How old is the Authorship Question?

The standard answer to this is the late nineteenth century, when Delia Bacon’s book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, claimed that the Shakespeare canon was not written by William of Stratford, but was the result of a collaboration of a team of courtly writers led by Francis Bacon.  This, however, was only the moment when the issue was opened to the reading public at large, for the issue itself has been there ever since the first peeps of Shakespeare criticism.  As Albert Feuillerat explains in his Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays (1953), the question of the authenticity of the Shakespeare canon

has been raised with more or less insistence ever since the eighteenth century. . . .  Pope conjectured that in Love’s Labor’s Lost, the Winter’s Tale, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus there was nothing authentic except a few scenes and some characters (1725). . . .  Similar doubts were expressed by Theobald regarding Henry V (1734), by Hanmer regarding the Two Gentlemen of Verona (1744), by Samuel Johnson regarding Richard II (1765), and by Farmer regarding The Taming of the Shrew (1767).  Ritson found some disparities so evident that in The Two Gentlemen, Love’s Labor’s Lost and Richard II he claimed he could distinguish Shakespeare’s hand as easily as one could recognize the brilliant brush strokes with which a Titian might have sought to touch up a mere daub.  Malone in 1790, in his often quoted dissertation on Henry VI, did not recognize Shakespeare’s hand except in some passages of the second and third parts and thought that the first part came entirely from one of Shakespeare’s predecessors. (32)

The difference between these early questioners and Delia Bacon is that they never disputed the existence of a William Shakespeare as author, however sparing his touch.  As lawyers and doctors began openly questioning the Stratford biography, Frederick Fleay and the so-called disintegrators got ever more severe in limiting the evanescent Shakespeare’s involvement in the production of the canon.  Clinging like drowning survivors of shipwreck to that crumbling bit of flotsam, the name itself, academics and their groupies continue to defend what, if one takes the long view, never really existed.  The first public attribution, by Francis Meres in 1598, is hardly solid since it stands alone while the book that introduces Shakespeare’s name to the reading public  was his only connection with the world of poetic literature.  The other attribution, that found in the First Folio of 1623, is fragile in the extreme, and nothing since has done anything to solidify it, quite the reverse.  We’re left with Authority’s age-old pronunciamento: “It’s so because I say it’s so.”

That someone wrote the magic and that during the 1590s the name William Shakespeare got attached to it along with a good deal else that’s questionable is all we can be certain of, and all that anyone could be certain of for a very long time.  Beginning with Delia, the search began to replace the name with that of a writer whose biography made more sense, keeping Shakespeare only to identify the canon, as in A.W. Pollard’s article of 1917: “Shakespeare’s fight with the Pirates,” in which by Shakespeare he meant, not the author, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their precious playbook.

The questioning has taken new turns over the years.  At the beginning it must have been about who was writing the plays that began to be performed in the early 1590s.  This was answered in 1598 when three of the most popular plays were published as by William Shake-spear (Richard III) or Shakespeare (Richard II and Romeo and Juliet), the same time that it (the name) was introduced to the reading public via the Meres book as the author of several other plays as well, no doubt popular plays, and of  certain “sugar’d sonnets.”  Some readers were already familiar with the name from the title pages of two narrative poems published four and five years earlier, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Thus towards the end of the 1590s, long after the first versions of some of the plays had been seen by audiences (the Contentions and True Tragedies), they had a name for the author, but they never had the man himself.  The lack of any solid history of William’s presence in London, of letters to him from other writers or from him to other writers or from anyone to anyone else about him, suggests that the questioning must have continued, which the ambiguous wording of the front material in the First Folio was intended to put to rest.  That this wording continued through later editions suggests that the questioning continued until, as Feuillerat reports, the emphasis began to shift to questions about what seemed to be other hands of far less ability.

Long story short: the authorship question has been around from the beginning, it has simply shifted focus repeatedly from one aspect to another.  Where it rests at the moment, on which of several candidates actually wrote the works attributed to the Stratford money-lender, is only one stage in the long ongoing question of who actually wrote the canon, and, perhaps most important, why it’s taking so long to come up with an answer.

Why Burghley defended Oxford

Much has been made, by Alan Nelson and other Burghley appologists, of the seemingly kindly treatment by the Lord Treasurer of his reprehensible son-in-law.  I believe that William Cecil did love Edward de Vere, insofar as he was capable of loving anyone, at least at first, but there is a political side to this that must be acknowledged.  Nothing Cecil ever did, whether good or bad, was without political implications.

First, it seems most likely that Cecil was the major instrument in removing de Vere from wherever he was being cared for in 1554 to the household of Sir Thomas Smith.  Although Smith was a loyal constituent of the sixteenth Earl, the Smith family having been longtime residents of Saffron Walden in Essex, a short ride from the Oxford stronghold at Hedingham Castle, it was Cecil who was in a position to make the necessary arrangements, not his father the Earl, or his uncle Arthur Golding, nor Smith.  As his tutor at Cambridge, Cecil knew Smith well enough to know that he would make the perfect caretaker for the precious heir to the great Oxford earldom.  It was a firm belief of those reformers who instilled in Cecil the Reformation mantra that good government would occur only when young peers were raised as Protestants.

Smith was honest, honorable, sexually chaste (i.e., no pedophile), a dedicated Protestant, a great humanist scholar, and possibly the most highly regarded teacher of his time.  He had no legitimate child of his own, and, most important, was essentially out of work having lost his position as Secretary of State during Somerset’s great fall, then with the return of Catholicism under Queen Mary, his place as Provost of Eton.  Since Cecil was the only member of Edward’s reform government to remain (unofficially) in office following Mary’s accession, he was in a position to know when the boy had to be moved, for safety’s sake, before the anti-reform storm struck Essex early in 1555.

Cecil was also in a position to offer Smith a juicy quid pro quo in exchange for a year or two of taking care of the boy [I don’t imagine they had any idea the arrangement would continue for eight years]: Cecil happened to be in a position to arrange Smith’s second marriage to the widow of a former colleague at Court, a marriage that brought with it an excellent estate at the northern edge of the Forest of Waltham, which meant that Smith would be back in Essex, not far from his family in Saffron Walden, at an easy commuting distance from both Cambridge and London.  Further, there was probably the understanding that as soon as possible, Cecil would see to it that Smith got returned to a worthwhile position on the Privy Council.

It’s very likely that Cecil, and many others, were aware from the start that Mary’s health was dicey, and that it was unlikely that she would live for more than a few years, giving him time to lay the groundwork for her younger sister to take the throne, at which point de Vere would be safe and Smith could return to his old place on the Privy Council.  There’s no record of such a deal, but then there wouldn’t be.  Where evidence is lacking we must go by the nature of events, human nature and common sense.  We do know that once Elizabeth was on the throne and Cecil was Secretary of State––while Smith got nothing but a bone, JP for his district in Essex––he and Smith had a falling out that lasted two years.  We also know that as soon as the sixteenth earl was buried, Oxford went to London while Smith went to France as the English Ambassador.

Foreign ambassador was not what Smith had in mind, but at least it meant he had a foot back in the government door.  France brought mixed results for Smith.  Although his embassy was a failure (as were most Elizabethan embassies) he saw some buildings that left a strong impression on him, which he explored when he returned to renovating his new home in Essex.  He also had the opportunity to add important books to his library and to send some to Cecil and Walsingham.

Whether or not he had anything to do with it, the death of Earl John in 1562 enabled Cecil, by then Master of the Court of Wards, to bring young Oxford to London where he could oversee the finishing touches to his Protestant education, and, not least, to arrange for his marriage to his daughter Anne.  However Oxford attempted to keep his “lewd” poems to himself, Cecil, the premiere spymaster, was probably well aware of his writing, but thought little of it so long as the boy kept it to himself.  It’s interesting that two of the works of imaginative literature that issued from that community in 1565, Golding’s translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses and Painter’s translations of the French and Italian tales in the Pallace of Pleasure, were dedicated to the Earl of Leicester.  Only scholarly works and sober works of Reformation dogma were ever dedicated to Cecil.

Cecil must have been pleased that Oxford turned out to be so popular at Court, and that his talent gave him access to the Court Stage.  With the advent of the Earl of Sussex as Lord Chamberlain in 1572, Cecil, now Burghley, saw the political advantage to his own interests when Sussex, under pressure to take control of Court entertainment away from his hated rival, the Earl of Leicester, opened the door to Oxford’s control of the Court Stage, as Sussex worked to remove it from Leicester’s control.  He may even have been party to the decision to let Oxford have a year in Italy to learn how to produce public theater from Francesco Andreini and theater building from Andrea Palladio.

Following Oxford’s return, Privy Council members Burghley and Leicester would have to know of plans being made by fellow Countil members Sussex, Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard to create a public theater where the Court could control the kind of plays produced.  That Oxford took the moment of his return to break with the Cecils was unfortunate for Burghley, but while his heart remained bitter, politics demanded that he do everything he could to mend the breach, partly for his daughter’s sake, but also to have some say in the process as plans continued to create a channel between the Court Stage and the public.  Burghley pretty much had total control of the Press, which he had helped to create.  He wasn’t about to hand over control of the Stage to either Leicester or Sussex.

The first open breach between Burghley and his former ward came with Oxford’s banishment from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Ann Vavasor.  Perhaps more disturbing than the insult to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford’s wife, were the plays that he was writing for the adult actors to perform at the little Blackfriars school stage, including an early version of Hamlet in which, as he heard from his sister-in-law, who lived near the theater, he himself was being parodied as Corambis (later Polonius) and that Oxford had dared to draw parallels between the recent death of Sussex and the infamous murder some years earlier of the Italian Duke of Urbino.  But again, political necessity overrode all else.  For the sake of Court solidarity as well as his family, Burghley had to do whatever he could to get Oxford back in the fold.  The Queen looked to him to keep his family in line.   He simply had no other choice.  Later he whined in one of his memos to posterity, “No enemy I have can envy me this match.”

Relief came with Walsingham’s plan to create a Crown company.  Oxford would return to the Court with a real and important task, to provide the new Crown company with plays that would promote understanding of England’s present danger by comparing the present stand-off with Spain to other times in history.  This allowed Walsingham to create a propaganda office made up of the crew of secretaries and musicians that hung out at Oxford’s manor, Fisher’s Folly, located just outside Bishopsgate, a few steps from his own residence, the Papey, just inside the gate.  With Oxford’s own credit stretched to the breaking point, Walsingham provided the funds to hire more secretaries, among them young Francis Bacon and even younger Christopher Marlowe.

