Tag Archives: Nashe

Update: THE BOOK ROOM, etcetera

Those who have purchased, or who plan to purchase, Richard Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and its Audience so we can read it together, please begin reading if you haven’t already, and taking notes, if you wish.  I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this and everything else in my life, due to a stream of events that has kept me on my feet for days, but I have been reading the book, and will be happy to respond to comments on the BOOK ROOM page.  I hope this works out.  If not we’ll try something else.

Having accepted the fact that Oxford had access to a number of the Latin works discussed by Beacham, we may find solid reasons for believing that these played a part in forming the London Stage in the mid to  late 1570s.  Could Oxford have been thinking about how to create such a theater as early as his childhood?  What do you think?  What other questions does the book raise for us?

Francis Bacon and the University Wits

It’s clear from the stats I get from WordPress that the pages here on  the Wits have the most interest for readers.  Years ago, when Ogburn’s Mysterious William first got me interested in the authorship question, I came away with two unanswered questions:  first: what was Oxford’s education and does it fit the extraordinary knowledge revealed by Shakespeare in his works?  Second: who were the other writers publishing when he began, and do any of them show the same anomalies in their biographies that we see in Shakespeare?  Having done my best with the question about his education and childhood, I hope to do the same with regard to the other writers, who for the most part can be grouped under the scholar’s rubric of “University Wits.”

Dry runs for this will no doubt appear here as the work takes shape, but there is little room in a blog for outlining a particular chain of evidence, particularly one that has been so damaged by both time and the purposeful elimination of anything that might connect the Cecil family to the works of Shakespeare or the birth of the London Stage.  Nevertheless, as (ironically) Polonius puts it, the truth is the truth “though it were hid indeed at the centre.”  A perpetrator may wear gloves, but his fingerprints will always be found somewhere, that is, if one is looking for the right things and in the right places.

The major factor in our effort to revise history according to basic common sense is getting the authorities to accept the fact that during the period that Shakespeare and other writers were creating the English Literary Renaissance, they found it necessary to hide their identities.  Because they will not accept this, we are stuck at the very gate, for every phase of this argument is determined by this fact, which is fairly easy to prove, and certainly far from unusual in human history, that is, of course, if attention is paid to enough historical facts, which sadly in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question has not been the case.

D Day 1588

The revisiting seen on television over the past few days of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe by the British and American forces in 1944, the true beginning of the end of the Second World War, brings to mind the situation England found itself in the mid-to-late 1580s as it faced the certainty of an invasion by Spain’s great Armada in its crusade to keep all of Europe contained by the Roman Catholic power structure .  When we hear academics scoff at the idea that writers were able to keep their identities a secret, what about the fact that D Day, the greatest naval invasion in the history of the world, was kept a secret, not only from the enemy, but also from everyone else, including the international media.

In times of war and revolution, keeping certain matters a secret becomes a deadly serious necessity.  By disdaining to reference history, the academics have ignored the fact that when the writers who later took names like Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Nashe first began writing, they were locked in deadly combat with the Calvinist Reformation, that held that such works were the tools of the Devil.  It has also escaped them that Shakespeare was dealing, sometimes with passion, with the realpolitik of his time.  This misapprehension, largely due to the misplacement in time forced on the academics by the Stratford biography,  is the heart of our problem, and until we get it unravelled, and get the word out by publishing, online if not in print, we will continue to “perne in a gyre”  for another 100 years of getting nowhere with the authorship question.

Tolkien and Beowulf

The article by Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker on Tolkien and his immersion in Old English, written to acknowledge the publication, finally, of his translation of Beowulf (Houghton Mifflin), is one of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to this one magazine (the other major reason for an artist and page designer is the stylish and generally reader-friendly layout and their continued dedication to publishing the work of wonderful artists).

Thoughtfully Acocella recounts briefly the plots through which Beowulf defeats three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon.  Like the Reformation ideologues of Oxford’s time, Grendel, monster #1, hates the music with which the ancient Geats would make merry into the night, though his technique for stopping them––tearing them into pieces which he then eats––is rather more ghoulish.  Certain artists during Shakespeare’s time did have their heads removed by rope or axe, but nobody ate them.

By defining the prosody of the poem, what makes it distinctive as a style, for us this article raises the question of what Oxford may have taken from the opportunity he was given to study the Old English manuscript of Beowulf that Alexander Nowell had in his keeping during the period he was tutoring Oxford at Cecil House.  There’s no indication that Nowell himself translated Beowulf into either Latin or English, but how likely is it that Oxford and his translator friends at Cecil House would have passed up the opportunity to do exactly this, or at least some sections of the manuscript?

