Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Oxford and the London Stage

Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?

Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same.  Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.

From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out.  Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.

Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability.  Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines.  The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.

At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London.  During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through.  In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies.  Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience.  This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.

The Lords Chamberlain and the records

Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment.  It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.

Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle.  There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder.  Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two.  And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.

All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.

As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”

Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage.  These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.

Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time.  When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place.  Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.

By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies.  Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses”  in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines.  For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.

The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties

Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability.  Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.

The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys.  Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.

The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record.  Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies.  For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.

Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys.  There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII.  The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand.  That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.

Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.

Oxford and the Court Stage

This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley.  Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each.  Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries.  One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.

The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents.  On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain.  A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party.  Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.

Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary.  At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex.  All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.

Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games.  For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.

That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons.  One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men.  This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.

The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem.  Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.

Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.

Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin.  Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis.  Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources.  Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?

Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies.  The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed.  It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.

Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage

It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born.  In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne.  In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.

Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London.  Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.

It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC).  Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566.  As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.

It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.)  Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.

Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars

By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then. (click to enlarge)

An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.

Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End.  The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer).  Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.

The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.”  Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.

The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589

Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season.  Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign.  Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.

Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names.  All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.

Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy.  Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience.  A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s.  Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library.  On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.

On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest.  (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?)  Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius.  On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.

1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests.  On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy.  On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank).  Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English.  No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.

Trouble in Illyria

Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament.  Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel.  In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.

Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays.  Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to.  The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.

Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings

Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw.  The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber.  Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.

Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles.  Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.

Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something.  From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three.  The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests.  Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.”  The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style.  Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.

So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court?  What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns.  Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.

The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created.  Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85.  As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range.   He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.

Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it.  He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them.  So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters.  Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself.  As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.

Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham

Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return.  What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.

For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point.  In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders.  Who but Oxford could write such plays.  Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).

Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died.  For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage.  In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year.  The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida.  Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment.  After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded.  From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.

Another turn of the screw

In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.

Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity.  Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.

London in the 1590s

Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign.  With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.

As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.

As described by Lawrence Stone in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End.  That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.

The Cecils attack the Stage

That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.

Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils,  made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over.  Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.

Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.

Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City.  In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies.  Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men.  Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

So where was Oxford?

In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto.  Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.

In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son.  This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.

While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.

Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s.  Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.

In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.

Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.

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Calling all historians!

Long ago, in the timeless realm we call Literature, a certain fox, we’ll call him Reynard, dragged a stinky red herring across the trail of a certain Court poet, sending the yelping hounds who were after his identity up a false trail, where they’ve been barking up one wrong tree after another ever since.  That red herring was the name William Shakespeare.  Dragged across the poet’s paper trail––the published plays that in performance, twenty years earlier, had launched the London Stage, it did what it was meant to do, it gave the author and his company the freedom they needed to keep on producing the plays that gave the actors a living and their world a good cry, a much needed belly laugh, and those inclined to philosophy something to think about.

This red herring was successful in protecting the true author from the rage of the puritans who ran the nation, uptight ideologues, hungry for social power, who feared and hated the forces unleashed by the London Stage, forces that we know today as the English Literary Renaissance.  Unable to control it they sought to kill it.  This protective maneuver on the part of the Company, probably born of exigency, a dodge put into effect during a moment of desperation, perhaps not intended to last as long as it has, has in fact lasted for centuries.

Despite the evidence that’s been provided over the past 200 years, it seems we are still stuck in a scenario where the hounds continue to chase each other around in circles, only now there’s a herd of authorship scholars who follow after them, their shouts unheard in the clamor.  Isn’t it about time we put an end to this absurd waste of energy?

I say leave the hounds to their sport, stop confronting the ersatz gurus of the Birthplace Trust on their territory, something that does nothing but distract us from the real field of inquiry.  Leave the English Departments to their publications and pronunciamentos, and take the issue to where it should have been from the begining, to the political history of the period when Shakespeare was writing.  When you haven’t enough data on a topic of interest, you turn to what we call “proxy data,” material that surrounds the issue, that doesn’t touch on it directly, but that if put in place, shows the shape and nature of what’s missing.  If you can’t find enough material to work from the inside out, work from the outside in.  It’s time to turn away from the failures of the university English Department, and walk across the hall to the History Department.

We have the plays; what does it matter who wrote them?

It matters!! Only a culture that has allowed its literature to become divorced from its history could tolerate such a remarkably stupid credo.  Divorced from history, from the ground out of which it grew, literature loses its relevance.  Divorced from literature, the stories that bring a particular time and place to life, history loses the pulse of life.  Bereft of the human drama that gives it meaning, history is little more than a laundry list of dates and names.  Divorced from each other, both lose their purpose, their true meaning.

This divorce was actually taking place during the time that Shakespeare (we’ll have to call him that), was writing and his Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, was producing his plays.  Ancient studies were being divided: religion into superstition on the one hand, the early Church fathers on the other; alchemy into philosophy on the one, the science of chemistry on the other; astrology into folk psychology and medicine on the one, the science of astronomy on the other.  Similarly history was being divided into story on the one hand, historiography on the other.  This division of inherited materials into literature over here and history over there was eventually enshrined in the university curriculum, and from there into the secondary schools where it continues to discourage young people from developing an interest in either Literature or History.

The storehouse of Sin

In England the division was amplified by the passions of the Reformation which saw the division as a conflict between God and the Devil, with God on the side of History, and the Devil on the side of literature. History was truth, while Literature, which they called Poetry, they saw as a tissue of lies, deadly lies that entrapped men’s souls and led them down the primrose path to the fiery furnace. The respected Shakespeare scholar, Prof. Lily B. Campbell, is one of the rare English profs who could see the forest for the trees.  As she wrote in Chapter X of her Shakespeare’s Histories (1945): “History versus Poetry in Renaissance England”:

In order to understand the place of history in the English Renaissance we must turn to the attacks made upon poetry . . . first by the adherents of the Reformation and later by the Puritans . . . . These attacks on poetry are not today so well known as are the defenses of poetry and particularly the great defense offered by Sidney. Nevertheless, the defenses of poetry cannot be fully comprehended unless we remind ourselves that defense is always organized to resist attack. (85)

One of the earliest attacks came in 1569, shortly after the plays in question began to escape the Court for which they were written to entertain the public at the London theater inns.  As James Sanford wrote in his translation of Cornelius Aggripa’s 1530 Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences:

Poetry, as Quintilian writeth, is another part of grammar, not a little proud . . . that in times past the theaters and amphitheaters, the goodliest buildings of men, were erected not by philosophers, not by lawyers, . . but with exceeding great expense by the fables of poets, an art that was devised to no other end but to please the ears of foolish men with wanton rhythms, with measures, and weightiness of syllables, and with a vain jarring of words, . . . to deceive men’s minds with the delectation of fables . . . . Wherefore it [the Stage] doth deserve to be called the principal author of lies, and the maintainer of perverse opinions.

In November 1577, Bishop Thomas White preached against the Stage from the pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin,. . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays.

