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"Shakespeare" by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeareby Mark Anderson
ìA human being is the best plot there is.î
Every authorís life tells a story. According to the conventional biography, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564; he moved to London sometime in the late 1580s or early 1590s and soon enjoyed great success as an actor and playwright, authoring some 37 or more plays, 2 epic poems, 154 sonnets, and assorted other verse that have become the crowning works of the English language. He retired to his hometown sometime around 1612, and he died in 1616. Seven years after his death, the first edition of his collected plays appeared in print. Although no authenticated portrait from his lifetime exists, the 1623 folio of Shakespeareís works features the above image on its opening page.
Yet this image and this conventional story have confounded many great minds over the years.
The novelist Henry James remarked in a 1903 letter to a friend that he was ìhaunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.î In Sigmund Freudís 1927 essay ìAn Autobiographical Study,î the founding father of modern psychology stated, ìI no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him.î Mark Twain published an entire book in 1909óIs Shakespeare Dead?óthat tore the conventional Shakespeare biography to tatters. Walt Whitman told a confidant in 1888: ìIt is my final belief that the Shakespearean plays were written by another hand than Shaksperís [sic]. . . . I do not seem to have any patience with the Shaksper argument: it is all gone for meóup the spout. The Shaksper case is about closed.î
Doubts about the Shakespeare story emerged less than a century after the first conventional biography appeared. In 1709 the dramatist Nicholas Rowe first sketched out ìSome Account of the Life, &c. of Mr. William Shakespear [sic].î In 1747, the antiquarian Joseph Greene came across a copy of Shakespeareís will and was singularly unimpressed, calling the document ìso absolutely void of the least particle of that spirit which animated our great poet.î In 1767, the theatrical impresario David Garrick launched the Shakespeare industry in Stratford-upon-Avon with a three-day jubilee that transformed the backwater Warwickshire town into the literary tourist mecca that Stratford has remained to this day. During the same year, Garrickís friend, the physician Herbert Lawrence, wrote an allegory, The Life and Adventures of Common Sense, accusing ìShakespearî of stealing other peopleís works. In 1786, the American statesman John Adams, upon visiting Stratford, echoed a growing skepticism of the validity of the Shakespeare story. ìThere is nothing preserved of this great genius which is worth knowing,î Adams recorded in his personal travelogue. ìNothing which might inform us what education, what company, what accident, turned his mind to letters and the drama.î Early in the next century, the novelist Washington Irving continued the thread of doubt with his own semiautobiographical account of a visit to Stratford. ìThe long interval during which Shakespeareís writings lay in comparative neglect has spread its shadow over his history,î Irving wrote in his 1820 Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. ìAnd it is his good or evil lot that scarcely anything remains to his biographers but a scanty handful of conjectures.î
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Henry James had joined a chorus of doubters who all expressed the same grave reservation: The conventional biography of Shakespeare is simply wrong; the ghost of another man haunts the canon.
In 1920, this ghost materialized in a revolutionary work of investigative scholarship by the British educator J. Thomas Looney. Looneyís ìShakespeareî Identified in Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford gained early converts such as Sigmund Freud and the actor and director Leslie Howardóboth of whom proclaimed their conviction that the Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere was ìShakespeare.î In establishment circles of Shakespeare scholarship, however, Looneyís book was met with a resounding harrumph. (Looneyís detractorsí most consistent critique was also their most effective: He has a funny name.)
De Vere (1550ñ1604) was a courtly poet and playwright who, as one literary critic in 1589 put it, would be recognized as perhaps the finest of his age ìif [his] doings could be found out and made public with the rest.î Although some sixteen to twenty youthful poems have been attributed to de Vereósome of notable quality, some notónone of his mature dramatic or poetic works have survived under his own name. The young de Vere was an active patron of literature and drama and a sponsor of theatrical troupes. And, this book proposes, de Vere added to and revised his early courtly masques and interludes, eventually transforming them into the plays and poems published under the byline ìWilliam Shakespeare.î
ìI think [the earl of] Oxford wrote Shakespeare,î the filmmaker and leading Shakespearean actor and director of the first half of the twentieth century Orson Welles told an interviewer in 1954. ìIf you donít, there are some awful funny coincidences to explain away.î In the half century since the screen legend uttered these prophetic words, countless scholars and investigators have compounded those ìawful funny coincidencesî to the point that every corner of the Shakespeare canon has now been found to contain snippets or passages from de Vereís life and times.
De Vere became entangled in a love affair that led to an interfamilial waróElizabethan Montagues and Capulets. While traveling in France, de Vere suffered the devilish whisperings of his own Iago, who ignited de Vereís jealousy over his wifeís alleged infidelities. De Vere lived in Venice and went into debt borrowing from the local loan merchants. De Vereís first marriage produced three daughters who inherited their alienated fatherís family seat while he was still alive (King Lear). He had a close but rocky relationship with Queen Elizabethówhom he portrayed variously as the witty and charming Olivia (Twelfth Night), the powerful vixen Cleopatra, the cloying Venus, and the compromised Cressida. De Vereís father-in-law was the historical prototype for Polonius; de Vereís brother-in-law was the original for Petruchio; de Vereís sister the model for Petruchioís Kate; his first wife for Ophelia, Desdemona, and Hero (among many others); de Vereís second wife for Portia; his eldest daughter for Miranda; her husband for Mirandaís Ferdinand.
Perhaps the most autobiographical play in Shakespeare is Hamlet, with multifarious connections to de Vereís life that are discussed in nearly every chapter of this book. For example, when de Vere was traveling through France at age twenty-six, he encountered a Teutonic prince who paraded his troops before de Vereís eyes. Soon thereafter, de Vere boarded a ship that was overtaken by pirates, and de Vere was stripped naked and left on the English shore. In Act 4 of Hamlet, in a sequence that is in no known source text for the play, Hamlet first witnesses the invading Prince Fortinbrasís troops and then boards a ship that is overtaken by pirates, in an ordeal that leaves a humiliated Hamlet stripped naked on the Danish shore.
ìShakespeare,î it turns out, was one of the most autobiographical authors who ever took pen to paper. To recognize this, one need only redefine ìShakespeare.î
The best place to begin is with the name itself: Shake-speare.* The hyphen appears in many of the first publications of the plays and poems. Hyphenated phrases in an authorís name often suggested a concealed authoróin an age rife with political and religious intrigue, when picking the wrong alliance or offending the wrong official could mean imprisonment, torture, forfeiture of oneís properties to the crown, or a death sentence. In the words of literary historians Archer Taylor and Frederic J. Mosher, ìIn the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Golden Age of pseudonyms, almost every writer used a pseudonym at some time during his career.î During the Elizabethan Age (the period spanning the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England: 1558ñ1603), hyphenated pen names included ìMartin Mar-prelate,î a pamphleteer who railed at Anglican prelates; ìCuthbert Curry-knave,î a satirist who savaged (ìcurriedî) his knavish pamphleteering opponents; and ìTom Tell-truth,î a supposedly truth-spouting polemicist.
William Shake-speare is no exception. According to ancient Greek myth, the goddess Athenaódivine protectress of learning and the artsówas born from the forehead of her father, Zeus, fully dressed and armed for battle. At birth, she is said to have shaken her spear, and authors looking back upon this legend associated her with the act of spear shaking. As a deft allusion to the classical goddess affiliated with the theater, ìShake- speareî was in fact a perfect pen name for a playwright.
