Tag Archives: Shakespeare’s style

A hollow “Hollow Crown”

Did anyone see the BBC series “The Hollow Crown” on PBS?  If so, what did you think of it?  Unfortunately I missed the first two, Richard II and Henry IV Part One, but did manage to see a fair amount of 2HIV and Henry V.  “Fair amount” since sleep, which generally overcomes me shortly after 9 PM, took me captive, despite the charms of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  What did I miss?  From what I saw I thought both productions were good in some ways, but truly terrible in others.

The good was largely Hiddleston as the prince.  A product of Eton and Cambridge where he majored in Classics, he has a princely accent and attitude, a wide range of expression, and is the right age for the character.  Moving easily from moody pensiveness to rage to hilarity, he finds in Hal the depth of character and range of emotion that are the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s greatest characters.  This carries him through the complexity of the speeches––though some could have used cutting: I cringed to think that, as King, Hal would have kept the Mayor of Harfleur on his knees through that long pompous threat of what would happen to babes and daughters if the Mayor refused to yield the town.  But we must remember that this is very early Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons is a good Henry IV; the action is interesting and well-conceived, the camera-work expressive and unobtrusive, and the costumes remarkable for achieving a blend of period authenticity and what a modern viewer can relate to, at least for the courtiers.  Unhappily however, this last does not extend to the inhabitants and setting of the Boars Head Tavern, for what’s truly awful about this production––and  recent film versions as well––is the way Falstaff and his friends are portrayed as the scum of the earth, dirty, disheveled, dressed in rags, hanging about in a filthy tavern overseen by a slovenly madam who keeps a company whore even more ragged and slatternly than she.

Most awful is what this bucket-load of grunge has done to the image of Falstaff that has accrued over the centuries.  Here is the blurb with which Sparknotes online promotes the series: “A fat, cheerful, witty, aging criminal, [Falstaff] has long been Prince Hal’s mentor and close friend.  He pretended to have killed Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal–the actual killer–agreed to go along with the lie.  For this reason, everyone gives Falstaff much more respect than he deserves.”  Obviously this is what the author of this blurb has gotten from watching the series––Falstaff is a criminal and Hal is a killer!

Why on earth would the Prince of Wales, soon to be crowned as the great Henry the Fifth, choose to spend so much of his time with this unpleasant old rascal, dressed and directed as though he were a drunken Salvation Army Santa Claus.  His seedy surroundings, immense bulk, fusty beard, and rapid delivery distract from Shakespeare’s text, which tells a very different tale.  Unfortunately the audience, unless it already knows the play, will not find it easy to catch the import of the text, since the current practise of running lines at an unnatural speed in film productions, where action must replace the precision and clarity of a traditional stage performance, turns Falstaff’s wicked tongue and wit to the mutterings of a crazy old fool.  The idea that the Prince of Wales would prefer to spend his time in such a setting and with such an “old criminal” is so absurd that the viewing audience is more or less lost from the start.  What were the producers thinking?

If it was to create a contrast with the Court, that fails, due to two other bad things, namely the dull color palette and the choice of a vast empty hall as the King’s presence chamber.  Just about everything in the film, whether in the Court or the Tavern or on the battlefield is either brown, black, or gray; there isn’t a spark of bright color anywhere.  Where is the splendor with which the late medieval royalty surrounded itself, the purple, carnation, scarlet, gold and white, the “peach-color” of Poins’s stockings, the sun shining through stained glass windows?  Shot in the winter, with the trees bare and the sky gray, the outdoor scenes are just as bleak as those indoors.  As for the crew gathered in the Boars Head Tavern, it would seem that modern directors seriously mistake the intense teasing and rude familiarity of  people who have no fear of seriously offending each other as the brawling of thieves and streetwalkers.

Ignorant of the times, the ambiance they seek to recreate has caused Shakespeare’s meaning to escape them.  Why does it never strike them to wonder why Falstaff is so revered?  If he’s the shambling old nonentity he’s portrayed, why does the royal prince, with his princely education, desire his company?  Why does the hostess of the tavern pressure him to marry her?  Why does Doll Tearsheet demonstrate such love for him?  How can Falstaff dare to consider himself the Prince’s “true father”?  Bereft of the stature and bearing that the text suggests, missing the meaning of the rapid fire delivery, how are we to take Falstaff’s claim that he is not only witty in himself, but is the cause of wit in others?

If we pay attention to the text we find that this old stumblebum speaks to those around him with the arrogance and self-importance of a courtier (more notably in Part Two) , an attitude rendered ridiculous here by the seedy setting, his short stature, unkempt hair and undistinguished garb.  No more than a knight, where does he get the aristocratic attitude that he deserves to have whatever he wants?  Attempting to purchase satin for a suit, he curses the system when told he hasn’t the necessary security (credit).  Ignoring the Lord Chief Justice, he invites this high official’s companion, the poet Gower, to dine, despite his obvious inability to pay the bill.  Nor is this attributable to a lunatic’s Napoleonic complex, for were he the lowlife he’s portrayed, the Lord Chief Justice would hardly take the time to seek him in person, but would send a constable to fetch him for questioning (about the Gad’s hill robbery).  Confronting him, he would hardly waste words in one of Falstaff’s wit battles––he would simply have him arrested.

If Falstaff is in fact what his name tells us he is, someone who has carried the staff of high office and who has failed that office, then everything falls into place.  It makes sense of Hal’s interest in him.  It makes sense of the scene in Part One where, before the battle, Falstaff joins readily in easy conversation with the King.  It makes sense of  Mistress Quickly’s eagerness to marry him, for, however poor in cash, someone in high office would have estates to support him.  If Falstaff doesn’t see to his estates the way he should, that’s another aspect of his failure.  It makes sense of Hal and Poins’s devotion, the sort that rebellious youths are often inclined to give a fallen idol.  As for Poins, depicted here as only the best of the bad lot that congregate around the depraved Falstaff, as Shakespeare suggests, he’s Hal’s close and intimate friend––if not a peer himself, then close to it.  Ned Poins, named for a leading family of the day (usually spelled Poyntz) would not be hanging about in the Tavern, waiting for the Prince to appear, he would accompany him, going and coming.

As for Bardoph and Nym, Shakespeare does not intend them to be taken as Falstaff’s equals; it’s clear they are his servants.  A captain himself, Ancient Pistol is his sergeant, Peto his lieutenant.  All rely on his patronage, however uncertain.   Falstaff claims that he “bought” Bardolf at Paul’s Cathedral, where masterless men were known to gather in search of employment.  The little page treats Bardolph rudely, like one on his same level.  That Falstaff is meant to be elegantly dressed is clear from the comments by Hal and Poins on how Falstaff has turned the page into his “ape,” that is, he has dressed the boy like himself, and has encouraged him to join in the verbal fencing that they call wit.

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

A better conception of Falstaff and his page

The settings

Along with the anomalously huge and empty presence chamber, there’s the anomaly of the Boar’s Head Tavern.  Where did the directors of this production get the model for this dilapidated, low-ceilinged dump, tucked behind a battered old door like one of the blind pigs of Prohibition, lacking any touch of decoration or charm.  Don’t they bother to read any history at all?  The Boars Head Tavern was famous in its time as the finest inn in London.  Where is there any evidence of the “plate” and the “tapestry of her dining rooms” that Mistress Quickly fears having to pawn unless Falstaff pays his bill?  When she says, protesting the presence of his “swaggering” servant, “I must live among my neighbours: I’ll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best,” what could be “the very best” in such a place, and why should her wretched neighbors care, or she care what they think?

