Much Virtue in “If”

April 4th, 2011 20 comments
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Now available in paperback from Grove Press, with a new forward by James Norwood, Professor of Humanities, University of Minnesota:

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom: the True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth

by Charles Beauclerk

Grove Press, 2011

Now is this golden crown like a deep well

That owes two buckets, filling one another

The emptier ever dancing in the air

the other down, unseen, and full of water.

What makes a history of Shakespeare “true”?  Charles Beauclerk’s story begins propitiously – he has the right man, Edward de Vere, and he knows that Edward de Vere drew from a deep, unfathomable well:

…the process of making images is largely unconscious, fashioned from the invisible components of the individual imagination, rather like an alphabet arising out of the unconscious of a new race.  … In this hinterland of the soul, where images hatch, we are very close to the heartbeat of motivation, of sensing why an author writes as he does.  (SLK, p. 156)

Remarkably, the author also knows his own part – and the part that every lover of Shakespeare’s poetry performs –  when we set out to transcribe and interpret these heartbeats:

We respond to him on a preconscious level – between the lines – almost as if we were co-creators, for the dynamic field in which his unconscious mind intersects with ours is intensely alive, making his work strongly akin to music.   (SLK p. 164)

This unconscious intersection with our will, powered by Shakespeare’s irresistibly mellifluous lines, is a form of magic.  We can’t help wanting to take his words in, to have them “by heart”, to release them on our own breath.  We are enchanted, and in this state, Shakespeare’s story – the one we read between the lines of his kings and queens and all their devastating follies – touches a part of us that makes us love him and want to protect him.

The facts of Edward de Vere’s troubled biography, placed alongside this poetry, vibrate through every synapse of the work, charging the lines, images and words with sparks of meaning.  By the light of these shooting stars, like the bewitching glow of Ariel’s “flamed amazement” on the topmast of our brave vessel, we read and listen for his heartbeat, instead of our own.

But are these new signals yielding a “true” history of Shakespeare?  Such a prodigious intelligence will not give up its mysteries to weekend stargazers.  Like Dante, Shakespeare dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher.  Does Charles Beauclerk have the key to Shakespeare’s dramatic alphabet?  I think he has one vital part of it.  Towards the end of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, he tells us that “an essential quality of the plays themselves” is that “they are the life, not only of the dramatist, but of the times in which he lived.  Their fabulousness is their reality.” (SLK p. 325)  In other words – and I hope I do justice to what Charles intended here – Shakespeare’s plays and poems are fables.  They may be populated with what seem to be real people from de Vere’s life, but their “reality” has been transformed into something necessary to the poet.

The truth of fables is not a literal truth, that we can prove or disprove with historical documents, but a psychic one, transferred from the poet to the heart and mind of the true listener.  The fabulous subconscious story that Charles Beauclerk hears is in some ways the same story that Edward de Vere seems to be whispering in my ear, each time I go back and read The Collected Works of William Shakespeare cover to cover.  This tragic tale has five essential components:

1. Shakespeare’s works betray a very personal, hyper-sensitivity to the stain of bastardy.

2. He thought of himself as a Prince, but along the way he lost his kingdom.

3. His poetic gift compelled him to transform the dross and agony of life into a surrogate kingdom of the mind.

4. His dramatic portrayals of Elizabeth suggest a privileged but volatile relationship.

5. “Shakespeare’s desire for vengeance was real and one of the great motivating forces of the canon.” (SLK, p. 274)

Even when one disagrees intensely – as I most emphatically do – with some of Charles Beauclerk’s basic assumptions and theories, the great wonder of his “true history” is how much of what he draws up from below the mottled surface scum of the well remains pertinent.  One bucket – for supporting facts in the historical record, cautiously interpreted – is often the emptier, and dances in the air, but the other sinks deep, and fills with water.  Beauclerk is extraordinarily attuned to Edward de Vere’s personal transformations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with a keen eye for permutations of the Actaeon myth.  Here are a few examples of what you will miss, if in your aversion to Prince Tudor theory or insistence upon historiographical rigor you neglect to read Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, as I almost did:

In another extraordinary resurfacing of the Actaeon myth, Tamora is compared to Diana, the moon goddess.  When Lavinia and her husband, Bassianus, come upon Tamora in the woods, the empress tells Bassianus that had she Diana’s power she would mete out the same punishment to him that Actaeon suffered at the hands of the goddess.  In the end, it is Lavinia who is fated to drink from this bitter cup, for like Actaeon transformed into a stag she loses the power of speech, and her delicate hands are turned into hooflike stumps.” (p. 273)

Titus is a play that I know quite well, but this searing vision of Lavinia as a silent stag was a revelation for me.   Venturing into more heretical territory, Beauclerk offers a terrifying insight into the personal relevance of Shakespeare’s two published poems, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece:

Venus, who at the end of the previous poem flew off to Paphos, where she meant to “immure herself and not be seen,” is transformed into the chaste and cloistered Lucrece; and the boar-pierced Adonis becomes “lust-breathed” Tarquin, who in destroying the chastity of “the silver moon,” as Shakespeare describes Lucrece – i.e., in deflowering the goddess – brings down the monarchy.  Thus Adonis becomes both the flower and the serpent under it.  The flower that the goddess presses to her bosom is beautiful but deadly, rather like the asp that Cleopatra nurses at her breast.  Thus the Shakespearean hero-archetype embodies within himself both the redeemer (Adonis) and the destroyer (Tarquin)… (p. 176)

“Thus Adonis becomes both the flower and the serpent”: I had suspected as much, but have never had the courage to raise this topic for discussion in the usual Oxfordian chat-rooms and other venues.  In this, and in his recognition of Oxford’s vengeful nature, (quoted above), we seem to have witnessed the same disturbing basilisk, daring us to look in his eyes.  Beauclerk doesn’t flinch; his commentary on Falstaff is chilling in its penetrating accuracy:

Ultimately, Falstaff is imprisoned in his own kingdom of language, where wit takes precedence over feeling.  When he says that his womb undoes him, it is his womb of wit – his invention – rather than his great belly.  Though wondrously humorous, the fat knight seems to have almost no feeling toward others; he is too wrapped up in the great adventure on which his great wit is willy-nilly leading him.

Now for our differences.  They are many, but only one really matters:  Who were Edward de Vere’s true parents? Charles Beauclerk’s history begins with the tentative proposition that Oxford was the child of Princess Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour.  Note the word “tentative”, which I’ll get to in a moment.   My position is that Edward was John de Vere’s firstborn son, but not securely legitimate, as the historical records show.  The following brief essays, along with the file on the 1585 Depositions, outline the historical and literary basis for my alternative theory, that Joan Jockey may have been Edward’s true mother: John de Vere’s firstborn son; The Goddess of Justice; “Why dost not speak to me?”; “You bee a sort of knaves”, sayd Skelton; 1585 Depositions Concerning Oxford’s Legitimacy

When Beauclerk chose to build his story around the second Prince Tudor theory, surely he knew he was taking on a highly controversial and divisive premise.  Disarmingly, with strategically placed deployments of “if” and “seems” and “whether… or not”, he allows for our hesitations and doubts: when all is said and done, perhaps we will not find that he has proven his hypothesis: 

p. 41 “Whether she bore a child by Seymour or not…

p. 92:  “Thus, if Oxford was Elizabeth’s son…”

p. 101: “….like Hamlet he was, it seems, the son of the queen.”

p. 158: “And if his mother was the Virgin Queen…”

p. 224: “If Shakespeare was indeed the son of the Virgin Queen…”

p. 296: “Whether he was the queen’s son or not…”

p. 322: “… and Shakespeare, it seems, was the fruit of that trespass.”

p. 334: “…in Oxford’s case, if, as the evidence suggests, his mother was the most powerful woman…”

As Touchstone wittily puts it, “Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If!”