These together with George Peele, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson, and Thomas Lodge (the so-called University Wits), provided plays for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen and her visitors while Oxford concentrated on writing for the Queen’s Men and other adult companies.  This is when The Famous Victories, The True Tragedies and The Contention plays were written that would be revised in the nineties as the Lancastrian history cycle (Richard II to Richard III), for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the second royal acting company.  Eventually Walsingham was able to persuade the Queen to pick up at least part of the tab by giving Oxford an annuity at the same time that she provided the Secretary with the money he needed to protect England from Spain.

Although Oxford agreed to the Queen’s demand that his return to Court depended on his return to his wife, it’s unlikely that he ever again shared any real home life with Anne.  He must have set up a situation where it could appear that they were a family once again, providing the Cecils with three more girls and a boy who died shortly after birth, while he continued to spend most of his time at Fisher’s Folly or one of the theaters.  Unable to tolerate the interference with his life that was simply part of Burghley nature, Oxford’s remorse over what this did to Anne, and to his daughters, is reflected in the plot or sub-plot of at least six plays, from Pericles to Othello.

Several events in the late 1580s to early ’90s caused the final rupture between Milord and the Cecils.  The first was the 1587 break between Christopher Marlowe and the Crown, when Marlowe and Edward Alleyn brought the anti-establishment play Tamburlaine to Henslowe’s Rose Theater on Bankside, where its popularity posed a threat to the social calm at a time of increasing political unrest.  As co-creators of the London Stage, both Walsingham and Oxford were doubtless blamed by Burghley and Whitgift for this breach of contract by two of their players.

The second was the death of Walsingham in 1590, and the immediate takeover of his office and his papers by Robert Cecil, who, with the help of his father, set to work immediately to put a stop to the escapades of the Fisher’s Folly crew.  Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588 Burghley had moved to end Oxford’s ability to get credit, forcing him to sell Fisher’s Folly in 1589, and Vere House at London Stone a year later (ironically to one of the major enemies of the London Stage).  University Wits Robert Greene and Thomas Watson were the first to go, “dying” on the same day in 1592.  Marlowe and John Penry, scapegoat for the crew that produced the antiestablishment Mar-prelate pamphlets, were eliminated within 24 hours of each other early in 1593.  The patron of the company that produced Tamburlaine, Lord Strange, was murdered the following year, just as the majority of his company was being reorganized into what would soon be the new Crown company.

If Burghley had any sentiment left for the golden-haired lad whose fate he had engineered almost from birth, it was gone.  Suffering from overwork, gout, and self-pity, he saw only the ungrateful son-in-law, who had fathered a fine bastard but failed to give him the heir he felt he deserved, and who had somehow managed it so that there was nothing left of the great Oxford earldom to pass along to his grandchildren.  If the final version of Hamlet reveals the truth about Anne Cecil’s final hours, Burghley’s bitterness is understandable.  As for Oxford, forced to work in silence and secrecy, his identity and true meaning masked by pun-names and ambiguous wording, the poet yet had one great weapon, the truth, and his actors.

It was when Cecil attacked the Company that the break flared into open warfare.  Too many people cared about the Stage to let Robert Cecil destroy it.  Lord Hunsdon, by then Lord Chamberlain of the Household, together with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, stepped forward to save it, but when Cecil, finally having acquired the power of the Secretary of State, shut down their new theater in advance of the Parliament of 1597, leaving them with no stage of their own, with the following deaths in rapid succession of both manager Burbage and patron Hunsdon, the company itself, and its playbook were on the ropes.  Out came the spear (his pen), up went the curtain, out came Richard Burbage, dressed like Cecil, his back hunched over, his imitation spot on; out came the first edition of the play for those who missed the performance; and Cecil’s reputation was done for.  He still had his power, but without a good name he was helpless to accomplish anything important.

Halted in his villanous progress by the 1597 production and publication of Richard III, with its obvious portrayal of himself as the evil Lancastrian King, having chased Oxford into hiding in the Forest, he did whatever he could to erase any connection between his brother-in-law and the London Stage.  Having achieved the ultimate in political power, though he survived him by only three or four years, that was enough time to burn almost everything that connected Oxford directly to the world of English literature, and everything that connected himself and his family to any of the characters in Oxford’s plays.  Oxford had destroyed his good name, but he got the last laugh, destroying any connection between his hated brother-in-law and the English Literary Renaissance.

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Act IV

Academics are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end (with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s), for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain the West End in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy.  However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.

However it happened, Oxford was to some extent both a product and a victim of the Cecil family.  Whether by luck or design, eight of the leading noble youths of his time, himself and seven others, were, by the early deaths of their fathers, brought under the advising arm of Sir William Cecil through his office as Master of the Court of Wards.  Whether by luck or design, the raising of these important social leaders by Cecil was a major move in the fight to turn the nation from Catholic to Protestant, from allegience to Rome to allegience to the English Crown.  As the first of Burghley’s wards, Oxford became to some extent the leader of a faction that saw the Cecils as upstarts and political manipulators (“a politician did it”), out to take away their power and destroy their class.  By his marriage to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford was also the most thoroughly embedded into their faction, a 16th century version of “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

Any society as small, closed, tightly-woven and barricaded against change as the power center of Elizabeth’s Court develops excruciating tensions that only increase over time, often continuing on past the deaths of the principals, who pass their rivalries and hatreds on to their heirs.  This was the case with Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester, whose rivalry got passed on to their heirs, Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, just as Burghley’s efforts to control the life and behavior of his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, and his nephew, Francis Bacon, got passed on to his son and their cousin, Robert Cecil.

Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them.   At a Court that worshipped height, shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who looked down on him, the tall, handsome men prefered by the Queen, men like Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex.  So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves.  Most of all he detested his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford.  Partly because Oxford outranked him, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and perhaps also out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder.  Whichever was the overriding factor, ultimately both were stuck with a stalemate.

Robert hated his brother-in-law for many reasons: because he had everything that he lacked, because he was admired by the Court for his social prestige, his good looks and his talent, but mostly because of the rude disdain with which he treated his father’s and his sister’s love.  Although Court protocols and family solidarity required that they maintain a pretense of cordiality, as soon as the death of Walsingham in 1590 placed the reins of power in his hands, Robert began planning how to destroy the man who had broken his sister’s heart and, in his view, sent her to an early grave.

Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction.  If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed such things to occur.  If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could––and did.

Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588, Burghley, as Master of the Court of Wards, had moved to have Oxford’s debts to the Court called in.  This was less of an immediate threat to Oxford himself, who was already broke, than to the patrons who had backed his loans, and whose own estates were now threatened.  What it did destroy of Oxford’s was his credit, that is, his ability to use the perquisites of his title to raise cash.  Without credit he could no longer pay actors and musicians, stagehands and costumers.  The Queen saw to it that as a peer of the realm he was saved from the humiliation of complete bankruptcy by arranging his marriage to an heiress in 1592, but apart from a few donations, most notably from the young Earl of Southampton, Milord was pretty much silenced.

Theater of Blood

In attempting to explain what happened to Marlowe during the plague of 1593, biographer Charles Nicholl resorts to a metaphor by which he compares the way governmental sting operations to plays.  According to Nicholl, poets find spying an easy step because they live in the fantasy world of The Theater.  This is absurd; would Kurt Weil have spied for the nazis?  Would Vaclav Havel have spied for the StB?  An artist of surpassing power and reckless honesty, Christopher Marlowe did not, could not, have agreed, or been forced, to spy for the Crown he detested.  But the metaphor works if placed where it belongs, with Robert Cecil, for the plot with which he brought down the dangerous playwright in May of 1593 was just as creative as anything Marlowe himself ever designed for the stage.

While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector.  Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career.  (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 5 instead.)

For Cecil, the removal of Marlowe, whether by murder or transportation, and without any blame attached to himself, was a magnificent coup, and for those who knew the truth, which must have been pretty much the entire Privy Council and London theater community, brought him another great benefit, the respect he needed to move with confidence in the brutal world of Elizabethan politics.  It also had the salubrious effect, salubrious to the Cecils, that is, of throwing the London Stage into a chaos from which they had every hope that it couldn’t recover, at least, not in its current form.

How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men?  (Cecil was not yet on the Council.)  We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown.   And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.

History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, Burghley’s granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the sixth Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage (the alliance with Oxford having produced only girls).  It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, with so many Catholic family members of high rank, Lord Strange on the throne would be a disaster for the Cecils.

In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in 1572, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business.  His son, George Carey, was Stanley’s brother-in-law.  In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder.  If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son George Carey’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been an element of revenge in his and Howard’s move to resusitate the Stage, or at least to use it as best they could to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.

The showdown

This is best summarized with a timeline:

  • May 1593:  Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
  • April 1594:  The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signaling the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s.
  • Apr 4 1594:  The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning.  Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company?  Was it only with his death that the company came under the control of the Lord Admiral?
  • June 1594:  The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally licensed companies, what Gurr calls “the duopoly” that had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
  • February 4, 1596:  The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential West End.
  • July 5, 1596:  The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council.  Two weeks later . . .
  • Jul 23, 1596:  The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons.  Four months later . . .
  • November 1596:  The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, acceded.  Two months later . . .
  • January 1597:  The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.   Four months later . . .
  • July 28, 1597:  The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.” Either immediately before or after . . .
  • July/August 1597:  The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson and Robert Spencer.  The LCMen took to the road.  Two months later . . .
  • October 1597:  The opening of Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation.  Immediately before or shortly after . . .

. . .  came the publication of a new version of  the anonymous play Richard III in which the evil king is described in terms that clearly identify him with Robert Cecil.  This sold out so fast that it was only a few weeks before a second edition was in the bookstalls, this time with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it had appeared on a play.

With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did somewhere seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time.  Fired with fury by the suspicious deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.

Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue.  Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside the following year.