In 1579, former playwright Stephen Gosson wrote in The School of Abuse, a pamphlet that the Church saw to it got published in the thousands and distributed all over London:

Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts? sauces?] to vanquish the taste nor painters in shadows [paintings] to allure the eye, than Poets in Theaters to wound the conscience.   There set, they abroche strange consorts of melody to tickle the ear, costly apparell to flatter the sight, effeminate gesture to ravish the senses, and wanton speech to whet desire to inordinate lust. . . . Let us but shut up our ears to Poets, Pipers and Players, pull our feet back from resort to Theaters and turn away our eyes from beholding of vanity, the greatest storm of abuse will be overblown and a fair path trodden to amendment of life. Were not we so foolish to taste every drug and buy every trifle, Players would shut in [up] their shops and carry their trash to some other country.

Writers of fiction fought back.  First Thomas Lodge in 1578 against Gosson’s diatribe: “Who then doth not wonder at poetry? Who thinketh not that it procedeth from above?”  As Nashe snarled at Sanford in Piers Penniless (1593):

As there be those that rail at all men, so there be those that rail at all Arts, as Cornelius Agrippa [in his] De vanitate scientiarum, and a treatise that I have seen in dispraise of learning, where he [Sanford] saith, it is the corrupter of the simple, the schoolmaster of sin, the storehouse of treachery, the reviver of vices, and mother of cowardice, alledging many examples, how there was never man egregiously evil but he was a scholar; that when the use of letters was first invented, the Golden World ceased, Facinusque inuasit mortales: how study doth effeminate a man, dim his sight, weaken his brain, and engender a thousand diseases.

To no avail––the Crown had departed from the Reformation’s humanist creators, following the Church into the art-hating tenets of Calvinism.  Campbell quotes “the most direct attack upon poetry as lying” with which she was familiar, the translation by Sir Edward Hoby of a French diatribe titled Politic Discourses upon Truth and Lying (1586) which he dedicated to his uncle William Cecil, patron and overlord of the English press. Campbell comments:

the description of poetry as poison mixed with honey, the emphasis upon pleasure derived from poetry as suspect, the reiteration of Plato’s contention [in The Republic] that passion and vice are replenished by poetry, are all familiar, but it must be noted that all other charges are made subordinate to the main thesis of the chapter that poetry is lying. (92)

As Sidney, whose response to Gosson in 1580 was finally published in 1590, put it: “Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.  So. . . the historian, affirming many things, can . . . hardly escape from many lies.”

Campbell notes that Hoby’s Chapter 36 is dedicated to the consideration “of backbiters, mockers, and evil speakers, and why the comedians, stage players and jugglers have been rejected,” and that plays “infecteth more the spirits and wrappeth them in passions then drunkenness itself.” She quotes:

And for as much as comedies are compounded of fictions, fables, and lies, they have of divers been rejected. As touching plays, they are full of filthy words, which would not become . . . lacqueys and courtesans and have sundry inventions which infect the spirit and replenish it with unchaste, whorish, cosening, deceitful, wanton and michievous passions . . . . And for that besides all these inconveniences, comedians, and stage players do often times envy and gnaw at the honor of another, and to please the vulgar people, set before them sundry lies and teach much dissoluteness and deceit, by this means turning upside down all discipline and good manners [so that] many cities well governed would never at any time entertain them. (92-3)

Thus wrote Burghley’s nephew in 1586, when the London Stage was in its ninth year, teetering on the verge of disaster.  Written while the nation was suffering the increasing severity of Burghley’s war on Catholic recusants and puritan dissidents, six years after his brutal execution of St. Edmund Campion and nine before the equally brutal execution, by his son Robert Cecil, of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, we should consider that perhaps it was less the poets’ “filthy” language that inspired this outburst on the part of his nephew than how they did “often times envy and gnaw at the honor” of the Cecils.

Though Burghley may have tolerated the Stage back in the 1560s when Philip II blamed him for the satires that were defaming his Spanish Majesty, it’s clear that by 1586, he was in the mood to trim both the London Stage and the commercial Press; perhaps cut them to the ground; perhaps uproot them entirely.  It’s Polonius, accepted by all as a portrait of Burghley, who critiques the dedication of Hamlet’s poem to Ophelia: “To the beautified Ophelia”; “That’s an ill phrase,” says Polonius, “a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase.”  We can be sure that this exchange has far more meaning than today’s so-called critics would give it.

Seen from the perspective of English history, the Renaissance, when it finally arrived, had to find its way past the Reformation fears of Satan.  This is the major reason for the form that it took in England, and for most of the literary anomalies that academics have failed to explain, including, first and foremost, the mystery surrounding the identity of the playwright who is easily found, had the slightest attention been paid to the evidence of history, deep within the Court community.  Had there been any genuine attention paid to the history of the period, it would also be clear long since that Shakespeare was not alone in this, but that most of the literature produced during this first early Spring of England’s Literary Renaissance was produced by men and women who took almost exactly the same route he did, hiding their identities behind a flock of standins, supernumeraries, and initials.

Forget the English Departments

We need to approach the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare, of which his true identity is but one, others pertaining to the identities of the authors who wrote under the names Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Thomas North, Arthur Brooke, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and a dozen others.  History will show where these are located in time, and who besides the authors were involved, the powerful and wealthy patrons who made these efforts possible, the publishers and printers who took risks in publishing them, all easily located once the background of dates, current events, known personalities and conflicts are in place. With the stage set by history, we’ll have a picture that no one can argue with.

But to do that we need the help of historians.  Those readers who seek an end to the questioning, the beginning of certainty, join in the quest for history majors, free thinkers who can see beyond the limits proscribed by the Stratford biography, probably located in London, certainly in England, individuals with access to the archives where documents never explored by authorship scholars remain to be examined.  We need patrons with the wherewithall to provide funding for such a project, who can keep it moving until the university History departments––yielding to the thrill of establishing the great Shakespeare at the Court of Queen Elizabeth––open their doors to the authorship question.

Urge schools to combine literature with history.

By bringing a piece of the story of our lives to life with not just the events of the time, but the way the writers and artists who lived it then saw it, by accenting the story part of history, by connecting stories to the events that gave them birth, we’ll be putting the Humanities back on the road to importance.  We’ll be turning fear into understanding, existential despair into acceptance and love, something has been the goal of literature ever since Plato set out to tell the world the truth about Socrates.

It’s time we told the truth about Shakespeare to those who are ready to hear it, and quit trying to tell it to those who are committed to ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oxford’s life in a very small nutshell

Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history.  Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot.  At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.

He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months.  As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place.  As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died.  Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.

Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper.  That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously.  In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials.  For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.

Bound to the Cecils by marriage

The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family.  If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage.  His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage.  Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers.  He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates.  Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.

In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad.  Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities.  Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.

Birth of the London Stage

Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season.  Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater.  Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End.  These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.

Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London.  The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.

Banished!

In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor.  Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End.  This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage.  Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.

Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack.  It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.

The Cecils attack the Stage and Press

Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter.  Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of  Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.

Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the  Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work.  By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records.  Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.

Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue.  With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare.  Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.

Cecil ups the ante

Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season.  Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.

The actors strike back

Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard III in which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.

Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard.  Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes.  Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Final years

With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.

Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story.  The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.

When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language.  Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.

Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks.  Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories.  Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire.  Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.

The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages.  Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect.  Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature.  Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.

In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him.  Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.”  He continues:

They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes.  Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . .  His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . .  He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature.  He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)

Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.