Here’s an “if” in return: “If Edward de Vere knew for certain that he wasn’t John de Vere’s son, but instead, was the bastard son of Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour, how would he feel about the exchange?”  On page 86, Beauclerk writes:

Whatever comforts he could press to his bosom Edward de Vere knew for certain that there were those about him who saw through his “Oxford” mask; nor could he draw solace from the fact that the blood of the Tudors flowed in his veins, for his royal birth was far from being a political reality. [emphasis added]

But beginning on p. 231, under the sub-heading “Tudor-Celtic Mythology”, he exposes the less-than-glamorous roots of the Tudor dynasty:

The Tudors were Welsh landowners…  …In the Tudors we have a self-consciously created dynasty aware of their weak claim to the throne, who buttressed their credentials by tracing their line from King Arthur, the once and future king.  In naming his firstborn son Arthur and having him christened at Winchester Cathedral, Henry VII was deliberately invoking the chivalry and glamour of Britain’s semi-mythical past, a considerable irony in view of his own grasping, ungenerous nature and his relentless undermining of the old feudal nobility. (SLK, p. 232)

Lest we forget, neither Edward Oxenford nor William Shakespeare ever wrote a play about Henry VII, whom Francis Bacon tells us severely undermined the 13th earl of Oxford’s power, in an apocryphal tale that sounds very much like one of madcap Ned de Vere’s bibulous inventions.  Continuing his deconstruction of the Tudor Myth, Beauclerk writes:

The Tudors, in the grandiosity generated by their lineal insecurity, embraced the notion that they were the promised descendants of Arthur…

Once on the throne, [Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond] played up the romantic image his deeds fostered in people’s minds.  In truth, the Tudor dynasty was founded upon conquest (and the killing of a king).”   “Despite his insistence that this was a reconquest, which avenged the original Saxon invasion, a deep insecurity accompanied the dynasty through its 118 years of rule. (p. 233)

Life for [Henry VIII] was theater; his every act invited a fanfare.  Yet all this show masked a deep insecurity, which became more conspicuous as his reign ripened. (p. 235)

As pater patriae (father of his people) and supreme governor of the Church of England, Henry VIII invested the monarchy with a revitalized, almost mystical sense of its sovereignty, yet he was an imperialist in outlook.  … His veneration for the traditions, music and architecture of the Catholic church sat uncomfortably with his desecration of the monasteries, and his love of chivalry and the joust contradicted his protracted attacks on the old feudal nobility. (p. 236)

Would the 17th earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England, whose ancestors came in with William the Conqueror, have drawn any solace from losing his de Vere blood in exchange for that of the insecure Tudors?  I don’t think so.

In my reading of the evidence, both historical and literary, the earl of Oxford drew his sustaining identity from his claim to the ancient Vere line and their affinity.  Their historical triumphs and quarrels were part of his legacy; their family traits were in his genetic makeup.  If Nick Bottom’s “mythic DNA is the Minotaur, the monstrous son – half man, half bull – of Minos, King of Crete” (SLK, p. 202) then so too is this strain running in the veins of the man who signed himself Edward Oxenford.  When he gazed upon the faces of the effigies that once graced Colne Priory, he was seeing his grandsires and grandams, and the faces of his own future heirs.  As we read in Chapman’s eulogy of Oxford in The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois:

…he had a face

Like one of the most ancient honour’d Romans

From whence his noblest family was deriv’d.

These were his people. If we lose sight of this, we lose our first and best contact with Edward de Vere and how he became “Shakespeare”.  He loved his honor as a Vere; he owned his shame as a Vere; he wreaked his vengeance as a Vere:

…when Gloucester sees a beggar in the storm, he thinks a man a worm, and at that moment his son Edgar comes into his mind.  Edgar, the outcast son, is the worm (worm in French being ver).  When Cleopatra arranges to die in her monument, a clown enters with an asp – or worm, as he calls it – hidden in a basket of figs. (SLK p. 372)

“He that has a house to put’s head in has a good head-piece” (III.ii. 25-26)

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Say, is my kingdom lost? why, ’twas my care
And what loss is it to be rid of care? ~ Richard II

I agree with Beauclerk that Shakespeare’s plays and poems bear witness to the pain of having lost a kingdom, but in my view, (derived in large measure from the political understory of the Howard family in Titus Andronicus) that kingdom was more likely to have been in opposition to the Tudor line than a part of it.  On his own, Edward de Vere had three earthly kingdoms somewhat within his grasp, all of them lost by 1591.  The first was a Plantagenet alliance through marriage to one of the Hastings girls, which Beauclerk mentions on p. 71: “It looks as though John de Vere had taken it into his head to arrange a royal marriage for his teenage charge…”  The second was Oxford’s impetuous and near-treasonous support for his first cousin Thomas Howard, who lost his head over the hare-brained temptation to wed Mary, Queen of Scots.

