Tag Archives: theater history

Alan Nelson and the Howard/Arundel libels

Among the things that block our path to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, the most difficult to overcome has been the damning portrait of Oxford created by Lord Henry Howard and his cousin Charles Arundel in their desperate effort to evade the hangman. At the launch of the 1580-’81 winter holiday season, Oxford, at his peak as Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, had gone down on his knee before her and a panoply of England’s nobility and officialdom, to ask forgiveness for having gotten involved in their plot to overthrow the Crown. Taken by surprise, it seems the Queen had all three detained. Letting Oxford go the following day, she had Howard placed under house arrest with Christopher Hatton for four months, and Arundel in the Tower, where it seems he remained a good deal longer.

We know this from letters written home by the French and Spanish ambassadors; from questions Oxford gave Thomas Norton so he could question the accused pair; their statements in defense, commonly referred to as “libels”; and a mention here and there as a news item in other letters. The French ambassador waited some two or three weeks before writing about it to his King, doubtless because Oxford had implicated him as well, so he may have been waiting until he could be certain what was going to happen to himself. (Nothing, as it turned out, since it was Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, who was most guilty of conspiring).

The statements that Howard, Arundel (and a third conspirator, Francis Southwell) produced in their defense were labelled “libels” right from the start, since they consisted of little more than an all-out attack on Oxford’s character. Their strategy, it would seem, was less to attempt to prove their innocence than to portray their accusor as a fiend whose sole purpose in life was to do as much damage as he could to his innocent friends whose every living thought was for the Queen’s welfare, yadda, yadda, yadda. The first question at this point should not be what if anything in these libels was the truth, it’s why the Academy has chosen to believe these traitors and not the historical record.

According to history, neither the Queen nor any of the officials involved believed Howard and Arundel since Oxford continued to live in freedom while they remained under lock and key. According to history, Henry Howard was certainly guilty as charged, since Walsingham, having devoted the following three years to tracking down sufficient evidence to indict him, had him arrested on November 4, 1583, along with Francis Throgmorton, for their part in what would come to be called “the great treason.” Also according to history, as soon as Charles Arundel heard that Howard and Throgmorton had been arrested, he fled to the Continent, where he published the libel known as Leicester’s Commonwealth. (He’s also thought to be the author of an earlier libel against the Queen and her ministers, Le Innocence de la Tres Illustre Royne.)

So how is it that at the turn of the 21st century English Prof. Alan Nelson of UC Berkeley had no trouble in finding a publisher for his so-called “biography” of the Earl of Oxford, in which he casts every incident in Oxford’s life in the mold provided by these two miscreants?  Titling it Monstrous Adversary, a phrase from one of Arundel’s libels, Nelson, it seems, is so bemused by his anti-Oxford animus that he doesn’t realize that he’s chosen to follow two of the worst individuals in Elizabethan history, both subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of treason!

“The evil that men do lives after them . . .”

Nelson, however, is only the most recent of a long stream of academics who have played fast and loose with Oxford’s reputation. Forty years earlier, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, historian Lawrence Stone labelled him and the rest of Burghley’s wards as an “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites,” and Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all” (6, 172). Yet by the time Stone got hold of it, Oxford’s name had long been in disrepute. Never mind that he was Elizabeth’s Lord Great Chamberlain; that he was one of her enduring favorites; that dozens of important books were dedicated to him; that he was patron to top acting companies over the course of 30 years; that he published one of the most important works of the European Renaissace, Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier; that he was praised by a string of respectable contemporary commentators; that many of these praises came from foreigners whom he met on his trip to Italy, famous scholars like Johan Sturm and princes like Henri III of France. Nothing to his discredit was ever recorded from his visits to foreign shores.

Yet every English historian, biographer, journalist or novelist who ever had cause to mention him in passing has felt it compulsory to connect his name with a pejorative, as in “the notorious Earl of Oxford.” “Profligate,” “obnoxious,” “violent,” “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable,” are only a few. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace in 1912, he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read in 1960 he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse in 1964 he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel.”

Oxford got off to a bad start with historians during his early days at Court, leaving a record of fights and feuds with his fellow courtiers (no murders, though he was badly wounded in one brawl). After returning from Italy, having gone undercover to create the London Stage and the commercial press, because he did (almost) nothing that got recorded, there was (almost) nothing in the record to counter the effect of his early antics. Then of course there were his in-laws, the Cecils, whose control of the record for some 50 years meant that only those letters and other documents that reflected well on themselves (or badly on others) were retained, a paper trail that historians ever since have been forced to follow if: 1) they were to do research at Hatfield House, and 2) if they were to get published.

Even so, much of the problem is Oxford’s own fault, for it seems he was a past master at making enemies. If, as we believe, it was he who lampooned Leceister as Robert Shallow in Merry Wives, Philip Sidney as Master Slender, Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Lord Cobham (and his son) as Falstaff, William Cecil as Polonious in Hamlet, or Robert Cecil as Richard III, there was even more cause to hate him (and for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to hide his identity). If Oxford was Shakespeare then he was a genius, and as history and their biographies attest, dealing with a genius is never easy.

But nothing has caused him the kind of damage that Howard and Arundel did with their libels, a long, slow-acting revenge, one that lay dormant for centuries in the disorganized CSP (Calendar of State Papers) until Looney proposed him as the most qualified candidate yet for the tarnished Shakespeare crown, forcing the Academy to assemble a counterattack to protect the sacred biography and dating system, and prevent the loss of centuries of accumulated suppositions based on the life of William of Stratford.

As for Henry Howard

By the time Oxford went down on his knee to the Queen and company, Howard was already known as a dangerous intriguer.  Incarcerated in 1571 during the investigation into the Duke of Norfolks’s treasonable plan to marry the Queen of Scots, for which the unfortunate Duke was beheaded, Howard, though later released, was never freed from the suspicion that it was he who had gotten his brother involved.  In 1595, Anne Bacon warned her son Anthony, “Beware in any wise of the Lord H! He is a dangerous intelligencing man . . . and lieth in wait. . . . The Duke had been alive but by his practising and double undoing” (Dumaurier Lads 109-10). In fact, that Oxford had welcomed them into his coterie was probably an act of altruism.

What would continue to save Howard from permanent incarceration was probably the fact that he was so closely related to so many peers and highly-placed officials. During this early period his intrigues were aimed at assisting the continental catholics in their efforts to get a catholic on the throne so they could return to England and he and his relatives could return to the Howards’ former commanding position at Court. Years later, after his conniving had paid off with high office and titles under King James, he continued to foster intrigues, though the plight of his fellow catholics had become less important to him by then than weaseling his way as deeply as possible into the upper tier of Court officialdom.

“The end crowns all”

Howard’s final turn on the stage of history came in the second decade of the 17th century when his niece Frances (Fanny) Howard created the major scandal of James’s reign. Having encouraged her in her efforts to seduce Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, when Carr’s secretary, Sir Thomas Overbury, got in the way, Lord Harry persuaded the King to get rid of Overbury by sending him on an extended embassy to Russia. When the foolish secretary refused, the King had him incarcerated in the Tower. (Overbury was being difficult because he was in love with Carr. The entire upper tier of the Court at that time was gay, the King was gay, Carr, his official favorite, was mostly gay, Carr’s secretary, Overbury, was gay, and Howard, by then Earl of Northampton, was gay.)

When at a crucial moment in this gruesome tale the unhappy Overbury died in prison, supposedly of an overdose of poisoned tarts, someone squealed, and the wheels of the Law began to turn, inexorably moving ever closer to Fanny, now Countess of Somerset, and her hapless husband. Having been given a royal wedding by the King the following December, the couple were eventually indicted two years later, and though spared execution, they spent the rest of their lives either in the Tower or under permanent house arrest in the country.

As David Lindley shows in his excellent book on the subject, The Trials of Frances Howard (1993/96), it’s clear that the ultimate decision was reached through a plea bargain that saved the lives, if not the reputations, of those involved. Largely because of her mother’s involvement in the scheme (the reprehensible Catherine Knyvett), she and Fanny’s father, Lord Treasurer Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk, were disgraced as well. At least one benefit to literature came from this scandal, Carr’s fall opened his office of Lord Chamberlain to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, giving him, and his brother the Earl of Montgomery, control of the London Stage for the next two decades.

Although the documents generated by this long drawn-out court case prove that Howard was guilty of masterminding this bedroom coup through his power over his niece (as seen by the disgustingly salacious nature of his letters, read aloud in court for all to hear), that it was he, not Fanny, who sent the poisoned tarts was never pursued because Howard had taken the truth with him when, ever so conveniently, he died before the questioning began. As for poor Fanny, it may be that she would have been better off had she gone through with the trial. Having fallen from her status as her nation’s bejeweled princess to its most reviled and detested criminal, called every dirty name in the book, locked away in the country, she died utterly without friends including the husband who blamed her for his disgrace. (The only thing ever written in her defense, then or later, IMHO, was John Webster’s The White Devil.)