Of course, there were “stews” in London, neighborhoods where gangsters and their molls held sway (as Robert Greene depicted in his “renunciation” pamphlets), but this would not have been the sort of hostel where one might rub elbows with the Prince of Wales and his friends.  When, joking, Falstaff says he’ll get a wife from “the stews,” meaning the slums, would that make sense if his tavern was located in a slum?  Would Shakespeare waste the opportunity to adorn Doll Tearsheet with the finest up-to-date attire, or an exaggerated version of it, rather than what the BBC has given us, a beautiful actress made to look worse even than the lowliest streetwalker, who at least would be doing her best to dress in a way that she hoped would attract men.  This Doll, her hair uncombed, her colorless dress torn and unmended, qualifies for nothing better than an inmate of Bedlam.  What happened to the “fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta,” with which Hal teases Falstaff?

Far from the grungy dive it’s depicted here, the historic Boars Head Inn, located in central London in a neighborhood dominated by the halls of the powerful and wealthy trade guilds, was a classy establishment, probably from the very first.  History informs us that it was in the reign of Richard II, shortly before the period of the Henry IV plays, that one William Warder gave a tenement called the “Boar’s Head” in Eastcheap to a college of priests, founded by Sir William Walworth, for the adjoining church of St. Michael’s in Crooked Lane.  According to John Stowe, during Shakespeare’s time Eastcheap was “butcher’s row,” where the public houses had the most delectible roast meats to offer, and where, as Mistress Quickly suggests, it was  possible to order meat during Lent.  Lasting well into the 18th century, the Boar’s Head, that is, the one that replaced Shakespeare’s after it was destroyed in the great London fire, was noted as, “the chief tavern in London,” frequented by the likes of Alexander Pope and his brilliant coterie.

Who was Falstaff?

As for the historic Falstaff, unable to locate a model in history or literature that fits the Stratford biography, academics usually attribute this greatest of all his comic characters solely to Shakespeare’s imagination, but we heretics have a wider fund to draw on.  For instance, since we can accept that Shakespeare was fluent in French, the idea that the relationship between Hal and Falstaff was inspired by the violent and scatalogical wordplay of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel––while rejected by the academics because Rabelais wasn’t translated into English until the mid-17th century––works well for us.

The first character to play the role of Hal’s quarrelsome foil was Dericke, the clown from the very early play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.  Since documentation shows that members of the Queen’s Men, Richard Tarleton and William Knell, played Dericke and Hal respectively, we know that Famous Victories dates back at least to the 1580s (historian Ramon Jiménez puts it as far back as the 1560s).  But while Dericke is a standard vice figure left over from medieval times, Falstaff is clearly one of Shakespeare’s departures from tradition.  Among these departures was his method of creating important characters by conflating the traits of persons familiar to his Court audience with figures from literature and history.

That the Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV and V plays was originally Sir John Oldcastle is clear from, among a number of other clues, the appearance of “Old” as a character in the sloppily printed 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part Two, the phrase “Old Lad of the Castle” that remains in Henry IV Part One, and the Oldcastle (also known as Jockey) who joins the Gads Hill gang in Famous Victories.  Since there is also clear evidence that the Falstaff of Merry Wives was originally the same Sir John Oldcastle, we can assume that both plays were written (rather rewritten) at the same time, and that both saw the character’s name changed from Oldcastle to Falstaff in the mid 1590s (more precisely, late 1596 or early 1597) and for the same reason, because the Queen insisted that it be changed.

We have no reason to doubt that Her Majesty (and the entire Court audience), saw Shakespeare’s Oldcastle as a satirical character intended by the actors and their playwright to embarrass their newly-appointed patron, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, William Brooke Lord Cobham.  As Alice Lyle-Scoufos demonstrates in convincing detail in her Shakespeare’s Topological Satire (1979), Shakespeare combined damaging traits and events from Cobham’s life (including the true incident of the robbing of the Spanish courier by his sons during Oxford’s time at Cecil House) and the life of his renowned ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle (burnt at the stake as a traitor by Henry V) on purpose to demean Lord Chamberlain Cobham and show his son-in-law, Secretary of State Robert Cecil, that he (Oxford) wasn’t about to be bullied into silence.

As a character in the Henry IV and V plays, Sir John Oldcastle is historically accurate.  The historic Oldcastle had in fact been a friend to the historic Prince Hal, one who, for reasons of religion, turned on his former friend once he became King.  It was Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a braggart, liar and thief that was taken by all, including the Queen, as a blow aimed at Cobham, whose appointment to the office of Lord Chamberlain was understood by the actors and their playwright as a means of restraining them from engaging with the parliamentarians due to gather in the West End in the fall of 1597.   The truth about the historic John Oldcastle is still a problem for historians since early Crown historians saw him as a heretic traitor while early Reformation historians saw him as a saint, a precursor of the martyrs who inspired the Reformation.  Shakespeare obviously preferred the former interpretation.

Not only was Cobham the unwanted intruder who, following the death of their original patron, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, had replaced him, he was the previous owner of the rooms in the Blackfriars that had been the first Blackfriars theater and that had for a time included the great Parliament Chamber.  It was this chamber that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had just rebuilt as a large indoor theater with which they planned to entertain the parliamentarians who would be gathering the following October, the theater that Cobham, his son-in-law Robert Cecil, and Cecil’s father, Lord Burghley, now the dominating force on the Privy Council, had ordered closed.  Furious, the Company responded with rewrites of the plays in which Oldcastle, now a leading character, combined traits of Cobham, his troublesome heir and their treacherous ancestor.

By renaming the character Falstaff, the Company may have created a disconnect with the likeness to Cobham, his ancestor, and his heir, Henry Brooke, but they did nothing to reform his character.  As detailed by Scoufos, that Falstaff’s more despicable characteristics, his cowardice, his taking bribes so only the poorest and least battle-worthy recruits were taken up for the army, derive from the Oldcastle character, seems undeniable.

However, there is a side to Falstaff that doesn’t seem to fit with these aspects of his character.  His cowardice and lies, for instance, don’t fit with the respect inherent in Hal and Poins attentions; they tease and mock him, but something keeps them coming back.  Despite his inability to live up to his promises, the women continue to support and care for him.  Despite his penury and choleric temper, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol show no desire to find another patron.  His craven cowardice on the battlefield doesn’t fit with his reckless courage when confronted by authority, or his contemptible lies with his monumental self-opinion.  There seems to be a disconnect between his meaness on the one hand and his largeness of heart on the other (more noticable in Part Two than in Part One or Merry Wives).  Such contradictions may add to our fascination when properly acted and directed, yet they raise questions about his models.  Perhaps Falstaff is the result of Shakespeare’s conflation of the Oldcastle personality with yet another individual from the period.

Oxford and Falstaff

For answers we turn to historical dates and the biography of the Earl of Oxford.  We know that Milord was in trouble in the early 1590s, as were his actors and all the acting companies, due to the death of Sir Francis Walsingham and the rise of Oxford’s dangerous brother-in-law, Robert Cecil.  We can assume that during 1592 and ’93, Oxford was busy revising his earlier works for the benefit of a new company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, launched in June of 1594 under the auspices of Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon.  We know that the Henry IV and V plays are among the earliest of these, reformed and expanded from disassembled scenes from the extremely early Famous Victories (or perhaps later versions now lost).  In seeking who might have been the first personality to transform Dericke into a modern character, the one who immediately comes to mind is the intemperate and profane Sir John Perrot.  So perfectly does Perrot conform to those qualities in Falstaff that don’t fit the Oldcastle image that the identification seems without question.

