I didn’t review Shapiro because I didn’t read his book.
I used to pay attention to Stratfordians. I’d argue with them, pointing out the holes in their logic, pointing to the facts, the “smoking guns,” that require a courtier, a more sensible dating scheme, an explanation for the gaping anomalies in the Stratford biography. When they ridiculed the Shakespeare authorship question I got serious. When they purposely misinterpreted facts I got angry. When they refused to listen I got sad.
Round and round I went on SHAKSPER with the postdocs and pseudo-scholars as they tirelessly repeated the mantras instilled in them by their professors. When finally they began beating the drum for the notion that great fiction doesn’t have to arise from personal experience, I should have realized that it was an exercise in futility, but I soldiered on, thinking that there might be lurkers whose minds were less closed to reality. If so I never saw any hint of it.
Then of course there was HLAS, created in part by Oxfordians Bill Boyle and Marty Hyatt as a forum for an open online discussion, which soon turned into a verbal Fight Club, with the Shakespeare authorship question nothing more than a focal point for the verbal art of ad hominem vilification. If HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare) is still in operation I’d be very much surprised to hear that it’s changed. Fighting is always so much more exciting than reasoning.
When they said Oxford’s poetry was terrible I demonstrated how different it was even then from the morose tone of the poetry being written at the time and known to literary historians as “the drab era.” If any of them had ever bothered to read this stuff, to actually compare Oxford’s poetry with Turberville or Churchyard, they never uttered a peep.
When they brushed off Oxford as dying before The Tempest was written I pointed to the obvious factors that link that play to the 1595 marriage of his daughter to the Earl of Derby (since then Stritmatter and Kositsky have shown even earlier origins); to the fact that back in the 1570s it was his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, whose plan for colonizing Ireland is considered by historians today to be the starting point for all subsequent plans to colonize America (Quinn 103, Armitage xx), including Jamestown, where the ship was headed that was wrecked in Bermuda, the supposed source of the 1611 Strachey letter; to the fact that Smith’s family were close friends with the Stracheys in their hometown of Saffron Walden, Essex (it was their grandson who wrote the famous letter); and so on. It hasn’t changed a thing. We continue to hear, ad infinitum, how The Tempest and any number of other plays (never enumerated) were written too late to be by Oxford.
When they claim that knowing nothing about Shakespeare is perfectly understandable––since so little is known about writers like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, or John Webster, why should we know any more about Shakespeare than we do about them?––I never dared to explain how Greene was early Shakespeare, Nashe was early Francis Bacon, and Webster Mary Sidney. I may be willing to stick my chin out now and then, but I’m not insane.
How they love to ridicule the fact that there are so many candidates. Francis Bacon? No way. Christopher Marlowe? Un-uh. Mary Sidney? C’est ridicule! Yet the historic picture based on the fact that there is no evidence that these writers even knew each other never raises a single eyebrow. Do they actually know any great writers personally? Have they ever researched the lives of other great writers in the kind of depth that would cause them to wonder why this group was so different? No, because to a left-brainer, the only reality is the one written down on paper. To admit that there might be something else is to open a can of really evil, dangerous right-brain worms. Run away! Run away!
Their favorite tactic of course is to call us “snobs” for thinking that only an earl could have had the kind of education revealed by Shakespeare’s works. There’s really no rejoinder to the stupidity of this, except to point out that if in fact William of Stratford had had such an education, we’d surely know about it, just as we know about the educations of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, neither one of them earls or even close.
The major problem, as I have come to realize, is that students of literature never attempt to relate what they know of the history of the period (not so much nowadays it would appear) to its literature, its writers, their publishers and printers, nor do they think to relate the mysteries of an earlier period with similar situations closer to us in time. This disconnect begins in school where, in history class, sound-bytes on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation, the Inquisition, the burning of witches (i.e. women) in France and heretics (i.e. scientists) in Italy and Spain, are forgotten the day after the quiz, while in English class they learn that Shakespeare was “above” writing about current events or using his life as a background to his works. Two little boxes, side by side on a mental shelf, one labelled History, one Literature––never the twain to meet.
I used to think this was more or less purposeful, that “none are so blind as those who will not see,” but now I think it’s not so much that they won’t see than that they simply can’t. Raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely require anything more than regurgitating a teacher’s favorite ideas, most academics become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything they deal with that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have pretty much dried up and blown away. This is bad news for the culture at large, as nature clearly intended the left brain to function as the servant to the right brain. It’s a killer for those questions that require cross-disciplinary thinking. It’s interesting that current studies suggest that animals use their left brains mostly for locating food, their right brains for warning of the approach of predators. Substitute tenured professorships for food and the Beatles’s apple bonkers for predators, and you have a nice little metaphor for our present predicament.
Luckily, now that we have google and the internet, we can simply ignore them. Already Shapiro’s book is fading from view. Google alerts hasn’t turned up a new review in a couple of weeks. No biggie, for the left-brainers will have a new one out in no time, written by and for the academics and their admirers, as they continue to reassure themselves that the Shakespeare authorship question is only for the lunatic fringe.
I respect the efforts of the Oxfordians who continue to take them on. More power to them, though I doubt that it will make a dent in their thinking or in the thinking of those who lay out good money for their books. The French Impressionists did not take the art world by storm by meeting the Royal academicians on their own turf. No revolution, whether bloody or merely intellectual, ever began by playing footsie with the establishment, and the revolution we call the English Literary Renaissance was both intellectual and bloody. And a hell of a lot more interesting than either the Stratford story or the hyperbole of its proponents.
What are we to think about Shakespeare? Is he who he said he was, who Ben Jonson and the academics say he was, or was he someone else? Have we been diddled by Jonson all these centuries, and if so, why? And does it really matter?
Maybe it doesn’t matter, but then what does? Does it matter who won Olympic gold this year, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court? How many people care about these things? What percentage of the population gives a damn about almost any question you can think of, including who killed Jack Kennedy?
It’s said that when George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there”––actually another authorship question since some think that a journalist made it up, but no matter who actually said it, it’s a good answer and it works for Shakespeare too. For Shakespeare looms as large in the history of English letters as Everest looms on the Himalayan horizon. Why do we want to know the answer to the question of who actually created the language we speak? Because it’s there.
Why “the big picture”?
If we knew who wrote the works we wouldn’t need anything but a little background along the edges, but not knowing, not knowing for sure, we must go to the background, for the truth leaves clues wherever it occurs. As I got deeper into the story it began to expand, from the works themselves to the life of the supposed author to the lives of other English authors and their works, both those with writer’s biographies and those without, to the lives of the patrons and of the Queen they served, their politics, alliances, relationships and beliefs.
It spread to the story of the Continental poets and playwrights, to the history of the Reformation and beyond that of the European Renaissance. From the works it spread to their sources (which, it turned out, were often in languages other than English), to the kind of education available to the writers, to the ancient and Continental works that inspired them, and on to the realities of literature itself, how it gets created and by what kind of artist. And finally to questions of freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise. A big picture indeed.
Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary. Not only will the big picture bring illumination to the history of the period, it may help to bring understanding to something that’s in danger of being lost, the important and true purposes of Art, the nature of artists––as different from other human creatures as are butterflies from bees.
To put it as simply as possible, Shakespeare’s identity got hidden because he was so closely involved with the history of his time and with its movers and shakers, those in a position to hide the things they wanted hidden, that his identity became one of those things.
Over the four centuries that English speakers have been discussing Shakespeare, there have been many battles over the Sonnets, who they were written for, when they were written, and whether or not they were about something real or were just a literary exercise. Although beautiful and important, I’ve tended to steer clear of discussing them partly because they’re so short on facts that nothing can be proven and, largely for that reason, because they’ve given rise to so many bizarre interpretations.
Then in 1999 I found myself preparing for an SOS Society conference where the Sonnets were a focal point, so I devoted several weeks to reading everything I could find on the subject going back to the 19th century. (An article I wrote later expanding on that lecture, The Story of the Sonnets, provides a good deal more detail for those who are interested. There’s also a Sonnets bibliography with comments on the books I found of most interest.)
Traditions of sonnet cycles
Some years ago I got into a fight with the usual coneheads on Hardy Cook’s listserv, who eagerly pounced on my statement that the best writing comes from experience, from enduring the emotions and insights that come from Life itself. Isn’t this what Keats means with “truth is beauty, beauty truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know”? Keats was speaking to fellow artists and philosophers, of course––who else bothers about the relationship between Truth and Beauty? Certainly not the coneheads that were dominating SHAKSPER.
Believing that most if not all the plays (the good ones) were written out of Oxford’s own experiences and emotions, of course I believe that the Sonnets were as well; that is, they were written at a time when he was going through experiences like those described in the Sonnets. That others in like case over the centuries have found solace in Shakespeare’s Sonnets attests to their power, a power that comes from how accurately, and with a thousand subtle details, they describe experiences common to many readers, which is, of course, why they’ve remained in print for centuries, and why we need to look to common experiences for reasons why he wrote them.
It was Petrarch who introduced sonnets to the West. My guess is that like other sweets: stringed instruments, perfume, sugar, and Courtly Love, they originated in Persia (Iran), migrating to Italy via the cultural transfer from the Middle East to Venice in the 14th century. Traditionally a sonnet cycle is a narrative of sorts, describing day by day, hour by hour, verse by verse, the progress of a passion from its dizzying enception to its final spasm. We call these sonnets love poems in English, but the term the Elizabethans preferred was passion.
Love is too limiting a term for an experience that contains so many feelings, some anything but sweet––loneliness, loss, jealousy, envy, hurt feelings, remorse, disgust, even hate. Poems written after the things they describe are over differ from those written as they happen. Sonnet cycles, when they are genuine, are like raw footage, unedited, pungent, detailed, revealing themes through a process of repetition and insight that’s closer to life itself than the reflection of life we call memoirs.
It’s part of the tradition of the sonnet cycle that the poet doesn’t reveal the true identity of the beloved. An offshoot of the Courtly Love tradition, Petrarchan sonnets echo the yearning of a chivalrous knight for the beautiful but chaste wife of his lord. Bound to him by oaths of fealty, this Courtly Love trope adds a further bond between lord and vassal, whose sacred passion for the lady can never fade because it’s never fulfilled; (the role the Virgin Queen demanded from her favorites). Such poems are proofs of that love (“oblations, poor but free”), but only the lady herself is to know who is meant by “Stella,” or “Diana,” or “Phillis,” or “Caelica.” For the Poet to let slip anything that reveals the source of his passion is to betray his Muse, another kind of romantic pose, but still one of great artistic authority by Oxford’s time.
And because, as a narrative in verse, a sonnet cycle is meant to follow such a passion as it unfolds, I believe that, following Oxford’s death, those published his sonnets saw to it that (for the most part) they were published in the order he intended. Whoever had control of Oxford’s literary estate would have had great respect for it as literature. Notions that when he died he was careless about leaving his papers where just anyone, including family members who cared more about their image than they did literature, might have gotten hold of them, shows a lack of understanding of how great artists feel about their work. Having promised that he was going to leave a portrait of the Fair Youth for posterity to admire, he would certainly not have played fast and loose with their vehicle. Whoever got his papers also got strict instructions on what to do with them. This is simply common sense.
Oxford may have given up on Southampton himself (all passions must come to some kind of end), but he would never have given up on the poems that his love for him brought forth. As he says in his farewell Sonnet, #126, Nature who has been so kind to Southampton, allowing him to keep his good looks well into his maturity, will have to cash him in sooner or later: “She may detain, but still not keep her treasure;/ Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,/ And her quietus is to render thee.” In time the Fair Youth will cease to be both a youth and fair, but, as their author well knows, if properly published, the love poems he inspired will never lose either their beauty or their truth.
A great deal has been made of the fact that Shakespeare’s muse was a boy, not a lady. To the shame-based society that the Reformation made of the English, that’s been an awful shocker. However, if we pay attention to the poems it seems clear that the Poet’s desire is less sexual than emotional, the desire of a man for a son (Oxford was without an heir when he began writing them), and most important to an artist, for a muse whose charisma is potent enough to inspire his art. Unfulfilled desire is the force that keeps it going. It’s the number one Rule of Romance: fulfill the desire and the magic ends. The question here being, desire for what? My answer: a son-in-law whom he could love as though he were his own and, not least, a theater patron with solid credit.
Dating the sonnets
Back in 1999, I spent a good deal of time back seeking genuine scholarship on the dating of the Sonnets. I finally found it in a book titled Elizabethan Sonnet Themes and the Dating of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (AMS 1962, 1973). The author, Claes Schaar (writing for a Danish press, and so less constrained by hometown anxieties over identities), sticks strictly to the protocols of literary dating. Basing his conclusions on the work of two scholars, one a German (pub 1884), the other an American (pub 1916) who apparently had no knowledge of his German predecessor (190). Since these groundbreakers there have been others, all with similar results.
Ignoring the Stratford biography or any consideration of who the principles might have been, by comparing the language to that of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the only works by Shakespeare whose dates are solid, they place most or all of the Sonnets somewhere in the early 1590s: “. . . the vast majority of the sonnets we have examined seem thus to have been written between 1591-92 and 1594-95” (Shaar 185). Their findings are corroborated by other scholars replicating their efforts, one being G.P.V. Akrigg, Southampton’s biographer, who gives an impressive list of scholars who agree that their language also places them close to the Folio versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, which have been dated, by topical references and by language similarities to the two dated narrative poems, in the early 1590s (203).