Back to the “great treason”

Shortly after Oxford’s revelation in December of 1580, Walsingham began to focus on the household of the French Ambassador, Mauvissiere.  With clues painstakingly gathered by means of spies in the ambassador’s household, it took three years of patient fishing before he got the evidence he needed to arrest Francis Throgmorton, Mary Queen of Scot’s contact, and Henry Howard, Throgmorton’s accomplice. Throgmorton withstood a racking, but when threatened with a second, came across with the information that Walsingham so desperately needed if he was to convince the Queen that there was a real danger that had to be faced, and overseas agents to be paid for.

From Throgmorton Walsingham learned that the plot in question was the creation of the great French grandee, the Duc de Guise, who, in concert with the Pope and the King of Spain, was planning an all-out attack on the English mainland.  According to Throgmorton, the French army was to invade England from Scotland at the same time that the Spanish navy struck at its southern coast.  As the two armies marched towards London they would gather with them the hordes of English catholics that, in their imaginations, were eager to replace Elizabeth and her ministers with the Queen of Scots and those they were promising to give a place at Court.  (Hutchinson 1o5).

In tracing the links that finally led the Queen’s Secretary of State to Howard and Throgmorton and “the great treason,” neither of Walsingham’s biographers, Conyers Read (1925) nor Robert Hutchinson (2007) mention Oxford, but it should be obvious that it was Oxford’s public “confession” that led Walsingham first to Mauvissiere’s household, then to Howard and Arundel’s involvement, then to the Spanish Ambassador, who was given his walking papers in 1584. England would not have another Spanish ambassador until 1607, when James signed a treaty with Spain.

That “monstrous adversary”

In examining the libels, available on Nelson’s site in the original spelling and on Nina Green’s Oxford-Shakespeare.com in modern spelling, most would seem pretty tame to us today. Bored, restless, angry at the Queen for trusting Hatton with duties for which he felt he was more qualified, drinking more than was wise, Oxford may have exaggerated the glories of Italy and lied about what he had really been up to on his trip to the Continent in 1574. He probably bad-mouthed the Earl of Leicester, whom he had reason to hate, and may well have made some outragous comments about some aspects of the Bible, but that he would share with Howard and Arundel plans to murder almost every leading courtier is absurd: obviously none were murdered, or even attacked, nor, so far as we know, did any Court figure ever confirm any of Howard’s accusations.

However serious these charges may have seemed at the time, none of them would strike anyone today as anything close to the venality of Howard and Arundel’s complicity with England’s enemies. But there is one charge that, while not taken any more seriously at that time than any of the others, would swell in years to come until it may be what has cost Oxford his reputation for so long, if not (as we hope) forever. This is the charge that he had “polluted” some of his young pages.

Oxford the homosexual

Among the pejoratives attached to Oxford’s name over the centuries, homosexual has been by far the most damaging, not because there’s any more substantiation for it than for any of the other charges, or that it was seen then as anything but yet another slander, or that it was true, but because of how a puritanized English society came to see it later, when homosexuality had become the foulest of crimes as well as a sin, and all that it took to condemn a man as a homosexual was for someone to accuse him.

Throughout the preceding centuries, sex between men (oficially a crime only since 1535), was almost totally ignored in Elizabeth’s time. In fact it could be said that there were no homosexuals then because the word homosexual, along with the concept that men who have sex with other men are a race apart, would not appear until the late 18th century (Bruce R. Smith, 1990).  Until then the term used was sodomite, which simply referred to anal sex, whether male-male or male-female, forbidden since biblical times, less perhaps for any moral reason than because it violated the ancient nostrum: “be fruitful and multiply.” (Primitive cultures are apt to allow male-male sex as a means of regulating population size since too many births could overwhelm the food supply.)

Until the 18th century, men who preferred to have sex with each other were no more scorned than men who spent too much time and energy having sex with women. It was the kind of sex that was the issue, not the kind of partner. During the reign of Elizabeth the only men on the record as indicted for sodomy were accused of abusing boys, but this was less because it was a disgusting violation of morals than because it was a cruel misuse of power, similar to beating a boy to death for misbehavior or not doing his homework. Sex between adult males was not an issue then, or at least, not what it would become later. As Jeremy Bentham noted during the most rabid period of English homophobia, if sex between men was in fact a crime (which he doubted) it was the only one that caused no one any harm.

That tone of hysteria

In reading whatever I could find from and about the Early Modern Stage, there was something about the documents in Volume IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage: “Documents of Criticism,” that had a certain tone with which I was strangely familiar. After awhile it came to me: it was the same hysterical tone we hear today in condemnations of homosexuality by evangelical preachers and politicians.  And it was the same tone used in the mid-to-late 16th century by preachers and city officials with regard to the bawdiness of plays and their reasons for banning them from London.

It was not until I saw a connection between other aspects of that period that the reason for this began to appear. This was the same general period when: 1) Calvinism took hold as the ruling aspect of the Elizabethan Reformation, spreading until it led to the Civil War and twenty years of Cromwellian puritanism in the 17th century, and 2) it saw the spread of the “great pox,” what we now call syphilis.  This was no coincidence!  This was cause and effect!

The ultimate in STDs, horrific in its effects if left untreated and without any truly effective cure (until the invention of the microscope and the discovery of penicillin), since it was first reported in Naples in 1495, syphilis had been spreading among the more sexually-active members of the population long enough that its horrific effects on partners and their children was known and feared by the time Calvinism began taking root, gradually spreading to affect the attitudes and tone of what was on its way to becoming the Church of England. To John Calvin and his followers, all sex was sin, and, as products of Original Sin, all humans were headed for the permanent and unremitting torments of hell unless they banned sex from their lives and thoughts (excepting only what was absolutely necessary to maintain the human race).

Of course there was a connection between the spread of this grim religion, with its emphasis on the evils of sex, the horrors of hell, and the hellish horrors of this incurable disease.  This explains a great many things about the history of that period and many things also about our own time and the unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women, and homosexuals that continue to haunt the still essentially puritanical nature of the dominant American culture (remember who first stepped off the Mayflower with what religion in 1620).  Why the original fear of sex should have shifted to gay men towards the latter half of the 18th century, culminating in the homophobia of the latter half of the following century, must have something to do with the tendency of humans to let the majority off the hook by turning some hapless minority into scapegoats.

The pillory

Louis Crompton, one of the first of late 20th-century scholars to confront the Academy with its particularly insidious brand of homophobia (the all-male universities throughout the ages were almost as inclined to “inversion” as were the priests and monks of the Catholic Church), tells the story in his introduction to Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985). When the wave of liberalism that swept Europe in the late 18th century decriminalized same-sex relations throughout Europe, England gave it a pass, entering instead upon the cruelest period of homophobia ever known in the West.

Most readers know what happened to Oscar Wilde, the wittiest, most successful playwright of his day, who, accused by his boyfriend’s father of a sodomitical lifestyle, was robbed of his name, his career, his family, his liberty, and really his very life. Few however are aware today of the extremes of cruelty to which this anti-sex hysteria drove, not just the handful of lawyers, jurors, and journalists who saw to Wilde’s destruction, but the nation that followed it with slavering excitement in the news media. For roughly 50 years, men accused of having sex with other men were subjected to the most horrifying mistreatment. The excitement felt by people who believed that God hated sex (as they contemplated with sick enthusiasm thoughts of men having sex with each other) had become a psychological disease. There was a political aspect to this as well. Since some of the most capable politicians and businessmen were gay, this pogrom helped to eliminate them as competitors for positions of authority and power. (Still to this day a politician who craves to rise knows that he’ll do better with a wife and children by his side.)

Threatened with imprisonment by the slightest accusation, tried by hanging judges, those who escaped the rope were subjected to the pillory. Rendered helpless by this inhuman device, their head held fast in one hole, their hands in another, forced to stand for hours in the most public of locations, they would be subjected to the hysteria of crowds that could number in the tens of thousands, who, screaming abuse, were allowed to pelt them with rotten vegetables, mudballs, dead animals, even stones and bricks, for hours on end. Those who survived were often maimed for life. Some, like Byron, seeing themselves in danger of arrest, fled to live abroad in permanent exile. Others, fearing discovery, committed suicide. Nor was this for any actual act; since that of course was difficult to discover (since photography had not yet been invented) new laws were created that enabled the police to arrest and arraign men for “attempting to commit sodomy”!

Scapegoats

The barbaric nature of this punishment is remindful of the stone age ritual whereby primitive communities rid themselves of collective evils, burning, drowning, or stoning to death a member of the community as a scapegoat. Frazer in The Golden Bough describes these rituals as he found them described in ancient Greek documents:

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, . . . At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments . . . and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then . . . stoned to death by the people outside of the walls.   The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats.