This chain of events suggests a bloody behind-stairs struggle for control of the London Stage.  Whether or not Robert Cecil was responsible, via the “projectors” he’d inherited from Walsingham, for the deaths of leading members of the Stage community––from Marlowe to his patron Lord Strange, to the “sporting” Thomas Kyd, to the grand-daddy of the Lonson Stage, James Burbage, to his patron Lord Hunsdon––is less important to our story than the actors’ suspicions that he was responsible.  It should be our suspicion as well, based on how the Master Secretary would go on to entrap and destroy other leading members of Court society, the Earl of Essex, his own brother-in-law Henry Cobham lord Brooke, and his former friend Sir Walter Raleigh.   The level of hatred and fear engendered by Cecil in his years of power under King James is clear from the stream of slanders and nasty epigrams that deluged the bookstalls following his death in 1612.

It should also be the clincher to the argument why Oxford hid his identity.  Had anyone during the first decade of James’s reign––anyone beyond the inner circles of the Court and Stage community, that is––made public who it was who wrote the 1597 version of Richard III, Oxford would have been as dead as Marlowe, Kyd, Stanley, Burbage and Hunsdon.  As it was, since the playwright was, as he kept reminding Cecil in his letters, a member of Cecil’s family, father of his nieces, etc., he escaped, both with his life and with his papers––not an easy task, but one facilitated by the accession to power in 1603 of King James and his fondness for Philip Herbert, and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, who would see to it that Oxford’s works, and the Stage he created, be secured from harm.

The stalemate

If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience.  In 1600, this was handed over to a new company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapel, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.”  1610, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, saw the beginning of its rise to a level of success never before seen by a theater company, and rarely since.

These are only the most salient points in the story of this final showdown.  The thread presented here, the string of deaths, theater closings, constant publication of revised versions of Richard III (eight in all, over the years), the fact that it was the first play to be published under the name Shake-speare, must be correlated to several other threads, if all taken together, make a subject worthy of a full-length book.  What part did Essex play?  Bacon?  The Queen?  The printers?  George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir and the Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign?  Where does the revision and publication of Richard II that accompanied the publication of Richard III fit in?

But even this is not the final act, the one that follows Oxford’s death.  For that we must wait to hear the story of the making of the First Folio, and of William of Stratford’s illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant, inheritor of his father’s phony fame and the primary engine of his investiture as the world greatest playwright.

For the first three acts of this drama: The murder of Shakespeare’s Identity

The Murder of Shakespeare’s Identity: Acts I through III

One of the reasons why it’s been so hard to convince the world that the Stratford story is a sham is that no one’s ever come up with a single strong reason why the true author’s identity had to be hidden.  Those who first drew the public’s attention to the subject in the 19th century pointed to his obvious knowledge of Court life, claiming that courtiers of stature would have hidden their involvement in the then déclassé public stage.  Certainly this is true, but for most it doesn’t explain why the cover-up had to continue so long after the author’s death.  Sir Philip Sidney’s work was in print, over his name, six years after his death.  Oxford’s uncle, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, was similarly published over his within ten years of his death.  So why not Oxford’s?

Most of the bigger things in life occur for more than one reason.  If you look at your own life, you’ll see that you went to college for more than one reason, that you picked a particular college for more than one reason, that you married a particular person for more than one reason, changed jobs, bought a house, divorced, always for more than one reason.  Nations go to war for more than one reason, and resist going to war for more than one reason.  Just so, the Shakespeare authorship got hidden for more than one reason.

Had this not been the case, had it not been first to one person’s advantage (his own), then his tutor’s advantage, then to his guardian’s advantage, then to an entire community’s advantage, and ultimately to the advantage of the company he started, one that initiated an industry that has come to be seen as the fourth branch of government, the voice of the people, the truth would surely have been revealed somewhere.  But it wasn’t, it didn’t, and some of these reasons have not faded with time.  For the fact is, that there never was, during Oxford’s lifetime, any advantage to him, to his family, to the theater companies he created and those who profitted by them on into succeeding centuries, for the truth to be revealed to the public; never any advantage to any of these, and plenty of disadvantages.

Not everyone who knew the secret knew it in its entirety, that is, some knew one thing, some another, but the likelihood is that no one knew all that he was writing, or later, all that he had written.  Even to this day there is disagreement over what was his and what was by some other writer or editor.  The committee that produced the First Folio could collect versions of the plays from the various friends, actors, and printers who held them, but how sure could they be of what was and wasn’t his?   Nothing was signed, and because like most men of his class, he dictated to secretaries, nothing was in his own handwriting.

Certainly the Queen knew that particular plays were his, at least since 1598, when the Meres book was published, at least of those plays named by Meres and most likely a dozen more, but it is very likely that of the 38 accepted plays and the 15 to 20 suggested early plays, there were some that she knew nothing about, and those she knew may very well have differed from the versions we know, because it was not advisable that she know the versions played for the West End audience, or on the road, or for a particular private gathering.

As Secretary of State, Oxford’s guardian (then his father-in-law) William Cecil/Ld Burghley had oversight over the press, so he knew all  about using both the stage and the press for propaganda; it’s a fact that he made use of both in his early years as Elizabeth’s first Secretary of State.  Burghley was instrumental in bringing printers over from the Continent to publish those works he considered essential to a reformation education.  Though unfortunately his biographer, Conyers Read, does not elaborate, he refers to the press as “the weapon Cecil knew best.”  Since Oxford lived with Cecil during the years he first began to publish, years when Cecil was doing his own propaganda, it was from him that he learned how to publish on the sly.  Knowing him as well as he did, he also learned how to work around him.

ACT I: Hidden in plain sight

When he first began to write, no one, including the boy himself, had any idea where it would take him or how important his work would turn out to be.  In fact the field in which he would flourish so luxuriously, English literature, hardly existed before he began transforming it.  Given the intense, bustling environment at Cecil House, surrounded by poets and translators in that important age group for a young artist, six to ten years his seniors; then in his late teens at Court, with a ready-made audience hungry for sophisticated, educated entertainment; what would end as the most important body of work since Chaucer two and a half centuries earlier began simply as a lark, a folie, a bit of “pickle herring,” something to entertain the lads at Cecil House, then the ladies at Court.

The authorship issue was never about writing anyway, it was always about publication.  So long as he wrote just for the Court community via the traditonal handwritten manuscript exchange there was no problem.  But creating hundreds of printed copies for sale to all comers meant making public what the Court saw as its own private pleasure, making it available, if to a far smaller public than today’s where almost everyone can read, yet it meant revealing it to the same 15 to 20 percent of the population most eager to pry into Court secrets.  And it was publishing that interested Oxford.

Writing was no big deal, everyone he knew did it.  It was creating books that fascinated him; books, those magical vehicles of culture, that could carry a man’s life and reputation for hundreds, thousands of years into the future so that readers would come to know someone like Alexander the Great, or even the mythical Achilles, as though they had lived with him; knowing him better in some ways than they knew their own families. Publishing was also the best means of hiding his identity as author.  While handwritten manuscripts could be traced back, if not to directly to himself, then to someone who knew who wrote it, typeset print was anonymous.  All that identified the author was the name on the title page, or registered with the Stationers, and that could be faked a lot more easily than handwriting.

Taking advantage of the traditions of his class as patrons of the arts, Oxford began a long career of publishing what he regarded as important works, some by  his friends, some his own, some translations of famous foreign works, , some about science, or music, or psychology, or  but mostly works of the imagination, stories and poems.

In this he was also following in his guardian’s footsteps, although most of what he considered worth publishing differed considerably from Burghley’s view of what was important.  Reformation ideologues, William Cecil and his in-laws occupied the legal and social center of a deadly serious, extremely repressive Reformation culture that saw adherence to Protestant beliefs as paramount.  They also saw sex as filthy and satire as rebellion.  So Oxford’s first step in what would become the long and complex process of hiding his authorship began by persuading pals like George Gascoigne and his uncle Arthur Golding to let him use their names so he could get his plays and poems published without Burghley’s permission, possibly even without his knowledge of their source.

Though not aware of everything Oxford wrote, William Cecil must have been aware of his ward’s talent.  That would have been impossible to hide, and, as a propagandist himself, he probably saw the boy’s gifts as something he might put to future use.  The ward, however, was destined to take a different path in life, one he wanted his guardian, and his guardian’s wife, and her family (and perhaps even his own wife), to know as little about as possible.  In his teens, his writing was just a lark, something to entertain his friends before settling down to––as he would often term it––“a graver labour.”

By his late teens, when he was more or less on his own at Court, there was no need to hide from the other members of the Court things like his madrigals and interludes written for holiday performance.  On the other hand, satires or poems that touched dangerously on intimate matters, however discreetly distributed within his own circle, must inevitably have spread further, raising eyebrows along with the question of their authorship.  So long as none of this escaped the confines of the Court community there was no real harm in it.  But when, just before taking off for a year on the Continent, in a first of many anthologies, he published along with love poems by himself and his friends, a “tale” that dwelt too obviously on the sex lives of certain courtiers, it released a firestorm of furious retribution.  This did nothing to prevent him from publishing, but it did help to make him more cautious about what and how he published.

ACT II: Birth of a professional

Then in 1572, when the Earl of Sussex came on board as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, what had begun as a lark began turning serious.  At that time it was still the Earl of Leicester who ran the Court Stage, but Sussex, who hated Leicester, was determined to get the oversight of Court entertainment back where it had been for centuries, in the Lord Chamberlain’s hands, that is, under his own control.  And unlike Leicester, whose taste ran to more old-fashioned stuff, Sussex understood how important the Court Stage could be in winning hearts and minds, not only at Court, but with the influential West End community that lived and worked within walking distance of Whitehall.  Quickly bored by the constraints of what he could and could not produce at Court, it was this audience he was most eager to reach.  Thus it was that the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral, known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, began performing Oxford’s plays, first at Court, then for a week or two after, at the little theater connected to the Cathedral.

If a professional is defined as someone who works to a schedule, who provides for a public demand, who competes successfuly with others in the same line, as opposed to someone who merely hangs out a shingle, frames a certificate, and earns a living wage, then by age 25 Oxford was functioning as a professional dramatist.  Not that that was his ambition; not at all.  His ambition from childhood had been to follow his ancestors as his nation’s foremost military leader.  Fate, however, had other plans.  The times were not right for someone of his station to risk his life in dubious battle––not while the British Media was straining to be born.  Paul’s Boys were only one of a number of companies that sprang into being at that time, foremost among them the men who wore Leicester’s livery, but who were free to play for anyone who could pay.