The third lost kingdom, as Beauclerk notes, was the ancient seat of the Oxford earldom: “Then in December 1591, …Oxford surrendered the heart of his de Vere inheritance by alienating Hedingham Castle to Burghley in trust for his three daughters.  It was an abdication with rich consequences for literature, if King Lear is anything to judge by.” (p. 330)  But why would a prince of the realm and poet who boldly tells the queen’s chief minister “I am that I am” have any need for a paltry scepter?  Why would he be so foolish as to desire all the mundane distractions and obligations that turn a golden crown into a dull and heavy lump of lead?  The true kingdom that Oxford strove mightily to maintain in his own sovereign control was that of the mind:

As James Kirsch says of Hamlet and his father, so might we say of Shakespeare and Elizabeth: his kingdom was the inner world, hers the political realm. (p. 295)

As in Hamlet, the only true king seems to be a ghost.  Scratch the surface of these plays and one finds oneself staring at the crowned figure of vanity holding a skull in one hand and the fool’s bauble in the other. (p. 210-11)

As if he could not believe he had a true right to his inherited “kingdom” based in Essex, Oxford recklessly divested himself of all its physical trappings, till he had nothing to pass on but his name and his words.  The first went to his heirs of the blood, the second to his heirs of the spirit, an awesomely potent bequest that we still haven’t learned quite how to decipher.  The quest is daunting, too much for one lonely reader, or a whole fraternity of stargazers, to take on.  How can we bear to follow King Lear on his journey out into the raging tempest that mirrors the demons in his skull, once we know that he is not a stage puppet but a breathing portrait of the author, and the purified condensation of everything that the name “Shakespeare” calls up in our hearts and minds?  The jewel in the crown of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom is Beauclerk’s courageous attempt to do just that:

Opening one’s heart to a great work of literature of the intensity of King Lear is like setting forth on a pilgrimage toward an inner realm on the horizon of one’s being.  Reading and walking, if undertaken in the spirit of wonder and intrepidity that transforms them into a way of life, refresh the soul in profound and allied ways.  Thoreau’s advice to walkers would be my advice to Shakespeare’s readers: “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return – prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” As a work that shakes the foundations of western culture, King Lear demands this sort of self-abandonment.  We never quite return from the journey.

My copy of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom has furious scribbles in the margins of every other page, some of them less than polite.  Yet when I told Charles Beauclerk in no uncertain terms that I could not agree with his theory on Oxford’s birth, he was most gracious, replying that he is open to hearing other theories; would I send him a copy when I write up my thoughts?  His True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth may not be your cup of true, but it is certainly the work of a generous and intrepid spirit.    ~Marie Merkel

Shakespeare’s True Face

March 14th, 2011 5 comments
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Almost no one is pleased by Martin Droeshout’s engraving of our beloved “Star of Poets”.  Here’s the anonymous opinion of a writer for The Sun, reviewing Basil Brown’s Supposed Caricature of the Droeshout:

The abominable eidolon which appears in the First Folio, opposite BEN JONSON’S sly advice to the Reader to look rather upon the Booke than upon the picture, has been for nearly three hundred years the despair of everybody wondering what SHAKESPEARE’S physiognomy really was like. No human being ever even faintly resembled the Droeshout print. The face is as impossible as is the doublet of riveted boiler iron.  ~Feb. 23, 1911, The Sun

Much to be preferred would have been something more closely modeled on the movie-star handsome face in the Cobbe Portrait, or the immediately likable fellow teasing us with his ever-so-sweet-and-shy smile in the Sanders portrait.

Dream on, my friends.  Ben Jonson, who surely knew “The AVTHOR”, says this is our man:

TO THE READER:

This figure, that thou here seest put,

It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;

Wherein the Graver had a strife

with Nature, to out-doo the life:

O, could he but have drawne his wit

As well in brasse, as he hath hit

His face; the Print would then surpasse

All, that was ever writ in brasse.