The word scapegoat shows how over time this ritual had been transferred from a human to an animal, goats perhaps because they are apt to be michievous and self-willed. Draped with objects symbolic of wickedness, the poor creature would be stoned by the community until it was driven out of the village and into the inhospitable wilderness.

Yet use of a human scapegoat has never been completely eradicated or shifted to a domestic animal, for it continues to errupt again wherever tensions get intense enough and humanitarian controls have weakened, the only difference being the nature of the chosen outcasts, whether witches for causing droughts, plagues, and the deaths or diseases of neighbors or domestic animals; catholics by protestants or protestants by catholics for heresy; communists and terrorists for anarchy; southern American blacks for speaking out in their own defence, and Jews and gypsies for almost anything. And still today in rural areas of the middle east, the law allows men and women accused of committing adultery to be stoned to death by their neighbors.   That 19th-century England found it useful to relieve public tension by giving mobs the opportunity to exorcise their frustrations by stoning one or two helpless men, sometimes to death, every year for a good half-century, is but one instance in the long history of these orgies of public violence.

“The love that dares not speak its name”

So potent was the hate generated by this prejudice in the 19th century, so dangerous was it even to discuss it, that no one dared to protest it for fear they too would get sucked into providing the Establishment with yet another scapegoat. So shameful had male-male sex become that it was shameful even to mention it. The DNB, launched in 1885, avoided any mention of the part sex played in the lives of their subjects; that someone “never married” was as far as it would go.   Men became afraid to show each other affection, or even to touch each other in public. The  handshake took the place of hugs, roughhousing, or anything that could be construed by a prurient public, themselves starved for affection, from “getting the wrong idea.” Boys were starved of love, sent off by age six or seven to be raised by strangers at boarding schools, where, sadly, they were far more vulnerable to molestation than they would have been at home.

Crompton attributes this to religion, which is certainly partly true, though it does not explain why France and the rest of Europe did not exhibit the same reaction (they chose instead to persecute women for witchcraft). Bentham, seeking an explanation, notes that it seems to have had something to do with protestantism, but he doesn’t go far enough. Protestantism yes, but one form in particular––Calvinism.

Calvin, syphilis, and original sin

As a reaction against the corruption of the Church of Rome, Luther’s Reformation lashed out at the corruption of its supposedly celibate prelates, but that was only one aspect of a far more complicated campaign to gain for the northern states control of its lands and wealth, along with a great nostalgia for the simplicity and purity (they imagined) of the early Christian Church.  During the reign of Mary Tudor, when so many of the protestants who had overseen the Reformation under her brother Edward fled to Germany and Switzerland, when they returned under Elizabeth, they formed a party that influenced the nature of the English Protestant Church. Embracing the severities and rigors prescribed by John Calvin, governor of Geneva, they formed a block in the Parliament and on Elizabeth’s Privy Council passionately devoted to the kind of reforms promoted by Calvin.

So harsh was the Calvinism promoted by the returned exiles, that it begs the question why were so many attracted to his message?  The answer surely lies in the increasing awareness of the effects of “the Great Pox,” syphilis.  One of the most insidious diseases ever to wreak its horrors on the human race, by Elizabeth’s advent the English had had plenty of time to understand all too well that it was spread through sexual intercourse, and to recognize the horrific effects this could have on its victims and their mates and subsequent children.  At a time when every major phenomenon was seen as an act of God, how else was this to be interpreted in any way other than as His punishment for their sexuality?

“The cause of plagues is sin and the cause of sin are plays.”

When Oxford, Sussex, and James Burbage set about to create public stages in London, they found themselves up against a wall of repression. The ruling parties in London disliked the advent of the public theaters in 1576 for different reasons: the officials were afraid of contagion from the plague and other diseases, while the preachers were afraid of God’s wrath, afraid that people who had enjoyed themselves at the theater might forget for the moment that having sex would lead them to the fiery furnace. (There was also the likelihood that too many would rather be at the theater than at church).

Here then was the explanation for the hysterical tone of outraged condemnation in the fulminations of the Elizabethan preachers and City officials as they demanded that the theaters be “plucked down.” While the officials dwelt primarily on the dangers of public infection, the preachers believed that the real problem was the sexy nature of the plots, the suggestive postures of the actors, and the fact that men and women could sit next to each other in the audience.  In their view, the door to the theater was the pathway to perdition.  In November 1577, one Thomas White, from the Church’s outdoor pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, brayed forth a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:

the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin . . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays! (Chambers 4.197)

The almost 200 pages that Chambers devotes to “Documents of Criticism” attest to the intensity of this campaign to eradicate the theaters and the sneering disregard of officials for actors and anyone involved in producing plays.  Clearly, anyone who had something to lose would have wished to keep his (or her) involvement with the public stage as quiet as possible.

Shakespeare and history

Shakespeare’s name did not reach public awareness until five years before the end of Elizabeth’s forty-year reign, but it only became famous after 1610 when his company, by then known as the King’s Men, was allowed to use their great indoor theater in the Blackfriars complex.  With King James as their patron and Queen Anne as their greatest fan, their reputation, and the reputation of their playwright, soared. However, as time went by, enthusiasm for plays diminished under Charles I.  His wife, Queen Henrietta, raised in Paris, preferred the lavish masques then popular in France.  It was largely her overspending that led to the Civil War that closed all the theaters for twenty years, after which new audiences under Charles II saw Shakespeare as old hat.

Shakespeare’s reputation continued to diminish until the 18th century when a new respect was cultivated by the next wave of brilliant poets and scholars: Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Edmond Malone. But it was not until the turn of the 19th century that a new set of actors brought a new style of acting to the public stage and the public took to “the Bard” in numbers not seen since the early 17th century.  Awakened by poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Shakespeare’s genius, as his name approached the level of national icon, interest in his identity ground to a halt when Sir Edmond Malone published the Sonnets as originally written.

With the bowdlerized pronoun returned to the original “he,” horror struck the Establishment: the great Shakespeare was a homosexual!  With homophobia on the increase, all interest in uncovering the truth about the authorship withered away and the Academy bound the Stratford biography to itself with hoops of steel.  Better an illiterate peasant than a filthy sodomite!

Nor had attitudes improved by 1920 when Looney introduced Oxford as a potential candidate. Although the last sodomite had been hanged in 1835, other forms of repression continued. Still in effect were any number of anti-gay laws; it was still possible to ruin a man’s reputation and career merely by accusing him. Sex-hatred was on the rise again, to peak in the 1950s. (Consider what was done to Alan Turing, the hero of British Intelligence who helped bring World War II to an end). Already in bad with the historians, Oxford’s threat to the sacred Stratford dating scheme set him up as ripe for posthumous scapegoating.

Shakespeare scholars, aware for at least a century of Oxford’s involvement in the early years of the London Stage as a patron and a playwright (“best for comedy”), not only did not dare to promote him, they were constrained to revile him! That’s where academics like Stone and Nelson acquired that hysterical tone in their comments on Oxford! The same tone heard in the sermons by the bishops lambasting the plays and actors in 16th century London! It’s the language of sex-hatred! The language of the Calvinist Reformation: sex as “filth”!  Sex as “pollution”!  No amount of evidence of a great education, of a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, a scientist’s knowledge of science, a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, could hold out against the horrors of being called a homosexual!

“A wounded name”

It’s because of Howard’s accusations, not those that accuse Oxford of telling lies, of getting drunk, of “polluting” all the noblewomen in England, of bad-mouthing the Queen, it’s his accusation that Oxford forced himself on his pages that continues to deny the Earl of Oxford his true place in history!  While to Stone he was only a violent wastrel, Nelson has swallowed Howard and Arundel’s charge of pederasty hook, line and stinker!  Letting no opportunity pass to stick on more tar and feathers, he ignores Oxford’s stated reason for bringing the teenaged singer, Orazio Cogno, back with him from Italy­­––because he knew the boy’s superb singing voice would please the Queen––Nelson must needs interpret this in the light of Oxford’s insatiable lust.  The “little tumbling boy” that Burghley claimed was one of only four servants in Oxford’s household in 1582––testimony to his role as patron to the Children of the Chapel––more evidence of his sexual depravity.

Truly we must ask ourselves, is this evidence of Oxford’s diseased behavior?  Or isn’t it rather evidence of Nelson’s diseased imagination?  He seems a little skewed in this regard in other areas, for instance describing Oxford’s mother as “lusty” when there’s no historic justification for such a term, or Anne Cecil as “by all accounts a nubile beauty,” a flat out lie, since the only contemporary reference I’ve ever seen to Anne’s looks was “comely,” and that, going by her lifelike image on Burghley’s great tomb, an exaggeration.

Oxford’s treatment by the Academy, the product of the Cecils’ outrage, the Howard libels, and the rabid homophobia still in effect, is the academic version of a lynch mob thirsting for violence, if only with words. That’s why he’s been bombarded ever since, not with the rocks and dead animals that killed and maimed the poor “inverts” pilloried in 19th-century London, but with every bad adjective any English-speaking academic could conjure up.  No matter that there’s no other record of these crimes, or that no one else (except for Arundel) ever came forward to back up Howard in these, or any other of his charges, all the homophobic needs to unleash his fury is an accusation.