I have pondered at some length the comment by Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’em) in his Scholemaster that he preferred the Greeks to the Gothians, wondering just what he meant by the latter:

But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surely, to follow rather the Goths in Rhyming, than the Greeks in true versifying, were even to eat acorns with swine, when we may freely eat wheat bread among men.  Indeed, Chaucer, Th. Norton, my L. of Surrey, M. Wyatt, Th. Phaer, and other gentlemen, in translating Ovid, Palingenius, and Seneca, have gone as far, to their great praise, as the copy they followed could carry them, but, if such good wits and forward diligence had been directed to follow the best examples, and not have been carried by time and custom to content themselves with that barbarous and rude rhyming, among their other worthy praises, which they have justly deserved, this had not been the least, to be counted among men of learning and skill, more like unto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians, in handling of their verse.

If by this, written in 1563, he was describing a current fascination with the forms discovered in Beowulf and other texts by Nowell, first modern scholar to recover the sounds and meanings of Old English, a fascination  that has escaped the world of letters, this might resolve what it was that Ascham was condemning at the time that Nowell and his students were delving into the mysteries of Old English prosody.  One would think the appropriate term would be alliteration, since these Anglo-Saxon poems did not depend upon rhyme, at least as we use the word, but on a particular kind of alliteration, as described by Acocella.

Hope to hear from some of you shortly in THE  BOOK ROOM.

 

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Tamerlan or Tamburlaine

Marlowe-bloggie

Everyone is thinking the same thought these days,“What possessed those Russian youths to kill and maim American families out for a good time?”  It seems clear that the elder was the motivating force, the one still alive pretty much just following in his brother’s footsteps  The elder, Tamerlan, was an energetic youth, who tried and did well at a number of things in his American life.  What turned him against the people of Boston?

Lacking an answer to that, we authorship scholars have something else we can think about, the man’s given name.  It’s an unusual name, but probably as common in his birthplace as Alexander is in the West, for the Tamburlaine of Asian history, a great conqueror, is on a par with our Alexander or Napoleon.  While the name means almost nothing to most westerners, it means a lot in the part of the world where the original Timur “the Lame” rose to power, a great conquerer who rose from the obscurity of a small local chieftan to oversee a vaster empire even than Alexander’s and a dynasty that lasted a lot longer.  A man from Chechnya with the same name might be subject to delusions of grandeur.  After all, what westerner would name their kid Napoleon?  Or Adolf?

Authorship scholars, focussed on on sixteenth-century playwrights, know the name Tamburlaine because it is the title of the play that made one of our subjects famous.  Just as Oxford unleashed his inner conqueror with Coriolanus and Hotspur, so after three years of apprenticeship with the Fisher’s Folly crew, Marlowe unleashed his with the monstrously heroic Tamburlaine.  For the boistrous apprentices of Southwark, the heroic image of Edward Alleyn as the working class conqueror was heady stuff.  Willing to pay to see it every time it was played, they made it the hit that turned the London Stage into a viable industry.

But the play was a disaster in another sense, it had crossed a line, one that threatened to shut down not only Henslowe’s theater, but all the theaters as well.  Reports reached the Cecils of the kind of play it was, and how when Tamburlaine drives across the stage, whipping the beaten emperor and his vizier who are being forced to pull his chariot on their hands and knees, the audience of young apprentices show their enthusiasm in a way that frightened the Cecils.  After all, Shakepseare’s Coriolanus and Hotspur came a to bad end, but Tamburlaine, as history confirmed, lived a long and successful life and died in bed.  Walsingham and Oxford were probably called to account, but there was little they could do.  They weren’t supposed to be in the theater business.

Marlowe had violated one of the unwritten rules for the theater of Elizabeth’s reign.  He had brought to life for an impressionable and restless audience a powerful rebel who overthrew his monarch and, what was worse, was never forced to pay for his heinous crime.  It didn’t matter that the rebel was a tribal chieftain from the steppes of Central Asia two hundred years and a thousand miles away, what mattered was that an acting company had dramatized how a poor subject with a powerful will could defeat and humiliate a monarch and get away with it.  Timur was no fiction, he was an historical reality, but not quite the kind of history that Walsingham had hoped to get when he hired him.

The playwrights and “Divine Right”

Uneasy lay the heads that wore the Tudor crown.  From Henry VIII on it was hammered home from the pulpit that an anointed monarch was sacred.  God had put him or her on the throne and it was up to God how and when to take them off.  Thus rebellion became heresy, and the depiction of rebellion, successful rebellion, was atheism, and atheism was treason.

Shakespeare was just as observant of this unwritten rule as all the rest.  In Shakespeare’s Derived Imagery (1967), John Erskine Hankins notes how he almost never fails to pair the words sacred or annointed with the words monarch or majesty.  Because Cecil was so clever (and his descendants throughout the centuries so powerful), and because literary historians pay no attention to mainstream history, and vice versa, this motive for Marlowe’s assassination has escaped them.  Point being: the Cecils simply could not afford to let Marlowe, (or his patron, Lord Strange) get away with it.  The rest of the company and the owner and manager of the theater where the seditious play was performed were let off the hook.  To kill a poisonous weed, or rebellion, you must pull it up by the root.