In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness.  One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone.  He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain.  We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances.  Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art.  When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control.  (xiv-xv)

All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them.  “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today.  There also seem to be many similarities in syntax.  Fennell continues:

Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers.  On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)

Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing.  As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .”  We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.

As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare.  As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.

Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life.  Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.

Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events.  Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus.  Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music.  Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.

Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, had Pindar in Greek on his 1566 library list.

Oxford’s issues and Shakespeare’s plots

The biggest problem caused the so-called Shakespeare critics by the Stratford biography has been the way it skews the dates of the plays.  With no perceivable connection between the life of William of Stratford and the themes of the plays, there’s been no means of connecting the plots and themes of the plays to particular points in time.  Even an event common to all Englishmen, the victory over the Spanish Armada, August 1588, is too early for Henry V, which would otherwise be seen as the kind of patriotic call to arms most likely written in advance of the great showdown.  But no, Shakespeare cared nothing for the events of the day, or so we’re told.  How about King John, that ends with this otherwise pointless threat:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them!  Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

This they locate in 1596, when Essex, Raleigh, the Lord Admiral and hundreds of impressed sailors were in the process of attacking Spanish Cadiz!  As usual it’s not Shakespeare but the so-called critics who care nothing for the events of the day.

Anyone who studies the history of literature knows how anomalous it is that one of the world’s greatest writers shows no interest in the themes and events that dominate his own life.  Think of D.H. Laurence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Hemingway, Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Proust, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Arthur Miller.  Where in all the history of fiction is there another who shows so little interest in the events and issues of his or her own life, particularly the playwrights, who must capture the interest of an audience who must share to some degree the same stream of historic events?

While genre writers gather facts and themes from other sources, seeking primarily to entertain and sell books, great writers of literature seem to turn to writing more to pursue the questions that torment them than for any other purpose; the oyster creates the pearl from its anguish.  The thinker, desperate for direction in a particular area, will turn to philosophy while the artist will conjure up a plot that parallels his situation, peopling it with characters based on friends, enemies and mates, as much to see where the story ends as to tell it to others.

Surely this is one of the ways we can be most certain about Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, for by using what we know of his life as a frame of reference for the plays and poems it turns out that we have the best means yet for dating the plays, for apart from the Roman history plays, all of them, even the English history plays, fit perfectly as descants on his own situation at the time, as well as appropriate responses to the national events surrounding him.  When we know the dates of these events, both national and personal, we have a much more solid means of locating the plays in time.

From his life we know that he began in his teens and twenties by writing comedies for Court holidays and weddings.  With his banishment from Court in his early thirties he turned to writing more serious works for the educated lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End.  When this came to an end in the early 90s with the death of Walsingham and the ascent to power of Robert Cecil, he entered the final phase of his career, revising his early plays for public consumption via the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men.  This was the period when he produced the works then published as by William Shakespeare.

Here is a list of some of the major themes and issues of Oxford’s personal life as they relate to the origins of the Shakespeare canon:

1572: Loss of honor of his cousin Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, having been persuaded by his wicked brother, Henry Howard to plot with Mary Queen of Scots to overthrow Elizabeth, resulting in Howard’s destruction: Macbeth.

1576: Breakup of his marriage: he dealt with this in at least seven plays.  Of the evil rumour and his own suspicions: in Pericles and Hamlet; about the one who started the rumor: Iachimo in Cymbeline, Iago in Othello; about his own insane jealousy: Othello, Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado; his attempts to explain or resolve the problem appear in Much Ado, All’s Well, and Winter’s Tale.

1581: Accusations of treason by his cousin Henry Howard and Charles Arundel that he countered with two plays for the Inns of Court audience dealing with similar issues in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.

1581-1596: Love and friendship:  With the Earl of Rutland: Damon and Pythias, Palamon and Arcite (Two Noble Kinsmen), Two Gentlemen of Verona; Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton: Romeus and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Ann Vavasor: Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet; the Earl of Southampton: Merchant of Venice, Sonnets 1-126; Emilia Bassano: Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Sonnets 40-44, 127-152.

1595-1604: Troubles with his adult daughters: In a revision of The Tempest created in 1595 for the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth to the Earl of Derby, he substitutes a fantasy relationship between himself and his daughter for the reality of having abandoned her and her mother shortly before her birth; In King Lear he shows his anger at his two older daughters and their husbands, for how they’ve been treating him and his servants, along with his emotional dependency on his youngest daughter and perhaps his fears that she could meet with harm.

Financial troubles: His loss of inherited estates and rightful offices to the machinations of his in-laws and evil stewards is seen in:  As You Like It, The Tempest, and Hamlet; the loss of investments in Merchant of Venice; the loss of credit in Timon of Athens.

Murders of patrons and friends: fears that these were murdered: his own father, the sixteenth earl, in Hamlet; his patron the Earl of Sussex, also in Hamlet; his patron Francis Walsingham, his patron Lord Hunsdon, the manager of his acting company, James Burbage, perhaps even his companion in his teen years, the Earl of Rutland, in Richard III.  The death of playwright Marlowe is mentioned by Touchstone in As You Like It.

Models for his characters:

Issues with females: for his first love, Mary Browne, in the narrative poem Romeus and Juliet; for the poet Ann Vavasor, who gave him a son: Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado (before he was banished from Court for their affair), Cressida (when he believed she had wantonly given him up for another), Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet (having learned that she was still true to him), Desdemona (as a vital independent female); his wife Anne Cecil: Mistress Ann Page in Merry Wives; Ophelia in Hamlet, Hero in Much Ado, Hermione in Winter’s Tale, Virgilia in Coriolanus, Desdemona (as the victim of his jealousy); the poet and playwright Mary Sidney: Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in a late version of As You Like It; the poet and musician Emilia Bassano: the Dark lady of Sonnets 40-44 and 127-152, the Cleopatra of Antony and Cleopatra; Queen Elizabeth as Venus in Venus and Adonis, and as Gertrude in Hamlet; as the witches in Macbeth: Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret Douglass Countess of Lennox, and Bess of Hardwick.

Issues with male friends: Rutland as Damon in Damon and Pythias, as Arcite in Palamon and Arcite, as Valentine in Two Gents; Southampton as the Fair Youth of Sonnets 1-126, Bassanio in Merchant of Venice, Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida; Sir John Perrot as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One and as described in Henry V.

Satires of rivals:  The Earl of Leicester as Shallow in an early version of Merry Wives; Sir Philip Sidney as Silence in Merry Wives, as Aguecheek in Twelfth Night; Lord Strange as Petrucio in Taming of the Shrew; Ben Jonson as Caliban in The Tempest; Sir Walter Raleigh as Jaques in As You Like It; Francis Bacon as Puck and Ariel; the sixth Earl of Derby (his son-in-law) as William in As You Like It; the Earl of Essex as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida; George Peele imitating Marlowe as Ancient Pistol.  It should be noted that revisions of the comedies over the years means that some earlier satires were replaced by a later figure, which is certainly the case with Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as the original play would have been much too early for the spearing of Antonio Perez, a Court figure from the 1590s.