Shakespeare and sex

The Shakespeare canon is sexy, there’s no denying it. As the poet John Masefield wrote: “sex ran in him like a river.” And while there are hints here and there of male-male passion in the plays, most of the attractions he so convincingly dramatizes are between men and women.  John Vyvyan has written eloquently and convincingly that Shakespeare’s true religion was Love, a heady mixture of platonism, medieval courtly romance, and Christian agapé. Certainly the Sonnets written to and for the Fair Youth are all about love; sex plays no obvious part in them as it does in those written to and for the Dark Lady.  What did he want from the youth?  Surely what he wanted was his love.  He says so, over and over. But to the descendants of Calvin and survivors of 19th century homophobia, love means sex.  If it doesn’t show, that’s just because the writer was being cagey.  Parse every sentence, search every etymology, there must be sex in it somewhere!

Love is not incompatible with sex, but sex changes it. Shakespeare says it himself in Sonnet 129, sex is “savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . . .” “Not to trust”––surely that is the point, true love is all about trust.  Separated by years, by reputation, only love, and the trust that goes with it, can survive. He says it one last time in Sonnet 116, clearly written after time has passed:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Where the Poet’s relationship with the Youth is harmed it’s because there has been a breach of trust, which he forgives on the youth’s part in some sonnets and, for which he asks for forgiveness on his own in others.  If there is sex in this then it’s regarded in a very different light than we regard it today.  As Shakespeare shows in Winter’s Tale and Othello, sex in a relationship makes men vulnerable to jealousy, a destruction of trust that can lead to emotional agony, and to tragedy.

Maybe now that the English-speaking culture is attempting to eradicate the evils done during that long-ongoing spasm of sex-hatred, we can relax and see the Earl of Oxford in a clearer light.  The least we can do is to take him at face value, and not be picking through his verse in search of a reality that may be ours but that almost certainly was not his.  The Sonnets were written before the centuries of homophobia changed forever how the English, poets and academics alike, thought about sex. The imagery of the Sonnets, that so many have struggled to prove did or did not indicate sexual relations, cannot be taken as evidence, for we do not know, nor will we ever know, what exactly the poet had in mind when he wrote them.

Oxford and Southampton

But if, as we believe, the poet was the Earl of Oxford and the youth was the Earl of Southampton, we do know a few things that the academics do not. The majority of the Sonnets were written in the early 1590s when Oxford was at his lowest point, bankrupt, his wife dead, his in-laws out to deprive him of his access to the Stage and the Press. Living in a hostelry down by the river, in “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” he was desperately in need, not just of patronage, but of love, the genuine kind, the kind that can’t be faked.  Southampton, though still in his teens, was probably living in his family manor near Gray’s Inn where he was enrolled at that time.  On his own for the first time in his life, he too was in need of love, not the sexual kind, but the unconditional love of a mentor, a father figure.  His own father was long since dead, he did not get along with his mother, and his guardian, Lord Burghley, was obviously mostly interested in what he could get from Southampton, if not entry to the peerage by marriage to his granddaughter, then a goodly chunk of his inheritance as a fine for having refused her.

Much as Sussex had been to Oxford when he was Southampton’s age, the Earl of Oxford was to Southampton, a man of his own class, one who knew from experience what it was like to grow up under Burghley’s thumb and to be young, alone and inexperienced at a turbulent Court where everyone seemed to want something from him. It’s likely they first met when Burghley was urging the teenager to marry Oxford’s daughter, and Oxford, willing to assist, wrote the first seventeen sonnets for his seventeenth birthday in 1590, the so-called marriage sonnets. They met, and formed a bond out of their mutual need, one that probably lasted at full strength for about three years, by which time Southampton had reached his majority, grown a beard, and was capable of making his own way at Court.

No longer in need of a father, by 1594 the Fair Youth had turned to the one to whom he would (disastrously) pledge his allegience for the next seven years. By then Oxford, married again, living in the kind of luxury he was used to, was too busy providing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays to spend hours writing sonnets, a good thing since he was no fan of the Earl of Essex, Southampton’s New Best Friend.

As for the nature of the passion expressed in the sonnets, why should we care? Homophobia had not yet made men overly cautious about the terms they used to express their feelings for each other, the rabid curiosity that has driven what seems to be a rather misplaced, prurient concern over something that shouldn’t really matter, we can now see as a product of the period when a rising interest in Shakespeare first became acquainted with their same-sex context, a period poisoned by the sex-hatred inspired so long before by Calvin’s fear of syphilis.

Frankly what seems most likely is that Southampton, who had spent part of his childhood in his father’s homosexual household, and who it seems was using makeup and dressing as a girl in his teens, was already well-versed in homosexual sexplay by the time he and Oxford became friends. If read from the viewpoint of an older man, a surrogate father, helping this youth to accept his role as a lover of women, a necessity if he was to marry and continue his line, the Sonnets make a lot more sense, all of them, including those written for the Dark Lady which do address their sexual relationship in no uncertain terms, then as a wouldbe lover consumed with lust.

In any case, what’s important about these libels to history is not whether or not Oxford was a monster, but the fact that it was his “confession” in December of 1580 that put Walsingham on the track that enabled him to prepare for the attack of the Spanish Armada.  What’s important to literary history is not whether or not he had sex with Southampton, it’s that the time spent writing these sonnets, probably on a daily basis during a period when he had little else to do, gave him the command of the language he needed for the plays he would soon be writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, plays that would make his cover the most famous name in literary history.

Howard and Shakespeare

As for Howard, Oxford had his revenge, though sadly not seen by anyone but that rather small percentage of his audience who knew that he was the author.  There’s no doubt that at some point he came to realize that Howard was responsible for the rumor that broke up his marriage.  Proof of this are the villains in two of the plays that bear the Shakespeare name, and several others that came earlier.  That Howard was the model for Iago is beyond dispute.  That he was also the model for Iachimo and Lady Macbeth is almost as convincing.

One of the strongest arguments for Oxford as author of the canon is the fact, obvious to those who know both the plays and Oxford’s biography, that six of Shakespeare’s plays  involve the story of the breakup of his marriage, either as the main plot: Othello, The Winter’s Tale, All’s Well, and Cymbeline, and, as backstory: Pericles and Hamlet.   When the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays have been completely integrated into the history of the English Court during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we’ll have a fuller understanding of both––and not until then.

 

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A little history is a useful thing

I’m back

It’s been almost four months since I’ve blogged or added anything to this site. Why? Because I’ve been in the final throes of finishing the book I’ve been working on for the past eight years, and have literally had no time, or room in this tired old bean, for anything else. Of course it’s not totally finished––polishing, fact-checking, eliminating redundancies, are yet to be done––but thankfully the heavy lifting is over and the bloody albatross cast free, to be trussed and roasted more or less at leisure, hopefully for your eventual reading pleasure. While beating my brains to custard, I’ve been grateful that readers have continued to read and even to comment. Many thanks for that.

Back in 1987, when Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William first gave rise to the question of “Shakespeare’s” identity in my not yet quite so old and tired thinking, I was left with two questions that he had not addressed: first, the Earl of Oxford’s learning: by what means did he acquire the vast Renaissance education that the Academy has been at such pains to deny for four centuries? Second: is it really possible that he was the only writer of that interesting time who managed to create whole canons by publishing under the name of an illiterate nonentity?

It’s taken 30 years to find satisfactory answers to these questions, and many of the pages on this blog, added since its beginning in 2008, address specific aspects of one or the other. But handfuls of clusters of connected puzzle pieces, floating in isolation, do not suffice when what is needed is a narrative, one that explains how such things could have happened, and why they happened as they did.

The question of Shakespeare’s identity is actually only the first of so many questions that have yet to be answered that a full century after Looney’s book we still find ourselves teetering on the brink of a dark, chaotic landscape. Is this merely the normal detritus of history as left by the passage of time? Or has there been a determined effort of some sort to prevent the truth from emerging? On page 123 of TMW Ogburn lists several areas in which a paper trail would disappear at a certain point, sometimes to reappear once the period in question is past. Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of similar anomalies, too many to ascribe to any sort of natural entropy. Yes, there can be no doubt, there has been a great deal of finagling throughout the history of Shakespeare scholarship, beginning with its very inception. The important question is why, and by whom. And although we don’t yet know the full answer to “by whom,” we do now finally have a sufficiently trustworthy answer to “why?”

Despite these breaks in the record, what I like to call “literary forensics” provides us with tools that, much like DNA and infra-red photography, work apart from what standard history deigns to allow. This approach allows us to broaden our examination of those areas where primary data is missing and so to project with some security what it might contain were it intact. Although history pretends to eschew conjecture, restricting itself to deal only with what facts remain, Science knows that where hard facts are not available, conjecture, which it dignifies with the term hypothesis, is not only acceptable, it is a necessity, for without it physics would never have arrived at Probability, Relativity, or a thousand other stepping-stones to our present understanding of the universe.