Numerous candidates for the authorship of the Shake-speare canon have been suggested over the years, including Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the countess of Pembroke, Edward Dyer, the earl of Rutland, the earl of Derby, etc. The academic establishment has largely ignored the heretics, assuming that only the incumbent could have written the plays. But the Stratford native Will Shakspereóas the actor preferred to spell itóis not as inevitably ìShakespeareî as he first appears. To begin with, no original playscripts exist. The greatest literary manhunt in history has yielded no manuscripts, no diaries, and no correspondence issuing from Will Shakspereís pen. The only known letter written to him, concerning a loan, was never sent. Despite the enormous economic incentive that has existed for centuries to find any scrap of paper with Will Shakspereís handwriting on it, scholars have authenticated only a few signatures on legal documents written by other people and two words, By me, signed on his will. These scratchings are all that has ever been found from the pen of the man presumed to be the greatest literary genius in the Western world.
Then there is the matter of Will Shakspereís last will and testament. In it, the Stratford actor detailed his worldly possessions down to his silver gilt bowl and second-best bed. An interlineation in the will bequeaths money to three actor friends for mourning rings. But nowhere does Will Shakspere mention any literary or theatrical properties. No books, no manuscripts, no playsóthe most precious things in a dramatistís lifeóand one is to believe that not a scrap of it merited mention in his will?
Since great writers are invariably great readers, a further question emerges: Where are Will Shakspereís books? Public libraries did not exist in Elizabethan England. Unless one had access to university libraries or other private collections, what was in your household was what you read. Approximately 150 books were printed in Elizabethan England per year. (By comparison, 40,000 books per year are printed today in the United States.) A vast majority of Elizabethan titles concerned matters of religion, law, or medicine. Assembling a library of more than a hundred volumesóespecially a secular library containing plays, poems, and other works of fictionówas an impressive, time- consuming, and costly feat. Books were cherished commodities.
More than two hundred books survive from each of the libraries of the of the early seventeenth-century playwright Ben Jonson and poet John Donne. The Shake-speare plays and poems reveal that the author was a voracious readeróciting over two hundred books, some of which were untranslated works published on the Continent in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. Yet, scholars have never authenticated a single book, play, pamphlet, or broadsheet that ever belonged to Will Shakspere. Some Shake-speare plays, such as Hamlet and Macbeth, draw characters and story lines from unpublished manuscripts in private archives. But there is no explanation for how Shakspere could have gained access to restricted aristocratic family libraries.
The erudition on display in Shake-speare is wide-ranging and profound. Studies of the Shake-speare canon by lawyers, theologians, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, linguists, military tacticians, sailors, historians, botanists, literary scholars, musicians, and classicists conclude that Shake-speare manifests a ready knowledge of their respective fields. All find the author anywhere from competent to expert in these varied disciplines. The myth that Shake-speare had ìsmall Latin and less Greekîóstemming from a misreading of a poem by Ben Jonsonóhas inhibited the natural conclusion of these studies: Shake-speare was one of the most learned and broadly educated authors in history.
Even if Will Shakspere had attended the Stratford Grammar School as a child, a supposition for which there is no evidence, it would not have provided him the kind of myriad-minded expertise one finds in abundance in Shake-speare. Will Shakspereís documented biography is extensive, but it is all commercial activities, lawsuits, and entrepreneurial ventures. It reveals no formal education, tutelage, or apprenticeship in his presumed craft.
Shake-speareís works also convey a familiarity with specialized knowledge of places and cultures that could not have been found in books or taught in school. The plays and poems reveal a well-traveled world citizenóone who had an intimate familiarity with Italian and French culture unattainable at second hand. Shake-speare sets as many plays in France and Italy as he does in England. Henry V contains a scene written entirely in courtly (and bawdy) French, while the characters and situations of Loveís Labourís Lost reveal a familiarity with French manners, mannerisms, and courtly culture. Shake-speare knew that Florenceís citizens were recognized for their arithmetic and bookkeeping (Othello); he knew that Padua was the ìnursery of artsî (The Taming of the Shrew) and that Lombardy was ìthe pleasant garden of great Italyî (Taming of the Shrew); he knew that a dish of baked doves was a time-honored northern Italian gift (The Merchant of Venice). He knew Venice, in particular, like nowhere else in the world, save for London itself. Picayune Venetian matters scarcely escaped his grasp: the duke of Veniceís two votes in the city council, for example, or the special nighttime police forceóthe Signori di Notteópeculiar to Venice, or the foreign city where Veniceís Jews did most of their business, Frankfurt.
The cornerstones of the case for Will Shakspere as ìShakespeare,î in fact, constitute one meager docket:
Greeneís Groatsworth of Wit: In 1592, the playwright Robert Greene allegedly lashed out in print at Shakspere. Greeneís posthumous pamphlet Greeneís Groatsworth of Wit chastised someone nicknamed ìShake-sceneî as an ìupstart crow . . . an absolute Johannes factotumî who ìsupposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the restî of Londonís top dramatists. Because Shakspere ìsupposesî that he was as capable a composer as his fellow playwrights, Greeneís Groatsworth would appear to deliver crucial testimony that Shakspere was, in fact, an authoróhowever much Greene did not like him.
A closer reading of Groatsworth, however, discredits Shakspere as a writer of any capacity. In Aesopís Fables, the crow was a figure that disguised itself in the plumage of other birds. A ìJohannes factotumî in sixteenth-century usage was a braggart and vainglorious dilettante. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Elizabethans often used the word suppose to mean, ìTo feign, pretend; occasionally, to forge.î Shakspere, Greeneís Groatsworth suggests, was actually an impostor.
The Return from Parnassus: This anonymous comedy staged by students at Cambridge University in 1600 pokes fun at an oafish actor, the clown Will Kemp. Kemp is made to say, ìFew of the university men pen plays well; they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis.î The joke here is that Kemp doesnít know the difference between an author (Ovid) and the title of his work (The Metamorphoses).
In the next breath, Kemp says, ìWhy hereís our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down!î With these words, Kemp glorifies the playwright ìShakespeare,î a ìfellowî actor. But the joke is on Kemp. A sophisticated Elizabethan university audience would understand that if Kemp doesnít know that ìMetamorphosisî wasnít the name of a writer, he would have zero credibility to talk about the actor Shakspere as a writer.
Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece: These two Shake-speare poems from 1593 and í94 are dedicated to the earl of Southampton, a high-ranking Elizabethan courtier. Southampton is conventionally assumedóupon no further evidenceóto have been Shakspereís patron. A number of scholars over the past two centuries have devoted countless man-hours to discovering other evidence of Southamptonís patronage of Shakspere. They have found none. As will be seen in Chapter 9, the Venus and Adonis and Lucrece dedications actually make more sense coming from Edward de Vereís pen than from Shakspereís. For one, at the time of the dedications, Southampton was being considered as a possible husband for de Vereís daughter Elizabeth.
ìTerenceî: In a pamphlet published in 1611, the poet John Davies described ìShake-spearî [sic] as ìOur English Terence.î Terence is known today to have been both an actor and a playwright.
However, this is not what many in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries believed. According to the essayists Cicero, Quintilian, and Montaigne, as well as a leading literary textbook of the Elizabethan Age, the actor Terence was actually a front man for one or more Roman aristocratic playwrights. Although most scholars today dismiss the possibility, many of Daviesís learned contemporary readers would have recognized the allusion: Shakspere was an actor who pretended to be an author. The author Shake-speare was someone else altogether.
The Book and the Monument: Shakspereís funerary monument in Stratford- upon-Avonís Trinity Church, constructed sometime before 1623, ostensibly suggests he was a writer. (The statue is of a man using a pillow for a desktop, holding a quill pen over a blank piece of paper; the cryptic inscription beneath the statue reads, in part, ì. . . all [that] he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his witîóalthough exactly what these words mean has long been a mystery and will be discussed later.) The first edition of the complete plays of Shake-speare in 1623 alludes to the Trinity Church bust (ì. . . when time dissolves thy Stratford monument . . .î) and to the river in Shakspereís hometown (ì. . . sweet swan of Avon . . .î). Together, the 1623 First Folio and the Stratford monument would appear to deliver prima facie evidence for Shakspere as Shake-speare.