A younger Sir John Perrot

Perrot was a major figure at Court from his first arrival during Henry’s reign to his final quietus in the early 1590s.  Tall, handsome, with the strength of a bull and the will of a lion, his likeness to the king helped strengthen the common belief that he was Henry’s byblow as reported by Sir Robert Naunton (though denied by his ODNB biographer).  Since Naunton was married to Perrot’s granddaughter, he would seem to have more authority than the ODNB biographer (the author of the old DNB bio accepts Perrot’s royal patrimony.)  From Perrot himself, when incarcerated and facing charges of treason, comes the quote: “God’s death!  Will the queen suffer her brother to be offered up as a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversary?” Described by a recent academic as “a bluff, heavyset man with a reputation as a hell-raiser,” the old DNB notes that he “held various offices under Elizabeth” and “united great physical strength to a violent and artibrary disposition.”  This sounds like the Falstaff beloved of Hal and Poins, of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet.

Although Perrot’s holdings in Wales and his various military and naval commands frequently took him away from London, he was enough of a figure at Court during Oxford and Rutland’s time at Cecil House and later at Court for them to have played the same role with Perrot that do Hal and Poins with Falstaff.  Oxford would have been attracted to Perrot for several reasons.  For one, he would have been the very sort of bad example that was attracting him in his teens and worrying Burghley.  For another, while in his teens, Perrot had lived for a time under the same roof with Oxford’s father, the 16th earl, so he had the kind of personal knowledge of his father that would be precious to a youth in search of an identity.  When first at Court and residing with the King’s Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, Earl John, then in his early 30s, had been remanded into Paulet’s keeping, doubtless as punishment for his reckless treatment of his (first) wife and his finances (DNB).

Then, in the early 1590s, while Oxford was suffering the slings and arrows of Robert Cecil’s rise to power, Perrot too fell victim to the Cecil roundup and destruction of their rivals.  Taking seriously the complaints of Perrot’s enemies, in 1590 they saw to it that he was incarcerated in the Tower and convicted of treason, where he died in 1592 from what many believed was poison (ODNB).  Thus it makes sense that in reaching for a replacement for the out-dated Dericke and other clownish characters from Famous Victories, Oxford did for Perrot what he did for his old tutor Sir Thomas (in Romeo and Juliet, Woodstock, and The Tempest), he brought his bombastic wit and defiance of authority to life for an audience that knew him very well.

So which came first, Oldcastle or Perrot?  Certainly it would have been Perrot, conceived in 1592 or ’93, shortly after his assassination.  The character thus created was altered for the worse in 1596 when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to use the Merry Wives and the Henry IV plays as a means of attacking the hated Cobham, causing the Queen to demand that the name be changed.  It would have been at this time that the weight ascribed to Falstaff was added, most likely a characteristic of Lord Cobham (in the only portrait I could find he is hidden behind a phalanx of women and children).  As for the Falstaff of The Merry Wives, it’s unlikely that he ever had anything of Perrot in him.  Merry Wives was most likely revised in 1596, when the Company used it to satirize Cobham’s cheating and conniving and his heir’s scandalous mistreatment of the women of the Court.

In questioning the source for Falstaff, a third influence can also be detected, the intrusion of the author’s own feelings and attitudes.  By the 1590s, although Oxford was only in his forties, it’s clear from the Sonnets that he was beginning to feel his age.  While in his twenties and thirties he would not have felt much compassion for the aging roysterer.  But with the loss of Fisher’s Folly and his crew of writers and secretaries in 1589, the loss of the credit that enabled him to produce plays and publish poems, even, if the evidence offered by Alan Nelson and Mark Anderson is accurate, that for at least a year or two from 1589 to 1591, before the Queen arranged for his marriage to one of her ladies in waiting, he was living in much the same circumstances as Falstaff, in an upscale boarding house in London with Julia Penn as his Mistress Quickly––he must have felt a kinship with his fallen protagonist.

There’s not enough room here to detail all the factors that put these identifications beyond doubt.  That will have to wait for another venue.  But at the least we can assure the readers that someday, if all goes well, and a new generation of Shakespeare scholars are finally on track towards the truth, they will find the clues to these identifications thick on the trail.

A can of politic worms

One of the problems with getting academics to pay attention to authorship research is that it’s cross-disciplinary in ways that leave it outside the various boxes into which most universities put their studies.  Who has credentials in not just English Lit but European Renaissance History, plus the Psychology of Creativity, plus Linguistics?  The authorship question falls not just between two stools, but three or four.  As a result, no one department is properly constituted to take the issue seriously.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for all of these is the issue of falsification.  Academics can handle the idea that anomalies arise naturally in history, literature and science, but only through simple misunderstandings or misreadings arising out of ignorance.  They’re not trained to accept misunderstandings created on purpose.  English Lit profs are puzzled and annoyed by the problems created by the massive use of falsification in the works of the time, but like dedicated field workers deluged by rain, rather than turn their attention to the rain, they do their best to minimize or even ignore it.

The hiding of Shakespeare’s identity by his publishers is only one small example of the kind of shape-shifting that was not only not all that unusual, it was the norm during the era we study.  Most of the works that concern us were published with great care taken to blur some or all of the facts about when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, and if living persons were being addressed, who they were.  This was true, not only of the small percentage of published works that fall into the category of imaginative literature (plays, love poems, bawdy tales, novellas) but things like pro or anti-Catholic screeds and dissident polemics like those of Martin-Marprelate, while contemporary historians dealt with problems by simply ignoring the more sensitive issues.  All this to stay out of trouble with a government that was behaving more and more like Stalin’s or Hitler’s every day.  Authors, publishers, printers, later editors, all had very good reasons for hiding some or all of the facts we seek. Everything we study has to be examined keeping in mind the possibility of this kind of dissimulation.

Again and again the question in hand takes us back to the fact that the community we are discussing was so very, very small.  Where none of us today are likely to know personally the authors of the books that interest us, it was the opposite then.  For us today, when reading a book, even one by an author whose name we know, the thought never enters our mind that the name is a phony or that the front material has been created to distract us from the true authorship.

For the small percentage of the Elizabethan community who were capable of reading these books back then, the possibility was always in mind that, no matter what the name on the title page, it was probably written by someone they knew, if not intimately, then by sight and/or reputation.  In a city of under 200,000, a best seller was one that sold 1200 copies.  Imagine a publisher today being satisfied with such a number.  Where today we are awash with new titles every week in mega-bookstores with miles of shelves, there was a handful of bookstalls in St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, run mostly by the printers or their publishers, where weeks could go by without the appearance of something new.

Yet it’s the small size of this community that’s one of the major factors that makes it possible for us to sort out who wrote what and when.  Once we’ve identified the writers and come to know their dates, situations, attitudes, fears, goals and perspectives, we’ve got some real controls.  Styles are helpful, but only when we keep in mind that styles were changing rapidly throughout the entire period.  Some of the writers we study delighted in imitating each other; some hoped to hide their authorship by creating several completely different styles; in some a later editor may have cut or added lines for any one of a dozen reasons.  Stylistic crossovers may mean the same person wrote both works, but it may also mean that one was the other’s student at the time of writing, or that the two were working closely together at the time those works were being written.