Thus by acquiring enough “proxy data” to project the most likely nature of the missing content, we can create bridges of conjecture solid enough to connect those areas where established facts provide secure footage, and thus, finally, to a narrative that makes sense. Once established, such a narrative, I do believe, will be the final nail in the Stratford coffin. This of course takes a great deal of time, but where history is concerned, time is not an issue. In fact, however much be lost, Time tends to clear away the inevitable fog of political maneuvering to which History, despite its solemn demeanor of dispassionate rectitude, is uniquely vulnerable. And so let it be with the Authorship Question.

Much has come clear during this process, some of it only over the past twelve months. In reading around the question I’ve tapped into what appears to be a new wave of younger historians of the Tudor and Jacobean periods who seem to be chipping away at some of the darker areas that broach on the AQ. While Oxford remains the violent pet wastrel of historians like Lawrence Stone and Alan Nelson, it would seem that further study, plus a few blasts of refreshing common sense, are blowing the dust off the period when the works in question were being produced. Knowing more about Oxford’s surroundings at the time, the issues and personalities with which he had to deal, we can project with some confidence the reasons why he wrote particular works, thus bringing a new measure of exciting enlightenment, not only to the studies of Early Modern Literature, but to the history of the entire period, which at present lies stifled in layers of ancient political dust.

The present book began as the answer to the first question, where did Oxford get his learning, but in peeling away layer after layer of the truth about the period, his education was so obviously bound up with the politics of the period––and the continuing politics of the Academy––that the story simply had to be carried through to the end––that same End that, as Shakespeare has it, “crowns all.”

Despite all efforts to keep to the barest and most select minimum of evidence per point, trusting to the interested reader to follow up with the titles mentioned and the ample materials available now on the internet, the darned book has become so long that it looks like it will have to be divided into two, first: Educating Shakespeare; second: Shakespeare and the London Stage. (As for my other original question––were there others who used the same tactics to get published?––that must wait for a third excursion into the labyrinth of 16th-century literary politics.)

Will there be a publisher willing to publish such a lengthy report, and, not least, to provide it to those who care about such things, in hardback? Not that paperback or Kindle are out of the question, but for readers like myself, who need a hardback edition of any book that requires space for marginal notes, I simply can’t see it solely in “perfect bound” paperback. Since I desperately need to give some attention to my pocketbook after so many years of scraping by, I’m even thinking of bypassing book publishing altogether, selling it through Amazon a bit at a time. In so doing I would only be following in the footsteps of those heroic creators of the English commercial Press, pamphleteers Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

What thinkst thou, Dear Readers? I’m all ears.

Oxford and the London Stage

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

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

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

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

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

The Lords Chamberlain and the records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford and the Court Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage

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

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

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

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

Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589

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

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

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

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

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

Trouble in Illyria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham

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

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

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

Another turn of the screw

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

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

London in the 1590s

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

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

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

The Cecils attack the Stage

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

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

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

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

So where was Oxford?

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

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

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

Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

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

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

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

Shakespeare and Christmas

One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.

For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.

We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth.  Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.

Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep  surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.

Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference.  Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.

Enter Paul’s Boys

Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.

Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.

While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.

At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays. 

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel

Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.

The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports.  But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.

Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name.  In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.

Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?

It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.

These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:

Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.

It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.

Shakespeare ignored by the Academy

It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him.  As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”

The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!

When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?

If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.

They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.

In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.

In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.

But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.

Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?

It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.

We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.

It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”

Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?

Here’s an idea

Taking a break from my normal writing schedule, I just got a book from the library on a subject that I need to know more about, the Roman Stage.  It’s called The Roman Theatre and its Audience, by Richard C. Beacham.  Published in 1992 by Harvard U Press, it’s available from Amazon in paperback for $21, but doubtless is also freely available through local libraries (Interlibrary loan) in the original hardback edition.  Written in a comfortable and accessible style by an expert in the field of theater design, Beacham can help answer questions about Oxford’s knowledge of the Roman Stage and its playwrights.

If three or more of you are interested, perhaps we could have a sort of online reading group.  We could set a deadline for finishing the book, and then begin a series of discussions here––much like the comments that follow one of my blogs, only this time without a blog––about the Roman Stage and its relevance to the public stages that came into being with Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and what plays may have been written for them rather than for the Court.  This way we would all have the same frame of reference.

If some of you have teaching or other commitments that will ease in June, we could agree to begin at a particular time as well.

How does this sound?

 

Occupy Shakespeare!

Many who read this blog are themselves involved in researching the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon and writing about it.  For you, I have a suggestion, forget the academics.  Stop trying to convince them.  Stop using what you believe to be their talking points to communicate what you’re discovering or thinking.  Why?  First, because it’s a waste of time.  In fact, the better and more cogent your argument, the less likely it is that they will pay any attention to it.  Why should they?  Clearly they don’t really care who wrote the Shakespeare canon or we would no longer have a problem.

Second and more important, it’s going to keep you from arriving at anything substantial yourself.  Acknowledging the academic viewpoint, wasting time and energy on testing or confuting it, has only one result, it keeps us going in circles. Like desperate peasants we lob facts over the castle walls, where they fall to earth without having any effect.  Do we bother to argue with people who believe that the earth is flat or that it was created in six days?  Such people invariably come up with arguments that mean something to them but that make no sense to those who have a broader view.  Just because the flat-earthers and the Darwin-deniers no longer run the world doesn’t mean that the Stratford syndicate operates from any greater logic.  We can argue until the cows come home that their story makes no sense, nothing will change until we replace what doesn’t make sense with what does.  And we won’t have that until we turn away from their story and build one of our own out of documents and facts (ironically, many of them courtesy of these same  academics).

This is difficult, of course, because a stronger hand has been at the record than ours is or will ever be, but no hand could eliminate everything.  The truth is there to find.  The story of how these great works of literature got written is a wonderful story, just as good as any its author ever wrote.  In an anthropological sense it’s his greatest story, the story of his life.  Gleaned from the most obscure of records, this will be an exercise performed as a great intellectual adventure by a lucky handful who are properly placed and financially supported so they can examine the records in the archives of England, take notes, and write up the results of their effort.  This will involve not only a great deal of time on the computer, but also on foot via London’s underground and on English trains to the various archives in the shires.  Since this is very expensive, backing by a patron is required.  A corps of undergraduates from one of the English universities (not necessarily Oxbridge) would be the perfect outfit.

This is literary forensics, and it will yield results.  The efforts of other scholars have shown the way.  Help us go in that direction, either with your own efforts or willingness to support a London team and you’ve contributed a great deal to our study of this hidden genius, who sacrificed his identity that the English language might develop as freely as possible in the direction in which it has continued ever since.

Until we can show beyond the shadow of a doubt what does make sense, why Oxford must be accepted as the author, why his actors were forced to hide his identity, and why this great fib has continued to be perpetrated on a willing public for so long after his death, we will simply continue to spin helplessly within the academic orbit.  They are not the last word, they never have been, and until we learn to ignore them and address a totally different community, one of independent thinkers, lovers of Shakespeare and his works, one that has been in existence ever since the 1570s (while the university-based English Departments date only to the turn of the 20th century) we will be forced into fringe areas.  Let us simply change fringes, moving from the one where we are deemed absurd, to the continually growing fringe that exchanges information by way of the internet, and thus create a new Shakespeare Studies, one where history rules and the author is present both within and along with his text.

The need for an end run

One ploy has been to get important information about the works published by leaving the author out of it.  Hoping that by focusing on some aspect of the question that can be argued without reference to a particular candidate readers can begin to see the authorship issue from a more rational viewpoint, this was the route taken by Diana Price in her Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography and more recently in Richard Roe’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy. When Roe decided to make the book more accessible to the general reader by leaving Oxford out of it, do you think that brought his book any closer to genuine acceptance?  Or even more recently, Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky’s book on the dating of The Tempest, where they too, doubtless for the same reason, chose to leave out any discussion of authorship, focussing only on the issue of the date.

Do you think that means that any of these important works is shelved in bookstores or libraries with mainstream works on Shakespeare?  Not so. While phony biographies or books on the authorship question by apologists like Shapiro get shelved with the classics, Roe and Stritmatter are stuck in some corner where they’re surrounded by books on UFOs and crop circles. On Amazon they’re grouped, not with books on Shakespeare’s Italian plays or The Tempest, but with other authorship books, some unworthy of notice.  So many of the articles published in authorship newsletters fight over again old battles with the academics, articles that may interest newcomers to the issue, but that never touch the minds of academics because it’s still so easy just to ignore them.