However, both date to a period (circa 1623) when Edward de Vereís children and in-laws were waging a brutal campaign in the court of King James I against a controversial British royal marriage alliance with Spain. This book argues de Vereís children and in- laws used the works of Shake-speare as part of a propaganda war during the ìSpanish Marriage Crisisî of the early 1620sóand that the Stratford monument and publication of the Folio constituted a last-ditch maneuver to preserve de Vereís literary legacy, even if it meant burying his identity.
And thatís the whole of it. There are abundant additional references in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century writings to Shake-speareís plays and poems, none of which connect to Shakspere of Stratford. There are also contemporary allusions to Shakspereís business investments and theatrical activities at the Globe Theatre and elsewhere. But these donít connect to Shake-speare the author.
So far as is known and can be proved, Shakspere never traveled anywhere beyond the roads connecting London to Stratford-upon-Avon. So far as is known and can be proved, he did not even attend Stratford Grammar School. So far as is known and can be proved, Shakspere never wrote a complete sentence in his life. Shakspereís wife and daughters were, like his parents and siblings, either illiterate or close to it.
ìWe are the reasoning race,î Mark Twain wrote in Is Shakespeare Dead? ìAnd when we find a vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there. I feel that our fetish is safe for three centuries yet.î
Edward de Vere was a brilliant and troubled man with whom one might enjoy sharing a beer but loathe sharing a house. He was at times a cad and a scoundrel. He also was a notorious teller of tall tales. One of his contemporaries recorded a fable de Vere recited about his adventures in Italy: ìIn it [de Vere] glories greatly. Diversely hath he told it, and when he enters into it, he can hardly out, which hath made such sport as often have I been driven to rise from his table laughing.î
Despite his tall tales, it was actually de Vereís truthfulness that ultimately necessitated his taking refuge behind the Shake-speare mask. De Vere spent nearly his entire life in Queen Elizabethís court, portraying this world and its key figures unflinchingly. He skewered such powerful men as Sir Christopher Hatton (Malvolio in Tweltfth Night), Sir Philip Sidney (Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor; Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night; Michael Cassio in Othello), Lord Robert Dudley (Claudius in Hamlet; Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor), William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Polonius), the earl of Southampton (Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida), and the earl of Essex (Coriolanus). De Vere also exposed the courtís dirty laundry, accusing Dudley of being a poisoner (Hamlet), turning Cecil into a veritable pimp (Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida), and even portraying the sacred Virgin Queen as a vain and fickle tease with a Jezebel streak (Cleopatra, Gertrude, Cressida, Venus). ìShakespeareî was a subterfuge that distanced the scandalous works from its primary subjects: the queen and her powerful inner circle of advisors. The ìShakespeareî ruse enabled de Vere to write till the end of his days in 1604. However, the bargain was a Faustian one, depriving de Vere of the immortality due him for his literary accomplishments and foisting upon the world a monumental myth.
The Shake-speare canon, informed by de Vereís life story, paints a vivid and complex picture. He was both a defender and critic of the state, a bohemian and a statesman, an outlaw and an enforcer of the law, a comic and a quintessentially tragic figure, a patron and an artist seeking patronage. He was an athletic figure with military aspirations who also was effeminate and inhabited a small frame.
But de Vereís most striking physical characteristic was his eyes. His extant portraits (two of which are pictured on the cover of this book and discussed in Appendix D) all find the sitter, eyebrows arched, fixing a piercing gaze out of the canvas and through the ages. Behind those windows lay the cagey intellect of a man who knew he knew too much.
The Eye of Childhood
On april 12, 1550, in the private apartments of a british stone-walled medieval fortress, a lord and lady welcomed their heir into the world. If the boy survived, the childís fatheró John de Vere, sixteenth earl of Oxfordócould henceforth rest assured that when he died, his own son would carry forward the title of seventeenth earl.
From the moment of christening at Castle Hedingham in the eastern county of Essex, Edward de Vere would be known as Viscount Bolbec. Lord Edwardís high birth would place him in adulthood among kings and queens and the powerful men around them who ran the state. His fate was to be their gadfly and fool, a black sheep of this ancient and revered family. But nothing at the time of his birth would have led anyone to suspect that such a strange and ungainly future awaited.
This biography will proceed under the assumption that, by himself or in collaboration, Edward de Vere wrote under the name William Shake-speare. He is not the Shakespeare with whom we are familiar.
Edward de Vereís ancestors had, for four hundred years, played a leading role in the wars and politics of England. In an uninterrupted succession from the Norman Conquest onward, de Veres had served the crown as statesmen and military commanders. After 1142, de Veres also wore the coronet of the earldom of Oxford. The first earl of Oxford had supported Empress Matildaís (unsuccessful) claim to the throne against King Stephen; the second earl had served under King John; the third earl had taken up arms against John; the seventh earl led a naval fleet against the French at Calais and laid siege to Rheims. The ninth earl, the most infamous of his line, had been a consort and royal favorite of the homosexual king Richard II, and had forfeited his lands on Richardís fall. The eleventh earl had served Henry V at Agincourt. The twelfth earl had fought in the Wars of the Roses and was executed by King Edward IV.
The history of the fifteenth earl is intimately bound up with the history of Tudor England. The fifteenth earl had supported the divorce of King Henry VIIIís queen Catherine and carried the crown for the coronation of Anne Boleyn, mother of the future queen Elizabeth. Edward de Vere himself was named after Henryís only son, Englandís king Edward VI. The 13-year-old king Edward sent a gilded chalice for Lord Edwardís christening on April 17, 1550.
Infant mortality rates demanded that children be baptized soon after birth, lest they die in the nursery without being blessed by holy wateródooming their souls to limbo. Then again, limbo was just the sort of idolatrous belief that the reformist king Edward was working to abolish. When Henry VIII founded the Church of England in 1534, it was little more than a British denomination of Catholicism. Communion still assumed the physical transformation of wine into blood and bread into the body of Christ. Much of the Mass in Henry VIIIís day was still read in Latin. Saints and sacraments of yoreóblessing of the candles at Candlemas, releasing of the doves from the roof of St. Paulís on Whit Sundayóremained firmly in place. Henryís son, on the other hand, was a reformer. Edward VI set out to smash all remaining vestiges of Catholic beliefs. He enacted new laws to support Protestant reformers. He commissioned new books of homilies and a Book of Common Prayer; and in a bold stroke of radicalism, his government made English the primary language of the church service.
In the mid-sixteenth century, the ancient earldom of Oxford was a vestige of a bygone age. The earldomís seat was a place called Castle Hedingham in East Anglia, northeast of London, set on a hill near the river Colne. The river wound through East Anglia, past another de Vere estate at Earls Colne, and into the North Sea via Colchester. Hedingham had been built within the first century after the Norman Conquest (1066), when the familyís ancestors came across the channel from their home in the CÙtentin Peninsula of Normandy. William the Conqueror granted Castle Hedingham and thirteen other estates to the de Veres for their military service in helping the Normans overrun the Saxons. Castle Hedinghamís central Norman keepóthe one building that remains todayówas a foreboding stone fortress roughly 60 feet on each side and 110 feet tall. Built to withstand the engines of a medieval siege, the keep sheltered five stories that included soldiersí quarters, a munitions room, and a banquet hall and armory beneath a twenty-one-foot- high Norman arch. Brick walls around the entire hilltop estate formed a first defense against attackers. Inside stood the keep, a stable and barnyard, a brewhouse, a granary, a chapel, a tennis court, lodgings, kitchens, and pantries. In its exemplary battle, the castle was besieged in 1216 by King John himself.