Unfortunately Marlowe’s effrontery had come at the same time that a satirist calling himself Martin Mar-prelate caused a similar ruckus with the newborn commercial press, humiliating the bishops, lashing them with witty invective, suggesting base practices, and at the same time, demonstrating better than anything the tremendous latent power of the press.

Clearly the writers were out of control.  Something had to be done.  The Cecils hadn’t long to wait.  Walsingham’s death in April 1990 opened the door to their acquisition of his papers, his staff, his agents, and his authority.  Burghley took on the work of administration while Robert went after their enemies.  Now in control of Walsingham’s black operatives, he used two of them to create a sting that was meant to charge Marlowe with attempting to hire one of them to help him make counterfeit coins to fund Catholic plots, a charge that would bring a stiff penalty.  The renegade playwright escaped this one, but he wouldn’t escape the next.

Timur the Lame

Marlowe had a yen for the Middle East.  We see that in two of his plays, the story of Tamburlaine, the great conqueror of the Scythian plains, and Barnabas, The Jew of Malta, where the great battle of Lepanto saw the Europeans under Don John of Austria stop the Ottoman Turks under Emperor Sulieman.  Drawn to the Middle East, he was also drawn to its ancient and noble wisdom tradition.  His name is connected with the group dubbed by historians “the School of Night” that included Sir Walter Raleigh, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, a group that Cecil hated.  This group had to be secretive because the scientific and philosophical matters they discussed were considered atheism by the Crown, but it wasn’t religion that inspired Cecil; his hatred was personal.  This is evident in the way he charged Raleigh and Percy, by means of his operative Richard Baines, with atheism shortly after nailing Marlowe.  He failed because they were still too strong for him, but later when he finally got enough power under James, he managed to put them both behind bars.

Aware that the Cecils were on the war path, Oxford put an end to his pamphletting as Robert Greene in September 1592.  In his last hurrah as Greene (well, almost the last) , Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte, as the supposedly dying Greene confesses his sins, he includes a warning message to the “famous gracer of tragedians” that he had better reject “diabolical atheism” and “pestilent Machiavellian policy,” or else, “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.”  Had Marlowe listened to reason and agreed to stick to less dangerous topics, perhaps he would have survived, but driven by an irresistable urge to connect with his audience, for whom he felt himself the mouthpiece, his next, and last, play dealt with another taboo subject, The Massacre at Paris, in which the leader of the French Catholic party, the Duc de Guise, is assassinated onstage. What’s left of the play gives no hint of what it might have been originally, as it’s about half the length of a normal play.

Oxford and Marlowe

We’ll never find any hard evidence of it, but it has to be that Marlowe was trained in playwriting by Oxford. Considering that this was the only place at that time where he could possibly have learned it,  it’s the only thing that makes sense.  In the early 1580s, Oxford and his “lewd friends” at Fishers Folly, where they had (probably) been enrolled by the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, to provide plays for his recently formed Crown company, the Queen’s Men, plays written to inspire patriotic enthusiasm in the inhabitants of the coastal towns where the Spanish fleet was most likely to attack.  Oxford was spread thin in the mid-’80s, writing for both the Queen’s Men and Burbage’s company, so Walsingham had arranged for Marlowe, word of whose abilities were spreading beyond Cambridge, to take time off from his lessons at Cambridge so the Fisher’s Folly crew could teach him to write for the stage.  It seems that the Cambridge dons knew that Walsingham was responsible, but wrong about what he wanted Marlowe to do.  They guessed it was to spy.  In fact (of course!) it was to write.  Why would Walsingham waste a brilliant writer on spying when he had an acting company that needed material?  In the end it seems that Marlowe never did write anything for the Queen’s Men, whom he jeered in the opening lines of Tamburlaine as: “jigging veins of rhyming mother wits, and such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.”

Something of a genius, Marlowe learned fast.  He came to the Folly just when Oxford was moving from euphuism to the style of The Spanish Tragedy, when he’d decided that iambic pentameter would be his basic meter.  Marlowe adopted Oxford’s style as written in stone and soon became proficient at it.

Surrounded by irreverent wits like Oxford, Bacon, Lodge, Peele, Kyd and the Bassano musicians, the working class youth heard the kind of irreverent talk that such people indulge in when they’re together, some of it  fairly anti-establishment.  His stints in London in 1584 and ’85 coincided with the visit of the magus Giordano Bruno, who kindled enthusiasm in the English intellectual community for the Wisdom Tradition of the Middle East.  Without a doubt he was included in this group.