As competition for space at the theater inns became intense, trouble with the City officials increased.  For them it was one thing to deal with the rowdy holiday crowds for a few weeks in December and January,  a tradition too old and too ingrained to stop, even for determined Reformation puritans, which is what most London mayors were at that time––but to allow it to continue on into the spring and summer was, so far as they were concerned, simply out of the question.  Their escalating demands to “pluck down” the theaters drove the Privy Council to seek solutions.  Thus it may well have been Sussex who persuaded Burghley and the Queen to finally let Oxford have his much desired tour of the Continent, particularly to Italy where he could see at first hand how the Italians did it.

To Sussex and his relatives on the Council, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard, the Stage as a factor in English society was obviously not going to be suppressed.  Rather than fight it, they must join it, regulate it, and use it to promote Crown policy.  That this was in any way the motivation for Oxford’s trip would have to be kept to themselves, since any sign to the City or the Clergy that the Council’s interest in the burgeoning London theater went beyond the Queen’s right to her “solace” would cause even more trouble than was already the case.  For Burghley this may have seemed like a way to keep his wayward son-in-law in the fold.  For enemies like Leicester and Hatton it meant getting him out of the way, at least for awhile.

Oxford had a lot of reasons for wanting to visit Italy.  Not only was it the source of the Italian Renaissance, of the western world’s most dazzling art and architecture, home to painters like Titian, scholars like Jerome Cardan and poets like Tasso, it was also where the immensely popular comedia dell’arte troupes were performing on the streets and in the halls of princes, and where the great architect Andrea Palladio was constructing experimental theaters of the sort that he and Sussex and Hunsdon thought might be the answer to their greatest need.  They had the actors, with Oxford they had the scripts, they certainly had the audiences, and in James Burbage they had both an actor and a builder who had already built one public theater that, unfortunately, had failed.  What they needed were better locations and better theater designs.   It may be that while Oxford was in Italy, they were already at work on plans for these.

That this was one of the most important reasons for Oxford’s trip seems obvious by how the first two commercially successful, yearround, purpose-built stages in England (possibly in all of Europe) began taking shape within weeks of his return.  With two theaters, several adult companies and three companies of boy choristers hungry for scripts, Oxford was now a fully fledged theater professional, duty bound to keep them satisfied, and desperately in need of assistance.  This came with his acquisition of the manor known as Fisher’s Folly located in the heart of the theater district.  With the financial assistence of patrons like the Italian banker Benedict Spinola, the music of artists like the Italian Bassano brothers, and the transcription skills of secretaries like John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and eventually Francis Bacon, Oxford was off and running.

It’s hard to see where he found time to write the first two novels in English history, Zelautoand Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit.  With these he performed the first of his great upward leaps in style.  What we call euphuism may already have been a fad at Court by the time that he both raised it to an art form and dealt it its death blow, for having taken it to its peak, there was nothing left but to turn it to satire, some of it his own.  It does give us an idea of what some of his plays from this period were like.  In any case, now that he had secretaries he no longer had to beg the use of their names from friends or family members.  And since no one at that time saw any point in publishing playscripts, the issue of their official authorship had yet to appear.

ACT III: Banished: The second leap

Court life was never easy for Oxford.  He tended to drink more than was healthy and spend more on clothes and luxuries than was wise.  He got caught up in dangerous intrigues and overreacted to the rivalries that surrounded him.  Young and handsome, the temptations of sex and the hungers of his heart got him involved with too many women, none of them his wife.   His Catholic cousins played on his sympathies and on his bitterness towards Burghley and Leicester for their use and misuse of his estates.  Believing himself to be in love with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor, he dreamed of escaping with her to Spain where he’d been promised military action and a decent income.  It all came crashing down when the dishonored Maid gave birth to his bastard in the Queen’s chamber, and he found himself in the Tower for two months, then banished from Court indefinitely.

However wounded his pride, exile gave him the space he’d been craving and rage gave him the impetus to take the second of the three great quantum leaps in self expression that would ultimately place him in the pantheon of the world’s top creators.  No longer bound to produce lighthearted comedies for the Court, he turned to writing tragedies for the West End, both the classic Greek and bloody Senecan varieties.  With Sussex dead and Walsingham pressing for history plays for the newly formed Queen’s Men, he took refuge in the familiar preoccupations of his childhood, studying the papers that Richard Field and others were preparing to publish in Holinshed’s name, some of which came from his old tutor Smith.  Reading and translating Roman poets and Greek plays, his style deepened.  Trimmed of euphuistic artificialities, the old fourteeners replaced by iambic pentameter, the most natural rhythm for English, he spoke more simply, directly, and powerfully to the audience he cared most about.

Although by June of 1583 he’d been accepted back at Court and had returned at least to the appearance of living with his wife, he was by then too deep in the production of the works that meant something to him, and to the lifestyle that allowed him to produce them, to ever go back to full attendance on the Queen.  She craved a return to the early days when he was always around, dancing attendance and producing the kind of entertainment he’d taught her to prefer, but there was no privacy at Court, and he had to have privacy to write.  So there developed a neverending tug of war between them, him straining for freedom, which she would continue to dangle before him but with no intention of giving him anything that might mean losing him.  He was the goose that laid the golden eggs that made her Court so popular, and at so little cost to herself.

Restless, seeking new outlets, it was during this period (1582-92) that Oxford launched the English periodical press with the series of pamphlets he published as by Robert Greene.  After 1589, when Bacon joined him with their joint attacks, first on Martin Mar-prelate, then on Marlowe and Alleyn, they kept the fun going with a phony pamphlet war in which Bacon’s fictional persona, Thomas Nashe, and Oxford’s fictional version of poor Gabriel Harvey (very much alive but in no position to do any kicking), taunted each other with hilarious abandon, thus establishing the first audience for what would evenually become the British tabloid press.  Unfortunately for the lads, neither the Cecils nor the Bishops saw the humor in this, and with Robert Cecil approaching an age where he could enter the fray, the stage was set for the final act in the birth of the English Stage, the creation of the fictional author, William Shake-speare, poet, playwright, actor and sharer.

Coming:  Act IV: Shakespeare: The third and final quantum leap

Theatrical birth pangs: 1776 to 1584

Early in April 1576, following a year of exciting adventures on the Continent, the Earl of Oxford arrived back in England to a sea of troubles.  During his final days in Paris, someone from home had prepared him for the gossip he’d encounter on his return.  Rumor had it that his daughter, born during his time away, was another man’s child.  Worse, it was even rumored that that other man was his wife’s own father, Lord Burghley, who, concerned that after five years of marriage there was still no Cecil heir to the Oxford earldom, had taken matters into his own hands.

This of course was nothing more than foulest, cruelest rumor, and Oxford would have cause to work different versions of the dreadful story into six plays over the years, but in his hot youth, when touched where he was most vulnerable, he was all too easily roused to unthinking fury.  Brooding on this and other worries, his mood was hardly improved when the ship that carried him accross the Channel was boarded by pirates and all he had with him was lost.  Ignoring his well-intntioned brother-in-law, Thomas Cecil, who had come to meet him at Dover, he returned to London with one of the “lewd friends” that Burghley so disliked.  Refusing to have anything to do with either his wife or her father, he rented rooms at the Savoy and turned his attention to plans already in progress to create the suburban theaters that he and Sussex and Burbage agreed were the only way to accommodate the burgeoning London theater audience in a way that would stop the constant interference by the Mayor and other London officials.

Once Oxford calmed down, the truth about his daughter must have been obvious, but by then he also realized how important it was that he break off as completely as he could with Burghley, whose habit of prying into everything he did or said was driving him mad.  He was not in love with Anne, never had been, and although he was sorry for her, stuck as she was between her husband and her father, he had his life to live.  If Burghley wouldn’t let her go, then let him keep her, “for there, “ he wrote, “as your daughter or her mother’s, more than my wife, you may take comfort of her, and I rid of the cumber thereby.”  The future Shakespeare was never one to mince words when he was sore.

Within days of his return a huge new theater began taking shape in the outskirts of northeast London.  Based on temporary stages he had seen in Siena built by Palladio and on plans for theaters in the ancient Latin tract on architecture he borrowed from his tutor, the innovative yearround theater, the first of its kind in England (and possibly in all of Europe) was built to hold somewhere between two and  three thousand paying customers at a time.  Meanwhile plans were in progress to turn one of the apartments in the Revels section of the Blackfriars compound on the Thames into a school for the Queen’s boy choristers, where the little stage meant for their rehearsals could be used from time to time to entertain the audience that meant the most to Sussex and his vice Chamberlains, the lawyers, scribes, and parliamentarians of Westminster.

The summer of 1576 saw audiences flock to the big round public theater in the East End, where herds of apprentices and tradesmen and their wives and sweethearts were eager to pay their pennies to see plays they were told had been performed for the Queen.  Burbage and his crew grew bold as they collected the money that had always escaped them at the theater inns, where they could only pass the hat at intermission.  That winter those residents of the West End who could afford it were charmed by the boys at the little stage at Blackfriars where they paid a substantial fee to see, by candlelight, richly furnished early versions of A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens.

The residents surrounding the new theaters were not so thrilled by the litter, the noisy crowds and late hours––but with powerful privy councillors like the Earl of Sussex and Lord Hunsdon as patrons (Hunsdon now living next door to the little theater), and the Earl of Rutland, whose City manor stood a few yards from Burbage’s stage on land that until recently had been his family’s heritage, and where he still held rights––there was little the neighbors could do, at least, not right away.

For six years, all went relatively smoothly for the newborn London Stage and its patrons. Then in 1581 Oxford got himself bounced from Court for impregnating a Queen’s Maid of Honor.  Furious at how he was being treated by the Queen and the Court; fearful for his life and the life of his retainers at the hands of his mistress’s angry relatives; bitter at his mistress for what he saw as her willingness to drop him for a better prospect––he refused to continue to write for the Court and began turning out plays filled with personal passion and aimed at the West End audience.  This probably meant using the little theater at the Blackfriars school, probably with adult actors from Burbage’s and Worcester’s Men, and probably fairly late into the night.