Edward de Vereís father owned some three hundred castles and mansions across England. But each of these medieval manors generated enormous bills as well as a dwindling supply of income. Many properties were forever in the red. Feudal estates had been ideal holdings to command in the centuries after the Conquest, when the government required its lords to provide armies for crusades and wars. The Tudors, on the other hand, needed money. Those who could generate a steady stream of income were the new men of the age. A keen business manager might have spent a career making the holdings of the earls of Oxford productive and profitable once again. But John de Vere, sixteenth earl of Oxfordóor Earl John, as he was commonly calledówas no businessman.
Personally, John de Vere seems to have been a man both boorish and cultured. His relationships with women can only be described as rocky. Earl John abandoned, but did not divorce, his first wife. One of his mistresses, to whom he may have been bigamously married, was beaten up by his in-laws and other associates. He abandoned a second mistress and left a woman to whom he was engaged, on the day before their wedding. And yet Earl John was also a generous patron, sponsoring a dramatic troupe (the Earl of Oxfordís Men) that featured some of the finest actors in England. According to the scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Smith, ìI think no man of England . . . could do so much and so readily with threatenings, imprisonments, and pains as my lord doeth here with the love that the gentlemen and the whole country beareth to him.î
A story survives of Earl John hunting wild boar in France. His French companions were armed as if for war, while he was ìno otherwise attired than as when he walked in his own private bedchamber, only a dancing rapier by his side.î When the hunting party cornered the beast, Earl John dismounted and attacked the boar with his inferior bladeó much to the consternation of his fellow hunters. ìMy lords,î he replied to his astonished companions, ìwhat have I done of which I have no feeling? Is it the killing of this English pig? Why, every boy in my nation would have performed it. They may be bugbears to the French: to us they are but servants.î
Of Margery, Earl Johnís second wife and Lord Edwardís mother, few records survive. What she thought about her husbandís romantic history is unknown but probably not hard to guess. Countess Margeryís two known references to her son, both found in letters written to the Secretary of State Sir William Cecil, appeared at a time when the young lord Edward had been moved out of the house. These missives give only passing mention of her child and do not request any information about his life or well-being. The countess, it appears, lived out the teachings of the sixteenth-century humanist Juan Luis Vives, whose popular book Instruction of a Christian Woman told mothers that ìcherishing marreth the sons and it utterly destroyeth the daughters.î
This skewed philosophy of mothering consistently appears as the norm in Shake-speare. Lord Edward would grow up to portray caring and nurturing mother figures almost as emissaries from an alien worldóloving Lady Macduffs in a land where brutal Lady Macbeths command center stage. A third of the Shake-speare canon features no mothers whatsoever.
While the author named characters after other family and friendsóhis cousins Horatio and Francis Vere, for instance, are known to eternity as Hamletís Horatio and Franciscoóthe name Margery gets only a passing mention, in The Merchant of Venice: Launcelot. I am Launcelot, your boy that was, your son that is, your child that shall be. Old Gobbo. I cannot think you are my son.
Laun. I know not what I shall think of that. . . . I am sure Margery your wife is my mother.
At the time of Edwardís birth, the sixteenth earl and his countess had one other child, Katherine, from the husbandís first marriage. Katherine was approximately nine years older than Edward. (Her exact birth date is unknown.) She, too, never appears to have been close to her half-brother and would later file a slanderous lawsuit against her sibling accusing him of being a bastard. Sometime around Lord Edwardís fourth year, his other sister, Mary, was born.
As Castle Hedingham was the family seat, it is safe to assume that no small part of Lord Edwardís early childhood was spent there. As a toddler inside this ancient castle, Edwardís formative years were probably quite lonely ones, living with an indifferent mother and a distant, feudal lord of a father. During the winter months, when the sixteenth earlís dramatic troupe was not touring the provinces, the players would have stayed at the castle to entertain the family and revel away the long, cold nightsówhile the troupeís fool (some have suspected the otherwise unemployed jester from Henry VIIIís court Will Somers) would naturally have been a magnet for a precocious and lonesome child with a budding sense of verbal foolery. Hamletís heartfelt words over Yorickís skull certainly suggest an author reflecting on his earliest days:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhoríd in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissíd I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?
By the great stone fireplace in this ancient Norman keep, the players and the patriarch no doubt favored the young heir with tales of his ancestorsí exploits.
Such accounts of de Vere family successes and failures would color how Lord Edward would later portray the story of England in the Shake-speare history plays. Shake- speareís histories reveal an acute sense of de Vere family legend: the Shake-speare canon rewrites English history not only to glorify the Elizabethan dynasty (the House of Tudor) but also to amplify some of the earls of Oxfordís greatest accomplishments and paper over some of the earls of Oxfordís greatest embarrassments.
Robert, the third earl of Oxford, living in the time of King John (1199ñ1216), had helped to force the monarch to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede. There the earl was elected one of the Great Charterís twenty-five guardians. Excommunicated by the pope for insolence, the third earl committed treason when he joined a rebellion to hand the throne over to the French dauphin. In response, King John laid siege to Castle Hedinghamóa military campaign that ended in the French dauphin returning to his home country and John retaining the throne. In Shake-speareís account of this era (King John), the traitor third earl is never even mentioned.
On the other hand, the thirteenth earl of Oxford brought fame to the annals of family legend. He patronized leading men of letters, including the translator and printer William Caxton. The thirteenth earl also helped depose the Yorkist king Richard III in the storied battle of Bosworth. A stone bas-relief now thought to have hung in Castle Hedingham tells the tale of this battle, with an unhorsed Richard IIIóone can almost hear him crying, ìMy kingdom for a horse!îógrasping at his crown while a victorious Henry Tudor rides triumphantly with the earl of Oxford close at his side.
Shake-speare is hardly subtle about the esteem he accords this illustrious de Vere: In the Shake-speare Henry VI plays, the thirteenth earl becomes ìvaliant Oxfordî and ìbrave Oxford, wondrous well belovíd.î Shake-speareís Henry VI plays have the Earl of Oxford retreating from one battle only to take up arms against the Yorkists at Dorset. At the Battle of Tewksbury, ìsweet Oxfordî determines the place where the enemies will be fought. In reality, the historical thirteenth earl of Oxford was neither at Dorset nor at Tewksburyóand was certainly not worthy of the undying praise Shake-speare heaps upon him. Shake-speare also poked fun at his own infatuation with his ancestor, inserting a gratuitous joke into Henry V about the thirteenth earl of Oxfordís most inglorious momentóa friendly-fire incident that led to an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Barnet.
In the winter of 1552ñ53, King Edward VI fell ill with what doctors now think was a virulent strain of pneumonia. On July 6, 1553, the prophecies of a long and illustrious Edwardian Age did not come to pass. The sixteen-year-old monarch had died. Next in line to the throneóafter a botched attempt to crown the Protestant sympathizer Lady Jane Greyówas King Edwardís half-sister Mary, as zealously Catholic as her brother was Protestant.
Mary hated her younger half-sister Elizabeth, who the new queen thought was just a bastard child of her fatherís strumpet Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth assured her elder half- sibling that she celebrated Catholic Mass with an honest and open heart. But, according to one eyewitness, Princess Elizabeth was also ìvery timid and trembled when she spokeî with Mary.
As Englandís Protestants had feared, ìBloodyî Mary, as she would soon be known, wanted foremost to return England to the Roman faith. The tools of the Spanish Inquisition awaited the application of her reactionary zeal.