Spearing of enemies:  Christopher Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, perhaps as Osric in Hamlet; Henry Howard as Iachimo, Iago, Lady Macbeth, and Cassius; Roland Yorke as Parolles in All’s Well; the Earl of Leicester as Claudius in Hamlet; Robert Cecil as Richard III and as Laertes in the final version of Hamlet; either Mildred Cecil or her sister Lady Russell as Volumnia in Coriolanus.

Acknowledgement of patrons and contributors of their talents: of Benedict Spinola in Baptista Minola of Two Gents, and perhaps Benedick of Much Ado; of Queen Elizabeth as Portia in Merchant, as the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, the King in All’s Well, and the Abbess in Comedy of Errors; of the Bassano brothers in The Spanish Tragedy; and finally of King James as the Duke in the final version of As You Like It.

Portrayals of guardians:  Sir Thomas Smith as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, as Gonzago (and Prospero) in The Tempest, as the Duke of Gloucester in Thomas of Woodstock and probably also Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost.; William Cecil as Polonius in Hamlet, Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Feu in All’s Well, and Menenius in Coriolanus.

Is it any wonder that the actors, their patrons and Oxford himself all felt it necessary to hide his identity?

To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

Did Shakespeare write The Spanish Tragedy?

There they go again!   Several days ago the New York Times announced that a Texas U English prof has “discovered” Shakespeare’s hand in the early modern play by Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, with the British newspaper, The Guardian, adding its tuppence.  And so the world watches (well, some of it watches) while a gaggle of academics and media geese chase each other around yet another well-worn track in the race to identify Shakespeare’s hand, as though it hasn’t all happened so many times before.

Yet each time the trail gets more muddied, and things once known now seem utterly forgot.  Since when, for instance, did the British Library succeed in proving that Hand D in the manuscript “The Play of Sir Thomas More” is in fact Shakespeare’s own?  Through what new discovery or process of analysis has this now been determined?  The media perps don’t say, of course, probably because they don’t know that neither this nor anything else in any play manuscript is in Shakespeare’s hand because, first, except for this and one or two others in manuscript, there simply aren’t any manuscript plays from that era for comparison; and second, there’s no existing document of any sort confirmed to be in William’s hand with which to compare them even if there were.

So professor Bruster’s great discovery, as with most of the Shakespeare discoveries that emerge from Academia, is based on something that is based on something that exists only as a theory.  To rely on Dover Wilson’s notions about Shakespeare’s handwriting, again, based not on any solid evidence of his handwriting (which again, does not exist), only on the results of several levels of transmission, from author (or his amanuensis) to stage manager (who created the stage director’s copy) to editor to typesetter, is, frankly, absurd.  Only someone in Wilson’s position, regarded as an expert and so desperate for conclusions (and certain that anything he says will be believed) would attempt to state as fact anything based on such a shaky foundation.

In fact, the common assumption by scholars who have spent their lives studying the matter has always been that the additions to the 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy were created by Ben Jonson for stage owner Philip Henslowe, as noted twice in Henslowe’s Diary: on the 25th of September 1601, Henslowe lent Edward Alleyn 40 shillings to give Jonson for “writing of his additions in ‘geronymo’” (Hieronymo was Henslowe’s term for what today we call The Spanish Tragedy); and again on June 22, 1602, more money for “new additions for ‘Jeronymo’” (R.A. Foakes, 182, 203).  As for Shakespeare, neither here nor anywhere else in his diary does Henslowe ever use the name, or anything that sounds remotely like it, even though it’s clear he produced several of his plays.

In fact, although it’s clear that Ben Jonson, not Shakespeare, made those additions to the play in 1602, the play itself was not only NOT WRITTEN by Thomas Kyd, it was surely written by Shakespeare, that is, by the man who used the name Shakespeare, and who then went on to write Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and so forth.  The attribution to Kyd is based on a pun made by Thomas Nashe in 1593 and a statement made by Thomas Heywood in 1612, in his Apologie for Actors.  Only a couple of other published works bear Kyd’s name, equally questionable, none of them worthy of the term literature.  By the time the twenty-something Heywood began working for the Lord Admiral’s Men in the mid-90s, Kyd was dead, destroyed by the same government sting that rid the Crown of Christopher Marlowe.  Attributing works of literature to the dead was a standard means of getting questionable works into print.

For those who have steeped themselves in the master’s language and how it grew from early (Titus Andronicus) to late (King Lear), there can be no doubt that The Spanish Tragedy was one of Shakespeare’s early plays, one that is, or should be, tremendously valuable to scholars since it was never rewritten as were most of his other plays from the 1580s.  A number of reputable analysts have noted the many similarities that place it close to Hamlet, probably just preceding it.  The only reason that Academia refuses to admit this is that it’s too early for the Stratford biography.

Whatever the reason, if this should lead to a major company introducing a good production of Spanish Tragedy it will be worth the kafuffle.  For no matter what nonsense gets written about Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still “the thing.”

How Shakespeare saved Christmas

What has Shakespeare to do with Christmas? Falstaff bloggie  He only mentions it twice by name, and then only in passing.  It’s clear from the name that Twelfth Night takes place during the Christmas holidays, but nothing in the play itself connects the behavior of Sir Toby and his friends to a particular holiday, at least not to us today.  Yet of all the paths that lead to our present celebration of Christmas, the one forged by Shakespeare is the widest and surest, leading as it did through the barren desert of the puritan Reformation to give back to the English, not the feudal style of merry-making, but through his creation of the London Stage, the joys of Theater and all that has developed from it, school plays and amateur theatricals, films and television.  While the Stage began as a compensation for the loss of the old processions, it shows its origins through the furnishings of many of his plays.

No more cakes and ale

The puritans who represented the more extreme beliefs that were brought to England in the 1540s with the Swiss Reformation did not condone the kind of merry-making that had always been associated with Christmas and the period after it leading up to Lent.  With their insistence on a lifestyle and a form of worship that adhered to what they believed came directly from the Bible, they regarded all festivity as evidence of papistical excess, a backsliding into the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the worship of Baal, of witchcraft, sorcery.  Following Calvin, the reformers eliminated all but four of the scores of feast days associated with the Catholic saints.  While Christmas was one of the four, it was a Christmas sadly bereft of its pagan trimmings––no decorating of trees, no burning of yule logs, no St. Nicholas, no mistletoe, no wassail bowl, no filling the halls with boughs of holly––no fa la la la la.

The church itself, once their beautiful and beloved halfway house to Heaven, was no longer festive.  Painted walls were whitewashed over.  The gorgeously carved rood screens and statues of the saints were broken up and burnt in bonfires in the streets.  The stained glass windows that portrayed the lives of the saints were smashed to smithereens.  The gold and silver candelabra were appropriated or stolen; the use of candles for anything but necessary light was denied.  The raised altar was replaced by a plain table in the center of the nave.  Priests were not allowed to wear anything but black.  Processions were forbidden.

Difficult as this was to bear throughout the year, it was hardest of all during the holiday period that included Christmas, for centuries the major moment when the laboring classes got a much-needed break from the year-round struggle to wrest sustenance from the soil and the sea.  Most of northern Europe was frozen from mid-November through mid-March.  Forced indoors, farmers and fishermen spent the winter months mending gear, visiting friends and relatives, eating, drinking, dancing and singing––in other words, making merry.  Beloved traditions reflected origins in Stone Age rituals, in particular the processions that circled through the parish, from and back to the church again: mumming and disguising, the Boy Bishop, the Hobby Horse, the Morris Dancers, the Green Man––all forbidden.  Bishops who sided with their parishoners ended up in the Tower.

