare.  Much like Francis Bacon, her friend and near contemporary (he was her elder by only nine months), she played a dangerous game, contributing for 30 years to the underground English Literary Renaissance, using her prestige to remain well under the radar of official repression.  Her sons carried on the work she began in the 1590s, culminating in the publication of her own work as John Webster (possibly her coachmaker’s son) and of Oxford’s work under the name Shakespeare.  The two families, though at odds under Elizabeth, came together in 1604 with the wedding of her son Philip Herbert, EArl of Montgomery, to Oxford’s daughter Susan Vere.

Mary was probably not the only woman writing plays during the Jacobean period.  The Yorkshire Tragedy, c.1608, is in a woman’s voice, though not in Mary’s style.  In 1611, Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the Dark Lady of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published the first book length poem in English by a woman, its introduction giving her the added distinction of the first Englishwoman to publish a feminist tract.  Elizabeth Carey, another member of the Court community, is known for the first play written by a woman (published under her own name) in 1613.  In 1621, Mary’s niece, Mary Wroth, published the first English novel by a woman.  These may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Much needs to be done to sort out who wrote what during this period (1612-1640) not only by women but by male courtiers as well.  Protected by the theater-loving Queen Anne, the great patron of the period, Lady Lucy Bedford, and by Mary’s oldest son, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, after 1615 when he took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, female courtiers had opportunities to write and publish that they did not have under Elizabeth nor would in later times, though almost always, of course, under a masculine name.  Who were they?  Hopefully time will tell.

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?