Smart courtiers who valued their lives and lands discovered in themselves a renewed love of Catholicism. Protestants-at-heart learned to keep their antipapist curses to themselves. Earl John was one of many nobles drafted into supervising Maryís burnings of Protestant heretics.
Sometime during Lord Edwardís youthówhen is not precisely knownóthe child was moved out of Castle Hedingham and into the household of Sir Thomas Smith. Former Secretary of State to the late king Edward, Smith was a Protestant friend of the family. According to a letter written years later between two of Smithís courtly colleagues, Smith had, at some point during Lord Edwardís youth, made Lord Edward his ìscholar.î During Queen Maryís reign, Smith was otherwise unemployed, enjoying a prosperous country life at his riverside estate of Ankerwicke in Buckinghamshire, near Windsor Castle. Smith had also recently married into a family that owned an Essex estate named Hill Hall, a dayís ride from Castle Hedingham.
Smith would later write to the Lord Treasurer of England that Lord Edward was ìbrought up in my house.î By this statement, Smith likely meant that he home-schooled his young student at either Hill Hall or Ankerwicke. However, since Hill Hall was under construction during much of the 1550s, Smithís Buckinghamshire estate is the more likely site of a rigorous classical and Renaissance education for one precocious earl-in- waiting. The former statesman and Cambridge University regius professor of civil law may have felt that the task of tutoring a mere child was a demotion. But Smithís instruction of Edward de Vere would, in the end, prove to be an inestimably generous gift to the world of English letters.
Ankerwicke was a manor that overlooked the Thames and stood an hourís walk from Datchet Mead, Frogmore House, and the town of Windsor, all part of the local color that form the backdrop of Shake-speareís Merry Wives of Windsor. Although Ankerwicke was pulled down in the nineteenth century, inventories of the twenty-room domicile surviveódetailing a comfortable but still modest household containing such curious items as a ìpicture in a table,î ìa hanging of cosmography,î and three unidentified ìpainted pictures.î In 1555, the forty-two-year-old Smith, who had recently served as provost of nearby Eton College, was settling into Ankerwicke with his new wife, Philippa Wilford, the childless widow of an Essex landowner.
The Smithsí marriage remained childless, too, although the husband had an illegitimate son, Thomas, three years older than Lord Edward, who may have spent some time in the family household. Disburdened of raising her own brood, Philippa Smith, in her early thirties at the time, was probably the closest the former Hedingham resident ever had to a caring mother figure in his life. When, as a young adult, Edward de Vere was recuperating from a deadly illness, he holed himself up amid surroundings that must have sparked childhood memories of a nurturing environmentóthe nearby town of Windsor.
Nurturing, however, would only have consumed a small portion of the dayís agenda in the Smith household.
Education started early in those days. In one extreme example, the French essayist Montaigne was already fluent in Latin by the age of six. Nobles in particular were given little time to enjoy childhood. In the words of the handbook on upper-class child-rearing, Thomas Elyotís Boke Named the Governour (1531), ìThat infelicity of our time and country compelleth us to encroach somewhat upon the years of children, and especially of noblemen, that they may sooner attain to wisdom and gravity.î What a student might today encounter in college was deemed appropriate for elementary-school-aged children.
Some of Lord Edwardís earliest lessons were at the hands of a truly gifted educator. According to Smithís twentieth-century biographer Mary Dewar, ìThere is evidence that [Smith] was an outstanding teacher. Apart from his brilliant formal ëoratoryí he held strong views on the techniques of teaching and thorough study. His recommendations to young students intending to apply themselves to the law in his inaugural lecture are formidable.î One contemporary even compared Sir Thomas Smith to Plato.
The analogy was aptóand not just for Smithís tendency to surround himself with the brightest young minds. Intellectually, Smith was also an insatiable omnivore. In his biographer Dewarís words, ì[Smithís] colleagues and students were always dazzled by his wide range of interests and impressed by his capacity to discuss any topic and pronounce learnedly in almost any field of study.î One of Smithís students called Smith ìthe flower of the University of Cambridge.î According to Smithís seventeenth-century biographer John Strype, Smith was ìreckoned the best scholar [at Cambridge] University, not only for rhetoric and the learned languages, but for mathematics, arithmetic, law, natural and moral philosophy.î
Lord Edward, as his ìscholar,î would have had access to Smithís library of hundreds of books. In 1566, Smith inventoried his collection at more than four hundred titlesóquite sizable for its dayóin theology, civil law, history, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, grammar, and literature. Nearly all these works were in foreign tongues. Smith was fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, and Hebrew; itís likely that the scholar introduced his student to these languages via the cornucopia of culture at his fingertips. Works by Livy, Tacitus, Virgil, Plutarch, Saxo Grammaticus, Edward Halle, Plato, Pliny, Homer, Ovid, Pindar, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Plautus, Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio lined Smithís bookshelves. Modern scholars have found all of these authors inspiring and informing the writings of Shake-speare.
In 1554, Smith was working on what would become an influential tract concerning international economics, ìFor the Understanding of the Exchange.î Smith also interested himself in mathematics, geography, and astronomy and indulged these scientific instincts with projects (erecting sundials and constructing geographical globes) and experiments (he would conduct his own observations of the supernova of 1572). Smithís textbook on government and politics De Republica Anglorum would influence the Shake-speare history plays as well as Measure for Measure and Julius Caesar. Observations Smith recorded about Spanish pronunciation show up in Loveís Labors Lost. Smithís fascination with horticulture, pharmacology, and medicine is shared by Shake-speare, who specialists in these fields say must have been an ìexpert gardenerî and ìan apothecary and a student of medicine.î Smith did not shy away from heretical writings, either, carrying both Copernicusís revolutionary tract on cosmology De Revolutionibus and the complete works of NiccolÚ Machiavelli in his library.
At the center of Smithís universe, though, was the law. Legal studies represented to Smith an ideal playground for the true Renaissance intellect. The educator reserved contempt for lawyers who practiced as if the law were an isolated subject unto itself. Following Justinianís Pandects, the classic treatise interpreting Roman law, Smith believed legal training first required a mastery of subjects including philosophy, rhetoric, language, and history. One of Smithís later students, the Cambridge academic Gabriel Harvey, recorded in his journals his frustration at the reading Smith mandated before a student could even crack the spine on Justinian.
For nearly two centuries, eminent lawyers and judges have recognized in Shake-speare a fellow man of the craft, someone whose unerring legal allusions and metaphors betrayed an expertise that can only have come from years of study in the field. With Sir Thomas Smith as his earliest teacher, it is little wonder that Shake-speare used legal terminology, in the words of the nineteenth-century legal historian Richard Grant White, ìas if it were a part of the language of his daily life, making no mistakes that can be detected by a learned professional critic.î
Beyond the rigors of legal studies, Lord Edward would also have learned the forms of recreation that rounded out a gentlemanís education. Chief among those were hawking and hunting. Commoners were traditionally prohibited from either hunting deer or keeping a bird of preyóalthough these prohibitions did not prevent hunting from becoming a popular Elizabethan sport. The arcane terminology of hunting and hawkingó intentionally kept arcane to enforce the conventional class distinctionsóserves as fodder in Shake-speare for vivid metaphors concerning love, marriage, death, war, and sex. The hunt and the law both represented worlds apart from the experience of many English subjects. Both would have become firsthand knowledge at Ankerwicke.
The year 1558 marked two major events in Edward de Vereís life: He began his brief university career, and his queen came to the throne. The two were probably connected. As a Protestant and a former Secretary of State, Smith expected that he would hold government office again under the Protestant Elizabeth. When Queen Mary was discovered to be suffering from cancer, Smith prepared to return to the seat of power. In October 1558, a month before Queen Maryís death, de Vere was enrolled at Smithís alma mater, Queensí College at Cambridge University. Men typically went to college in their early teens. As de Vere was only eight, he was entered as impubes, too young to take the universityís oath of fidelity. Three months later, de Vere also enrolled at St. Johnís College, although he continued to reside at Queensí College.