In short, it’s absolutely necessary to know as much as possible about the men and women who were writing then, and their probable reasons for writing a particular work at a particular time.  This is where the Stratfordian dating has caused so much trouble, offsetting the origin of Shakespeare’s works by as much as two decades.  Shakespeare’s creation is so central to everything else, plays, poetry and novels, that the misdating of his works and misinterpretation of his purposes has created a mess that’s taken centuries just to begin to unravel.

We not only need to know the writers, we need to know how they related to each other.  Since they (or their descendants) left us next to nothing by which to judge, we have to rely on what is revealed by their recorded actions and by clues in their works.  We also need to know who were their enemies, who was out to stop them, whom they were praising or attacking in their works, whom they loved or hated and who loved or hated them.

To understand how individuals came to hate or depend on each other in that far off time  it’s necessary to understand the social and political forces in play.  Persons who shine as enemies in the histories were often in close contact with each other and so shared many moments of apparent good fellowship, a necessity for the dispense of business.  Underlying animosities might come to the fore and should be kept in mind, but not everything can be explained by them.  Shakespeare explores once such dichotomy in Coriolanus where the personal attraction between the Roman general and the Volscian Aufidius overwhelms their enmity as military adversaries.  Shakespeare revels in the attraction of opposites.  He is a past master of the romance of passion, something that thrives on opposition and the thirst for forbidden fruit.

On the level of the Court and the great gentry families, if you go back far enough, everyone was related to everyone else––so merely finding a family connection or an ancient family enmity says nothing about the potential relationship between two individuals.  It can add weight to more solid evidence, but by itself it means very little.  Brothers could become just as bitter enemies as two men who were taught to hate each others’ families in the nursery.  Lawrence Stone identifies the innate enmities between eldest and younger brothers created by the system of primogeniture, where boys grew up knowing that the oldest brother would inherit most of the wealth and all the titles.  He claims that the only family relationship that wasn’t stressed in any way was that of brother and sister (Family xx), but even they were often strangers to each other, having been separated early on and raised apart, sometimes at birth.

A number of forces worked to create enmities as well as alliances.  Common interests, beliefs, educations, sexual biases and the simple emotional response of true friendship, could play as much of a role as could ambition, jealousy, envy, and paranoia which, given the rigid traditions that bound them all, were certainly rife at the time.

Was Shakespeare a woman?

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s stories

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

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

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

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

The Jacobean playwrights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smoking canon

We hear all the time from both sides that we have no firm proof of Oxford’s hand in Shakespeare’s plays, no “smoking guns.”  The fact is that we have dozens, scores, hundreds of perfectly acceptable facts, the kind that in a less controversial inquiry would never be questioned.  Some are more obvious than others, but when they’re all connected they provide a perfectly understandable picture of Oxford’s creation, not only of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, but of the London Stage and the English periodical press that bore them.   The problem is not finding answers, we have the answers, it’s getting the media to pay attention.  Hey, this guy created you!  Aren’t you curious?

Lacking direct evidence, we turn, as does every historian working earlier than printing, with proximity, timing, identification, anomalous absence or a combination of these.  Here are a few of our “smoking guns”:

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s metaphors reflect all the special interests of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, with whom he lived and studied from age four to twelve.  The Law, Greek and Latin literature, English history, horticulture, distilling, medicine, astrology/astronomy, falconry, have all been noted by scholars as areas in which Shakespeare showed an unusual level of knowledge.

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s primary sources reflect titles in Oxford’s tutor’s library list.  Even some of the more arcane sources are to be found there.

Proximity and identification: Half of Shakespeare’s plays take place in the towns in Italy that Oxford visited in 1575, a personal experience reflected in the numerous references to things that only someone who had been to those towns at that time could possibly have known.  (Oxfordian scholars have provided all the evidence for this that anyone could ever require; hopefully some day some of it will be available in hardback).

Proximity and timing: The London commercial Stage, the venue in which Shakespeare’s genius took form, was created within months of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576. It came to life in two locations, the small private indoor theater for the wealthy in the Liberty of Blackfriars, which Oxford must have known from his documented involvement in Court entertainments in the 1560s and early ’70s; and at Burbage’s big public theater, located on land still largely controlled by his companion from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland.

Proximity and timing: The innovative round wooden theater built by Burbage in Norton Folgate in 1576 was based on a design by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (as shown by mainstream scholar Frances Yates).  During Oxford’s childhood with Smith he was privy to a Latin edition of this ancient work that he could easily have researched again on his return from Italy.  In a visit to Siena he may even have seen such a round wooden theater in action, built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio as a dry run for his great marble indoor Teatro Olimpico, built a few years later on the same Vitruvian principles of sound amplification.  The Italians were immersed at the time in creating the most beautifully resonant wooden stringed instruments ever made.

Identification: Shakespeare’s plays reflect events in Oxford’s life, most notably seven that focus on a situation that reflects the breakup with his wife that took place on his return from Italy in 1576.  Pericles, Cymbeline, All’s Well, Much Ado, A Winter’s Tale, and Othello, all involve a villain who breaks up a marriage or engagement by suggesting to a highly suggestible man that his wife has been unfaithful.  There’s even a hint of this scenario in Measure for Measure (Angelo’s cruelty towards Mariana) and in Hamlet (his otherwise mysterious harassment of Ophelia).  In Oxford’s life this villain was his cousin, Ld Henry Howard.

Identification and anomalous absence: Several early history plays that are commonly regarded as sources for Shakespeare’s history plays, feature Oxford’s antecedents in speaking roles: The True Tragedy of Richard the Second features the 9th Earl, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth features the 11th, and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third features the 13th; all of them playing, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles they actually played in history. While rewriting these plays in the 1590s As Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III, the author kept the characters based on the ancestors of other well-born patrons of the London Stage like the Stanleys (Ld Strange’s Men, Derby’s Men), the Pembrokes (Pembroke’s Men), and Howards (Ld Admiral’s Men).  He eliminated all the speaking roles for the ancestors of only one of these patrons, the Earl of Oxford.

Proximity: After returning from Italy in 1576, Oxford left his former residences in the West End and Central London, moving north and east to Bishopsgate where he renovated a manor walking distance from all four of the commercial theaters then in operation in London, to the south, the two City theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes, to the north in Norton Folgate, Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre and the smaller Curtain.

Proximity and timing: By 1580, when Oxford set up housekeeping at Fisher’s Folly in the theater district of Shoreditch, he happened to be located one door from where 14-year-old Edward Alleyn lived and worked at his parent’s Inn, the Pye (later known as the Dolphin).  Later, as the lead in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Alleyn would become the first superstar of the London Stage.

Proximity, timing, and identification: In the 1580s, during his early years at Fisher’s Folly, Oxford’s secretaries included the authors of poetry, plays and novellas Anthony Munday (author of Zelauto, dedicated to Oxford), John Lyly (author of plays for Paul’s Boys), Thomas Watson (author of Hekatompathia, A Passionate Century of Love), and George Peele (author of The Arraignment of Paris) all known by historians as members of what they term the “University Wits.”  Other members of this group can be connected to the Fisher’s Folly group though less obviously, among them Thomas Lodge (author of Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It), Robert Greene (author of Pandosto, the source for The Winter’s Tale), Thomas Kyd (whose Spanish Tragedy has a close relation to Hamlet) and Christopher Marlowe, whose plays contain a number of shared tropes with Shakespeare.