All of this is by way of introducing Sonnet 107, which, although not considered one of his greatest, has probably caused the most discussion since it alone seems bent on revealing everything that he was so careful to hide in the other 125. Not only does it go out of its way to identify the Fair Youth as the Earl of Southampton and to locate him, and by extension the surrounding sonnets, to 1603 when he was released from the Tower by King James, it’s also written in a different style.
As Schaar explains, most of the sonnets were written close in time, one after another. Schaar et al see two bursts: 1591-92, and 1594-95. These dates fit perfectly with what we know of Southampton, who really was a boy, that is, a teenager, in the early 1590s. This scenario fits the first 17, the so-called marriage or procreation sonnets, with a known event, Burghley’s effort to get Southampton married to Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere. In fact, the entire cycle fits perfectly with the biographies of Oxford (the Poet), Southampton (the Fair Youth), Essex (the Rival Poet) and Emilia Bassano (the Dark Lady).
All but a very few of the sonnets, including those that come just before and just after 107, are end-stopped throughout, that is, the expression of each thought is compressed into a phrase that pauses at the end of a line. There are a very few (I counted four) in which enjambment carries the thought over from the first to the second line, though the basic iambic rhythm remains. This style is one of the things that places the Sonnets early in Shakespeare’s career, as later he became much more relaxed about meter and enjambment.
But in 107 the opening expression ranges across not just two, or even three, but the entire first four lines! Most unusually, the iambic rhythm is gone from those lines! It’s a good strong poem, but located as it is surrounded by sonnets of a diffrent style, it sounds like someone else wrote it. Frankly, it sounds like John Donne. I’m not saying he wrote it, but that’s who it sounds like. So there are two big things that make this poem stand out in contrast to the rest of the sonnets, a violation of the tradition of secrecy, and also of a pattern adhered to throughout the entire rest of the cycle.
Cherchez le editor
My guess is that whoever published the poems inserted 107 for the very reason that it’s assumed such importance today, because it identifies the Fair Youth and it also locates the cycle at a particular point in time. Since the author took obvious pains not to identify persons or events, this would have to have been done by the editor who prepared them for publication, and who probably was in harmony with the publisher.
I can’t say for certain who might have been Oxford’s literary executor, but a very good candidate would be William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who, by 1603, when Oxford was approaching the end of his life, was better-situated than anyone else to protect the poet’s valuable papers from those who might be anxious to see them disappear. And who better to prepare them for the press than Pembroke’s own mother, Mary Sidney, who was probably already preparing another elegant edition of her brother’s works. This scenario also helps to identify the Sonnets’ dedicatee, the mysterious “Master W.H.”
Why would the Pembrokes wish to make clear what Shakespeare had left ambiguous?
I can’t answer that, but I can point to something similar that occured in 1598 with the third edition of Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, edited and published by Mary, in which she included his sonnet cycle of the 1580s, Astrophil and Stella. She also included, for the first time, a sonnet that hadn’t been in any previous edition or in any of the manuscript versions that predated their publication in print back in 1591. This sonnet, numbered 37, is the one that identifies Stella as Penelope Devereux.
It’s often assumed that #37 was left out of the cycle at first because it identified Stella, though that doesn’t explain why it then became necessary to make the identification. True, by 1598 Penelope, though married, was openly living with her lover, Sir Charles Blount, Ld Mountjoy, so by then she had little reputation left to lose. Even so, why stir the pot? Could it be to direct suspicion away from Mary, who was suffering from the ususal rumors that followed women of celebrity, in her case that she and Philip had been lovers, that Stella was Mary, and that her brother was her son’s true father (Aubrey, Brief Lives, 140)?
That Mary (and her sons) might want to direct suspicion away from herself as the object of what could be seen as a shameful incestuous passion on Philip’s part would be altogether understandable, or that Penelope Devereux, already into her scandalous relationship with Mountjoy, would be willing to let her name be used to protect Mary (Sidney makes it clear that the lust was all on his side, that Stella remained pure) is not only the stuff of romance, it’s the stuff of real life, that is, the real lives of romantic poets, who tend to take big emotional risks, much as astronauts, firemen and bullfighters take physical risks.
There was a close bond between the Devereux siblings and the Sidneys. Philip and Mary were the children of Mary Dudley, sister of the Earl of Leicester. Throughout the years while Leicester was hoping to marry Queen Elizabeth, Philip played the role of his uncle’s heir. When Leicester finally gave up and married Lettice Knollys, widow of the 2nd Earl of Essex and mother of Robert and Penelope, Philip was forced to pass on the role of his uncle’s heir to Robert Devereux,Leicester’s new stepson. As Philip lay dying of wounds in 1586 (suffered under his uncle’s command), he honored this rather mystical bond by ceremoniously handing on his sword to Essex, a bond that Essex then honored by marrying Philip’s widow. (It was this sort of chivalrous behavior that made his friends love Essex.) This bond between Essex and the saintly Philip then extended to their sisters, Mary Sidney and Penelope Devereux.
Why Oxford wrote the Sonnets
There was nothing improper about the way it started. A marriage deal was in the works to unite his daughter and Burghley’s ward, the young Earl of Southampton, so the first 17 sonnets were written in the kind of passionate terms that fathers of marriagable daughters did back then. (See Burghley’s wooing of the saintly Philip in letters to Sir Henry Sidney.) Not every father could put such sentiments into verse, but as with all such social conventions, those who could certainly would. So that’s all that was at stake with the first group, known as the marriage or procreation sonnets, in which he simply urges the youth to marry, coyly playing on his teenage narcissism. That there were 17 in the first group suggests that they were nicely copied and bound as a gift for Southampton on his 17th birthday, Oct. 6, 1590.
With the 18th sonnet the tone changes abruptly. What was fatherly affection fast becomes something much more personal and intimate. So what happened?
When Oxford met Southampton, probably after the gift of the sonnets brought them together, he was at what may have been the lowest point in his life. Now in his 40s, suddenly feeling “beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” the boy must have represented all the things that he felt he’d lost or never had: his own vanishing youth, the son and heir he never had, the beloved friend he lost “in death’s dark night” when Rutland died in 1587, and not least, the angel he so desperately needed to continue to stage plays.
To the 17-year-old youth, Oxford may have seemed what he too had lost or maybe never had, a loving father, and one besides with the kind of access to backstage at the theater that teenagers dream of. Teenagers need love and will respond to it wherever they find it. Had this occured when Oxford was not at such loose ends the moment might have passed, but things being what they were, it threw him for a loop, as they say, and as was his habit, he turned for solace to pen and ink.
My guess is that at some point, for Oxford the passion became less about Southampton and more about the poetry. My God, this was it! This was what he’d been striving for! This was what Sidney meant so long ago when he began his own sonnet cycle by quoting his Muse: “Fool, look in thy heart and write!” The exhilaration, the loneliness, the jealousy, the empty hours, all were grist for his poet’s mill. The original emotion became less important than how to express it.