These were not the kind of plays that he could have written for the Court.  Angry at Ann Vavasor for what he believed was her perfidy in taking up with another man, he rewrote one he’d written earlier about the Trojan war, lavishing it with irony, and pouring all his pain over his mistress into the plot and characters in Troilus and Cressida.  Furious at his cousins for accusing him publicly of treason, he dramatized the assassination of Julius Caesar, with Brutus in a situation similar to his own, and Cassius, whose “lean and hungry look” identified him as his cousin Henry Howard.  Frightened by the determination of his mistress’s male relatives to kill him, he wrote another in which he portrayed himself as already dead, observing from above as an imaginary father takes bloody revenge on his killers by means of a play within a play (The Spanish Tragedy).  Then, with the discovery that his mistress still loved him, he poured his lonely heart into a blazing new version of Romeo and Juliet.  Finally, as his patron and surrogate father, the Earl of Sussex, sickened and died, he accused the Earl of Leicester of poisoning him by drawing parallels between him and King Claudius and between Elizabeth and Queen Gertrude in a first version of Hamlet.

Since the Blackfriars theater was cheek by jowl with the City manors of Lady Russell, Mildred Burghley’s termigant younger sister, and of Sir William Brooke Ld Cobham, longtime supporter of Ld Burghley and Robert Cecil’s future father-in-law, that it wasn’t long before they became aware of what sort of plays were now taking place next door should go without saying, as should the probable fact that this was the real reason why the Blackfriars landlord, Sir William More, began petitioning the privy council to shut down the school, for Sir William, determined to rise at Court, would never have taken on councillors as powerful as Sussex and Hunsdon had he not had some hefty backing of his own.

The War with Spain and the rise of the Stage

As the threat of attack from Spain took center stage at Whitehall, Secretary of State Francis Walsingham moved quietly ahead of Burghley, Sussex, and Leicester as Privy Councillor with the most important duties.  Then, as Lord Chamberlain Sussex’s health began to fail, Walsingham moved, again quietly, to take his place as major patron of the Court Stage.  Although not in his job description, the Secretary, whose shoulders bore the responsibility of preparing for the inevitable attack from Catholic Spain, had a vision whereby a Crown company made up of the leading actors from Burbage’s and other companies could bring the kind of plays that Oxford was capable of writing to the hinterlands, plays that mixed entertainment with English history and anti-Spanish propaganda.

Himself a student of history, Walsingham understood that nothing binds a people together like a shared past.  What past was being shared then by his largely uneducated countrymen were stories from the middle east, told in the Bible.  Rouse their emotions with English stories, whether proud or bitter, and they’d be British first, Catholics second.  That this was clearly the mandate for the creation of the Queen’s Men can be seen by their travel itineraries for the years 1582 through 1588.  These show that the company spent more road time than anywhere else in towns along the southeastern and western coasts where the Spanish were most likely to attack (McMillin 175-78).

It should be clear that plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and Edmond Ironside were written for the same reason that, during WWII, when little was being filmed in England due to the stringent economies forced on the British by the war, the government made it possible for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V to be lavishly costumed and filmed in expensive color.  During the war the American military did the same thing, enrolling director Frank Capra and others to produce propaganda films, while giving movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Paul Heinreid deferments so they could continue to play roles in anti-Nazi films like Casablanca.

As a close friend and colleague of Oxford’s tutor, the former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, Walsingham understood that Smith’s former student badly needed something useful to do, something to keep him from continuing to cause trouble for the Court.  Writing for the Queen’s Men would keep him busy in a worthy cause.  It also made use of his knowledge of English history, knowledge stored in the papers and manuscripts he inherited from his father, passed down from one earl of Oxford to the next, papers that he kept closely guarded, allowing only those closest to him to know what they were.  No one was in a better position to turn the story of England’s past into exciting drama, an argument that helped him get the majority of the Privy Council behind the Queen’s Men, and finally, to get the Queen to fund Oxford’s crew at Fisher’s Folly, as neither he nor the improvident earl could continue to fund the stage on their own for much longer, now that Sussex and his wealth were gone.

For the adult actors this was a major step forward.  In previous years they had to share the Court stage with the children’s companies.  More recently they suffered from the heavy competition from the other companies that were springing up like mushrooms to meet the public demand for more plays.  So although they couldn’t have been pleased by the prospect of so much travelling, the fact that they were guaranteed first place at Court with fees, props and costumes supplied, was a terrific boost.  Also, when in London, no longer to be confined to the little school stage at Blackfriars, but as the Queen’s own company, to be guaranteed the Belle Sauvage Inn as their primary winter venue meant they were guaranteed London’s best holiday audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.

Since Francis Bacon, too, was without a job, and since he too was a gifted writer who was already successfully entertaining the Court with installments of his Faerie Queene, Walsingham put him to work writing the holiday comedies for the choristers that Oxford no longer cared to bother with.  These had to be written by a courtier steeped in Court gossip, one who knew how to amuse without offending the great ones in the audience, how to tease without wounding their equally great and touchy egos.   It was this last factor that Walsingham failed to consider well enough when he brought young Christopher Marlowe on board as an apprentice to Oxford and Bacon.  Talented he certainly was, and a quick learner, but, to everyone’s grief, including his own, Marlowe turned out to have a very different agenda than what Walsingham and Oxford had in mind for him.

Shortly before the beginning of this turbulent period (December 1580), Richard Farrant, the school master in charge of the children’s school at Blackfriars, died, leaving his wife with the boys to care for, and nowhere near enough money for them or her own family.  As More continued to press for the power to close down the Blackfriars theater through 1581, ’82, and ’83, its lease got passed around, from Farrant’s widow to Henry Evans, assistant master in charge of the boys; then from Evans to Oxford, who by then was back at Court; from Oxford to his secretary, John Lyly; and from Lyly to Lord Hunsdon, who joined with Walsingham to keep the school, or the theater at least, from going under.

Officially the school came to an end in April 1584 when the court decided in favor of the landlord, though proxy data suggests that the little stage may have been allowed to operate as a private theater until Hunsdon’s leases were up in 1590.   It’s hard to believe that this important space, which for most of its existence over the past fifty years had been used to rehearse or store props for Court revels, would have continued to stand silent and empty for the first six of the ten most important years in the birth of the London Stage: from 1584 to 1590, most particularly from November 1584 to March 1585, when the West End was crammed with important men from all over England, gathered for Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament.  Oxford, Hunsdun, Charles Howard, Rutland, Bacon, Beale, and Raleigh, were all present and took part, as is shown by the journals of the houses of Lords and Commons in the records online. (Comes Oxon. Magnus Camererius, means Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain.)

Parliament’s holiday break that year lasted from Dec 21 to Feb 4.  This would have been the ideal time for plays aimed at the visiting members to receive their greatest attendance.  The Revels accounts show that the Queen’s Men produced four plays at Court that winter, so we would assume that these were performed later at the Belle Sauvage.  Oxford’s name is unusually prominent in the Revels account for this holiday season,  along with the traditonal “activities” (acrobatics), he’s listed as patron for two plays, one by his “servants,” the other by his “boys,” who produced, on St. John’s Day, December 27th, a play titled The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, which E.T. Clarke suggests was probably an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These, or others not appropriate for the Court, would, like the plays performed by the Queen’s men, have been performed somewhere handy to the West End during the same time period.  That “somewhere” would either have been the little stage at Blackfriars, or in a hall in one of the waterfront mansions on the Thames, the most likely being Somerset House.  Then the primary London residence of Lord Hunsdon, it was located directly across the Strand from Cecil House.

The Scenario that works!

Readers new to the Authorship Question will quickly see that the Shakespeare story as I tell it is considerably different from the one told in school and from the one told (or, more precisely, clumsily and obscenely aimed at) by the movie Anonymous.  So perhaps this is a good place to restate why I believe in the scenario I outline here.

First, I agree with the majority of those who can see from the utter impossibility of the Stratford biography that the best candidate for what came to be called the Shakespeare canon is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  While the rest may have a credential or two, he has them all.  But after 20 years of studying the matter I can no longer think of myself as just an Oxfordian––I’m an authorship scholar, by which I mean that I now question the authorship of (almost) every single work of the imagination published during the Elizabethan era!  To stop with Shakespeare gives the impression that he was an anomaly at a time when everything else was normal (according to today’s view of the world).  That’s simply not the case.  By today’s world of theater, writing and publishing, everything then was an anomaly.  He was only part of it.

Second, when you read Shakespeare here, understand that I mean the poet, not the man who sold him the use of his name.  Because it was de Vere, not William of Stratford, who made the name famous, de Vere’s the one who deserves it.  If I sell you my house, even if I rent you my house, if you make it famous as the place where something of great human significance occured, historically it becomes your house, not mine.

The third thing I began to realize as I dug more deeply was how little evidence there was, not just for Shakespeare, but for anything relating to the origins of the English Literary Renaissance.  There’s no argument about this; all scholars of the period are aware of the holes in their story, even if they don’t see how deeply or widely the lack of evidence extends beyond their particular focus.  So if I was going to figure anything out, I was going to have to cast a much wider net than those who concentrate just on Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Marlowe, or the history of the London stage.  Sooner or later I thought, I’ll find out what happened to all that evidence.  And I have.  I can’t prove it, not in the way it would take to overturn the Stratford monolith, not all by myself, but perhaps someday somebody will.

Of course the answer was there all the time, the Baconians were the first to see it, parts of it, but finding out exactly how and when it happened has proven to be the final, central, determining piece in the scenario.  As forensic scientists know, everything that happens leaves a network of clues that extend around it in time and space, so however much hard evidence is missing, there will be clues in the mainstream history, in biographies of those involved and of similar phenomena from other times and cultures.  Current studies like that of the psychology of creativity have added important insights.

And there are always the dates, that is confirmed dates, that function as linch pins for the sequences of events that create the network of clues that must take the place of the missing evidence.  Dates of events seen as “coincidental”––events within a particular circle that occur at the same time or close to it but are otherwise unrelated––are just about impossible in the small world that was the 16th-century London stage, periodical press, and Royal Court.  That such events are unrelated is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Fourth, I came to realize how very different life was then from what it is today.  While the subliminal backdrop to our view of literature and entertainment today is of hundreds of writers publishing hundreds of thousands of books by thousands of publishers and thousands of films made by hundreds of filmmakers written by hundreds of screenwriters, whose names change on a weekly basis as tens to dozens join the ranks or fall by the wayside, most of whose names mean nothing to anyone but their close associates (think of the long roll of credits that follows every film)––we must force our imaginations to provide a scenario where where there were two or three playwrights, six or seven professional-level actors, and seven or eight printers and publishers, all of whom knew each other or were at least very aware of each other’s existence over many years.