Proximity and identification: All the other candidates for Shakespeare that one hears bruited about were individuals closely connected to Oxford in some way.  Francis Bacon was his cousin and his neighbor during his teen years; the Earl of Derby was his son-in-law; Mary Sidney was his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law; Emilia Bassano was his neighbor in her childhood and was raised and educated by his sister-in-law.  With Oxford as Shakespeare, all of these, most notably including Marlowe, can be even more closely connected.

Identification: The one identification that most mainstream scholars is that Ld Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet. They fail to mention that he was also Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, which suggests that his daughter, Oxford’s wife, was the model for Ophelia, that Queen Elizabeth was the model for Gertrude, and the Earl of Leicester was the model for the murderous Claudius.  Would you eager that everyone know that you had written something accusing one of the most powerful men in England of murdering a rival, or the Queen of complicity?  And these are only one example of other identifications of important Court figures that can easily be made if Oxford is seen as the author.

Timing and identification: The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they urge the “Fair Youth” to marry.  That the Fair Youth was the young Earl of Southampton has been agreed upon by enough scholars to accept it as fact.  These seventeen sonnets have been dated (by scholars unknown to each other) to the early 1590s at a time when the teenaged Southampton was being pressured by his guardian, Ld Burghley, to marry Oxford’s daughter.

Identification: Emilia Bassano, whose profile perfectly fits that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, grew up near Fisher’s Folly.  In her teens she lived with and was educated by the Countess of Kent, Oxford’s sister-in-law.  In her late teens and early twenties she was the mistress of Ld Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who founded The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company that grew rich on Shakespeare’s plays.  That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could also be seen as the company of the Lord Great Chamberlain is the kind of double meaning that Shakespeare was so fond of.  There are a number of contemporary documents in which the Lord Great Chamberlain is referred to simply as “the Lord Chamberlain.

All the world of London knew Oxford as the Lord Great Chamberlain, a title he was born to, one that represented 17 generations of support for the English Crown.  They knew he’d been the Queen’s ward, that he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, that he’d had the temerity to break off with his wife, Burghley’s daughter, and that he’d gotten one of the Queen’s maids of honor with child for which he’d been banished from the Court for three years.  All of London knew this about him.  So let’s consider how the Queen, Burghley, and the many other Court figures he portrayed, many in a less than kindly light, some as out and out villains, might have felt about all of London knowing that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain himself who, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra put it, had thus “boyed” them on stage for all the world to hiss or laugh at.

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

Once more into the breach, dear friends

Those of us who have spent enough time researching the authorship question to realize that it’s simply not possible that William of Stratford wrote the Shakespeare canon need to remember, when arguing the question with his defenders, that old saw: a good offense is the best defence.  Keep moving the argument back to the anomalies, back to the facts, back to the fact of the anomalies.

For instance, does it make sense that the most innovative writer of all time chose to rewrite the works of lesser writers rather than come up with his own unique plots?  Who else did that?  Not Milton.  Not Byron.  Not Keats, Shelley, Blake, none of them!  Not even other playwrights from Shakespeare’s own time.  Yet orthodox scholars have him copying Marlowe’s style, borrowing entire plots, characters and all, from Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene, stealing tropes from Samuel Daniel, one indigestible anomaly after another that, as per the White Queen’s advice to Alice, we’re to swallow without demur.  “Open wide!  Say ahhh!”

With Oxford, on the other hand, the only thing we have to swallow is the not nearly so absurd idea that he chose to hide his identity.  Taken with a few spoonfuls of literary history such as the exile of Ovid, the martydom of Cicero, the burning of Tyndale, the fatwa that kept Salmon Rushdie in hiding for years, one might conclude that hiding his identity during the repressive regime of the early English Reformation might have been a rather clever maneuver, one that kept him going well into his fifties while Marlowe never made it past his twenties.

Whenever they raise the issue of his dying before The Tempest was produced,  Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky now have their evidence of its early composition online, available to all to read, recommend, and pass along in emails to interested friends, including the rather amusing tale of how the Shakespeare establishment has been fighting to keep The Tempest in its little tiny teapot.  S&K have got a book on this at the publisher’s.  Hammer away at it, friends!  Don’t let it drop!

When they raise the issue of Oxford’s lack of obvious involvement in the Stage, relegating it to the brief appearances of companies like Lord Rich’s players or Lord Berkeley’s Men, point out the fact that, however minor his connections appear in the record, and however brief, they cover a longer period than any other patron or playwright except Ben Jonson.  Note how every momentous development in the history of the Stage seems to happen under the Earl of Oxford’s nose.  This, along with the published statements of his abilities in The Arte of English Poesie and Meres’s Wits Treasury, should be more than enough.  That is, it’s more than enough when taken together with the theory that he hid his identity!  Don’t let them divide and conquer by arguing the one issue without the other!  The reason why his name appears so infrequently is the same reason as his use of another man’s name!  They are part and parcel of the same argument.

Don’t let them use dating schemes like that put forth by E.K. Chambers, on which so many Stratfordian conjectures rely, all based on late dates like publication and the time constraints of the Stratford biography, or the one brought forth by Elliott and Valenza’s Claremont Clinic, in which we learn––quelle surprise!––that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (astonishing!).  The fact is, these word studies can’t possibly work in Shakespeare’s case.  Why?  First: because he rewrote so many of the plays, some more than once, over many years, so what date should we use?  And second: because his writing style changed so radically over the years, as did styles in general.  Every time they raise the issue of dates, hammer it home why there’s simply no way to date these plays.  That is, there’s no way unless we use Oxford’s biography.  For an example of how the biography, plus the history of the Court community, can help with dating, see Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy and Dating the Shrew.

“I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid within the centre”!

“A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross”!

“Once more into the breach . . . “!

Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith

Sometimes a single fact can become the key to an entire period in history.  Oxford’s childhood with Sir Thomas Smith is that sort of key, not just to complete our picture of Oxford’s life, but to complete the picture of Oxford as Shakespeare, and beyond that, of Shakespeare as central to the history of England during what may well have been the most crucial period in her history and absolutely the most crucial period in her literary history and the history of the London Stage.

By establishing Smith as Oxford’s surrogate father, the Aristotle to his Alexander, the Plato to his Aristotle, the Leopold Mozart to his Amadeus, we have the riches of Smith’s library where dozens of titles provide the sources for some of Shakespeare’s most valued works.  We have, through Smith, the source of Shakespeare’s legal and distilling metaphors, his ascetic attitude towards food, his lack of religious bias, his Platonic philosophy.  Through his years at Ankerwycke we have the source of his river, gardening, and hawking metaphors (as noted by Caroline Spurgeon), his sympathy for animals, the forest’s deer, the meadow’s rabbits and birds, the garden’s caterpillars and snails.  In Smith, we have four of Shakespeare’s most vital characters, Holofernes from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thomas of Woodstock from Richard II Part One, Gonzalo from The Tempest, and, greatest of all, Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet.