This is all very sad, not only for authorship scholars who can’t reach our audience, not through print publishing at least, but even more so for the English departments who purvey the academic line on Shakespeare. True, they get their ideas published, and in hardback, but who reads what they write?  At close to $100 a pop, only the biggest university libraries can afford to buy their books, and no one but fellow academics who need to know what else has been said about Robert Greene or Thomas Kyd, have the energy required to plow through the turgid reams of fieldspeak in which these books and articles are cast.

University English Departments are in serious trouble today, and it’s no mere whimsy on the part of a frustrated outsider to state with some authority that much of the problem can be laid to their attitude towards the authorship question.  As William Chace, President and Professor of English Emeritus at Emory University, informs us in his article from 2009, now online (and any question about University English or the curriculum will bring it up among the first first links on Google, which shows how deep the concern he voices):

During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education.  The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history.  As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land.

Chace gives a number of reasons for this, chiefly the shift to business degrees by students facing hugely expanded tuition fees, but also “the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”  How are students to see the “human good” in the garbled story they tell about the birth and spread of modern English?  He complains that they’ve “dismembered the curriculum.”

What he doesn’t address is the effort, in America at least, to use English Lit, first in the universities, then in high school English classes, as a means of indoctrinating diverse populations into what was once the dominant White Male Protestant world view. How else are we to see the continued focus on books like Moby Dick, while books like Charlie Russell’s marvelous stories of the American West, Trails Plowed Under, remains ignored, or the focus on  the depressing Lord of the Flies while Nordhoff and Hall’s masterful history Pitcairn’s Island, is threatened with loss.  Why Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter rather than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the most popular book in America for decades during the 19th century, still meaningful for teenage girls, and what is more, entertaining as well as instructive?

Most deadly of all where English Lit is concerned is the invasion of fieldspeak from “scientific” language studies like linguistics and semiotics, that threaten to overtake the language of Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats and Eliot with gibble gabble. Nothing wrong with this, boys must have their intellectual toys, but for God’s sake keep this intellectual poison out of the undergraduate classroom, where arcane theories that should remain at the postdoc level have been allowed to invade, turning several generations of undergraduates and even high school AP English students, off for life, from anything labelled “literature.”

Not so serious, though equally awful, are the works labelled by publishers as “literary fiction” in which no ending is acceptible unless it panders to the current addiction to existentialism in which the ending seeks to prove, for the zillionth time, the notion that life is pointless.  Not only boring, but really bad medicine for what ails most teenagers, who need to be told that life is meaningful, which of course it is, everywhere but in the high school and university classroom.  Stop telling them what it means, let them find that out for themselves, just give it to them.  Fight for a meaningful, flexible, and life-affirmative curriculum, where laughter plays its ancient and necessary role.

What is English? What is Literature?

The failure to share an understanding of what is meant by these terms has led, not only in English Lit, but all the humanities that, in English-speaking cultures, are taught in English (as opposed to math), is the primary factor in this unhappy loss of interest.  Certainly students who have been turned off by AP English classes in high school are going to think twice about focussing on English Lit in college.  Pehaps most deadly of all is the separation of Literature from History, a problem from the beginning that has only gotten worse over time, for without History, Literature lacks context, while without Literature, History, the record of events caused by the thrust and clash of human passions, lacks what should be its most compelling and informative voice.  It is not the series of dates or tags like “Manifest Destiny” that makes history compelling, it’s the stories it tells, and how better than in the literature written at the time?

How did it happen that they ever got separated?  Blame it on politics, the politics inherent in History, the politics inherent in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Defoe, Byron, Blake and Shelley, unacknowledged and suppressed in their own times, and by the politics of the Academy, where theory seeks to soar as far as possible beyond tiresome human realities.  How else to explain the sorry state of that most important and necessary side of English studies, Composition, in which are combined the nuts and bolts of the language, formerly studied as the Trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric.  According to Chace:

While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity.  Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship.  Their work, while crucial, is demeaned. . . .  Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset.

As higher ed attitudes trickle down to the high schools where graduates of university English departments do most of the teaching, students end up in college not knowing a verb from a noun, so that required English courses become a makeup for what should have been taught in the sixth through ninth grades.  Today, with students focused on paring down language to what can most quickly be texted on their iphones, or the 140 characters allowed by tweeting, the ability to write a meaningful sentence, a coherent paragraph, heads towards one extreme while “literary” English, bogged in the incoherencies of novelists like James Elroy, the densities of Faulkner and Joyce, the seemingly pointless puzzles of modern poetry, head towards the other.

To say that these are the results of Jonson’s lie would be ridiculous, but that something has come full circle since then may not be.  When Oxford first began to write he had the “drab era” to contend with.  It wasn’t existential, it didn’t suggest that life was without meaning, but it was adamant that it was utterly without hope.  Quickly he moved away from the dismal dread of his elders towards the light and laughter he found in Plautus and Terence.  Condemned by Church and City officials, he hid his name, but not his light, his gift for making people laugh. Now that the 20th-century version of officialdom, the professors of philology and linguistics who have taken over the English Departments, have divested him of everything but what they consider to be the best bits of his masterpieces, and so have ruined his Studies, isn’t it time for us to do what he did so long ago, find a way to reach past the academics to the readers, hungry for the good word, that we know who wrote the works of Shakespeare, one with a real story to tell, as he so poignantly has the dying Hamlet require of Horatio.

But these are the ultimate results of two things, the big lie told by Ben Jonson back in 1623, when he claimed that Shakespeare knew only “small Latin and less Greek,” and the choice by the early English departments, formed only a little more than 100 years ago, to regard English as a branch of Philology, an origin from which it has never managed to free itself.  The first denied Shakespeare his education, the second denied him his artistry.  The result has left both professors and students with a Shakespeare who, thanks to Jonson, knew nothing, his accomplishment solely due to his genius, and finally, thanks to the bibliographers and philologists of the English Departments, a chimeric genius part deer-poacher, part horse-holder, part play-patcher, part plagiarizer, one without any real artistry .

How are we to respect a study based on such a fragile and transparent foundation?  How can anyone expect it to sustain, not only the works written in the language Shakespeare bequeathed us, one he created out of local dialects, Latin, Greek, French and Old English, but the histories and philosophies and even maths taught in that language?  Founded on a set of lies and suppositions created to make those lies coherent, English itself is without a clear identity.  What is it? No one seems to know.

“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

. . . cries Alice, awakening to the greater reality that lies beyond the “dream” of Oxbridge. What else could her creator, Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, math professor at Oxford University, have had in mind with the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White King, the Mad Hatter, the Tortoise who “taught us,” the gardens that Alice was either too big or too small to enter, but university professors and their fraternities and cliques.  Who else were Tweedledum and Tweedledee but profs whose lesson plans were indistinguishable while they fought each other with rattling terms that no one but they could understand? Who but the Department Head was the Black Crow that frightened those two worthies into silence?  Why pay attention to an accretion of nonsense too monolithic to move and too absurd to take seriously, particularly one that seems to be teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and cry, along with Alice, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

Friends, let us go our own way.  Despite the threats to literacy of this new age of electronics, it has given us an opening to the public that’s been out of reach for questioners since the grand possessors finally realized that in order to get the great works published they would have to use the name of someone who could not be damaged himself, and who could not damage the true author.

Every single day on this blog I get upwards of 100 to 200 readers, mostly from the US and UK, but also from every other country in the world. That’s too many to account for just a few who read everything on it.  It means there are hundreds more who read some of it.  If some of my readers are academics, forgive my rhetoric, but please wake up and step outside the box your training has stuck you in.  Read the history of the period, not just those bits that the philologists and bibliographers have picked to substantiate their equations, but all the history, most of all the history of the English Reformation and its repression of the arts, in particular the art of writing imaginative literature.

English is the first or second language of the entire world. Readers in every nation are interested in its history and the history of the genius who more than any other individual created it in its first incarnation.  Let us stop trying to reach the academics huddled behind their hermaneutics and word studies. Permanently blind to the forest, they can see only the trees right in their way.

Please, let’s stop these useless attempts to bring the argument around to include Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, and the questions of authorship raised by all their lives and works.  It’s going on a century-and-a-half since the question of Shakespeare’s identity first became public, and close to a century since Oxford was identified.  If we haven’t brought the authorship issue any closer than we have with our present tactics, we never will.

Their power is lodged within their control of the scholarly publishing industry, a force that can promote disinformation as easily as it does genuine information, and one that reality demands must always choose in favor of the bottom line.  But we are living at a time when the door is open to us outside of the feudal castle of print, and can publish for a community of like-minded readers, just as you are reading this message today within hours or perhaps days of downloading, and with the opportunity to ask questions, offer opinions, and get feedback from myself and others.  It’s necessary to get things published in print, but only what supports facts gleaned from history.  Study the history of the period, find those writers who created the language we use today (Shakespeare was not the only one), by all means publish in print if you can, but meanwhile, work to establish a community of internet scholars.  That’s where the future lies.

 

 

 

 

Who was Hamlet?