The passion passed, as all things must, but like a beautiful shell on a beach after a great wave rushes back to sea, it left something precious in its wake, the language of Shakespeare. For it was in the crucible of his love for Southampton and the combined happiness and pain it brought him, that he found the voice he’d been seeking through all the years of translating and listening and experimenting, the language we speak today, the language of modern English.
John Shahan pushed me hard in his comment on my response to Alex McNeil’s question. Sometimes an exchange that follows a blog gets lost in the drift, but this is too important to let that happen, so I’ll respond here to some of his more pertinent points. If you missed it in full, it follows Alex’s question.
John:Why was the cover-up maintained after his death? It’s a separate question that you haven’t answered. It’s a good question, and one that many people ask when they come to the controversy for the first time. We should have a good answer at the ready, and providing an explanation of why he would have kept hidden during his lifetime doesn’t cut it. It sounds evasive to answer a question other than the one that was asked.
I wasn’t being evasive, I was being too general. His authorship would have been kept a secret after his death for exactly the same reasons that it was kept a secret during his lifetime, the same reasons that all the covers he used throughout his life remained in place, the same reasons that Mary Sidney’s descendents never revealed all she wrote or that Francis Bacon never revealed himself as a “hidden poet.” And for some of the same reasons that got Christopher Marlowe murdered or transported.
If I got lost providing background it’s because it’s so difficult for people today to understand the realities of Shakespeare’s time. However, there is one that might stand out a little better than most: namely the fact that so many of his characters satirized respected and high ranking members of the Court community, some portrayed as buffoons, some involved in scandalous love affairs, some even accused of murder! That they might possibly be identified with these infamous characters would have had these highly status conscious people, their retainers and descendants, in a real tizzy.
As long as William of Stratford was known as the author, the originals of these characters were protected, but had the Pembrokes and the Kings Men revealed the truth about the authorship they would have had an extremely serious situation on their hands. This is one of the reasons why the publication of Oxford’s collected plays took as long as it did. It had to wait until the Earl of Pembroke achieved the Court position where he finally had the power to take the matter of its publication into his own hands, overpassing the wishes of some who would have preferred that everything Oxford ever wrote be destroyed.
Most agree that Polonius was a demeaning portrait of Lord Burghley, something that would certainly have been as obvious to members of the Elizabethan Court community as it is to us today. If, as I believe, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and other of his more serious and philosophical plays were written, not for the Court or the public, but for his Inns of Court audience, it could mean that Elizabeth never saw them, or if she did, not in the versions that we know from the First Folio. Thus it’s possible that Burghley never saw himself derided as Polonius, or his daughter portrayed as a lunatic and a suicide. For who would tell him? There were no newspapers, so there were no reviews. All publication was tightly controlled. By whom? By Lord Burghley.
Were it ever to become public that it was the Earl of Oxford who had created these popular characters––so popular that they made the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men a fortune––how long do you think it would have taken the public audience to connect Oxford’s father-in-law with Polonius, his wife with Ophelia, his political adversary the Earl of Leicester with Claudius, or his Queen with Gertrude? How long to connect Richard III with Robert Cecil, Mildred Burghley with Volumnia in Coriolanus, Southampton with the Fair Youth, Philip Sidney with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Emilia Bassano with Cleopatra, and so forth.
Oxford’s own daughters were the daughters of Ophelia, the granddaughters of Polonius. That, plus the fact that his youngest had married a Pembroke, shows that however you look at the cover-up, by 1615 when Pembroke finally got the office of Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, putting him officially in charge of the Court Stage and the King’s Men, publication of the First Folio was as much a family affair as it was a literary event. Pembroke wanted the plays published, but he also wanted to protect his family and his community from scandal and, not least, himself from the odium that would be inevitable were he to allow these connections to be revealed.
If it’s a good talking point you’re after, maybe this will do. Yet even here we run into the problem of readers not understanding enough about the period to get it. Again the main problem is our inability to grasp how small were these communities, and how static. Where our communities today consist of thousands, many of whom are no more to us than names, theirs consisted of a dozen, two dozen names, in positions that may have changed only once or twice over a lifetime. During Elizabeth’s reign the number of peers went from 60 to 25! Our communities are in continual flux; as one worker, neighbor, merchant leaves for greener pastures, retirement, or intensive care., another takes their place. The only way that things changed in Oxford’s time was through death.
We can say these things, but do they sink in? Do we really understand what it meant to live in what to us would seem intolerable constriction while under the constant threat of death for ourselves, our children, our loved ones, whether by disease (no doctors) or by violence (no police)? Added to the equation must be their ignorance of science, of medicine, even of their own history––a problem that Oxford’s history plays were intended to address.
The closest thing we have to their peers, their kings, queens, earls and countesses, knights and ladies, are celebrities. Of these we have so many that, as happened a few days ago, I can see someone introduced to an audience on television, an audience of cheering thousands, as one who has sold millions of platinum records and received a cartload of important awards, someone I’d never heard of before. And while their handful of important persons changed only when one died and was replaced by another, ours are continually changing, usually simply by disappearing into anonymity, beauty queens into middle-aged matrons, sports stars into businessmen, some onto the pages of history, a history already jammed with names and faces.
The problem isn’t only of numbers and stasis, it’s one of attitude. We have no respect for our celebrities. Largely due to their numbers, their lack of background, the ephemeral nature of their importance, they seem to exist largely as vessels for our scorn. Their very renown calls forth efforts to bring them down, to expose them, to show the world their weaknesses. These Elizabethan celebrities had no photographers with telephoto lenses to catch them with their pants down, they were known to their people only from a dignified distance, dressed in crimson, ermine, and gold, or from copies of stately portraits. Descended from the heroes of past glories, they came as close to living gods and goddesses as humans could. Their lessers might hate them and blame them for hard times, but they did not, they simply could not, disrespect them.
When Shakespeare came along and revealed these gods and goddesses as human beings with problems and weaknesses like themselves and their neighbors it was fascinating, yet for all their speculation, they did not know, they could not know, how closely based they were on the real thing. To have known who among those distant and admired figures were the real models of these fools and villains was simply more information than the culture could bear. As a general statement, that may be putting it a little too strongly, but not by much.
John: Lots of authors use pseudonyms to conceal their identities during their lifetimes without the cover-up continuing after they die. So why was Oxford different?
Lots? Who? Who of Oxford’s social stature? Who in his time, or the time before his, or the time after his? Not all statements have to be substantiated, but this is crucial. Who else of his status in the Elizabethan era published works of the imagination under his (or her) own name? I don’t know of a single one.
John:There’s a difference between knowledge and belief, and I think we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to make the distinction. That’s what Stratfordians do.