But, since he cannot, Reader, looke

Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

Is Honest Ben playing with us?   As a shrewd observer of his own times, and passionate imbiber of classic and continental literature, he’s our best contemporary witness to what the real “Shakespeare”  – whoever you believe that may be – looked like, inside and out.   After all, these two enormous poetic egos haunted the same London taverns and bookstalls.  They wrote their comedies and tragedies for the same actors.  Both were born poets, as well as “made”.

In the 1590s, both collaborated with that irrepressible satirist, Thomas Nashe.  And both knew Francis Langley, lord of the manor of Paris Garden and owner of the magnificent Swan Theater.  But there was one significant difference in each man’s recorded acquaintance with this pugnacious entrepreneur.  William Shakespeare and his side-kick Langley were never arrested for their threats of bodily harm to William Wayte in 1596.  A year later, however, Ben Jonson went to prison for his part in writing the disastrous Isle of Dogs, which played at Langley’s Swan. Soon after, the Poetomachia began, during which Shakespeare gave Jonson that famous, if elusive, literary purge.

No doubt about it, Ben knew our Author, and had reason to envy, and even resent him.  When he assures us that the figure we see gracing Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was “cut” for “gentle Shakespeare”, he speaks from a uniquely privileged position.  We sense that he expects posterity will know this, and thus take him at his word.  With a poetic genius of Jonson’s caliber, however, taking him “at his word” requires us to enter his own peculiar labyrinth of associative language.

Just as we do today, Jacobean followers of Jonson’s irreverent parodies would have sifted his contribution to the First Folio for the inevitable left-handed compliment to the master.  For example, why, in such a short piece of verse, does Jonson use the word “brass” twice?  As I’ve learned by following one of the most brilliant Oxfordian researchers we have, by the time the word “brass” works its way through Jonson’s literary digestive tract, he’s wholly transformed its surface connotations.

Since 2002, Nicole Doyle has been sharing her insights into the mysteries of the Droeshout engraving –  from its mismatched eyes to its “impossible doublet” –  with members of the late Robert Brazil’s Elizaforum.  By placing these visual puzzles alongside Jonson’s words, both in the poems he wrote for Shakespeare in 1623 and where he’s used them in other works, she has shown – persuasively, in my view – that Jonson intended the reader to “read” Droeshout’s disproportionate engraving as an emblem of  Shakespeare’s deformed literary “manners”.

For Oxfordians, this means that Droeshout wasn’t hired to cut a mockery of “the Stratford Man”.   His model – and Jonson’s target – was “The AVTHOR”, whom Jonson belatedly embraces as “his beloved” for this grand occasion.  What we are seeing in this iconic emblem isn’t Edward de Vere as he saw himself in the mirror, or the achingly human and noble being he made of himself in his art, but Edward de Vere through Ben Jonson’s eyes: sans Right, sans Romance, sans Idolatry.

Most likely, Martin Droeshout began his task with an image already in existence, as the British Museum’s website explains:

An engraving is not worked directly from life, but from a flat model, either a painting or a drawing. Droeshout must have been given a painting or drawing of Shakespeare as a young man, from which to engrave his plate.

Since Oxfordians do possess the advantage of a painting or two of our “Shakespeare as a young man” – one when he was twenty-four or so, and the other from when he was in his early thirties – we can readily compare these relatively honest (if not flattering) images of Edward de Vere with the First Folio’s satiric cartoon.  Here they are, left and right profile, side by side with Droeshout’s engraving:








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After viewing the Welbeck Portrait (top, right) in 1920, J. T. Looney suggested that:

…a very strong case might be made out for Droeshout having worked from this portrait, of Edward de Vere, making modifications according to instructions.

(Appendix II of Shakespeare Identified).

What do you think?

~Marie Merkel


To the Reader.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face ; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

A Most Auspicious Star

March 7th, 2011 8 comments
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But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere
Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there !
Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets…

~ Ben Jonson, “To the memory of my beloued, The AVTHOR…”

This week, it’s my pleasure to publish a delightful Oxfordian find that landed in my mailbox a few days ago.  I do believe that what follows contains a vital new clue to the perennial mystery surrounding “The AVTHOR” of Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A Most Auspicious Star

by Richard J. Kennedy

In 1640, the publisher John Benson put forth a curious edition of Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. This was more or less the 2nd edition of the 1609 Sonnets, with a few omissions and some extra text in praise of the poet.  Amongst the many small changes in this later quarto, there are questions for the close lookers-on who have a suspicion that the makers of this 1640 edition were puzzling with the reader.