Although the rural districts far from London were better able to keep some of the old antics, Londoners, closely watched by a series of die-hard puritan Mayors, could not get away with anything that hinted at a return to making merry.  When the boy king’s death in 1553 put his Catholic sister on the throne there was a brief reprieve.  But with Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the reformers returning from their exile stepped directly into important political positions, their determination to see reform strengthened by having spent the years of Mary’s reign in Frankfurt, Strasburg or Geneva, listening to the most adamant creators of the Protestant Reformation.

An Elizabethan Christmas

When it came to Christmas and other holidays, Queen Elizabeth was in something of a hard place.  She owed her throne to the reformers, yet personally she was drawn to the Old Faith and its lavish celebrations, in particular music and dancing.  She was also bound to provide a festive atmosphere for the visitors and ambassadors from countries that still kept holidays in the old style.  A compromise was achieved early in her reign by switching from the expensive masques that had been the Court’s version of mumming and disguising to the more sedate, seated observation of holiday plays, interspersed with musical interludes, mostly provided by members of her staff and paid for by her courtiers.  The acting and singing were done by the boy choristers who sang for her and her entourage in the palace chapel during devotions, then entertained on a dais in the dining hall , the instrumental music provided by her staff of England’s most accomplished musicians.  With costumes provided by the Revels department, it was all done on the cheap.

All elements of this entertainment came from within the Court and its circle of providers.   Where then did the plots and characters, the text of the plays come from?  Though plays consist of nothing but talk, and talk is cheap, these plays were not all that easy to write.  They had to be entertaining without overstepping the bounds of Court etiquette or offending a laughter-loving but hypersensitive female monarch.  Plays require conflict to be interesting, but for these plays the conflict could not reflect the grim religious and political issues that were what she dealt with day to day.  They had to be funny without being bawdy.  In short, to succeed, they had to be written by someone aware of what would please and what would not, in other words, an intelligent and sensitive Court insider.

Unfortunately the strictures of the Reformation had left the English literary community at one of the lowest points in its history.  Known to historians as “the drab era,” the poetry was crabbed and dense, its themes morose and depressing.  This was not surprising considering that the Reformation tended to see poets (playwrights were called poets) as liars, and poetry (anything that qualified as imaginative literature) as an instrument of the Devil.  As with most Renaissance courts, all good courtiers wrote poetry just as they played the lute or virginals and could sight-sing complex madrigals, but these were pastimes and unfortunately writing witty plays requires rather more than an hour or two snatched from running at the ring or playing Primero.

Along came Shakespeare

Of course he wasn’t known as Shakespeare then, in fact he wasn’t “known” at all.  He was a member of one of the Court coteries that prided itself on its writing, but which member wasn’t always clear, except within the coterie itself.  Fearful that being labeled a poet would mean loss of any hope of advancement, at least one gifted young writer openly condemned it as a “toy,” vowing to give it up.  But the youth who would someday be published as Shakespeare had that ineffable gift that time and again meets the moment with just the right stuff.  Protected by his high estate from the slurs of the less able, he began providing the kind of dramatically exciting and witty entertainment for the winter holidays at Court that would someday make it one of the most famous in Europe.

The talented boys who performed these plays came from the middling levels of society.  Usually discovered by their grammar school teachers, they were brought to Court or to Paul’s Cathedral, given the equivalent of a basic grammar school education, and trained to work with her musical consorts, singing the complex works of composers like William Byrd so that the Queen and her entourage could move through the day accompanied by music, as we do today by means of ipods and radios.

Clever lads, the boys easily memorized the lines given them to perform these early comedies.  Enchanted by their little satin suits and mammoth ruffs as they trilled the witty lines that they themselves may not have fully understood, they would continue to be the favorite entertainers of the childless Queen throughout her reign.  However, since she was also a tightwad with everyone but her male companion of the moment, she and her ministers looked aside when the boys and their masters would continue to perform a play written for a Court holiday in the halls of wealthy householders whose donations helped to defray the cost of the boys’ upkeep.

Thus it was that the great breakthrough occured.  What began as a few holiday plays in the London homes of the wealthy spread, bit by bit, to more public venues like the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers trained to sing the Service were allowed to entertain the public during the holidays.  There’s nothing more exciting for a theater company and its patrons than an enthusiastic audience, so the temptation to go commercial was hard for these financially struggling music masters to resist.  That, plus the fact that Londoners were desperate for entertainment, plus the most important fact of all, that the plays were so good––so much better than the silly antics that in former years had been provided by amateurs recruited from the City guilds to provide holiday entertainment for the City.

Birth of the London Stage

Starved by the Reformation for the merriment they craved, the London public had begun to frequent the theater inns in ever-increasing numbers.  City inns built on a square, surrounded on three sides by two or three stories of rooms accessed by an open passage that faced the central courtyard, were able to show plays performed on the second level overlooking the courtyard.  Performances at the inns lasted through the winter holidays, ending with the beginning of Lent, and beginning again in June.  By adding this to travelling on the circuit to the bigger towns, actors began to get the kind of work that they could count on throughout most of the year.

Seeing this, patrons of the major companies, some of them members of the Queen’s Privy Council, began to plan how to take advantage of this growing public audience and the growing mastery of their acting companies.  Politicians at heart, they saw the advantage of going with the flow, working it to their own advantage.  The Church on the other hand hated it, and fought the growth of the London Stage with every weapon it could muster, but it had only itself to blame for denying its parishoners their beloved season of good cheer.

In 1575, royal permission was finally granted to the young lord with the golden pen to travel to France and Italy where he could discover methods of theater production along with ways that it might work for, not against, Authority.  Persuaded by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Elizabeth and her chief minister, Lord Burghley, saw an advantage in promoting a theater that could be monitored and controlled as opposed to fighting the one that was growing helter skelter without their consent.  Within days of the young lord’s return in 1576 the first purpose-built year-round commercial stage began rising on a well-travelled road just outside the City in an ancient Liberty where the puritanical City fathers had no control.  That summer the adult company that gathered around the builder of the theater, James Burbage, began entertaining the public, two to three thousand at a sitting. And whose plays do you think they were performing?

Six months later, a little stage in a school created to train the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in their holiday entertainments for the Court opened in the old Revels offices in the Liberty of Blackfriars, also outside City control, at the edge of the most important audience in England, the lawyers and parliamentarians who spent their days in or near the law courts of Whitehall in what today is known as London’s West End.  And whose plays do you think the boys were performing there?  And possibly also––occasionally, advertised only to a select few through word of mouth––by Burbage’s adults.

Thus it was that the youth with the gifted pen whose plays would someday be published under the name Shakespeare, began gathering the audiences that would make the London Stage the wonder of the western world, spreading his magic first to Germany, then to all of Europe, then to the world.  Born from the Queen’s need for cheap entertainment at the winter holidays, “speaking daggers” on government policy at the little stage at Blackfriars to the members of parliament during their Christmas break, Shakespeare brought to a nation starved for happiness in the winter holidays the London Stage and with it the English Literary Renaissance.