We also have a number of smaller though tighter connections, such as the metaphor of a haggard hawk for a wayward woman, something Smith touches on twice in the few quotes provided by his biographers, or, in the advice Polonius gives Laertes, the advice to noblemen written by Smith during the period that Edward was living with him (Strype 53-5).  With all of this securely in place, ipso facto: Oxford was Shakespeare––evidence that comes later is simply icing on the cake.  And with Oxford confirmed as Shakespeare we can also complete our puzzle of the entire period, of all of the missing literary history, and even much of the mainstream history, for Shakespeare and his works are as central to the history of the Elizabethan era as is Elizabeth herself, or Burghley, Bacon, Raleigh, or Drake.  Thus while Smith is the biggest missing piece of the Shakespeare puzzle, Oxford is the biggest missing piece of the Elizabethan Court puzzle.

This is what makes it crucial that we ground our view of Oxford’s childhood with Smith in provable facts.  It was largely my purpose when, driven by an offhand remark by Mary Dewar in her biography of Smith, I spent six weeks in England in 2004 (funded by a fellowship raised by Dr. Daniel Wright of Concordia University) to see three of Smith’s notebooks for myself.  These, two in the library at Queens’ College Cambridge and one in the archives at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, seemed at first to offer nothing.  I didn’t realize until later that one did in fact hold one of the clues that I was seeking.  Not all clues are of equal weight, but as it happens, this one’s a pip.

In each of the two notebooks at Queens’ College are inventories, the same except in minor wording, one written in 1561, one in 1569, in which he notes the 20 rooms at Ankerwycke, listing the contents of each.  In the first, #49, a room on the upper floor between his father’s room and the maid’s chamber is labeled “In my L. Chambre.”  In the 1569 inventory in notebook #83, page 123, a similar list is headed with the words: “In my Lorde’s Chambre.”

1561 inventory of Ankerwycke rooms, “In my L’s Chambre”

By “My Lorde” Smith must have meant de Vere, who, born “Viscount Bulbeck,” was considered a “lord” from birth.  Smith was punctilious about terminology, particularly where social distinctions were concerned, so he would never have made a mistake by called somebody a lord who was not, in fact, a lord.  Strype “supposes” that by “my Lorde” Smith meant the Duke of Somerset (170), but that’s impossible since Ankerwycke wasn’t finished until 1553, by which time Somerset was dead, nor would someone as self-righteous as Smith have wished to memorialize a master with whom he had had such profound differences.  It could not be Cecil, since from 1550 until Elizabeth’s accession Cecil kept his own household at The Parsonage at Wimbledon not far from Ankerwycke, nor did Cecil become a lord until 1571, long after Smith had drawn up these inventories.  Other than these, there is simply no lord other than de Vere who could possibly have had his own room in Smith’s home.

When we add this evidence to the phrase “brought up in my house” from the 1576 letter to Cecil, we should have enough to place Oxford with Smith for the better part of eight years, and in so doing, add to his story the riches of experience he gained as a child in a traditional country manor with all that that implies, as I’ve detailed in a number of blogs, pages, lectures, and articles.  Among many other puzzle fits, this scenario provides a reason for de Vere’s placement at Queens’ College for five months in his ninth year, Queens’ being Smith’s alma mater, and Smith needing that time to assist Cecil with preparations for Elizabeth’s accession, a hard fact for which we have more than enough evidence.

De Vere was still with Smith when the first list was written.  As for the 1569 inventory, although Oxford was no longer a member of Smith’s household, that Smith would continue to use his name for the room is seen by how he continued to call the room next to de Vere’s “my father’s chambre,” although Smith’s father died the summer of 1557.

By examining an actual document, its visual appearance can add to what its text and authorship have to tell us.  For instance, in the letter in which Smith finally turns to the issue of Oxford’s treatment of Burghley upon his return from Italy, that Smith was more emotional at the end than he was anywhere else in the letter is obvious from the condition of the paper at this point.  The pen was pressed so hard on the paper that the ink is darker here and the stroke thicker than anywhere else in the letter, so hard that the acid in the ink had eaten away the paper at that spot to a degree that it threatened to render a few of the words unintelligible.  I showed it to the librarian in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, suggesting they do something to preserve it before it crumbles completely.

Crammed like a Strasbourg goose

In writing about the education of the nobility in Oxford’s time, American historian H.J. Hexter quotes Sir Thomas Elyot on the reasons for educating the nobility, “which is to have authority in a public weal,” adding, “Sir Humphrey Gilbert has a scheme whereby gentlemen’s sons will be crammed like Strasbourg geese with knowledge and skills, the better to serve in Parliament, in council, in commission and other offices of the Commonwealth” (1979, 63-4).  That this was Sir Thomas Smith’s aim in educating the future Earl of Oxford seems beyond dispute.  It should be added that Gilbert was one of Smith’s closest friends.

When I first began my study of the authorship issues many years ago, one of the first questions that I sought to answer was, what was Oxford doing before he was placed with William Cecil?  Back then, nothing that had yet been published dealt with Oxford’s early childhood.  I began putting it together from bits and pieces gleaned from a variety of sources: things said in passing by Smith’s biographers, a note in one of Smith’s household inventories, and, as always, by comparing the recorded timing of events, chiefly those surrounding his Cambridge stay at eight and his departure for Cecil House at twelve.  Since then much more has accrued that contributes to this scenario, with nothing so far to contradict it.

Now that his childhood with Smith has been revealed, our view of Oxford as creator of the Shakespeare canon has taken on new weight.  Revealed are: 1) the fact that those areas in which Shakespeare shows an unusual level of expertise are all areas in which his tutor was deeply interested; 2) Smith’s library contains most of the books that Shakespeare relied on as source material, often in the inexact way that we do when recalling early memories; 3) in his treatises, Smith often used dialogues so he could explore arguments on both sides of an issue, a form often found in the inner debates of Shakespeare’s soliloquies as well as the general form of all drama; and 4) Smith’s “lukewarm” attitude towards religion are echoed by Shakespeare’s seeming lack of adherence to a particular branch of Christianity.

For some weeks now I’ve been preparing essays on his education based on the information I’ve been collecting over the past fifteen years or so (much of it due to Dan Wright and the 40 or so Oxfordians who contributed to the fruitful six weeks I was able to spend researching in England in 2004).  These essays are up now as pages under OXFORD, and once I get some more up on Shakespeare’s sources, you should find it interesting to compare them in some detail.  The conjecture that Oxford may have attended several semesters at Christ Church College Oxford is something that hasn’t been discussed before.  There are several other new pages as well.  Their titles should appear on your screens in color.

The Fight for the Court Stage

The Court Stage fell under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  A sort of super-butler in charge of everything “above stairs,” he was important enough to be guaranteed a seat on the Privy Council.  Elizabeth’s  first Lord Chamberlain, Lord Admiral William Howard of Effingham, an inheritance from her sister’s reign, was not only kept on but was given several lucrative posts by the grateful Queen: a close relative, he had been her staunchest protector on Mary’s Privy Council.  Later, his oldest son, Charles Howard, would play an even more significant role at Elizabeth’s Court as Lord Admiral, Privy Councillor, and patron of the company that made Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn superstars.

It was the Lord Chamberlain’s job to decide what kind of entertainment to provide for each event, great and small, daily or for grand occasions, and to make sure that they went off smoothly.  If properly used it could be a powerful political tool since it was the nearest equivalent to a Royal Public Relations office.  Such may not have been to Howard’s taste, however, for from her coronation, Elizabeth had allowed her favorite, Lord John Dudley, to have charge of it.