The book opens with several questions. First, there’s the frontispiece portrait. The proportions are all off and the gentleman poet, if taken to be the Stratford man, is wearing the cape of a courtier, much above his station. The verse below says that “This Shadowe is renowned Shakespear’s ?” Yet the man casts no shadow, but like some gothic undead-creep who shows no reflection in a mirror, so it is with the sitter, unless that white space is meant to be a halo.

Well, the writer poses Shakespeare’s name as a question anyway, and follows with two more question marks (the applause? delight?) where none would be wanted. Then the concluding couplet of the frontispiece poem lays out a couple of trim anagrams for Vere, precious in the sight of Oxfordians:

For ever live thy fame, the world to tell,

Thy like, no age, shall ever parallel.

In the 1609 edition of the Sonnets, the dedication page was found out by John M. Rollett to hide a cipher, which reads: “THESE SONNETS ALL BY EVER” – playing on the same ‘ever’ anagram for Vere.

Given these several visual and typographic examples of playfulness on the frontispiece of the 1640 Poems, perhaps there’s more to be found out in the front matter of that edition.  On the next page, we find a letter “To The Reader”, signed by “I.B.” (presumably John Benson) , in which the text is all italic except, in the fifth line, where the name of ‘William Shakespeare’ is straight up Roman, and on the second page, first line, the word ‘Seren’ is set in the identical font.


When the text is glossed by the scholars, they often take ‘Seren’ to be a misspelling, and report the word as ‘serene’, which is fine in context, but perhaps the writer is playing with us and he really means ‘Seren’ exactly as it’s printed.

Those two exceptions may only be the sort of haggard type-setting and approximate spelling often found in texts of that time. Yet if not a mere fumbling of some apprentice printer’s devil, why set the name William Shakespeare and Seren in typographic company, perhaps drawing Seren to our special attention in this large field of otherwise italic type?

A pleasing answer might be that Seren is the Welsh word for “Star”…

…and that we are to take the word as an epithet for De Vere because a single star is quartered in his shield, and we might remember that the Chorus in Henry V proclaims the king to be “this star of England”. The phrase is also the happy choice for the title of the Oxford biography by Charlton and Dorthy Ogburn.

The 1640 Poems can be found in facsimile at the Rare Book Room

yn seren mwyaf addawol — Prospero


Richard Kennedy, independent researcher and prolific writer of children’s books, known for his “wit, iconoclasm, wild exuberance, narrative skill and poetic prose” (Children’s Books and their Creators), was the first to identify John Ford as the author of The Funeral Elegy by “W.S.”, (NY Times, 2002) and the first to propose that Shakespeare’s Stratford Monument is actually a bust of William’s father, John Shakspere, the “Woolpack Man” (TLS 2006).

Who Wrote Prospero’s Epilogue?

February 28th, 2011 2 comments
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…Now I want

Spirits to enforce: Art to inchant,

And my ending is despaire,

Unlesse I be reliev’d by praier

Which pierces so, that it assaults

Mercy it selfe, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

For sure, the quality of mercy has a trembling, “unmistakable” resonance in the works of Shakespeare.   Nevertheless, when we exit the maze of The Tempest, floating on Prospero’s astoundingly Catholic epilogue, with the words “mercy“, “crimes” and “pardon” resounding in our ears, chances are that the artisan responsible for our euphoria was Ben Jonson.   In my view, Jonson trumps everyone as the best candidate for the epilogue’s exercise in octosyllabic couplets, which he used to such touching effect in his elegy “On My First Daughter“.  The evidence is, of course, circumstantial, but strong on both the biographical and literary fronts:

1. THE EPILOGUE IS CATHOLIC: For twelve years, beginning in 1598, Ben Jonson had been a practicing Catholic.  On Nov. 1, 1611, when the King’s Men performed ‘a play called The Tempest’, Ben’s abjuration of his adopted faith was still a recent, and no doubt painful divorce. Curiously, at the start of Prospero’s life story to his daughter, he emphasizes this span of time twice in one line: “Twelve year since (Miranda) twelve year since”, this being the amount of time he’s spent marooned on his enchanted island.
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2. ITS VOCABULARY MATCHES JONSON’S: Five key words in Prospero’s epilogue – fault, despair, mercy, crimes and pardon – appear in Jonson’s Elegy 38, from Underwoods, a poem which articulates the same essential themes we find in The Tempest, including the “menace of a storm” and the power “to forgive”:
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…Help, O you that may

Alone lend succours, and this fury stay.