Hamlet has always been seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, his most fully realized character.  In calling him “the secular Christ,” Yale professor Harold Bloom makes the most extravagant comparison that a Christian culture can offer.  In fact, it may be that more has actually been written (in English) about this fictional being than has been written about the Savior.

Those who’ve looked into it have found it impossible to locate anything in the life of William of Stratford that corresponds in any way to Hamlet’s life and situation.  He would have had to get all of it from books, but all the literary sources tracked by Bullough and others were in Latin or French in his time, most in volumes that, even had he the Latin promised by T.W. Baldwin would have required connections to private libraries that academics can only assume, since there’s no hint in William’s real biography (as opposed to the fictional versions conjured up by academics) of any such connections.  The one possible reference to William’s personal life, the son named Hamnet that died at age 11, was obviously named after his friend, Hamnet Saddler, while the character in the play is just as obviously based on the life of a Danish prince named Amleth, whose story, far from popular, lay buried in a Latin history of Denmark written in the 12th century.

This and other primary souces for Hamlet Prince of Denmark are found in Oxford’s tutor’s library: the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, not translated into English until 1608; the Roman history of Titus Livius, Latin, not translated into English until 1600; Valerius Maximus (used in schools), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (both Latin rhetoricians).  Others connect with Oxford’s years at Cecil House: Beowulf, probably translated from Old English into Latin and/or English by Laurence Nowell for the benefit of his students at Cecil House c.1563; Seneca’s plays, the Agamemnon and Troas, translated by members of the Cecil House coterie in the mid-1560s and published by Thomas Newton in 1581. The plot of the play within the play, “the mousetrap,” based on the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was still a matter for Court gossip in 1575 when Oxford was traveling from one Italian Court to another.  Della Rovere having been Castiglione’s patron for many years, in his youth he formed one of the group whose conversation makes up the major portion of Castiglione’s book, The Courtier, also in Smith’s library in the original Italian (translated into miserable “drab era” English by William Cecil’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby while Oxford was at Cecil House.

While most of Shakespeare’s protagonists can be matched more or less easily to some phase of Oxford’s biography, the version of Hamlet as we have it from the First Folio (1623) seems to be a sort of overview of his entire life, a figure made up of his most personal view of himself, with a plot compounded of the central experiences of his life, the loss of his Earldom through the early death of his father; the loss of the Court Stage through the death of his patron; his troubled marriage; the enemies who were out to shut him up.  It is a tragedy much like the one that overtakes Oedipus, the unfolding of a dire situation into which he was born and from which he cannot excape.  But unlike Oedipus, whose tragedy turns on his ignorance of the past, Hamlet’s much-vaunted indecision seems more a stoic determination to see how things will play out.  Having confirmed what he has guessed by Claudius’s response to the enactment of the murder of Gonzaga, he senses that any further intervention on his part will only make things worse: “Let Hercules himself do what he may; the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”

Like Hamlet, Oxford was born into a troubled dynasty. It’s clear that his father, the sixteenth earl, though termed “the good earl,” was not up to the task of sustaining a feudal domain that was so obviously doomed by the political and economic forces assailing it.  Like Hamlet, Oxford was more interested in literature and science (returning to Wittenberg) than life at Court.  Like Hamlet, he was romantically and sexually involved with the daughter of the monarch’s primary court official, Polonius/Burghley.  Like Hamlet, he was jealous of her relationship with her father.  Like Hamlet, he used the Stage to explain himself to the Court while claiming to entertain it.  A thousand years of history had put the Earl of Oxford in the position he was in, one from which his only escape was to create two brand new arenas where he had free rein, the Stage and the Press.

In Hamlet Oxford dramatized his attitude towards William Cecil Lord Burghley, his father-in-law: “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”; his attitude towards his wife, Burghley’s daughter (Ophelia): “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny”; his bitterness over the Queen’s business-as-usual attitude while the Earl of Sussex was dying: “a beast, that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer”); his disdain for the Earl of Leicester (Claudius): “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; his astonishment at his brother-in-law’s (Robert Cecil’s) hatred: “What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever”; his disgust at how his unscrupulous friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), are conspiring to destroy him: “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”  Only the end differs, but when he first wrote it of course he had no idea how it would end.  Nor do we, 400 years later.

One would think that identifying Polonius as Burghley would lead, automatically, to the identity of his daughter, and from her to the identity of her lover/husband, i.e., Hamlet, but one would be wrong, for to the so-called literary critic, history is just another form of literary fiction, something to be trimmed or amplified as needed to fit their theories, leaving the truth to the historians of wars and political coups who, equally culpable, pay no attention to literature.  For who but the Earl of Oxford, England’s Lord Great Chamberlain by seventeen generations of inheritance, would have dared to describe the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”––and lived to write again?

Screwing with history

Hamlet is a prime example of how the Lestradian stupidity of the officials in charge of interpreting Shakespeare has skewed the history of an entire era.  While Nashe’s 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon gives clear evidence of a version of Hamlet from before that date, this must needs be seen as an “Ur-Hamlet,” written of course by one of their anonymous pre-Shakespearean ghost-writers who provided the lazy Bard with so much of his material.  And because no proper niche can be found for Hamlet in current events of the 1590s––where the Stratford biography has forced all dates of composition––nothing can provide anything either personal or popular that might have inspired the playwright to write the play, so the commonplace is that Shakespeare, despite his obvious connection to the Crown’s own company for forty years, never bothered his artistic head with what was going on around him.  Thus is historic accuracy set aside, a thing of small importance.

Moving even further from the particular to the general, this has led to a general agreement among the Lestrades of the 20th century English Departments that there is no such thing as a compulsion among, not just Shakespeare, but all the world’s greatest writers of fiction to base their creations on aspects of their own lives.  That this won’t work with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henri Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, etc., makes no difference.  One must never allow dull reality to get in the way of theory.

Recall George Orwell’s interpretation of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in his 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four?  Recall Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who scoffs at Alice’s inability to believe in the impossible, while she herself has managed to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Recall as well that her creator, Lewis Carroll, that is Charles Dodgson (his real name), was a math professor at Oxford, whence cameth most, perhaps all, of the characters Alice encountered in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Recall Alice’s ultimate response, which we should all take to heart, when she cries out at the end of Looking Glass, “Who cares for you, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

The play’s the thing

History records that throughout his twenties Oxford was riding high at Court. “The glass of fashion,” he was promoted by Lord Chamberlain Sussex, rapidly assuming the role of Queen’s favorite: (Gilbert Talbot wrote his father May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other.”)  He was the essence of Renaissance nonchalance, of sprezzatura.  He refused the Queen’s order to dance for the French envoys.  He called Sir Philip Sidney a puppy.  He turned the tables on his Catholic friends, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, for attempting to suck him into dangerous treason plots as they had the Duke of Norfolk.  But this ascent came to an abrupt halt when his lover, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, gave birth to his illegitimate son in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, sending the jealous monarch into a prolonged tantrum.  Playing the humiliated goddess for all it was worth, the infuriating revelation that her charms were not sufficient to keep her favorites in line meant the Queen must needs turn her erring Actaeon into a villain and sic the hounds upon him.

After two months in the Tower, commiserating with the ghosts of the kings who had preceded him, some perhaps in the very same room in which he found himself; after months of house arrest and an edict banishing him from Court for an indeterminate period, the notion that once back at Fisher’s Folly Oxford would simply sit on his hands for two years while the Queen got over her hissy fit is so unlikely, well, who but the White Queens of the university English Departments could possibly swallow such a notion?

Feeling abused and unappreciated, bored with writing comedies for children to perform for the unappreciative witch on the throne, he threw himself into creating plays for Burbage’s adult team, the kind of plays he would never have dared to produce at Court.  Some versions were created primarily for this team to perform for the public at Burbage’s big open air stage in Shoreditch (Romeo and Juliet); some were aimed at provincial audiences (King John, The Spanish Tragedy); most were aimed at the West End audience, the gentlemen of the inns of Court, performed by Burbage’s men on the little stage he and Lord Hunsdon had created in the Blackfriars complex shortly after his return from Italy in 1576.

Hamlet: the backstory

Having been appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1572, the Earl of Sussex had named as his vice-chamberlains Henry Hunsdon, later (1594) the patron of Shakespeare’s Company, and his son-in-law Lord Charles Howard, later (also 1594) the patron of Marlowe’s Company. Sussex was determined to replace Leicester, whom he detested, as leading member of the Privy Council, which meant, among other things, taking the Court Stage under his own jurisdiction, where by long tradition it belonged. The Revels account for the early 1570s suggests that this was when Oxford, backed by Sussex, began providing plays for the various children’s companies to perform during the winter holidays.