With important members of the Stage community and the aristocracy dropping by for a laugh, a drink, an evening of music, it’s hardly surprising that it went to Marlowe’s head, for as he grew in ability he also grew in self-importance.  He became restless with the restrictions imposed on writers by the Crown.  Both Oxford and Walsingham were well aware of what lines they could cross, where they could speak freely and where they could not.  They must have warned the youth, but he wouldn’t listen.  He felt himself standing on the threshold of power.  He knew he could bring the working class apprentices into the theater in a way that Oxford and Bacon with their Courtly themes and elegant styles could not.  Both about the same age, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had bombmaking materials and skills; Christopher Marlowe had bombastic language, a theater, and an audience.

At Fisher’s Folly Marlowe became acquainted with young Edward Alleyn who lived at the Pye Inn next door.  Still just a teenager, just learning the acting ropes from Burbage and his crew, Alleyn was a member of Marlowe’s own class.  A big fellow, with a big voice, Alleyn had begun around fourteen or fifteen playing Romeo to Richard Burbage’s Juliet, graduating as he matured to roles like the Bastard Falconbridge and Coriolanus.  Like Marlowe, Alleyn was restless and eager to fly beyond the confines of what Burbage and Oxford were working to build.  When the rebellious pair heard that Philip Henslowe was planning to build a big public theater across the river, the second in all of London, they made a break for freedom.  The play was a monster hit, probably the first to demonstrate that with the right material, actors, musicians, playwrights and theater owners could support themselves and maybe even a family.

With Marlowe no longer handy to warn in person, Oxford did what he could by inserting a warning in Robert Greene’s “deathbed” pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.  Addressing him politely as “thou famous gracer of tragedians,’ he urged him to leave off “diabolical atheism” and “pestilent Machiavellian policy.” Admitting that he too had been guilty of scoffing at religion, he warns him “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.”

Spring 1593

With the streets of the City emptied by the plague, Cecil’s agents were free to paste fake warning notices on walls around London that threatened violence to foreign workers.  One, pasted on the wall of the Church where the Dutch had their service, written in rhyming iambics, and referring slyly to the themes of Marlowe’s last two plays, was signed “Tamburlaine.”  His agents having warned the Privy Council, Cecil provided them with documents that painted Marlowe as a violent homosexual atheist.  Within days Marlowe’s scribe, Thomas Kyd, was arrested and racked until he condemned his former housemate.

Marlowe was questioned in Star Chamber, then let go on house arrest to the home of Thomas Walsingham, a cousin of the former Secretary of State. What Walsingham’s share was in the sting is hard to unravel, but that he had a share in it can’t be denied.  His agent was one of the men who “took care of” Marlowe in Deptford.  As soon as Cecil got the power of Secretary  of State he rewarded Walsingham with a knighthood and a place at Court, where, during King James’s reign, his wife developed a reputation, whether deserved or not, as Cecil’s procuress.

On the morning of May 30, Marlowe was “invited” to a dinner at a hostelry in Deptford, across the river from where the Court was getting ready to leave for Windsor to escape the plague.   After ten hours of hanging about for no obvious reason, the three agents whose job it was to “take care” of Marlowe, either killed him, or put him on a boat heading for the Continent (or, one hopes, for the Middle East).  If the latter, the bizarre ten hours may have been spent waiting for the corpse of John Penry to arrive.  Penry, having been accused of the Mar-prelate satires, had been hanged the day before on the road to Deptford.  If so it was a perfect plan, perfectly executed, and it netted the Cecils two enemy birds with a single sting.

Marlowe’s death has been examined by several notable literary historians, each proclaiming a different engineer, and all but one ignoring its only possible true creator, Robert Cecil.  The book that provides the most evidence is Charles Nicholl’s 1992, The Reckoning.  Nicholl’s choice for perpetrator is the Earl  of Essex, but then Nicholl is British, and the Cecil descendants have always been powerful enough to stand in the way of the truth about their ancestors coming out.  If he fudges on a conclusion, Nicholl  provides enough evidence to convict Cecil (though not all of it).  Considering the ferocious avalanche of filthy epigrams that followed Cecil’s death, certainly no one in his own time would have been surprised to hear that he got rid of a playwright back in the early ’90s, or just how he did it; he’d done the same thing to so many more important enemies since.

In considering what effect the name Tamerlan may have had on the young terrorist, it may be of interest to consider that, according to Wikipedia, scholars estimate that Tamburlaine’s brutal military campaigns “caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5 percent of the world’s population.”  Someone must have played on this while Tamerlan was in Russia, learning bombmaking from expert terrorists.  But while his namesake created a dynasty that lasted centuries, Tamerlan’s end was closer to something Shakespeare might have written.

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.

Response to a Baconian

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

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

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

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

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

The super six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s search for silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Authorship Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I didn’t review Shapiro

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.

Who Wrote What?

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

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

Why so much hiding of identities?

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

How can we be certain that an identification is correct?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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