That Shakespeare understood and rebelled against the Reformation’s idea of what constituted good writing is clear from Oxford’s prologues to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte.  The ideal held out for writers by the Reform community was Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Castiglione’s Courtier.  Try reading a bit of it, or something by George Turburville, and you’ll see what Oxford was confronted with by his contemporaries as he came of age.  Luckily he had been trained to a higher level by his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  Luckier yet he had that adventuresomeness of spirit that allowed him to fly free, not only of the turgid style of his contemporaries, but of the ancient styles learned at his tutor’s knee, ever seeking a fresher vision, a more direct and immediate means of communication.

For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot!

Did Shakespeare see his career as saving Christmas and all holidays for a people beaten into submission by a heartless, sin-obsessed Authority?  Perhaps not, but it seems likely that among the various forces that drove him over the years, one was the need to save for posterity some of what was good about the feudal culture that was under such severe attack by the Reformation, if not merry-making specifically, then the kind of hospitality, the noblesse oblige, that saw to it that widows and orphans were not forgotten, that everyone shared in the holiday, no matter how poor, when the true spirit of Christ, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” was not just cold words preached from a lofty pulpit, but actively lived at all the major turning points of the year.

In the upper Thames valley, where as a boy he had lived with Smith during Mary’s reign, the wild antics of the Hobby Horse and the Green Man could still have been seen in nearby towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday, May Day and Midsummer’s Eve.  Before Hamlet sits to watch the play that will catch the conscience of the King, his otherwise pointless cry, “For O, the hobby horse is forgot” must refer to the role of the Hobby Horse, some rural Robin Hood dressed in a horse costume, whose joyous duty it was to whinny as he charged at the homes and businesses of local evil-doers (bullies, wife-beaters, malicious gossips, avaricious money-lenders, loose women) as the rowdy procession passed them, to roars from the jeering crowd.  Was Hamlet using the play as in former times Oxford had seen when the Hobby Horse, given license by the ancient tradition, took the opportunity of the procession to  humiliate persons whose behavior was causing trouble within the community?

As the provider for so many years of the plays that took the place of the ancient forms of public merry-making, it’s not surprising that many show their origins in the old holiday folkways.  The sub-plot of Twelfth Night reflects what must have been a frequent situation during this time in many wealthy households, the battle between a widow’s overly rightous steward, and her old party dog of an uncle, with the jester, Feste––in Shakespeare’s position––caught between the two.  As Sir Toby puts it to the “baffled” Malvolio, “Dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?”  The Merry Wives’  torments of Falstaff end with what Oxford must have seen as a child in the villages in and around the Forest of Windsor near where he lived with Smith, a holiday ritual associated with the running of the stag, a relic of England’s Celtic origins.  That Shakespeare loved these holiday rascals is clear from how often they appear on stage and how long they stay there.  Falstaff and Sir Toby, if not based on the same individual, are certainly cut from the same cloth, as is Mine Host, and Bottom with his merry shout: “Where are these lads!  Where are these hearts!”

With his constant focus on love, many of the ancient traditions touched on by Shakespeare were courting rituals.  In As You Like It, the love poems Orlando pins on branches of trees would seem to reflect a courting tradition, though on what occasion remains a mystery, possibly St. Valentine’s Day.   The forest adventures of the couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect a similar tradition from ancient celebrations of May Day when girls would go into the wooded meadows alone, ostensibly to gather flowers for “Mary’s Day,” whence they would be pursued by the young men of the village.  This tender means of providing courting couples with an opportunity to meet privately in a romantic spring setting, was of course abhored and forbidden by the reformers, represented in the play by one of the fathers.  Other Reformation figures include Malvolio and Angelo from Measure for Measure.  Angelo’s message seems to be that it’s better to let the Old Nick come out in company for a few weeks a year than to keep it bottled up for years, finally to explode into some gross indecency with its aftermath of remorse.

True to the spirit of the masque, of the mumming and disguising that accompanied not only Christmas, but several of the ancient festivals, the great English Lord of the Dance hid his identity from the Blatant Beast, Spenser’s personalization of the Reformation, behind a sober mask contributed by a “prudent” burgher from the midlands, until his Book of Gladness, published in 1623 by the patrons who loved and cherished his work, spread it throughout England and from there to all the nations of the world.

Passing the plate

Those readers who enjoy these comments on Shakespeare, his identity, and how the English Literary Renaissance managed to find its way to the light despite the efforts of Reformation politicians to stamp it out, may find it in their hearts and pockets to help with this effort.  Unsupported by any organization or university, I’m sometimes at a loss to get the books I need or an occasional month’s membership to the online DNB.  If you’d like to make a modest contribution towards this effort, here’s how.

Thanks for your interest.  It’s what keeps me going.

Why was Shakespeare never at Court?

So many things about Shakespeare make no sense.  Droeshout bloggie-2Constantly repeated in the traditional history of the British Stage is the notion that he showed no interest in his plays once they were performed.  That his name appears nowhere in any record of publication apart from title pages, that there’s no record that William of Stratford was even in London for almost a decade before his death in 1616, suggests to those attempting to explain this unique behavior on the part of a theatrical impresario that he was somehow “above” dealing with publishers.

In fact, as more recent studies have emphasized, nothing could be further from the truth.  As one of the literary giants of all time, Shakespeare understood very well the importance of getting his work published.  The idea, put about by biographers, that he took no interest in the publication of his plays, or by Walter Greg and company that they were utterly dependent on the whims of various actors and reporters who rewrote them for publication, violates common sense.

First, all but one or two of Shakespeare’s plays as published, whether in quarto or in the collected works known as the First Folio in 1623, are much longer than could be easily fitted into the traditional two hours “traffic” on the stage.  Why write so much more than what can be produced?  The answer is simple: while actors may have had no more than two hours, readers had as much time as they required.  From 1594 on, Shakespeare had two venues for his stories, the stage and the press, and prepared for both according to their differing requirements; if all we have are what he prepared for publication, in some cases with changes added by later editors), well, that’s the nature of publishing (some of the so-called “bad quartos” may in fact be the texts that the actors used).  If the print quality of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are far beyond that of most of the quartos, it simply argues that he had more control over the publishing of his poetry than he did over his plays.  It does not mean he sat back while––per Greg and countless editors––the actors rewrote and published his writing.

Second, the commonsense explanation for the many differences between the quartos, or pamphlet versions of his plays published between 1594 and 1619 and between them and the 1623 Folio versions, is that the varying qualities of the quartos testify to the period when they were written, the worse the earlier, the better the later.  Why replace this commonsense explanation with elaborate theories of reprehensible printers and unidentified spies and actors?  Because the dating scheme forced on the academy by the Stratford biography won’t allow for texts that reflect styles as early in some cases as the 1570s.

This is not to say that no play text was ever pirated or rewritten by later playwrights.  The effort by intelligent scholars like Brian Vickers to prove that other hands are to be found in a few of the plays can’t be discounted.  But it should be noted that none of these are among Shakespeare’s best, or even his better plays.  If the explanation for the variations in style in Titus Andronicus are due to later revision, not by the author but by some other writer, well, so what?  The importance of Titus has little to do with its value as a performable play, more in what it tells us about where Shakespeare began, a question for literary history based on text and publication, not on whether or not we would enjoy seeing it performed today.  While Vickers suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, his evidence works equally well as the later addition to an early original once Shakespeare was gone to his ancestors.  There’s no need to think, as he seems to, to see them sitting down together and discussing who will write what scene.