Having repeated this twice I assume you’re taking me to task for making unsupported statements. I’ve made it clear from the start that my purpose with this blog is to provide a scenario that accounts for what facts we have, not just a few here and there, clustered around one or two circumstances (such as the writing of the Sonnets), but as many as possible. I did a lot of substantiating of statements while I was editing The Oxfordian. That was important, but this, however different, is just as important.
We’ve had most of the facts on Oxford for decades, and where have they gotten us? Facts are to story as flour, water, salt and yeast are to bread; the ingredients, not the thing itself. We can eat bread, we can’t eat flour, water, salt and yeast. Creating a story out of facts is like mixing, kneading, and finally, baking. We are not inventing the bread, what form it takes depends solely on the ingredients. All we’re doing is assembling them, giving them a thump or two, and letting them rise into a living story.
To be convinced, hearts must be touched as well as minds, something that can’t be be done without characters and a plot. What’s most real about us are not the facts of our lives, but our stories. To understand the past, we need more than dates of battles, we need heroes and villains, tyrants and underdogs, damsels in distress. Without these, the audience leaves at intermission. No one understood this better than Shakespeare.
There’s another reason for what I’m doing. The Stratford bio as generated by Ben Jonson and others has sent generations of Shakespeare enthusiasts on an utterly fruitless 400-year-old wild goose chase through the archives in search of something that will reveal a believable Shakespeare story. While true stories must be based on facts, it’s also the case that the search for facts will go off-track quickly if there isn’t a logical scenario in place directing it where to look. How do we get such a scenario? By doing what I’m doing, filling in the blank areas with informed guesswork.
Hopefully there will be some, or at least one, who’s located close enough to the relevant archives who gets sufficiently intrigued by what I’m proposing to begin looking where I’m pointing. Centuries of investigators have read the letters of Burghley, Walsingham, Alleyn, Pembroke, and others, looking for something, anything, about Shakespeare. Nothing anywhere near this scale has yet been done for Oxford. Who knows what he or she will find once they begin to look?
Ockham’s razor is a slang term for the simplification that takes place when the truth is finally located at the center of a mélange of clues and complicated hypotheses. We can be fairly certain we have the truth when whole cartloads of contradictions start vanishing, leaving a simply, believable story. But of course, first it’s necessary to stop ignoring the contradictions.
In the tiny community that was the English Literary establishment in the 1570s-90s, there were not a dozen different men (and/or women) who, over this 20 year period, wrote for a time and then ceased to write. There were two who for reasons of social propriety and privacy, used a number of different names, most of them the names of friends, family members, or retainers. These two, the pioneers, are Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon. The other two giants of Early Modern English Literature, Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe, who both died young, did not take pseudonyms, though for very different reasons. Raleigh probably makes a fifth, if we only knew which of the anonymous poems in the anthologies were his. (Raleigh wrote only for the Court community, he didn’t write pamphlets or dramas; his primary art was seamanship and adventure.) Mary Sidney is a transitional figure, carrying the torch from the first, gifted amateur generation to the following, which, if not totally professional in todays terms, was closer. And then came those who, again for different reasons, were far more free to write under their own names, writers like John Donne and Ben Jonson.
Why so much hiding of identities?
All that needs to be said here is that they did. Yes, we don’t have much hiding of identities today. Yes, it seems bizarre to us today that anyone would want to hide their identity when getting their precious work published. The reasons why these folks hid are complicated; I’ve covered some of them in other essays. Other scholars have also dealt with this. All that needs to be said here is that there is no doubt whatsoever that during this period the hiding of identities by poets, playwrights, satirists, writers of romance tales, novelists, and anyone who wrote any sort of imaginative literature was rampant. We may question this, but the readers, writers, and publishers of 16th and 17th-century England certainly did not.
How can we be certain that an identification is correct?
Well, we can’t. But we can come awfully close, much closer than any of the guesswork that’s gone into turning the handful of prosaic facts we have about William of Stratford into the lifeless biography that haunts us today. Our methods include the following:
Treating the information on title pages and front material with the same sort of rigor that we question anecdotes and rumors.
Understanding how very small were these early literary communities, and so realizing that there could only be a handful of writers involved in the beginnings of the commercial Stage and Press.
Locating repetitive styles and themes: There are habits and quirks that writers simply can’t eliminate and themes that they return to again and again. When both of these continue to appear together in a series of works––no matter what their title page attributions––chances are we’ve located a hidden writer. True, this was a period of experimentation, when styles came and went and when writers delighted in imitating the styles of others, either because they admired them or because they wished to satirize or annoy them. Nevertheless, if there’s enough congruence of style and themes, a general profile will appear that goes beyond names.
Locating connections between the names on title pages and the Court writers who had reason to hide their identities: Such connections include Oxford’s to John Lyly (secretary 1578-90), Anthony Munday (secretary, 1576?-1580), Thomas Watson (retainer 1583-92), Robert Greene (possibly Essex neighbor), Emilia Bassano(probably lover), William of Stratford (through Richard Field, his neighbor at Blackfriars), and Henry Evans (assistant); Mary Sidney to John Webster (her coachmaker, weak, but plausible) and to a fellow courtier (Fletcher); and Bacon to Spenser (fellow student at Cambridge), Nashe (student at Cambridge), Harvey (fellow at Cambridge), and Whitgift (tutor at Cambridge).
Locating the connections between the themes and subjects of the works in question with the lives of these Court writers: Most notably almost everything ever published under the name William Shakespeare can be connected rather neatly to persons and events in the life of the Earl of Oxford. Mary Sidney can be connected to Webster by the rather obvious reflection of her sons’ situation at Court in the events and characters portrayed in The White Devil and between her personal situation in 1601-1612 and the plot and characters of The Duchess of Malfi (and earlier by her personal knowledge of the events portrayed in Lady Jane, written for Philip Henslowe in 1602). Bacon’s authorship of Nashe by his financial straits and the theme of Pierce Penniless, his authorship of Spenser by his relationship with Gabriel Harvey from days at Cambridge University and (as Nashe) their pseudo-pamphlet duel, and so forth.
And by connecting them in time: It’s no coincidence that Robert Greene and Thomas Watson “died” just before Shakespeare appeared. It’s no coincidence that Webster’s plays appear only at times in Mary Sidney’s life when she isn’t busy with family stuff. It’s no coincidence that the works attributed to Spenser begin appearing just after Bacon arrives back in England but that Spenser’s name isn’t used for that or for The Faerie Queene until after Spenser departed for the distant wilds of Ireland. It’s no coincidence that Nashe appears for the first time during the ferocity of the Mar-Prelate dustup, or that he suffers nothing for the Isle of Dogs, while Court outsiders like Jonson, Shaa, and Spencer go to jail. The timing of these and scores of other events, set beside each other, form the pattern of a very interesting story, if we let them.
No single one of these points can stand on its own as evidence, but when we find that every item in every one of these categories points in a particular direction, we can be pretty sure we’re on the right track.