De Vereís curriculum at Cambridge does not survive. Only one recordóconcerning the replacement of a broken windowpane in de Vereís Queensí College dormitory roomó taunts the ages with its inconsequence.
The turbulence of a Catholic nation turned Protestant turned Catholic about to turn Protestant again was mirrored in the Cambridge University campus. Once the nationís wellspring of higher learning, Cambridge under Mary Tudor had become a reactionary government institution given over to despotism. To be admitted for a degree, Cambridge students in Queen Maryís day had to swear an oath of papal supremacy and condemn as ìpestiferous heresiesî the teachings of Martin Luther and his ilk. Two years before Edward de Vereís enrollment, the Kingís College scholar John Hullier was arrested for nonconformity and burned alive by the banks of the river Cam. In an even more ghastly display of Marian barbarity, the bodies of two recently deceased foreign Protestant professors had been exhumed, chained together, and publicly burned on the universityís Market Hill.
Nonetheless, the eight-year-oldís brief stay on campus was probably enlightened by Cambridgeís one beacon of learning during the dark decade of the 1550s, Dr. John Caius. Caius was a cosmopolitan and moderate Catholic professor of medicine, who had studied anatomy under Andreas Vesalius at the University of Padua in that faraway Italian Renaissance utopia, the Republic of Venice. De Vere would later reencounter Caius once the doctor had been appointed court physician to the soon-to-be-crowned queen Elizabeth. Caius (d. 1573) would twice be memorialized by name in Shake-speare, both in the character of the French doctor in Merry Wives of Windsor and in the alias the Earl of Kent assumes during his period of exile in King Lear.
Also in 1558, state records reveal the hiring of the tutor Thomas Fowle for de Vere. The post carried with it a handsome annuity of £10. Fowle was a hot-blooded Protestant, like Smith, although less distinguished in his erudition. Fowleís scholarly record and curriculum with de Vere do not survive, nor do accounts of his teaching style.
On November 17, 1558, cancer retrieved Bloody Mary from her missionary calling on this earth. The passing of Mary Tudor marked the third British royal death in nearly twelve years. The prospects for yet another short-lived Tudor monarchy tainted the enthusiasm that greeted the wan and frail-looking Elizabeth as she entered London six days later. The twenty-five-year-old queen consulted her astrologers for the most auspicious date to be crowned Elizabeth I of England, Ireland, and France. (England still hadnít come to grips with its loss of the last patch of French soil, Calais, earlier in the year.) Her Majesty waited until after the Christmas season had passed.
During December and January, foreign visitors to London could be forgiven for believing that the city was under siege. Cannon fire from the Tower and from specially equipped barges on the Thames punctuated the young queenís frequent visits throughout the city and Westminster. From Elizabethís first days on the throne, she was no cloistered royal, sheltered from her subjects like a precious work of art. Elizabeth was a true politician, in the modern sense of the word, and she could win over a room or work a crowd like any of the best vote-seekers today.
Practically evey nobleman and -woman in the nationóand not a few of the thousands of English gentry, tooóattended Queen Elizabethís coronation and banquet on January 15, 1559. The eight-year-old Lord Edward undoubtedly made the pilgrimage with his fellow Cambridge students to Westminster sometime in early January. Earl John had claimed his ancestral right as Lord Great Chamberlain of England to serve as royal water-bearer, enabling Her Majesty to symbolically wash herself before and after the coronation feast. De Vereís mother, Countess Margery, served as one of the queenís numerous ladies-in- waiting at the Westminster Abbey service.
As if inaugurating the stylistic Renaissance her reign would usher in, Elizabeth had four complete outfits made for each portion of the dayís proceedings. In her city processional gown, Her Majesty frequently stopped the royal train along the parade route to converse with subjects presenting Christian tableaux and allegories of time and justice. Elizabethís remarkable gift for oratory is preserved in this, her first official day as monarch addressing her subjects. ìI will be as good unto you as ever queen was to her people,î she told the assembled crowds in Londonís Cheapside. ìNo will in me can lack. Neither, do I trust, shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare, if need be, to spend my blood.î
Her coronation service, complete with two costume changes, featured a monarch for the first time swearing the oath of office on an English Bible. Bowing to Catholic tradition, some of the ceremony was read in Latin. The archbishop also elevated the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. But, although she took communion, the Anglican Elizabeth withdrew herself behind a curtain during the elevation of the Host. The feast that followed, celebrating a newly crowned monarch resplendent in violet velvet, carried on from three p.m. till one oíclock the following morning.
As an introduction to the woman who, in concert with her chief ministers, would map out the terrain that Lord Edward would be navigating for the rest of his life, the festivities of January 15 must have been as overwhelming and exhausting as the voluminous accounts of the day that soon appeared in London booksellersí stalls.
The following fall, Queen Elizabeth gave Sir Thomas Smith, Earl John, and the queenís handsome favorite, Lord Robert Dudley, an assignment. She had already begun entertaining suitors for her hand in marriage, and the duke of Finland would soon sail to England to press the case for his elder brother Eric, king of Sweden. In early October of 1559, the group rode to Colchester to greet the duke. Lord Edward probably joined his tutor and father on the journey.
With the accession of Queen Elizabeth, Dudley had vaulted to a position of unrivaled power unlike any other during the whole of the Elizabethan age. He was also emerging as a serious candidate for Elizabethís hand. Dudleyís greatest hindrance at the time was the inconvenient fact that he was already married.
Dudley, Smith, and Earl John escorted the Swedish noble through Colchester, parading their train through the hilly town with all the ceremony befitting royalty. Hundreds rode in formation, with eighty men displaying gold chains and the tawny livery of the earls of Oxford. Following the train were two hundred more yeomen bearing an embroidered emblem of the blue boar, the earl of Oxfordís heraldic badge, on their left shoulder. The columns of horses, men, and military hardware then set off for London, where the journey would end at Oxford House near London Stone.
Both court and Parliament were working to ensure that Elizabeth marry soon. All but perhaps Elizabeth herself hoped that, within a few years at most, a sensible husbandónot the Master of the Horse Dudleyócould be settled upon. Then the real business of running England could begin. And Elizabeth could concern herself with the proper role of queens: delivering heirs to the throne.
That Her Majesty would soon marry was taken as a given. The disastrous reign of Elizabethís predecessor Mary only reinforced the prevailing prejudice that a woman was simply incapable of running a country by herself. As the Protestant polemicist John Knox wrote in 1558, ìTo promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.î Quotations from the Bible and from Aristotle buttressed Knoxís ad feminam attack, which was repeated in more muted tones by authors such as Thomas Becon and even Sir Thomas Smith.
However, Elizabeth confounded the pundits of her day. Her refusal to marry Sweden would be the first of many nuptial evasions.
When news arrived in 1561 that the still unmarried queen would be visiting Castle Hedingham in August, little in the eleven-year-old Edwardís life could have been more exciting. For a few glorious days, all the power and stature belonging to this realm would be contained within the walls of his familyís ancestral estate. His father would be the center of the courtís attention.
The Elizabethan royal summer progress, of which the 1561 Hedingham visit played just one small part, was the queenís great annual outreach campaign. In July, Elizabeth would depart from the cityówhich during the summer became more subject to plague outbreaks anyway. Her Majesty would invite herself into the country seats of ten or fifteen noble families. The queen and the hundreds of retainers and courtiers that made up her royal household would take over their hostsí estates for several days of feasting, hunting, and entertainments. As one Puritan critic wrote, during the annual progress season Elizabeth was ìentirely given over to love, hunting, hawking, and dancing, consuming day and night with trifles [plays]. . . . He who invents most ways of wasting time is regarded as one worthy of honor.î And it was the progress that made each of these diversions a full- time job that carried on into the fall.