How much Dudley was actually involved with the entertainers, most of whom were also inherited from previous reigns, remains to be seen.  He was probably much more involved with the military aspects of his duties as Master of the Horse.  We can guage what kind of entertainments he favored while he was in charge by the bash he threw at Kennilworth in 1575 (the summer that Oxford was away in Italy)––lots of old-fashioned masking with skits where actors pretending to be spirits came out of the woods to sing or recite long dull poems to the Queen filled with lavish comparisons to goddesses along with the not so subtle suggestion that she ought to marry Leicester.

Oxford’s earliest contributions to Court entertainment most likely consisted of musical numbers and interludes, brief comic turns that led one song or dance to the next for the various children’s companies to perform on holidays.  These, the Children of the Windsor Chapel, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and Paul’s Boys, were the Queen’s favorite performers.  Each little troop consisted of eight to twelve boys whose chief job during Catholic times had been to sing the Royal Mass, but who were also taught by their masters to dance and enact “dumb shows” (pantomimes) and comic “interludes” for special occasions.  Both the London prep schools performed plays as well, sometimes for the Court.

Enter the Earl of Sussex

But Leicester’s (Dudley’s) control of the Court Stage was threatened when the Earl of Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain.  History ignores this, as it ignores most of Stage history, but we can be certain that Sussex was determined to return jurisdiction over the Court Stage to his office, that of Lord Chamberlain, where it belonged by long tradition.  Leicester and Sussex had hated each other for years, and neither was going to let the other have any more power than he could help.  As noted by McMillin and Maclean: “What happened to Leicester’s Men after 1574, when they would seem to have had the future in their hands, is one of the mysteries of theater history.  Leicester’s Men lost their dominance at Court during the middle 1570s. . . .” (15).  I hope to take a close look at some point at the probable scenario behind this mystery.

In any case, to facilitate his effort to resume the office that was his by tradition, I believe that Sussex invited Oxford, well known to him from the 1569 war with the border earls, to expand his contributions to Court entertainment to include full scale plays and probably also concerts, dances, and poetry readings.  As a result, 1573-79 was certainly Oxford’s heyday at Court.  By 1579 he would have been writing for both the boys and for the adult actors who in five years would be heading the Queen’s Men.  They were termed Leicester’s Men in the record books, but in reality at this early time they were simply the actors who provided most of the adult entertainment at Court.

Literary historians have been limited by their adherence to the names of acting companies, derived from their patrons.  To see the reality it’s necessary, whenever possible, to look past the names to the individual actors, particularly the lead actors, their patrons, and the always changing circumstances.  The continual focus on the company names by historians has caused no end of confusion.  History is made by individuals, not names.

Enter Walsingham

In 1581, shortly after the winter holiday season, the Queen banished Oxford from her “Presence” for getting her Maid of Honor pregnant and (not least) attempting to escape to Spain.  This left no one to write the witty holiday plays that she had come to expect.  The various children’s companies, some from local schools, filled in that December with old plays and material by their masters––Gurr calls it “the quiet season of 1581-82” (Companies 175)––but everyone involved in Court entertainment knew something had to be done to improve the situation before the next holiday season rolled around.  Since that was about the time that Sussex began to fail, Walsingham, the Queen’s Principal Secretary, may have already have begun to consider a solution.

Walsingham was living at that time at The Papey, a manor just inside the Bishopsgate Wall and just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly on the other side of the City Wall.  Plans to create a Crown company, the Queen’s Men, came to light early in 1583, but, like most things, they would have originated earlier, possibly from conversations between  Oxford and Walsingham at The Papey, at Fisher’s Folly, or even at The Pye, the inn that lay between the two houses.

This was the period when Walsingham was beginning to get special funding for the anti-papist campaign he and Burghley were urging on the Queen and Parliament.  New funds would have enabled him to privide Oxford with money to hire secretaries and apprentices.  This would explain why these writers, later known to literary history as “the University Wits,” dedicated their works to Francis Walsingham, calling him their Maecenas, a traditional term for a patron.  From the Wits at the Folly Walsingham hoped would come plays both for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen, and for the Queen’s Men to take on the road as a public relations maneuver, winning hearts and minds in advance of the attack from Catholic Spain that he knew was coming (McMillin).

With fears of the newborn commercial theaters rising among Church and City officials, with the excitement surging through the acting community from the power this was giving them, Walsingham may have feared that he was about to ride the whirlwind.  A nervous man, in constant pain from an ulcer or other painful condition, his need to keep everything as hidden as possible has also hidden the courage with which, much like Churchill three centuries later, he faced one of England’s most crucial showdowns with Continental power.

Why was it so hard to protect the newborn commercial stage?  Why such need for secrecy?  Read on.

Who Wrote What?

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

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

Why so much hiding of identities?

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

How can we be certain that an identification is correct?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Authorship scenario: connecting the dots

How does one go about creating a fact-based scenario when we have so few dependable facts?  How do we “connect the dots” when the dots are so few and far between?

Coincidence?  Naaah!

A coincidence of dates is the clue that what may appear on the surface to be a coincidence is really evidence that the events in question are connected at other points that may be hidden from view.  Of course there are coincidences in life, but where there are so many anomalies, when matching dates suggest a connection, to assign such a connection to “coincidence” should be the solution of last resort.  To name but three out of scores of such “coincidences” that pepper the pages of the authorship coverup scenario:

  • 1576: Oxford’s return from Italy and the opening of both of London’s first successful commercial theaters: Burbage’s in time for the outdoor summer season, Blackfriars in time for the winter holidays . When we see that the opening of both of these theaters within the same time period, both starting within days or weeks of Oxford’s return, an event of immense importance to the history of both the Theater, the Media, and even Democracy, took place shortly after Oxford’s arrival home from Italy, home of Ariosto, Plautus, Terence, and the Comedia dell’Arte, we must conclude: of course Oxford was involved!  We can argue about in what way or to what extent, but that he was crucial in some way to the opening of these theaters is simply too obvious to ignore.
  • 1592-3: The death of Robert Greene, September 1592, and the advent of William Shakespeare on the dedication page of Venus and Adonis (May 1593). When we see that the name “Shakespeare” first appeared on a published work eight months after the purported demise of Robert Greene, whose later works so closely resemble early Shakespeare that, as Greene’s leading chroniclers all admit, they seem to have been written by the same hand, it suggests that, for various reasons, some of which become obvious once we fill in the historical background, the same author simply stopped using one name and began using another. 
  • 1623: The death of Anne (Hathaway) Shakespeare and the publication of the First Folio: When we see that after after waiting almost a decade following the death of William of Stratford, the collected works that it had taken so long to get published came out within weeks of her death, it suggests that for some reason the publishers did not want to publicize the connection between the works of Shakespeare and William of Stratford until both he and his wife were gone. 

The entire history of the period is chock full of such coincidences.  All it takes is looking for them.  It is within the structure of dates like these that the expanded “theory of Authorship” (i.e., that hiding one’s identity behind that of a standin was a common practice among Court writers and not limited to Oxford-Shakespeare) has been constructed.  But such a structure requires substantiation from other unconnected sources.  These are of many types, but there are a few standard places to look for them.

Unities of place: Where?

If two Elizabethans resided within a few doors of each other at the same time for a certain length of time, or if their families came from the same village, or if they went to one of the universities for two or more years during the same time, were members of the Court community during the same period, resided in a foreign city during the same time period, and so forth, we can take it for granted that they knew each other.  16th century London was not 20th century New York City or London.  It was more like 21st-century Peoria, Illinois. 