I don’t think so. Because if he did die on that day it would be one heck of a weird coincidence, almost as bizarre as the author of the canon being born with a name that perfectly fits his role as militant teacher and awakener––“I willshake a spear”; or that the first two successful yearround commercial theaters in England just happened to open both their doors within weeks of the Earl of Oxford’s return from theater-savvy Italy.
As I got more familiar with Oxford’s biography I became increasingly suspicious of this date. He could hardly have picked a more significant day to “pass on” than the day after the traditional summer solstice celebration in the pagan calendar, Midsummer’s Eve, or, in the Church calendar, on the Feast of St. John the Baptist. To die on such a day seems most suspiciously like another gesture from behind the curtain of his anonymity. But if so, what did it mean?
Suspicion increased upon noting that after being turned down for the Presidency of Wales in 1601, plus several other attempts to establish himself as something other than the bankrupt husband of Elizabeth Trentham, he drops all similar suits for properties, offices, and monopolies, setting his sights once again, as he has so often, on getting back his inherited rights in the Forest of Waltham.
Why the forest of Waltham? There was some income associated with these offices (keeper of the Forest and steward of Havering-atte-Bower), but there must have been something about these forest offices that kept him coming back to them every few years. For one thing the stewardship of the Forest was an office that had been his family’s for generations. His father had lost it to the Crown under Henry VIII, but as was true of many aristocrats who had similar inherited offices in other forests, he considered it his. Documents collected by Chris Paul make it clear that once he was given it back by James, he considered his role as forest official seriously. It’s also clear from his letters that he was suffering from physical problems in his final years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was at death’s door. Some people live and continue to function for years with all kinds of disabilities and pain. After all, he was only fifty-four.
Letters of strange tenor
Months after his supposed death, eight Shakespeare plays are produced for the Court holiday season. One of these is Measure for Measure, in which a nobleman very like himself disappears on purpose. Duke Vincenzio has large executive powers over his constituents, much like those recently acquired by Oxford over the inhabitants of the Liberty of Havering. Six months after he was supposedly dead, Measure for Measure is performed for the Court the night his daughter marries Philip Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke, leading patron of Shakespeare’s company.
The play is replete with philosophical thoughts on death, and also on the duke’s disappearance. Lucio complains, “It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state, and usurp the beggary he was never born to.” Later, contriving the scheme whereby Claudio is to be saved and Angelo hoist by his own petard, a monk (the duke in disguise) tells the prison provost that the duke is coming back, that “within these two days he will be here” a thing that “Angelo knows not; for he this very day receives letters of strange tenor; perchance of the duke’s death; perchance entering into some monastery.” Getting close to home here.
Another play produced for the Court that season was The Spanish Maze. That this was a version of The Tempest has been convincingly demonstrated by Roger Stritmatter and Lynn Kositsky. It portrays a great magician whose powers, limited to the creatures of a remote enclave, he voluntarily renounces upon the wedding of his daughter to a worthy nobleman to whom he gives his little kingdom as a wedding present. Again, awfully close to home.
Oxford’s powers have been demonstrated over the years by the all too obvious stage portraits of his contemporaries, some complimentary, some quite otherwise. As pseudo-Harvey put it in 1593 “all you that tender the preservation of your good names were best to please Pap-hatchet [Lyly], and fee Euphues [Oxford] betimes, for fear lest he be moved, or some one of his apes hired, to make a play of you, and then is your credit quite undone forever and ever, such is the public reputation of their plays.”
As far back as 1595 Oxford had announced to the Court, during the version of The Tempest he produced in January of that year for his oldest daughter’s wedding, “this rough magic I here abjure,” promising that as soon as he’s cleaned up certain problems, he’ll “drown” his “book.” He follows this by reopening his suit for Waltham Forest at some point before October (Nelson 351), and a month later Roland Whyte writes to his boss, Sir Robert Sidney, “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead” (354). So “Prospero-Vincenzio” may have tried to pull this disappearing stunt as early as 1595. Which suggests the real reason why the Queen wouldn’t let him have the forest. She knew how frustrated he was, but as long as he couldn’t get what he wanted she also knew that she kept him tied to her, a trick she used on many of her courtiers.
So what was he up to?
Leaving the historical evidence for another essay, let’s look at his plays. Here’s a writer whose protagonists, when stressed, tend to take off into the woods where they starve (Timon and Orlando), join up with bandits (Proteus and Valentine), take up with banished dukes (Orlando, Touchstone, and Jaques)––or, in happier times, chase girls (Lysander and Demetrius), pin valentines on trees (Orlando), get pinched by fairies (Falstaff) or control the inhabitants through their magic (Prospero and Oberon).
In Shakespeare, as in Oxford’s childhood, the forest, the wildwood, is never very far away. In the history plays and most of the wedding plays, it lies just outside the circle of light on the indoor stage. Although in Oxford’s time the great Forest of Essex that once blanketed all England was giving way to cottages and sheep farms, it happened that, of the largest portions that were left, Oxford spent his early childhood just across the Thames from the Forest of Windsor, and his later childhood at the northern edge of the Forest of Waltham. Who approaching the end of life doesn’t yearn to return to the summer scenes of childhood? Who wouldn’t do it if they could?
For Shakespeare, the Forest is the matrix, the ancient and still-living heart of the long history of his homeland that was the canvas of his art. In a world of change it remains the one place untouched by time. It’s where, as a child, stuffed by his tutor with classical learning and Reformation rhetoric, he discovered that there were books in running brooks and sermons in stones. The anger expressed in his January 1604 letter to King James about how Lord Grey was misusing the forest shows genuine anguish. His plans for it show no sign of an approaching death.
Where did he live in the forest?
My guess, drawn largely from evidence provided by Chris Paul’s extremely important article on the subject, is that he was living somewhere in or near Hainault Chapell Walk (6), roughly ten miles east of Hackney and a stone’s throw from Havering-atte-Bower. According to Paul’s research there was an old hunting lodge there, although it sounds a little too small and in too poor condition for a peer, even one whose only concern was peace and quiet (51). But as is clear from William Addison’s book on Epping Forest, there were plenty of hunting lodges in that area built by and for various members of the Court over the years. King James would have spent a good deal of time there since it was filled with homes of his courtiers, with opportunities for hunting a mere 14 miles from Greenwich Palace.
King James, Oxford’s patron
It’s obvious that King James had a more forgiving attitude towards Oxford than had the old Queen. Where she stalled him for years on his request for the Forest, James gave it to him as soon as he got to England, later referring to him as “great Oxford,” not a phrase that would ever have been heard from Elizabeth. This can be explained as simply another instance of the new King’s excessive largesse on taking the throne and Oxford’s exalted status as 17th in his ancient line, but it can also be seen as a desire to provide security to a great artist not sufficiently appreciated by the English (who are rarely good to their great artists).