In other words, the illusion that Philip Sidney existed apart from Christopher Marlowe, Bacon apart from Nashe, Mary Sidney apart from Bacon, or any of these apart from the man considered by one of orthodoxy’s favorite supports, Francis Meres, to be “best for comedy” during the 1590s is just that, an illusion created by a lack of evidence.  If I live two blocks from a bakery, do we need an affadavit to prove where I buy my bread?  These people knew each other, had relationships with each other, relationships that drove the story of the blaze of literary splendor that was the English Literary Renaissance.  What was that story?  And why is it so obviously missing from the record?

The one and only Shakespeare

As an historian, I can’t go beyond the constraints imposed by these limits.  There were very few individuals during the early years of the English Reformation who could write engagingly in the 1560s and 70s, even fewer could or even wanted to get their own work produced or published, and as for those who could put on a risque and satirical play for the public and get away with it, the list narrows to one, however difficult it may have been all these centuries to identify him.  As for style, themes, and subject matter, biographies of other geniuses require that there be one Shakespeare and only one.  Just as no two people could have painted the Mona Lisa and no two people could have conquered Asia in the 3rd century BC, no two writers could have written (or co-authored) Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar.  There was, there had to be, only one da Vinci, only one Alexander, and only one Shakespeare.

Since all the other world-creating geniuses were leaders who left their arenas of endeavor permanently altered, causing those who came after them to imitate them, so the author of the Shakespeare canon must have been a man of great respect and high standing in the small literary circles of his time, and he had to have been born early enough that lesser writers who dealt with similar themes and subjects and whose styles show similarities to his, were his followers, and not he theirs.  That Shakespeare could possibly have imitated the lesser writers of his day, that he rewrote their works, is a cart-before-the-horse fantasy created by left-brainers who simply do not understand the nature of the thing they write about.

Yet it’s also true that great peaks in artistic endeavor are almost always driven by groups.  To develop, artists must have an audience on a level equal, or almost equal, to their own, colleagues who appreciate them, rivals who challenge them, enemies who drive them to retaliate.  Think of the French Impressionists, the Scribblerus Club, Bebop, Motown.  The films Ocean’s Eleven and The Seven Samurai have plots based on a group of talented individuals that come together to accomplish some goal.  But there’s always, there has to be, one or sometimes two, central figures.  The problem for the Elizabethan era is that the central figure is missing.  Some have tried to make it Sidney; others have tried to make it Bacon, or Marlowe, or even Mary Sidney, but in every case, while a few things may click, too many do not.  Those clicks are important, but it’s the collegial relationship with Shakespeare that they represent, not the poet himself.

With Oxford at the center, they all fall into place: Philip Sidney, a great writer, four years his junior, his first and most challenging rival, who refused (or was simply unable, largely for political reasons)  to follow him into the theatrical arena, and whose own achievements pushed  him more than once to go beyond himself; his cousin Francis Bacon, his partner in many ways and the second most important figure in the story, who eagerly followed him until he (Bacon) got the Court job he’d been striving for from the beginning, defended him during his hard times, and helped to edit his collected works after death; Stephen Gosson, an early neophyte who, like Marlowe later, betrayed him early on, selling out to the Bishops who were trying to shut him down; Lord Strange who, egged on by Leicester, was trying to replace him as the Prospero of the London stage;  Mary Sidney, who in his life loved and hated him, and after his death, helped save his work for posterity; and Christopher Marlowe who studied with him, adopted his style, rebelled against him, and foolishly refused to listen to his warning.

With Oxford as author the lives of the others involved at that early stage in the English Literary Renaissance also fall into place: the actor Edward Alleyn, whom he trained to play his youthful protagonists, and who deserted him to work with Marlowe; the secretaries whose names got attached to his early works: Anthony Munday, John Lyly, and Thomas Kyd; his friends from college days: the Catholic apologist Richard Rowlands, aka Richard Verstegen, and George Pettie, whose name he borrowed for two of his early works; the Bassanos, the Court musicians whose talents graced his early productions; their sister, the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier whom the world knows as the first feminist in English Literature and sees as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (and most certainly Cleopatra); the patrons whose protection allowed him to continue to write under increasingly difficult circumstances: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the Earl of Southampton, the Earls of Pembroke, and (to some extent) both monarchs.

Also clear are the enemies who appear in several plays as villains: his cousin Henry Howard, later Earl of Northampton, who trashed his reputation, and his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, later Earl of Salisbury, who used the power bequeathed him by his father, Lord Burghley, to destroy the evidence of his leading role in the great literary revolution that the Cecils were so determined to quash.  With Oxford as author, no falsification of evidence, no forced rearrangement of dates, no ignoring of documents, no overblown imagined scenarios, are required for all of these to fall easily into place around him.

The biographies of other great literary lights lead to the conclusion that despite what they may pick up here and there from their reading, all great writers, particularly poets, draw primarily from their own experiences for their major works.  Writers, great writers, write as a means of emotional catharsis, to explore an issue that affects them deeply, a philosophical dilemma that demands resolution, a situation that demands the truth.  Theirs are the pearls of literature, surrounded by the art of a creature irritated into self-protection.  The themes that they explore, particularly those they explore repeatedly, will always connect to something in their biographies.  The fact that so much of what Shakespeare wrote about fits the life of the Earl of Oxford requires either that he was someone very close to Edward de Vere, or, pace Bishop Ockham, that he was Edward de Vere!  Further, the fact that nothing in any of his works suggests the scenario crudely attempted by the film Anonymous demands that the real story, involving all these writers, a story far closer in nature to a spy thriller than this absurdly ahistoric soap opera, get its day in the court of public opinion.

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Boar?

One of the major problems in getting the world to take Oxford seriously as Shakespeare is his bad reputation with historians.  Sure it came from his enemies, Henry Howard and Robert Cecil, who, no matter how notorious they were themselves, managed to make their character assassination stick, largely because, apart from their dirty deeds, their public roles haved tended to supercede the crimes they commited, while Oxford’s public role has remained hidden.  All his money, his imagination and his energy went into creating the London stage and the London periodical press, something he could not take the credit for at the time, something for which his worst enemy, Robert Cecil, made certain that he would never, ever, get the credit.  Even today, the academics who have (ironically) inherited his story, seem determined to hand his accomplishments over to his actors, co-authors, publishers and editors.

So were they wrong about Oxford?  Was he the ungrateful bastard that Alan Nelson loves to flog, or the saint that some would have Shakespeare, gentle, kind and good?  Have they never read the biographies of geniuses of the stage and press?  What about Diagliev or Balanchine, the manipulative obsessives who created the world’s greatest ballet companies, or the world’s greatest dancers, Nijinsky and Michael Jackson?  What about those brilliant bisexuals, Leonard Bernstein and Lord Byron, neither of whom made any effort to hide their sexual relationships with their sisters?  And how about the genius whose level of influence over the world we live in is the only one of any of these that reaches to the level of the man we call Shakespeare––what about Steve Jobs?

Here’s what Malcolm Gladwell says in his recent review in The New Yorker of the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, who interviewed his friends and associates at length:

“Jobs, we learn, was a bully. ‘He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe,’ a friend of his tells Isaacson. Jobs gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then denies that the child is his.  He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates.  He cries like a small child when he does not get his way.  He gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour.  He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times.  He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong: he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is “disgusting.”)

“‘Machines and robots were painted and repainted as he compulsively revised his color scheme,’ Isaacson writes, of the factory Jobs built, after founding NeXT, in the late nineteen-eighties. ‘The walls were museum white, as they had been at the Macintosh factory, and there were $20,000 black leather chairs and a custom-made staircase. . . . He insisted that the machinery on the 165-foot assembly line be configured to move the circuit boards from right to left as they got built, so that the process would look better to visitors who watched from the viewing gallery.’

“Isaacson begins with Jobs’s humble origins in Silicon Valley, the early triumph at Apple, and the humiliating ouster from the firm he created.  He then charts the even greater triumphs at Pixar and at a resurgent Apple, when Jobs returns, in the late nineteen-nineties, and our natural expectation is that Jobs will emerge wiser and gentler from his tumultuous journey.  He never does.  In the hospital at the end of his life, he runs through sixty-seven nurses before he finds three he likes.  ‘At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated,’ Isaacson writes: ‘Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it.  Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. . . .  He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex.’”

Now there’s the real McCoy, not the Santa Claus of childish dreams.  And who doesn’t love him?  As a Mac user since 1995 who used his technology to create The Oxfordian and who uses it every day to run this blog, I did, and do, and always will.  And my kids and grandchildren who are addicted to their ipods and iphones do too.  Just as you and I love Shakespeare.

No, Edward de Vere was not a saint.  He used people.  He complained (see his letters).  He was cruel to his wife and to Gabriel Harvey.  He wasted his patrimony on profitless theatrical projects (profitless to himself and his family, though immensely profitable to the Kings Men).  He ratted on his cousin and friends, sending them into confinement.  He created deathless stage portraits of his family members and associates as fools and villains.  That historians have followed his enemies in accusing him of pederasty, plotting to murder his Court rivals, and most foul, ingratitude to his in-laws, well, perhaps it’s no more than such a wretch deserved.

But it’s more than we deserve!  As humans we deserve to know the truth about ourselves.  Surely the geniuses who have given us our greatest art, our greatest advances in science, medicine, and technology, are just as important as all the other things we study.  “Know thyself,” said Socrates.  To know the truth about the great English humanist who, according to one of the academics who knows and loves him most, invented us, is to know ourselves.

Let’s get all this nonsense about other candidates and sick relationships with the Queen and others out of the way and find out all we can about the real human being who created the language we speak.  Surely it’s time.

Blogging or slogging?

If I’ve been slow with blogging lately, it’s because I’ve been slowly slogging through the histories of the period seeking patterns in events and dates to complete the puzzle of when and why the authorship question first arose.  Now that I have it, I have to find a way to present it as a narrative, which is a thing that takes time and a lot of thought.  Rather than hold off any longer, I’ve decided to post as pages what I’ve come up with so far.  This means I will risk contradicting or repeating myself, but if I don’t, life being what it is, I may never get around to it at all.