The same is true of Two Noble Kinsmen, what value it may have coming chiefly from the fact that Shakespeare’s name appears on its title page.  That TNK tells the same story from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as was told by a play titled Palamon and Arcite performed for the Court at Oxford University in 1566 (during which Oxford got a Master’s degree), and that a (lost) play by the same name was performed by the Admirals’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose Theater several times in the fall of 1594, the first time labeled “ne” for “newly emended,” are facts that to someone under no pressure to conform to the Stratford dates might suggest point to a single play, one written in 1566, revised by its author in 1594, and again in 1613 by John Fletcher, rather than three separate plays based on the same source.   This desire to break up a work based on a particular story involving the same cast of characters into a series of works by a series of early (unnamed) writers is based, not on any hard evidence of such a process ever having actually taken place, but purely on the need to limit Shakespeare’s terminus a quo to the 1590s before which time William of Stratford was simply unavailable.

The importance of the Court

Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe, the Court and courtier patrons stepping in to protect them only that the Queen might have her “solace” over the Christmas holidays.  According to this scenario, plays performed at Court by the adult companies were, as are plays today, written for the public as commercial ventures, some enjoyed by the Queen and her minions, but none written specifically with them in mind.

Why this should be true of the adult companies when it’s obvious that plays were being written specifically for the children’s companies to perform for the Court isn’t addressed.  It’s clear from the Revels accounts that what the Queen preferred for her solace were comedies performed by her young choristers.  Eight of these survive, written for the chorus boys from Paul’s Cathedral and attributed to John Lyly.  For the dozen or more plays performed by other boy companies throughout this period we have but one text and no authors.  The Court was also the souce for a great deal of poetry that if the academics are to be believed, developed in a vacuum apart from what Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing.  Prof. Stephen May’s 2002 The Courtier Poets ignores the fact that London was a small city and that the plays of both poets were not only popular with the public, but were also frequently performed at Court.

Common sense should also tell us that in a culture like the England of the sixteenth century, nothing could prosper without noble patronage, certainly nothing on the scale of the three-story theaters that dominated the landscape and that faced the kind of violent opposition that Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage describes.  The idea that Burbage and Henslowe could build their theaters where they did and keep them going for as long as they did without more assistence from their Privy Council patrons than simply the occasional letter of support is absurd.  That the obvious battle over the London Stage was connected with a similar battle within the Court community and the Privy Council over its identical twin, the Court Stage, should be obvious, and would be if the English Departments who are supposed to be the guardians of truth about our literary past kept so much as half an eye on its history.

Accompanying this astigmatism is the even bigger blind spot relating to the close proximity of the Blackfriars theater to the politically influential West End.  With the perfectly located public theater on the major thoroughfare into and out of Central London, one might think that this location too was the result of careful planning.  But such gaps are endemic in a study that either cannot or will not see the connection between the works of Shakespeare and the politics of Elizabeth’s Court.  Literary critics continue to chase their tails around Stratford while evidence of Shakespeare’s connection to the Court lies unobserved in open view.

That Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Baron Hunsdon, whose job it was to oversee Court entertainment, next to the Queen and the Principal Secretary, the most powerful man on the Privy Council, his fingers in every political pie, his hand close to if not actually on the rudder of the Ship of State, that this was just another acting company, its popularity the only factor in its importance, is the result of Hunsdon’s efforts and those of other powerful men and women, to keep his company’s connection to the Crown as hidden as possible for political reasons should be obvious to anyone with any grasp of the history of the period.

However modest its origins were made to appear, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was in fact England’s Crown company, following the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1589, the second ever to be created, its official status reaffirmed when, following Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King James, it was renamed the King’s Men.   Their sharers included James Burbage head of the first company ever to get a license, his son, plus the top players from both leading companies of the time.

How can the so-called critics be so obtuse as to miss the connection between the most celebrated plays of the day and the politics that raged around them and their audiences?  How can they fail to understand that the London Stage was the sixteenth century equivalent of America’s John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, England’s Chris Morris?   Forced by the Stratford bio to date the plays ten to fifteen years out of sync with events, they continue the mystification that was first conceived by men like Hunsdon and Burbage, Howard and Henslowe, to hide the connection between the London Stage and the Crown.  How can they fail to see that the elimination of Marlowe was the act of an angry Crown towards one who brazenly and wantonly violated its unwritten agreement to treat the Crown and its religion with respect.  If not the English Departments, who will write the true history of this period during which poets, one in particular, stood at the forefront of a groundswell moving inexorably towards not just talking about, not just demanding, but actually getting, freedom of speech.

While Moliére was the intimate friends of the French King’s brother, a member of French Court society; while the Poet Ronsard was born into French Court circles, the intimate of three French kings; while the Italian poet Tasso, a nobleman at the Courts of the Princes of Urbino and Ferrara, was the familiar of their highest circles; while the playwright Ariosto was the familiar of the Cardinal d’Este and the Duke of Ferrera; while the playwright Machiavelli was the familiar of the Medici; the orator Cicero the colleague of Caesar and Mark Antony; the poets Ovid and Virgil known at the the Court of Caesar Augustus; Lord Byron the intimate of the highest members of Regency society––why was the great Shakespeare never seen at Elizabeth’s Court?  Why was he never even introduced?

Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court?  Yes, there are Court figures who feature in the story of the birth of modern English literature: Sidney was an important writer as was Raleigh and Bacon, Harington and Donne.  But what about Spenser?  Wouldn’t it make sense that he was brought to Court, like these others, and not left to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Irish kerns in the wilds of County Limerick?

And what about the great master, the greatest of all, Shakespeare, whose plays were performed at Court for decades?  Why is Shakespeare never found at Court?

The Authorship argument in a nutshell

First there’s the name

Yes, Shakespeare was a real name; yes it belonged to a real man who had ties of some sort to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that produced the plays and had them published.  But what must strike someone first who knows nothing about the myth is that the name is a pun, a classical play on words.  Not only is it a pun, it was often spelled with a hyphen on the title pages of plays, a standard way of spelling pun-names for comic characters like that female of easy virtue, Doll Tear-sheet.  In fact, the first time it was used on the title page of a play, it was spelled with a hyphen (the 2nd edition of Richard III, published in 1598, was the first play to bear the name William Shake-speare).

Not only is Shake-spear a pun, but, also like Doll Tear-sheet, it describes his vocation.  This author used the drama, as have so many before and after, to shake a spear at stupidity and evil.  Whether you see spear as metaphor for stage prop or pen, it works as a symbol for what he was doing.  How he, or more to the point, how those who published his plays managed to find a real person with a name that works as a pun and who was also willing to let them use it, is a separate issue.  What’s important at first glance is that the name that first became known as the author of the plays that were so popular in London in the early 1590s were ascribed to a man with what appeared to be a pun-name, a clear indication to those who could read that the publishers were not using the author’s real name.