Possibly in grateful response we see an outpouring of revised plays, eight alone (that we know of) for the winter holidays of 1604-05, and more to come in the months to follow. Would the King’s Men have dared to produce eight old plays for the first holiday season for their new patron, the first new English monarch in over forty years? Old plays might have pleased the royal newcomers, but there were also several hundred important courtiers, most of whom would have been well acquainted with earlier versions of all eight of these plays. From a theater entertainer’s point of view, that all of the plays presented to the Court that winter were produced without revisions or additions is unlikely.
Oxford’s other patrons
James was good to Oxford, but he could not have been acquainted with him at the time that he assigned him his forest rights, so there had to have been someone close to the King and with him on a regular basis who could present his case so persuasively that the royal ear would be impervious to contradictory reports from Oxford’s enemies.
Luck was finally coming Oxford’s way, for on his side now were not just one but two of the most influential men near James. These were the Herbert brothers, William, the 24-year-old Earl of Pembroke and his 18-year-old brother, Philip, sons of Mary Sidney, whose boyish charms had won the gay king’s heart.
William Herbert’s actions from this point on suggest that he was already considering how he was going to get his hands on the Court Stage. In fact, with his interest in the theater (doubtless engendered by his mother while he was in his impressionable teens) he may well have been the chief factor in persuading the King to give London’s top three acting companies the kind of royal support they could never count on from Elizabeth. With Shakespeare’s company well-set with the King, their playwright too had to be made secure.
The Devil and his Dam
Oxford had made a lot of enemies over the years, but two were now particularly dangerous. Most obvious was his cousin, Lord Henry Howard, termed by his wikipedia biographer “one of the most unscrupulous and treacherous characters of his age.” Oxford had plenty of reasons to loathe Howard whose libels (carefully saved by the Cecils) are still the major cause of the permanent blackening of his reputation with historians. While Elizabeth was alive, her dislike of Howard kept him from causing any real trouble, but by writing at length to James as she approached her final days, he succeeded in making himself indispensable to the insecure new King. Now, loaded with honors and powers, the new Earl of Northampton was a real threat, not only to Oxford but to any playwright who might dare to satirize him on the public stage. He could haul Ben Jonson into Star Chamber with impunity, but the Earl of Oxford required more subtlety.
Shakespeare’s most typical villain is a smooth-talker who takes pleasure in wooing then betraying his victims, the perfect image of Henry Howard. It was he who had been the most likely source of the rumors that broke up Oxford’s marriage in 1576. It was partly with his encouragment that his brother, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, embarked on the insane plan to marry the Queen of Scots that cost him his head in 1572. Eight years later Howard almost succeeded in doing the same thing to Oxford. In another ten years his interference would be the direct cause of a heinous murder that would surely have destroyed him and his reputation forever, as it did a dozen others at Court, had he not conveniently died before the poisoned tarts hit the fan.
That Henry Howard was the inspiration for characters like Edricus (Ironside), Ateukin (James IV), Iachimo (Cymbeline), and finally, two of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Iago in Othello, based on Howard’s destruction of Oxford’s marriage, and Lady Macbeth, based on the downfall of his brother, the Duke of Norfolk. Can we imagine that Howard, so paranoid about how he thought Jonson might have portrayed him, couldn’t see himself in these characters, and so wouldn’t have done everything he could to prevent the publication of Oxford’s plays?
Even more dangerous to Oxford was his own brother-in-law, Robert Cecil. Having played the same game with James as did Howard over the months before Elizabeth’s passing, and now equally loaded with offices, honors, and powers, it seems that Cecil gradually lost all moral restraint (Handover) . By 1604, with Marlowe dead (or transported), Lord Strange dead, and his brother-in-law Henry Cobham and the great Sir Walter Raleigh locked up tight under charges of treason, he’d managed to rid himself of all his major enemies. Freed from fear, and with the ugly network of spies and agents creating by Francis Walsingham at his disposal, his lower nature took over. By 1604 he was well on his way to becoming the most feared and hated man in the nation.
Oxford could not have had Cecil in mind when he wrote the original version of Richard III (The True Tragedy of Richard the Third) in (at least) the early 1580s, when Robert was still too young to be of any concern. (Ramon Jiménez has reason to believe the first version was written as early as the 1560s; Cecil was born in 1563.) But with his rise to power in 1603-04, that Shake-speare’s wicked, power-hungry hunchback was modelled on himself, or even more distressing, that everyone thought he was, could not help but heap his envious heart with coals of fire.
The enmity of one of these nasty characters would have been bad enough, but to have them working in partnership must have caused the aging playwright some concern. He pondered how to protect himself. And his papers.
But why fake his own death?
Oxford must have been tired of the rigamarole of life as an earl, something he had never been very fond of anyway. In a 1601 letter to Robert Cecil he refers to himself as a “hater of ceremonies” (=33). There was always something that had to be done, somewhere he had to put in an appearance.; someone was always after him, to pay a bill, to forward a suit, to ask his opinion; and to what end? He was in discomfort, possibly pain. He knew he didn’t have a whole lot longer to live. How was he to get the time he needed? And now this deadly duo had to be dealt with.
Plague struck the summer of 1603, just as King James was on his way south to take over the throne. It kept him away from London, at Pembroke’s in Wiltshire and other country estates until the winter. Plague mortality rates in Hackney were 88 percent, suggesting that if Oxford did decide to move to the Forest of Waltham, the plague of 1603 may have had something to do with it. Houses like King’s Place, made of wood beams and stone or brick, were not so likely to be infected as they did not have the kind of daub and wattle walls or thatched roofs that could so easily become infested with house rats, but of course at that time, no one knew that rats were to blame. Oxford was probably never very happy at Hackney. It was too close to the City to be peaceful and not close enough to the theaters to make up for the noise and congestion. In addition it was located in the kind of swampy area that anyone who suffered from recurring malaria would fear.
Oxford would have been aware of the long tradition offered by the medieval Church that had allowed his ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, to “die to the world.” By taking holy vows, a person gave up all worldly desires, contacts, and duties; from then on they were regarded by everyone, including their own families and friends, as legally dead. Unfortunately this tradition was no longer open to the 17th Earl; Henry VIII and Edward VI had brought it to a halt when they closed the monasteries and nunneries.
But with the help of the Earl of Pembroke and the King, like Measure for Measure’s “old fantastical duke of dark corners,” he could simply disappear, if not for good then at least long enough to get something finished. With so many doors now closed to him, guarded by his enemies, he still had one thing left that he could control––his exit.
Well-versed in property law, Oxford would have known how to fix it so his wife and son couldn’t be touched by the creditors that were e’en at him. Pembroke and Bacon would take care of the legal details. They could see to it that he was registered as buried at Hackney. It would be easy enough to have his name taken off the rolls at Parliament. The various legal procedures were simply pro forma, those in charge operating on whatever information was given them. His wife wouldn’t like it, but if she was to see her dynastic dreams bear fruit she would simply have to go along with it.