More than three hundred carts, stretching down the road as far as the eye could see, trucked luggage and provisions from site to site.
At each stop, the queen would address and mingle with hundreds of locals from the surrounding shires. It appealed to her notorious vanity to be treated like an earthbound deity by a new phalanx of admirers every few days. Simply by visiting a household, she paid her host family a singular honor. However, each household also tried to outdo all others in extravagance. All parties thus conspired to maximize the estate-crushing magnitude of their burden. In her wake, Elizabeth often left behind a family whose purse had been ransacked. And the deer population in her hostsí parks, decimated by the wholesale slaughter that was the typical royal hunting party, might take years to restore. Elizabethís 1561 progress worked its way northeast from greater London and Havering into Chelmsford and to the city of Colchesterówhere Sir Thomas Smith, Earl John, and Lord Robert Dudley had met the Swedish embassy to England two years before. Britainís oldest recorded town, Colchester was once the capital of Roman Britain, with ruins dating back to the pre-Christian era.
On August 6ñ9, Queen Elizabeth and her roving train of opulenceówhich, one is tempted to suppose, included an eleven-year-old heir to the regionís great earldomó descended upon Ipswich.
Although the Ipswich city fathers entertained the court with all the customary pageantry, the queen still lost her temper at her hosts. Her Majesty was shocked to find widespread ìundiscreet behaviorî among the ministers and readers at the colleges. There was, as one courtly correspondent lamented to the archbishop of Canterbury, a ìgreat variety in [ad]ministrationî of communion, including clerics giving the sacrament in their street clothes. ìThe ministers follow the folly of the people,î the letter writer added, ìcalling it charity to feed their fond humor.î Elizabeth was most shocked by the presence of women and children in the sacred spaces of the colleges and cathedral closes. Then and there she wanted to prohibit clergy from marrying altogether. But she was talked down to proclaiming an edict that only prohibited women from lodging at the universities. This measure would later come back to haunt the queenóand provide inspiration for the comedy Loveís Laborís Lost.
Also at Ipswich, Elizabeth and her assembled throng took in one or more plays written by the former Carmelite monk John Bale. The Ipswich players, it is now thought, staged his history of the reign of King John. Baleís King Johan was a work of Protestant propaganda that had debuted before the court of Elizabethís father twenty-five years before. Scholars have long noted Baleís likely influence on the Shake-speare play King John, even though Baleís King Johan was available only in manuscript and never, so far as is known, staged anytime after the early 1560s. If the young de Vere were not in the audience that night in Ipswich, he would at least have had access to Baleís manuscript, since Earl John had been one of Baleís longtime patrons.
King Johan purports to tell the history of Englandís legendary thirteenth-century kingóa man most famous today for his reluctant signing of Magna Carta. However, King Johan in no small part is also about sixteenth-century England. Since King Johnís claim to the throne was often compared to Queen Elizabethís, any play celebrating Johnís reign was, by extension, a public affirmation of Elizabethís sovereignty.
The Protestant propaganda in Baleís King Johan is impossible to miss. Throughout the play, Baleís righteous, antipapist king opposes such transparently Catholic villains as Sedition, Dissimulation, Treason, Usurped Power (symbolizing the pope), and Private Wealth (a cardinal). Sedition and Dissimulation ultimately succeed in assassinating the king, but the noble hero Verity (Baleís tip of the hat to his patron) emerges to defend the kingís good name and to help his colleague Imperial Majesty (the House of Tudor) carry Johnís anti-Catholic crusade forward. ìHe that condemneth a king condemneth God without doubt,î says Verity. ì. . . I charge you, therefore, as God hath charged me, to give to your king his due supremityóand exile the pope [from] this realm for evermore.î
Though the play seems heavy-handed today, King Johan was in fact a groundbreaking piece of drama for its time. It departed from the traditional morality plays by dramatizing contemporary politics, drawing upon English historyónot just biblical tales or folkloreó as the playwrightís polemical tool. It was also the first English play to cast a historical English king as a character onstage and to portray a tragic hero as a man of essential virtues, not just vice.
One can readily picture Bale, a learned and contentious sixty-five-year-old, greeting the heir to his patronís earldom. The eleven-year-old child had probably never met a playwright before this moment. The young de Vere would certainly have been impressed by the royal and courtly attention lavished upon the dramatist. Whether at Castle Hedingham or later, after heíd inherited the familyís papers and manuscripts, de Vere could also have read Baleís other writings, including his history of a knight from King Henry Vís day. Baleís Chronicle of the Blessed Martyr Sir John Oldcastle exhorts English authors to retell English history with a decidedly Protestant slant now that England has thrown off the yoke of Rome. ìSet forth the English chronicles in their right shape,î Bale urges his readers. De Vere would, in fact, grow up to do just this, crafting an entire epic of history plays that refocused and distorted English history so as to, as Bale puts it, discard old ìRomish lies and other Italish beggaries.î The most celebrated character from the Shake-speare history plays, Sir John Falstaff, would be based in part on Oldcastle.
Also on hand during the August 1561 progress to Castle Hedingham was a man Sir Thomas Smith had known since his earliest days at Cambridge. Much to Smithís frustration, Sir William Cecil had advanced in government far beyond him. During Maryís reign, Cecil had helped to orchestrate Princess Elizabethís survival and ultimate rise to power. While outwardly conforming to Catholicismóone contemporary called Cecil a ìcreeper to the crossîóCecil had also maintained a secret correspondence with the princess, providing her with insider knowledge from the court and valuable counsel. As an administrator, Cecil proved to be an undisputed master. At times strategically savvy and sly as a fox, he could also be a maddeningly plodding and unoriginal thinker. But it was his keen instinct for political survival that made him Elizabethís closest and dearest advisor and, as she put it, her ìcode of laws.î The queen would keep this wily statesman, a man she would nickname ìSir Spirit,î by her side until his dying day.
A crafty, scheming, and disarmingly politic man, Cecil at age forty had already become the most powerful man in England short of Elizabethís favorite, Dudley. Earlier in the year, before his appearance at Castle Hedingham, Elizabeth had appointed Cecil to the coveted post of Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries. The court of wards was an institution set up to supervise the lands and wealth of underage heirs and to arrange their marriages. It was a plum of an assignment, since the Master of Wards had notorious leeway to tap into and otherwise manipulate some of the countryís richest estates. The office had been profitable for Cecilís predecessor Sir Thomas Parry, and Cecil would harvest this cash farm to his own financial and political advantage.
At the time of the queenís Hedingham visit, Cecilís son Thomas was living in Paris. According to intelligence Cecil had gathered, Thomas was also gaining a reputation as a lout. As the elder Cecil wrote in a letter posted from Hedingham, he had learned that his child was becoming ìsloth[ful] in keeping his bed, negligent and rash in expenses, careless in apparel, an immoderate lover of dice and cards; in study soon weary, in game never.î De Vere would later caricature Cecil as Hamletís officious and manipulative court counselor Poloniusówho sends his spies to check on his wayward son Laertes, living in Paris.
Sometime around or soon after the departure of the queenís train from Hedingham, Earl John began to negotiate with a family of royal lineage for marriage with Lord Edward. On July 1, 1562, Earl John and Henry Hastings, earl of Huntington, drew up a marriage contract. This agreement ensured that Edward, once he turned eighteen, could choose one of Henry Hastingsís younger sistersóMary or Elizabethóto be his bride. The twenty- seven-year-old earl of Huntington was descended of royal blood from a brother to Richard III and was considered at the time the most likely inheritor of the throne should Queen Elizabeth die childless. Earl John had secured a step up in the world for his son, enabling Edward to marry into a potential future royal family of England.