There’s no hard evidence for the story I’m at pains to tell, but then there wouldn’t be.  First, they didn’t keep evidence of this sort of thing back then; no one who was close enough to the action to know the truth would have mentioned it openly either in a letter or a published work.  Second, this was the very thing that, once he had control of the national archives, was erased from the record by the man who made the coverup necessary.  Obsessed with making it go away, he made it appear that the English Literary Renaissance had never happened.  If it weren’t for the hundreds of published works that were beyond recalling or burning, he would have gotten away with it.  He did get away with erasing all evidence of how it came to be.

Literary historians like E.A.J. Honigman, Andrew Gurr and Scott McMillin have seen the truth.  McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean, for instance, see the truth about Walsingham, unlike their mainstream  colleagues who still see the great Secretary as little more than the Queen’s spymaster.  But without the chief protagonists it’s all just a collection of shadows on a wall.  Without the authorship question and the answers it provides about the principals, there’s no dynamic, no thrust; it’s Yalta without Churchill or Stalin.

For years I’ve felt that it was impossible that no one seriously questioned Shakespeare’s identity until the mid-19th century.  If there was a problem with revealing it, and if William of Stratford was hired to stand in for the real playwright to resolve this problem, then it must be because at some point the question of who was writing the plays demanded an immediate response.

A man who created something so popular as the plays that made the Lord Chamberlain-King’s Men the most successful acting company of its day and perhaps of all time, would not have gone unnoticed, unrecorded, without commentary, in London or in his own home town as Ramon Jiménez has so clearly and succinctly shown was in fact the case.  That there is so little, really next to nothing, in the record about the author as a person, not just a name, cries out for an explanation and this cry would not have waited until the late 19th century.  It would have been immediate.

In fact, it was immediate, as Andrew Gurr shows in his studies of the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, though he can’t get to the heart of it without knowing the principals and the stakes involved.   No doubt questions were asked throughout the 1580s, but the author wasn’t quite Shakespeare yet.  Not until the 1590s, with his quantum leap in style from “Robert Greene” to “Shakespeare,” would theater buffs begin asking with increasing emphasis: “Who is writing this stuff?”  (Of course there were theater buffs then as there are now and always have been, particularly when the commercial Stage was so new. )

Although they didn’t use the name Shakespeare right away, the company must have purchased it from William at some point in 1594-95.  The first (and only) appearance of the name William Shakespeare on a Court warrant as payee for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men is dated March 1595, so the deal must have been done by then.  Why then was the name not used on any of the 15 Shakespeare plays published between 1594 and some point in 1598?  It would seem that not everyone in a position to make policy was enthusiastic about using a standin, or at least, not William.  Were they waiting for a better solution?  And what was it that caused them to begin using it in 1598?

As we might have suspected, as in Hamlet, “the play was the thing” that caused the question of the author’s identity to rise to such a pitch that a response had to be forthcoming and as soon as possible.

That play was Richard III.

Stay tuned.

Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

In a book titled Shakespeare, Puritan and Recusant, published in 1897, author Thomas Carter makes a convincing argument that the apparent troubles brought on the Shakspere family beginning around 1576 were due neither to Catholicism nor debt, but to John Shakspere’s adherence to the radical Protestant line.  In other words, John Shakspere was what in the 1590s would be described as nonconformist or dissident.  In other words, he was the opposite of what we’ve been told.  Although this may leave a few problems unresolved, it makes a lot more sense than the Catholic theory.

Certain that Shakspere’s son was the great playwright, Carter also believes that John must have been literate, and even holds that certain fees paid him were to send him to London to observe a session of Parliament.  We needn’t go this far; greater certainty would lie with evidence from other towns of the literacy of men like Shakspere Sr. during this period of rapid change in levels of literacy.  The most likely may be the middle view, that the glover’s mark he used as a signature was an artisan’s tradition, not a symptom of illiteracy, so that Shakspere Sr. could read enough to manage his affairs, something according to Carter he did well enough throughout.  As for John’s son William, it’s evident that, whether or not he could read at any level, he was unable to write his own signature with ease, which would seem to put him out of the running as the author of Hamlet.

From the beginning, John Shakspere’s career path followed that of the rise of Protestantism and fell with the rise of government anti-Puritanism.  He came to Stratford in 1551, possibly on a wave of Protestantism when John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Warwickshire’s Protestant overlord, came to supreme national power.  Dudley lost it when the Catholics came back in in 1553, but then in 1558, with the pendulum of power swinging back to the reformers, came Shakspere Sr.’s first steps up in Stratford town government.  His lifelong friend Adrian Quiney was the town’s first Bailiff under Elizabeth, while in 1564 “Chamberlains” Shakspere and friend Robert Wheler were paid to rid the town chapel of its Catholic symbols, the cross, the rood screen, and the images and pictures of the saints (69).

For twenty years John Shakespeare and his friends continued to serve in one capacity or another as leaders in the Stratford Council until the mid ’70s when it appears he lost interest in civic service, either from debt or recusancy.  Although his recusancy is a matter of record, Carter shows that Shakspere was neither bankrupt nor was he even in serious debt.  The land transaction that scholars have interpreted as a sale by a desperate bankrupt were, as Carter explains, standard moves made by recusants to shift ownership of land to a friend or family member to avoid having their property confiscated should they be condemned by the Ecclesiastical High Commission (94-106).

The word recusant is usually taken to mean Catholics who refused to conform, but in fact it simply means one who abstains from attending church out of protest.  It’s true that the majority of recusants were Catholic, but right from the start it was clear that for the Queen and many others, the complaint was less with the Catholic service than it was with Catholic politics.  As for religion, once the Armada was defeated and the Crown was no longer so worried about Spain, Elizabeth’s attention turned to the English dissidents who, if anything, were even more offensive to her personally in their demands, whether for a reformed Church or the freedom to worship as they pleased.

Having been made the Head of the Church by the actions of her father, Elizabeth took seriously the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament shortly after her coronation that demanded allegiance to the (once again) reformed Service and Book of Common Prayer.  Seeing the empty churches as a personal affront, she put her “little black husband” Archbishop Whitgift in charge of forcing them back to church and the machinery of repression under the High Commission swung around toward the dissidents.  Thus was the Church of England born.  Shorn by the Star Chamber of opposition at both ends of the religious spectrum, it settled into what the proto-Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, etc., saw as a Catholic service in every respect but that Latin was replaced by English and the clergy were allowed to marry.

Carter sees this wave of repression, sparked by the uproar caused by the Queen’s threat to marry the Catholic French prince and her brutal treatment of John Stubbes for writing against it, as sweeping through Stratford in 1579, bringing strict reprisals from Westminster and forcing Shakspere Sr. and his reformist friends to retreat from the kind of involvement in civic affairs that could lead to serious trouble for them and their families.  As the records show, John was willing (and apparently able) to pay a heavy fine for not taking Episcopalian communion (118).  That John Shakspere retired from public life for twenty years, not because he was a Catholic, but because he was a dissident, makes a good deal of sense in almost every respect.

One issue that it doesn’t resolve is the matter of the Catholic handbook found by roofers in the eaves of the Henley Street house in 1757 (Schoenbaum 41).   This has been taken as evidence that John was a devout Catholic who hid the book out of concern that it might be found by some delegation of church commissioners.  Surely we can let go of this one.  It doesn’t affect the authorship thesis in any direct way.  Anyone could have hidden the book, such as an apprentice with rooms in the attic, concerned that his Master find him with such a dangerous item.  Another issue is the reason why William’s daughter Susannah was listed in 1606 by an ecclesiastical commission as a recusant (234-5) which Schoenbaum attributes to her being “popishly affected,” though it can just as easily be interpreted as an attempt to keep track of persons who failed to show up for communion so that they could be fined.

It does resolve other things.  There’s the problem of why John Shakspere’s neighbor, tanner Henry Field, clearly a staunch Protestant (having placed his son as an apprentice with the Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier), would name a devout Catholic in his will to act as his executor.  When seen as fellow Protestants, Shakspere and Field’s relationship makes better sense (even if John did take Henry to court once over a debt).

But the best proof comes from the plays, where advocates of a Catholic Shakespeare have a hard row to hoe.  Some of Shakespeare’s many Biblical references could have come from any Bible, but the prevalence of quotations, some almost word for word, from the 1560 Geneva Bible far outnumber them.  The very fact that there are so many Biblical quotes in Shakespeare while the Inquisition taught that it was a sin for a layman, not just to read the Bible, any bible, but even to own one, should be enough to quash the Catholic Shakespeare theory.  (The ability of theorists to cling to a notion, no matter how utterly it’s been proven false, never ceases to amaze.)

This prevalance in Shakespeare of quotations from the Puritan Bible, as Carter calls it, helps him with his Puritan Shakespeare theory, but not nearly so much as it helps Oxfordians with ours, for the Earl of Oxford spent the first eight years of his school career being tutored by one of England’s leading reform theologians, one who helped to create the also frequently quoted Book of Common Prayer, while the very Geneva Bible that Oxford purchased when he was nineteen, when presumably he was off on his own and no longer reliant on the books in his guardian’s library, is still to be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

The origins of Hamlet

By 1559, the dawn of the Elizabethan era, nine-year-old Edward de Vere had probably already absorbed much of the philosophy of the English Reformation from one who had helped to create it, his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  He would have learned very early that Wittenberg in Germany was the ultimate Reformation university, the place where it all began.  He would have learned about Amleth, the Danish prince who went mad, or pretended to go mad, from his tutor’s copy of the Gesta Danorum  (Danish Histories), by Saxo Grammaticus, lodged on the shelves of Smith’s library at Hill Hall in Essex, just north of the forest of Waltham.

Smith may have introduced the future Great Lord Chamberlain to this bit of Danish history as an example of leadership gone awry, or the boy himself may have stumbled across the well-known tale in in his pursuit of some understanding of the class he was born into but with which he had never yet spent much time.  During what appears to have been a solitary childhood in the country near the Forest of Windsor, Oxford would have entertained himself as best he could with the books in his tutor’s library.  Through these he was introduced to the heroes and villains of English history, many of whom played a part in his own family history.  Besides these there were as well the heroes and villains of Roman history and, beyond them, the Greek and Trojan gods and warriors of Homer and Euripides, all available in his tutor’s library.  He spent hours with these heroes, brought to life by his imagination and his tutor’s recitation in Greek and Latin.