What a relief, simply to go off into the dark, silent forest with a bundle of paper, a pot of ink, a secretary to take dictation, a cook to provide simple meals, and a lutenist music meant he could look forward to the kind of uninterrupted peace and quiet that a writer needs more than food or drink. With the King, his friend, the sovereign of the Liberty of Havering, and a couple of “tall men” to ensure his safety, what a relief it must have been to be free to write and think from dawn to sundown, every day, with breaks for food and sleep and visits from only those he chose to see; no creditors to hide from, no suits to pursue, no begging letters to write to men whose guts he hated.
Who doth ambition shun, and loves to live i’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats, and pleased with what he gets;
Come hither, come hither, come hither;
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.
As they liked it
As Chris Paul tells us, Havering Park was unique in that it was a Liberty, “entirely independent of the ecclesiastical or civil jurisdiction of the county [of Essex],” having been so declared by Edward IV in the 15th century. No inhabitant could “be compelled or forced or bound to answer before any other justices, judges, or commissioners, but only in the Court of the said Manor” (18). The steward––Oxford in this case––had “full power and authority to hear and determine pleas, debts, accounts, covenants, trespasses.” Any interference by the Sheriff of Essex or JPs was “specifically forbidden.”
As if this weren’t sufficient, on April 4, 1604, King James reconfirmed the Havering charter, “including the provision that the tenants ‘shall have one fair every year at the village of Havering, the same to last three days, that is to say in the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist and two days then next and immediately following . . .’” (ERO Q/AX 1/1/2). Paul asks, “Could it have been, at least in part, because of these unique protections that the Earl of Oxford was determined to acquire the stewardship of Havering-atte-Bower?” (19). I would add, “protection from what”? The answer wasn’t long in coming.
What could have been the reason why someone felt called upon at that particular time, April 1604, to get the King to sign the charter stating that any celebration that took place in the Liberty of Havering on the 23rd of June would be legal and must not be disturbed? I suggest that, with Midsummer’s Eve parties taking place all over England, a special celebration took place that night in the Forest. There, surrounded by good company, entertained by the very best actors and musicians, Oxford, his patrons and close friends, without fear of disturbance, could gather around the traditional bonfire to toast the end of the Festival Year––and also, although most of them probably didn’t know it yet, the end of a great era in English letters.
The next day the word went out: the Earl of Oxford was dead.
Less than 24 hours later, government agents would collar Shakespeare’s “Fair Youth,” the Earl of Southampton, and five others, placing them under house arrest “at the King’s request.” Mark Anderson quotes the Venetian Ambassador in a letter sent back to Venice on June 26: “On Sunday night [June 24], by order of the King and Council, the earl of Southampton, Baron Danvers, and five others were arrested and each one confined in a separate house. Yesterday morning [June 25], after undergoing several examinations, they were set at liberty . . . .” (359). The reasons given were that charges had been made by unidentified persons that these former supporters of the Earl of Essex were plotting to slay several of the King’s Scottish attendants. A later historian of James’s reign (attributed to Sir Anthony Weldon c. 1650) blamed it on Robert Cecil, who had “put some jealousies into the King’s head.” (Anderson 360).
No further explanation was ever forthcoming, either from the no doubt embarrased King or anyone else. But dates don’t lie, and sometimes they reveal greater truths than on first glance. Like Hamlet, flushing out his uncle’s guilt with a play about the murder of a king, Oxford reveals––to himself and probably also to the King––what he’s suspected but needs to have proven, the dark nature of his brother-in-law’s intentions.
Why would Cecil have Southampton arrested on a trumped up charge (the other men were simply window dressing) the very day he learns his playwright brother-in-law is dead? Why, if not to dig through the Fair Youth’s papers in search of something––exactly what is anyone’s guess––but, with Oxford gone, something he suspects is now in Southampton’s possession? What else could it be than something that relates to the Earl of Oxford? How many coincidences does it take to make an educated guess?
Dates may not tell the whole story, but sometimes they can suggest its general outlines.
When did Oxford really die?
How long would Oxford have continued to live on out there in the woods, working on the final versions of his favorite plays, before death finally caught up with him? The best guess at this point is at least four more years, possibly five. Several things happen in 1609 that probably wouldn’t have were he still alive:, among them: his wife’s sale of King’s Place, and two of Shakespeare’s most personal and the publication of two of his potentially most damaging works, the Sonnets and Pericles.
How would his patrons, his family, and the actors react, once they know he’s gone for good?
My suggestion: led by the Earl of Pembroke, a core group of his supporters formed an ad hoc committee to see to it that both he and his works were treated with appropriate––if private––love and respect. He was buried without fanfare, possibly in the forest, but it’s accepted from the beginning that his final resting place will be somewhere in Westminster Abbey and that, as soon as is feasible, his collected works will be properly published.
Time drags on, but Pembroke can’t act until he’s secure in the office he seeks, which doesn’t happen until the end of 1615, by which time both Cecil and Howard are dead and he’s now, finally, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, with authority over the King’s Men, their plays, and to a large extent, the London Stage as well.
An Abbey funeral could not have occured before the internment of Francis Beaumont in 1616 since Beaumont’s tomb is mentioned by Ben Jonson in the dedicatory Ode to the 1623 Folio. That it was no later than 1619 seems likely from his cousin Percival Golding’s tract on the Vere family wherein it states that the 17th earl was buried in the Abbey, written (according to Robert Brazil) during or before 1619.
What about his papers?
The burning question of what happened to the holograph versions of Shakespeare’s plays is one more of those things that remain a mystery. With his daughter married into the Pembroke family, it’s most likely that Oxford’s papers went to the Pembrokes, who were responsible for having them edited, for getting the best copies from whoever might be holding them, and for obtaining the rights to publish from the various publishers currently holding rights to their publication. As anyone knows who has followed the process of getting a controversial author’s papers published, this can take a very long time.
It’s most likely that Mary Sidney was the chief editor. Having spent years editing and publishing her brother’s works and her own as well, she had the credentials. Not just any scrivener would be allowed to tamper with the great man’s words, not even Ben Jonson. She also had an insider’s awareness of what would have to be cut or changed to satisfy her community’s anxieties about the possible revelation of family secrets. Most likely she had help in this from Francis Bacon, who would have stepped in to finish the job following Mary’s death. Both of their biographies fit well with the timetable of First Folio production. Ben Jonson was probably involved only in writing the front material.
As for the fate of the holograph versions of the plays, what makes the most sense is that, once the First Folio was finished and published, they were burned. To satisfy the many individuals who had been satirized in the plays, or whose parents had been satirized, there would have to have been some such agreement. Unfortunately for us, the rest, as Hamlet put it, has been silence.
There’s a great deal more to be said on the subject of Oxford’s death. For some of it, click here.