At twelve, Edward was still two years shy of the legal age of consent for marriage contracts. The Hastingsñde Vere deal was not legally binding in 1562. However, to ensure that the Hastingsñde Vere marriage go through, the two patriarchs would only need to reaffirm the contract in April 1564, once Edward had reached the age of consent. If he played the courtly game right, Edwardís children or grandchildren might someday look forward to sitting on the throne of England themselves.
But those royal progeny were not meant to be. Mary Hastings would, in fact, die years later, an unmarried woman. Yet this tall, lean and fair-haired beauty exerted enough of a sentimental tug on the authorís heartstrings that he would later look fondly back upon her as one that got away, a loveís labor lost. Hastings would later cause a scene at court when she publicly refused a marriage offer by the czar of Muscovyís envoy. The event gained so much notoriety that Loveís Laborís Lost spoofs it. The playís wooing lords (Ferdinand, Longaville, Berowne, and Dumaine) disguise themselves as ambassadors from Muscovy and try to win over the mistress Maria (Mary Hastings) and her friends. But just as Mary Hastings dressed down the real-life Russians, in Loveís Laborís Lost Maria and her three friends rebuke the supposed Muscovites.
The Hastings daughters would constitute the final image of de Vereís childhood. Maryís eyes may have uttered ìheavenly rhetoricî and she may have been the ìempress of . . . Loveîóto quote the infatuated suitor describing Maria in Loveís Laborís Lost. But the ìvapor vowî to Mary/Maria would soon be broken, though it was, as the forsworn suitor says, ìno fault of mine.î Only a month after Earl John had sealed the marriage contract with the Hastings family, a new and unexpected shock wave would shake the foundations of Lord Edwardís world.
On August 3, 1562, at Castle Hedingham, Edwardís father died. Earl John was forty- three years old. Heíd prepared a willóhis second known willóless than a week beforehand. Although this act might seem like hasty preparations for the hereafter, the historical record suggests Earl John was neither ailing nor on deathís doorstep at the time. In late June, the sixteenth earl had accompanied his dramatic troupe on a tour to Ipswich and had adjudicated day-to-day business of the local government, collecting fees from the local ìalehouses and tipling houses.î The language of the earl of Huntington marriage contract also suggests the father of the presumptive groom anticipated a long lifeó stipulating provisions presuming a time when Earl John would have other male children of his own and even when he would become a grandfather.
Before his fatherís death, life was good with all the prospects only getting better. Lord Edward looked forward to his teenaged years, free from the burdens of labor, enjoying some of the finest opportunities the Elizabethan Age had to offer in learning and leisure.
But now, whether he wanted the title or not, the twelve-year-old Edward de Vere had become the seventeenth earl of Oxford. Because he was still in his minority, Lord Edward would now be under the administration of the royal Court of Wards and Liveries. His marriage would become a commodity to be bought or sold like property by Sir William Cecil, Master of the Court of Wards. With Earl Johnís death, the Hastings marriage deal was effectively over before it had even been made official. Any fantasies of marrying into a potential royal family of England were now just so much faerie dust.
The loveís labor that de Vere had lost was not just Mary Hastings or her sister Elizabeth. It was also an entire alternate universe wherein de Vere had remained the master of his own fate into his young adulthood.
But how much had the twelve-year-old boy come to know the foreboding figure of his father? Behind the Shake-speare mask, he would twice portray Earl Johnís passingóin Allís Well That Ends Well and Hamletóas something that takes place before the playís action begins, an event that carries less significance in itself than it does in its aftermath. Edward knew his father in death, one suspects, as he did in life: a specter to be contemplated from a distance.
Edward, Countess Margery, and several trusted servants were brought in as executors of the sixteenth earlís will. Earl John left household items, livestock, several manors, and money to various friends, servants, family, and charities.
Earl John had also vested a ìuseî on his properties wherein he conveyed them in trust to the duke of Norfolkóa twenty-six-year-old nephewóand to the queenís favorite, Sir Robert Dudley. It was a legalistic trick sometimes used to avoid the possibility of a child losing his inheritance in the Court of Wards bureaucracy.
However, from a childís perspective, the ìuseî surely looked like trading one swindle for another. For in short order, records of the Court of Wards reveal that Dudley had been rewarded with ìall . . . the lands . . . and all and singular there appertaining in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, late the inheritance of the Right Hon. John de Vere, earl of Oxford.î In scarcely more than a year after Earl Johnís death, Edwardís mother was complaining about Dudleyís diversion of revenues from the farm income of Earls Colne to line his own pockets.
In 1562, Dudley was worrying other courtiers, since his wife, Amy Robsart, had recently been found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Dudley was now available to marry Elizabeth and become King Robert.
It doesnít take a paranoiac to piece together Dudleyís gains derived from Earl Johnís deathóboth de Vere family properties and the nullifying of Edwardís marriage match with potential royal significanceóand wonder whether the usurper was also a murderer.
In Hamlet the theft of family inheritance and the murder of a father achieve tragic grandeur. Shake-speareís Hamlet is concerned, not only with the passing of his father, but also with his lost family properties. As hamlet notes, ìI can say nothingóno, not for a king upon whose property and most dear life a damned defeat was madeî (emphasis added); the prince later adds that his father was poisoned ìfor his estate.î
Edwardís noninheritance would be his first taste of the brutal and backstabbing world of the Tudor court. To survive, he, too, would learn the language of courtly realpolitikóa dialect that he would ultimately translate for the stage under the Shake-speare guise. This ìriotous inn,î this ìpalace of tongues,î would be home for the rest of de Vereís life. And the author would soon enough find that ìthe art oí the court,î in the words of a banished courtier in Cymbeline, is ìas hard to leave as keep, whose top to climb is certain falling, or so slippery that the fearís as bad as falling.î
Earl Johnís body lay at Castle Hedingham for twenty-two days as the family made funeral arrangements. Noble funerals were events of consequence and pomp, like a wedding, that required weeks of planning. Heralds from the Royal College of Arms were typically called in as freelance consultantsófunerals were an important source of income for themóto plan the ceremony and prepare the many heraldic banners and badges that would festoon the church and adorn the liveries of the servants performing their various ceremonial duties. In the words of the diarist Henry Machyn, Earl Johnís funeral at the end of August, held probably at the parish church at Earls Colne, featured ìthree Heralds of Arms . . . with a standard and a great banner of arms, and eight banner rolls, crest, target, sword, and coat armor, and a hearse with velvet and a pall of velvet and a dozen of scutcheons [heraldic shields] and with many mourners in black; and a great moan was made for him.î
Three days after burying his father, de Vere prepared to leave the quiet world of country estates and hilltop luxuries behind. The knowledge he had absorbed after years of intensive schooling, under the likes of Sir Thomas Smith and Thomas Fowle, would now lie offstage. At the other end of his journey, as the child readied his train of servants to depart out of the Castle Hedingham gates, stood a world of power, mystery, and romance that the boy must have dreaded as much as he yearned for it.
His immediate future was now to serve as a ward of the crown, living in the household of that strange, officious man whom the boy had seen the year before spying on his own son. Sir William Cecil was to be the childís new foster father. The halcyon days of youth had come to an abrupt end. He would depict this moment, in its shocking starkness, in the opening lines of Allís Well That Ends Well:
Countess In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband. Bertram And I in going, madam, weep oíer my fatherís death anew; but I must attend His Majestyís command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection.
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