There’s the content of the plays

At least half are based in Italy, many derived from Italian stories.  There’s no evidence that William of Stratford was ever in or could have been in Italy.  At the same time it’s clear that some of the Italian stories whose plots he adapted were not available then in English, which means that whoever wrote them was able to read Italian.  Academics attempt to bypass this by disdaining his knowledge of Italy, yet over time it’s been gradually proven, most recently and effectively by Richard Roe of Pasadena California, that Shakespeare knew Italy better than they did.   He knew it so well that he could place his characters with total accuracy in particular places in particular cities, while using Italian terms that only someone with personal experience could possibly have known.  He had to have been to Italy.

The plays are all about Court life and the lives of courtiers, kings and the nobility, written from the perspective of one who knew that life and those people intimately.  There’s his knowledge of games and sports, demonstrated partly by including them in his plays, partly by his use of their terms, partly by their use as metaphors, games and sports that were limited by law and expense to members of the Court community.  So knowledgable was Shakespeare about the intricacies and details of Court life that German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, Duke of Lautenberg and creator of the German Empire inherited by Kaiser Wilhelm, commented upon it.  Bismarck’s biographer notes that he wondered how someone,

however gifted with the intuitions of genius, could have written what was attributed to Shakespeare unless he had been in touch with the great affairs of state, behind the scenes of political life, and also intimate with all the social courtesies and refinements of thought which in Shakespeare’s time were only to be met with in the highest circles. (Whitman 135)

Yet no trace of a William Shakespeare has ever appeared in any record that shows that he was ever at Court for so much as a single moment.  Why, when earlier playwrights like John Hayward, later playwrights like Ben Jonson, composers like William Byrd, musicians like the Bassano brothers, actors like Richard Tarleton, all leave paper trails of Court involvement; why when individuals with names he used for his characters like Spinola or Petruccio, appear in Court records, why is Shakespeare himself absent?

There’s his knowledge of the Law, of Medicine, of Astrology, of Pharmacology, all displayed throughout his works, sometimes by direct description, many times by uses of their particular terms or by metaphorically comparing them to a host of otherwise unrelated situations.

There’s his obvious knowledge of languages other than English

Even if the Stratford grammar school did provide sufficient Latin, which, though likely, is still an assumption; and even if William did attend, which is not proven, nor provable, since so far the only writing in his hand that has turned up in 400 years of research are wobbly signatures on six legal documents, none of them related in any direct way to the London Stage, it doesn’t explain his knowledge of French, Italian and Greek.  Reseach into the sources of his plays, their plots and characters, shows knowledge of works in these languages, French and Italian stories, ancient Greek tragedies, that were not yet translated into either Latin or English in his time, and if translated, could not be found anywhere but in the libraries of educated noblemen.

There’s the lack of evidence of important patrons

In Shakespeare’s time, no writer from Shakespeare’s background ever got established without support from a wealthy patron, yet apart from his homage to the Earl of Southampton in the dedications of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, there’s no third party evidence that Southampton, or any other noble patron, ever did anything to help someone named William Shakespeare with his career as a writer or an actor.

The major share of evidence that he was an actor comes from five documents spawned by the Company that published works under that name: 1) 1595: when his name is listed once, and only once, as one of three payees for a production at Court; 2) 1603: in the official warrant for the establishment of the King’s Men; 3) 1604: in several yards of cloth given to all who marched in the coronation procession of King James; 4) 1605: in the will of one of the sharers of receipts from the Globe theater; 5) 1616: in a list of actors in two plays published by Ben Jonson; and 6) in a line that same year added to his own will bequeathing money for rings for the Company managers .  This is all there is; it’s limited to this one small group of men dependent on the fortunes of the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men; and it isn’t enough to take for granted that William of Stratford was, in fact as well as official fiction, a playwright and an actor.

There’s the lack of evidence of a training period in the theater

Four hundred years of research has failed to turn up any indication that William of Stratford worked with a theater company as either an actor or a writer before he suddenly began turning out hits with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s.   Scott McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean note that the Queen’s Men performed early versions of Richard III, King John, and Henry V, which suggests to them that Shakespeare must have been a member of their company, but though they have many of the actors from that Company, no trace of his name has ever appeared as working in any theatrical capacity in the 1580s.

There’s the lack of evidence of a life lived in London

No great playwright ever spent much time away from the center of his creative life, the Stage, yet there’s no evidence that William Shakespeare spent more than a few weeks away from Stratford.  As Ramon Jiménez has detailed at length, no one who should have known him as a writer and an actor ever mentioned him.  What great artist ever left no record of his relationships with the other great artists and patrons of his time?  The record of his life in London consists of measly accounts of tax evasion and a period of residence of an indeterminate length with a family of theatrical costumers.  No evidence of friendships with other writers and artists; nothing that comes close to what we know about Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, or even Shakespeare’s own (supposed) illegitimate playwright son, William Davenant.

There’s the lack of evidence that he owned theater shares

Along with the strange lack of any books in William’s will, the fact that neither he nor his wife, nor either of his daughters could write anything more than a legal signature, is the fact that he left no theater shares in his will.  The basis for believing that his financial success in Stratford was due to his shares in the receipts of two theaters where the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men performed, derives from his name on warrants for the second, and references to him as a sharer in documents generated by the Company.  Despite these, the fact that he left no shares in his will, and that in the litigation that attended the success of the King’s Men in the seventeenth century, where the fate of shares was the subject of lawsuits, no mention is made of what happened to his shares, suggests that he was recompensed for whatever it was that he did for the Company in some other way.

Finally, there’s the way his biography skews the dates

Most problematic may be the way the biography of William of Stratford, with its late placement in the story of the English Literary Renaissance, forces on scholars too narrow a window of time into which to fit his career.  It forces them to hunt for clues to his development where they simply cannot be found.  To limit the start of his career to the early 1590s, or the late 1580s at the earliest, forces them to see him beginning to produce works at or close to genius level with no apparent period of training.  It forces them to interpret the early quartos of his plays as the work of earlier unnamed playwrights and others to a strange habit on the part of such an innovative genius to imitate later, lesser writers.  It forces them to see the plays as written immediately before publication, putting them way out of sync with their natural placements in time, for instance, placing Henry V with its clear connection to the effort to prepare for the Spanish invasion to sometime after the Armada, when there would be no point in the stirring call to arms of the King’s  St. Crispian’s Day speech.

One or two of these issues might be accounted for by the attempts of academics to arrrange the facts to fit the biography, but not all.  From the pun-name used to publish his plays, his obvious knowledge of the Court, Italy, foreign languages, the Law, Medicine, Astrology and Pharmacology, all things that he could not possibly have learned from casual reading; his lack of patrons, of any evidence of a life lived in London, of an early training period, of any real evidence of acting or earning a living through the Stage, of any books, theater shares, or relationships with other artists.  And finally there’s the way his dates have forced unnatural and strained interpretations of the plays and their place in the timetable of Elizabethan history.

Taken together, these loudly proclaim the obvious, that William Shakespeare of Stratford was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for the use of his punnable name so that they could profit by the publication of his plays while allowing the educated and sophisticated courtier who wrote them to maintain his image as nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a genial and harmless patron of the arts and sciences.