A decade later, during the period that Oxford was banished from Court (1581-83) the Earl of Sussex began to weaken from what has since been diagnosed as consumption. As Sussex faded, Walsingham, by then Secretary of State, moved to take control of the Stage before Leicester or one of his clients could take it back. In all of England there was only one playwright who Walsingham could be certain could charm the provincial audiences into backing the Crown against the Spanish Church. For this he had to have Oxford back at Court. History relates that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who persuaded the Queen to allow Oxford to return, though what is more likely is that Raleigh was acting more in Walsingham’s interest than in Oxford’s. If I’m right about the kind of plays he was producing at the Blackfriar’s Theater during his banishment, members of the Privy Council, including Oxford’s father-in-law, may have preferred, as the saying goes, to have the rascal inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.

Since 1572, when the Pope first issued the bull that guaranteed God’s forgiveness to whoever would rid Christendom of that Whore of Babylon, the heretical Queen of England, Walsingham was preparing for the inevitable attack by the Spanish Armada. Having spent years on the Continent, he was deeply aware (to an extent that Her Majesty and Burghley were not, neither having spent any time abroad), of the inevitability of a military attack. Having had a sophisticated humanist education at Padua, where the Roman theater had never completely died, Walsingham was also aware, as had been Sussex, of the power of the stage to win hearts and minds to a cause, in this case, patriotism over religion––for the coastal towns where the Spanish were certain to strike first, were still largely wedded to the Old Faith.

“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue”

Oxford had every reason to detest the Earl of Leicester. Not only was he a rival for the Queen’s favor, it was Leicester to whom she had given the use of his estates while he was underage; Leicester who had rudely cheated his mother of her portion of his father’s will while he was still too young and powerless to defend her. While his banishment from Court extended from months to years and his enemies were elevated in importance and allowed to attack him in the streets without reproof, Leicester, who had not only impregnated one of the Queen’s ladies but had married her in secret, was returned to favor while he had still to go about incognito in fear for his life.

From July to the end of October 1582, while he was still under banishment from Court, his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), 27-year-old Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), aka Lord Willoughby, was in Denmark to bring the Order of the Garter to the Protestant King, returning to England by November. Then again, in 1585, with the renewal of hostilities in the lowlands, Bertie was sent as special ambassador back to Denmark in October to urge the Danish king to contribute aid to the Dutch in their fight against Spain. This took some time. As the DNB puts it: “He filled his spare time with visits to Tycho Brahe’s observatory to examine the new comet the astronomer had just discovered, evidence of an enduring scientific interest.”

Having finally succeeded in getting a promise of troops, Bertie arrived at Amsterdam in March 1586, where Sidney got him a command, ultimately taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces when Leicester departed in December 1587. Oxford and Bertie were friendly enough that Oxford spent time with him and his sister in June 1582 (Nelson 281), and though no letters have turned up, it makes sense that, with Oxford’s interest in the stars, his brother-in-law would have discussed with him what he saw in Denmark after his first four-month visit in 1582, and would have written to him of more recent developments during the five months in 1585 that he waited around at the Danish Court for the King to respond to his request.

This then is the backstory to the first version of Hamlet. Out of the death of Sussex; the unseemly return to favor of the Earl of Leicester whom he and many others suspected (probably unfairly) of having Sussex poisoned; Saxo’s report on the mad prince Amleth of Danish history; the 1538 murder of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had certainly been poisoned; his own dilemma with his wife and her family; the interest raised by Thomas Digges’s publication in the mid-1570s of evidence that the universe, rather than bounded by the ancient Ptolemaic nutshell, was actually an infinity of space filled with stars; plus reports from the Danish Court on Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Oxford created the first version of Hamlet, the one mentioned in passing by Nashe in such a way that suggests its popularity as early as 1589.

Returned finally to Court in June 1583, a week before Sussex’s death, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, contemplete life at Court without his major patron, Milord’s temper on his return was pretty much identical to Hamlet’s as the scene opens at the Danish Court, and that he too continued to dress, and act, as though in mourning. The “inky cloak” that shows Hamlet’s grief over the death of his father, mirrors Oxford’s refusal to show an interest in the holiday festivities that until his banishment had been his primary function at Court.

Just as Hamlet, while preferring to continue his studies at Wittenberg (the reading and translating in which Oxford had been immersed since his return from France and Italy), having yielded to his mother’s wish that he remain at Court, remains disaffected until, inspired by the actors, he creates a play that puts him at risk of assassination. Returned to Court by the efforts of Raleigh and Walsingham, having tasted the freedom of writing what he pleased, Oxford had no intention of churning out the kind of comedies that pleased the Queen. Enrolled by Walsingham in creating history plays that would help to turn the mood of the coastal towns away from religion and towards patriotism, he writes The Troublesome Raigne of King John, launching a series in which, encouraged by Walsingham, Smith’s close friend during their days together in the Secretary’s office, he finally gets to engage with genuine policy issues.

The version of Hamlet that we know from the First Folio is not, of course, the version that Nashe referred to in 1589 in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon with the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches,” or even the one Thomas Lodge referred to in 1596, referring to the ghost that cried at the theatre, “like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Nor even the one published in 1603, which suggests its publisher, Nicholas Ling, had waited until the Queen was gone.

The one we know is the one published the following year 1604, when the original models for all the principals but Laertes were no longer capable of being wounded. The Hamlet we know was revised from the perspective of later life, in full knowledge of the curve of events, and how “the end crowns all.” If the original “antique Roman” was Rutland, the name Horatio suggests that Hamlet’s plea to tell the truth about his “wounded name, things standing thus unknown,” was directed to his cousin Sir Horatio Vere, who in 1604 was achieving distinction on the battlefields of Europe. But not Sir Horatio, nor any other member of Oxford’s family or audience, had the audacity to broach the subject openly in print, then or for generations after. As Shakespeare put it, “the rest is silence.”

 

Did Shakespeare write The Spanish Tragedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All for the want of a horseshoe nail


Droeshout bloggie-2For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of the horse, the rider was lost.
For want of the rider the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

O
Memory is identity.  Without memory, without a record of what we’ve done and thought and said, what we’ve heard and seen, a human exists only as a thing, as foreign to itself as it is to those who pass it on a busy city street.  Know thyself, said Socrates.  But to do that we must have memory.  Our memories are the building blocks of our identities.  They are what make us unique from others, they guide us as we mature.  The sunny ones bring happiness and cheer on dark days, the dark ones help to keep us from suffering through repeated error.

History is our word for our collective memory as a people, a culture.  To our personal memories it adds the experiences shared by our ancestors.  Whether we absorb it from tales told around a winter fire, from lectures, sermons or books, it gives us context; it connects us to our fellows, expands our personal identity and that of our immediate family to embrace our neighbors, our ancestors.  It gives meaning to the buildings and streets that surround us, to the art and architecture of our cities, to the songs we sing, the movies we watch, the stories we repeat.  It gives us something to be a part of, something bigger than ourselves.  Know thyself, said Father, quoting somebody he called Socrates, but who was that?  The Greek who used to cut his hair?  Without the shared memory we call history, we’d never know.

History is the story of humanity.  While science, religion and philosophy all attempt to explain a great deal more than just who we are, history is focussed on us, on what we have done, with, to, and for each other.  And at the center of that “we” is always some central figure, some human being whose name and life story are central to a particular area of our shared memory, a story that holds meaning for a particular community, culture, religion, philosophy, the leader, the ground-breaker, the pioneer, the genius whose name we connect, not just with the history of whatever it was they invented or discovered, but the thing itself.

All history, be it the history of France or the American car industry, revolves around the name of its creator.  Without that name it’s a story without an opening chapter, an adventure without a hero.  If for some reason the name of one of these pioneers gets lost, the entire history of what they found or created can get broken into pieces and dispersed, skewed, distorted, minimized, misunderstood.  If somehow we had lost all evidence of the life of Alexander the Great, to what would we attribute the spread of the Greek language over the 500 years from 300 BC to the rise of Rome in 200 AD?  What would the history of mathematics look like without Isaac Newton?  The history of the Russian revolution without Karl Marx?  The history of aviation without the Wright brothers?  The Blitz without Churchill?  The Cold War without Stalin?

Hard as it may be to fathom, this is exactly the problem we have with the history of today’s English language.  It’s Greek without Homer, Christianity without St. Paul, Existentialism without Sartre.   In fact, it’s more than these, for the loss of the story of Shakespeare not only skews and disperses the history of English literature, it’s lost to the history of England the most important of the pioneers of the sixteenth century gathered at the Court of Elizabeth.  It’s skewed the history of the language itself.  It’s plunged into darkness the bloody birth of the modern media (the fourth estate of government)  and modern humanity’s first painful steps towards a functional democracy, of all these stories the most important today, not just to the West, but now to the entire world.

What the man known by the pun-name Shake-speare did in the sixteenth century has never been fully understood because, for reasons of political and economic expediency, his primary achievement was passed along by contemporary politicians and historians to an undeserving front man, one whose modest story has skewed this era in English history so badly, that, deeper than ever did plummet sound, it’s buried the truth about these things for over four hundred years.

And all for the want of that horseshoe nail, his name.