Unities of relationship: Who?

The Court community consisted of roughly 200 souls altogether.  The peerage that began with 60 at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign was down to 25 by her death.  The universities were much smaller than they are today, somewhere around 1,000 students plus faculty, about the size of a medium-sized high school, one with about 250 students in each grade, freshman to senior.  Those who have attended such a high school know that by the third or fourth year, everyone knows just about everyone else, if not personally, at least by name and face.

However, though such connections make it more than likely that individuals knew each other,it does not guarantee that they were close.  All too often claims are made by scholars that one writer was friends with another based solely on the fact that the one spoke well of  the other in a publication.  To assume actual friendship, more is required.

Similarly, if two Elizabethans were related through family or marriage, it makes sense that they knew each other, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that they got along or that they shared the same religious beliefs or political goals. Within the various communities of Elizabethans, almost everyone was related to some degree with everyone else.  “Go far enough back and we’re all related to Adam”––but one doesn’t have to go back more than one or two generations in the English peerage and gentry of the 16th century to find a connection between just about everyone of rank.  

Dating the plays: How?

As most readers are probably aware, we have no firm dates for any of the plays.  The dates assigned by academics and routinely passed along by writers who haven’t studied the history of the period are nothing more than guesses based primarily on dates of publication, guesses for the most part made by E.K. Chambers back in the early 20th century.  Limited by the lateness of the Stratford bio and hampered by acceptance of the idea that because Shakespeare was writing for money he wrote the plays more or less as they appear in the First Folio, when compared with the evidence from other sources, it becomes obvious that these commonly accepted dates are simply far too late, at least as dates of original composition.  Lacking dates, other methods must be used.  Here are some that haven’t often been considered:

If the central plot derives from a romance tale it must have been created originally before the mid to late 1580s when such plots went out of style.

If it deals largely with philosophical or ethical questions, jurisprudence, points of legal interest, Greek or Roman history, wars, or uses a fair amount of legal metaphors, examples from Latin texts, Latin quotes, etc., it was probably written originally for the Inns of Court audience of the West End.

If it’s a comedy that turns on witty conversations, puns, references to ancient rites of holiday merry-making, Greenwood rituals, forest adventures, fairies, elves, disguising or gender confusion, if it contains obvious openings for songs, dances, and feasting, we can be certain it was originally written for the Court community for Christmas, Twelfth Night, Shrovetide, Whitsuntide, May Day, Midsummer’s Eve, or for a wedding, many of which took place during one of these holiday intervals. 

If it’s rich with classical references it was probably written either for the Court or for the Inns of Court (West End) audiences.  If it’s rather sparce with these but contains a good deal of farce material, it was probably written originally in the 1580s for the Queen’s Men.  (Probably the only totally new play after 1594 was King Lear, and even this was largely based on an earlier drama written for the Queen’s Men.)

Oxford’s life story as a dating device

One of the major reasons for the hiding of the Shakespeare authorship is how closely some of the plays reflect Oxford’s life and the lives of his associates.  Since he wasn’t writing as a professional would, for money to pay the rent, his purposes in writing a particular play at a particular time must be connected to events and issues in his own life plus events and issues in the life of his community that one or more of his three audiences––Court, West End, and public––could relate to. 

This is complicated  by his revision of many of his old plays at least once during the 1590s when he was more or less compelled to provide the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with public entertainment, and the likelihood that he revised some of them more than once.  This means that topical references from one period can be layered with references from another period, requiring an almost geological approach to the literary forensics involved in dating a particular play.

For instance, in plays other than the history or Roman plays, if there’s nothing in any plot or sub-plot that includes a situation reminiscent of Oxford’s breakup with his first wife, Anne Cecil, an original version may (or may not) be dated to before 1576, examples being A Comedy of Errors or Titus Andronicus.  Where such a reference is essential to the central plot it was probably first written after 1576, examples being Cymbeline: Proteus’s suspicion of Imogen; or Alls Well that Ends Well: Bertram’s mistreatment of Helena. (Naturally this is of no use when dating either the history plays or the wedding plays where it wouldn’t be appropriate to deal with really serious issues.)

Plays that reflect Shakespeare’s style but that academics refuse to consider as his due to their demonstrably early dates, particularly those they have labelled his “sources,” can be dated using the same rubrics plus a knowledge of the peculiarities of his early style.  Certain aspects of his style can be found in everything he wrote during his pre-Shakespeare period. If there are none of these, it’s a sure sign that the play was not one of his.

Shakespeare’s style

There is a style––perhaps better termed a “voice,” since his style kept evolving––that simply sounds like him.  It may be possible to dissect this style through stylometrics or other word studies, but I’m beginning to doubt it.  He experimented so with style, with meter, syntax, and vocabulary, coining words when he needed one that standard English didn’t provide (some he used only once), that to track him as one would an animal by the shape of his hoofprints simply doesn’t work. No animal changes the shape of its hoofprints. Even within the Shakespeare period, though his style is somewhat more jelled, there is still a wide variation, not only from early to late, but from genre to genre.

Voice is the best term, the best metaphor.  People’s faces change as they age, their bodies change shape, their hair changes color (sometimes it vanishes), but unless they get very sick or age suddenly, their voices remain the same, each as unique to them as their fingerprints.  How can we dissect a voice?  It can’t be located in vocabulary or tone, it’s something apart from these, subtler, greater, more complex, yet more direct.  I was so pleased when Amy Freed, author of the The Beard of Avon, in responding to the question, what was it about the Authorship Question that interested her, said something to the effect that it was the voice of Shakespeare that fascinated her, and that she wanted to find out all she could about where it came from.

Since voice is pretty much undefinable, we’re stuck with his style. What we call Shakespeare’s style is simply the final stage in a life-long development that began in the 1560s with the “galloping” fourteeners of Golding’s Ovid (The Metamorphoses); then moved through a decade focused chiefly on the Greek Romance or pastoral style.  In the ’70s, this morphed into a developing enthusiasm for the tropes that came to be termed euphuism, a name derived from his Euphues novels (attributed to his secretary John Lyly).  It was this style that he passed along to Marlowe in the mid-1580s. 

Tiring of euphuism, which he then took great pleasure in satirizing, he began moving towards the style we know as Shakespeare.  All throughout at times he would try different approaches, taking on a pseudo classic Roman style for Julius Caesar, taking personal biography to its limit with Hamlet, settling for something close to modern existentialism with Sonnet 130 and Measure for Measure, and finally ending with the Wagnerian impressionism of Lear.

What are the signs of Shakespeare in the early unattributed works?

  • gender reversals
  • characters who fall in love at first sight
  • buddy love
  • inordinate praise of a heroic protagonist by several other characters
  • women who can be won with little more than an invitation
  • witty servants and women
  • servants who speak in iambic pentameter
  • servants and women who decorate their speech with Latin mottos
  • disguised or switched identities causing characters not to recognize each other
  • characters who switch identities with servants or friends
  • ghosts or other supernatural occurances
  • a plot that hinges on an act of betrayal
  • witty exchanges  in the form of rhyming couplets
  • exit speeches or otherwise important speeches that end with a rhyming couplet

A play that has more than one or two of these is likely to be an early Shakespeare play.  Plays by other playwrights may have some of these, but never as many.