This life of solitary study came to an abrupt end with the death of his father when he was twelve.  Transferred to Cecil House in London, he was soon immersed in the hurly-burly of life at the center of a Renaissance Court.  Befriended by the young translators from the legal colleges that surrounded Cecil House, he fell quickly into the role of patron, and began using his education with Smith to do his share of translating and to create works of poetry and drama to entertain his friends, most of them older than himself by some six to ten years.  Following the rubrics of noble behavior as prescribed by Smith and ancient tradition, while promoting his friends, he kept his own authorship more or less a secret.

At some point during the nine years that Oxford spent as a ward of the Crown it would have come clear to him that his estates were being used, and abused, by the Queen’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester.  Because it was accepted policy that the Crown had the use of an underage peer’s estates, there wasn’t much he could do about it except wait until he turned twenty-one.  By then, with his mother and stepfather both dead and Leicester at the height of his power at Court, it seemed best to ignore this offense as water under the bridge, or at least pretend to do so.  Patronized by Leicester’s bitter enemy, the Earl of Sussex, Oxford rose rapidly at Court, due partly to his lordly largesse, which was getting him into financial trouble, and also no doubt to his wit and his talent for entertaining.

Then, just as he turned thirty, the bottom fell out.  Forced by his conscience and perhaps a sudden fear of potential consequences, he turned on his Catholic friends in the Howard circle, revealing before the members of the Queen’s Presence Chamber during the winter holidays of 1580/81 that he had been involved with them in some rather dangerous plotting against the regime.  The Queen forgave him (a mark of his popularity).  Then, when one of her maids gave birth to his child in her chamber in March 15, she went totally berserk, had the offenders, baby included, thrown in the Tower, where she left Oxford for two months, then banished him from Court.  Adding insult to injury, she found it expedient to sooth the offended members of the ruined maid’s family by raising their prospects at Court and turning a blind eye to their vicious attacks on milord and his men.

Oxford in the early 1580s

Released from the Tower in June, Oxford retreated to Fisher’s Folly, his manor just outside the City Wall in Bishopsgate, where, burning with rage and humiliation, he refused to continue to write for the Court.  Rejected by those who fawned on him during his days of glory, barred from most of the pastimes that had filled his life until then, and unable to travel about freely due to the danger of running into his lover’s relatives, he turned to the Stage to plead his case before the audience he trusted most, the lawyers and students of the Inns of Court.

A decade of creating Court entertainments, plus a year abroad observing the vital theater traditions of Italy, had honed his writing to the level of a skilled professional, far beyond what anyone else in England was capable of at that time, most still mired in the dull style of the “drab era.”  No longer bound to amuse the Queen with yet another witty comedy for the little boys, or another variation on the Petrarchan sonnet or Italian madrigal, he was finally free to write as he pleased.  The result was a barrage of serious plays for the adult actors.  Filled with the energy of an arrow finally loosed from a long-held bow, some of these were destined to evolve into masterpieces.

A good test to decide which of the Shakespeare plays originated at this time of intense creativity is whether and how it deals with the subject of treason.  Divorced from Court society, Oxford was in no position to defend himself in any other way against the charges being spread about by his cousin Henry Howard that he was a blackguard and a traitor.  As a form of special pleading, they were also a way for him to work through his questions about himself.  Was he a hero or a villain?  When he looked at his behavior from the point of view  of his patrons, he saw someone stupidly heading for disaster while from Howard’s point of view he was, if not a traitor to the Queen, then certainly a traitor to his friends.  Was he stupid or wicked?––neither was pleasant to consider.

Bored, used to writing, he turned to pen and ink, or rather to the secretaries who took his dictation.  Characters from his early reading returned to save him from his artistic and moral dilemma.  Historic figures like Richard II, Bolingbroke, Brutus, Coriolanus, and Amleth, recalled from his years with Smith, were brought back to life with his busy pen.  Also present was the brilliant mathematician and astrologer, Jerome Cardan, whose book about the death of his son, translated by his friend Thomas Bedingfield, Oxford had published in 1573.   Out of this mix came, more or less in chronological order, “The Play of Sir Thomas More,” The Spanish Tragedy, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Richard II, and Hamlet (among others).

He had been comparing himself to Richard II for some time, largely due to Richard’s reputation as a spendthrift.  The recent close call with treason awakened him to a further resemblance, the ease with which he had fallen into bad company.  That it was Oxford’s own predecessor, Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford, who was the villain of Richard’s story, the seducer who destroyed the nation by taking the King’s focus off his duties as monarch and onto his own villanous self, added weight.  Had he inherited some terrible weakness from this Earl?  Had it come to him though the fourteenth Earl––another lunatic spendthrift?  But how was a man to live up to his duties as a nobleman without spending money?

Oxford’s Coriolanus

Oxford now saw how Plutarch’s military hero could have ended up as a traitor.  (Smith had Plutarch in his library, in three languages!).  Furious at being treated dismissively by the Roman Senate (in Oxford’s case, the Queen and Burghley) the Roman general’s attraction to his enemy caused him to change sides.  In Oxford’s case, this was the already legendary military hero, Don John of Austria, who not all that long ago (1571) had achieved the victory of the age over the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto and for whom Oxford, writing in the early ’80s, still felt a young man’s admiration (Don John died in 1578).

Since Don John (thought by some to be the original of the many Don Juans of literature, due to his famed capacities as a lover) was the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the brother of Philip II of Spain, the English tended to downplay his abilities since, to them, he was a dangerous enemy.  In fact, it would have come to light right about the time that Oxford wrote the first version of Coriolanus that the Don had been involved in a conspiracy to conquer England and marry the Queen (reflecting his notion perhaps that no woman was capable of resisting him).

Oxford’s play ends with Coriolanus falling on his own sword, perhaps a demonstration of how ashamed he was of his flirtation with treason (though not ashamed enough to do it himself).  That it was written closer to 1583 than earlier can be seen by his effort to make amends with his in-laws, portraying Burghley as the upright Menenius, Anne Cecil as Virgilia––perhaps our best look at who she was, to Oxford anyway––and less admirably, her mother Mildred as the overbearing Volumnia.  ( It’s possible that Volumnia was actually based on Mildred’s even more overbearing sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, whom Oxford may already have come to know as an unfriendly neighbor of the little theater in Blackfriars.)  Based on its style, the version that we have of Coriolanus is probably an update from the early 1590s.  Apparently it wasn’t something he considered worth revising during his final period.

The masterpiece amongst these treason plays is Julius Caesar.  We have no earlier versions of Julius Caesar as we have of some of the plays from this period, but I feel certain (for a number of reasons) that the first version was written during this time when issues of treason were uppermost in his mind.  His personal identification would have been with Brutus––”the noblest Roman of them all”––without whose participation the conspiracy against Caesar must have collapsed.  Thus we see Oxford’s Brutus as one who conspires, not out personal ambition, but to defend the Republic  (England) against Caesar’s (Leicester’s) thirst for power.

Other characters are easily identified as his Catholic friends.  His Cassius, who had “a lean and hungry look; he reads too much; such men are dangerous,” is an obvious description of Henry Howard.  Lean certainly, hungry (for income and to have his family honor reinstated), and learnéd (he was the only nobleman in his time to be a fixture at one of the universities), Howard was even more dangerous to those he called brother or friend than he was to his enemies.  For the rest of it, Brutus’s fate is one that Oxford could easily imagine for himself, had he stuck with his cousin’s plot.

So who was Caesar in Oxford’s fantasy?  

The most likely target of conspiracies in her time was certainly the Queen; it’s also certain that the audience––the budding politicians at the Inns of Court––would see her as the potential target of a papist conspiracy.  However, I believe that the truth, known only at the very center of the inner circle of Court politics, was that the conspiracy at which the play hints was not about getting rid of the Queen, but about the planned assassination of the Earl of Leicester.

Henry Howard had good reason to hate the Earl of Leicester, whose father, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had done nothing to save Howard’s father, the poet Earl of Surrey, when Protector Somerset was railroading him to the block.  Also, as Howard and many others saw it, Leicester had assisted in the sting operation that in 1572 brought Howard’s older brother, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to the block, first by encouraging him to seek marriage to the Queen of Scots, then blowing the whistle on him to the Queen.  People like Howard liked to believe that Leicester had the Queen bewitched, so that if he were removed, the scales would fall from her eyes and she would begin to see things their way.

That Leicester was the target of the conspiracy revealed by Oxford makes more sense at this angle than any intended harm to the Queen, something that no one in England (but a few rabid papists) would tolerate, while few would mourn the loss of Leicester––or so we’re told by generations of historians following the Cecilian paper trail.  Killing Elizabeth would have meant removing a properly anointed monarch from a long-established position, while the death of Caesar was meant to prevent the creation of such a position, a situation much more comparable to the removal of Leicester, who many believed was looking to make himself king by marrying her.

There were at least two other plays from this period of the early 1580s that would be revised often enough over the years that they would rise to the level of masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, written (I believe) as a valentine to Ann Vavasor, once he realized that she still cared for him, and Hamlet Prince of Denmark.

Hamlet

There’s no need to go into the literature on Hamlet––no need and certainly nowhere near enough time or space.  That it’s the most revealing of all the plays of its author’s persona is widely accepted (however ignored by the advocates of the Stratford biography, for by no means can William’s background be stretched to connect with either characters or plot).  That this must be the so-called Ur-Hamlet, so called because 1589, when Nashe mentioned the play in Robert Greene’s Menaphon, is simply too early for most historians to credit it to Shakespeare, though some have done so anyway, so compelling is the evidence.

The Spanish Tragedy

In a reverse attribution of the sort that we see so often due to the late dating required by the Stratford biography, a number of important scholars have noted the similarities between Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy (later ascribed to Thomas Kyd) which suggests to them that Shakespeare was influenced by the Kyd play.

What’s far more likely is that The Spanish Tragedy was something of a dry run for Hamlet.  In a return to the style of Titus Andronicus, Oxford released his fury at the Court in this Senecan style bloodbath.  That Spanish Tragedy is earlier than even the earliest version of Hamlet seems evident in the fact that although the essential relationship in both plays is the bond between father and son, their roles are reversed.  Where in Hamlet it is the son who must avenge the father, in Spanish Tragedy it is the father who must avenge the son.  Thus Spanish Tragedy should date to sometime before the death of Sussex, Oxford’s patron and surrogate father,  in June of 1583.