Offended mistress, you are yet so fair,

As light breaks from you that affrights despair,

And fills my powers with persuading joy,

That you should be too noble to destroy.

There may some face or menace of a storm

Look forth, but cannot last in such a form.

If there be nothing worthy you can see

Of graces, or your mercy here in me,

Spare your own goodness yet; and be not great

In will and power, only to defeat.

God and the good know to forgive and save;

The ignorant and fools no pity have.

I will not stand to justify my fault,

Or lay th’ excuse upon the vintner’s vault;

Or in confessing of the crime be nice,

Or go about to countenance the vice,

By naming in what company ‘twas in,

As I would urge authority for sin;

No, I will stand arraign’d and cast, to be

The subject of your grace in pardoning me,

And (styled your mercy’s creature) will live more,

Your honour now, than your disgrace before…

The link between “fault” and “crime” is a natural one, of course; Shakespeare has it here and there.  But in Jonson’s case, he left us an autobiographical poetic essay which shows their deep resonance for him.  In 1602, he linked these two words in his postscript “To The Reader“, when protesting against those unnamed individuals who took offense to his Poetaster:

“Nor was there in it any circumstance

Which, in the setting down, I could suspect

Might be perverted by an enemy’s tongue;

Only it had the fault to be call’d mine;

That was the crime.”

Can you imagine if the miraculous Tempest had suffered the “fault” to be called “Ben: Jonson’s”?  Would anyone ever have perceived it as sublime?

3. JONSON ACTIVELY SOUGHT MERCY THAT WOULD SET HIM FREE: In 1605, while in prison due to the King’s wrath over some objectionable matter in Eastward Ho!, Ben Jonson wrote letters which document this harrowing moment in his life, including a humble plea for the king’s mercy:

“I speak not this with any spirit of contumacy, for I know there is no subject hath so safe an Innocence, but may rejoyce to stand justified in sight of his Soveraignes mercie.  To which we must humblie submytt our selves, our lives and fortunes”.

In another letter written at this time, we find him still highly aggrieved by the supposed “faults” and “crimes” that others have found in his literary works:

“I beseech your most honorable lordship, suffer not other men’s errors or faults past to be made my crimes; but let me be examined both by all my works past and this present…”

4. JONSON PIONEERED THE EPILOGUE-SPOKEN-IN-CHARACTER: As Stephen Orgel observes in his edition of The Tempest, “Prospero’s epilogue is unique in the Shakespeare canon in that its speaker declares himself not an actor in a play but a character in a fiction.”

Unique perhaps for Shakespeare’s Tempest (pub. 1623), but not for Ben Jonson (as Orgel should know!), who has his “Fox” step forward to speak for himself, in character, at the end of Volpone (pub. 1606).  Again, in The Tempest’s inverted twin, The Alchemist (pub. 1612), we find that Jonson has his linked pair of master and servant,  “Lovewit” and “Face”, speak the epilogue in character.

~ Marie Merkel

[edited on 2/25/15; new research and conclusion in the works]

 

“The Subtlest Maze of All”

February 20th, 2011 4 comments
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Once more, into the labyrinth: When was The Tempest written?  Whether you ask this question from an Oxfordian, Stratfordian, Jonsonian or non-aligned Shakespearean perspective, there is only one absolutely certain answer:

The Tempest was written sometime before its first publication in 1623.

Though scholars seldom linger long on this unsatisfactory terminus ante quem, the plain truth is that whatever play King James and his court enjoyed on Nov. 1, 1611, IT MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE SAME, in all respects, as The Tempest that took pride of place twelve years later in the First Folio.  With no prior text for comparison, we can’t rule out the possibility of authorial revision, additions by unattributed “co-authors”, editorial intrusions by Ralph Crane or Ben Jonson, or in-house modifications by the players themselves, however uncomfortable these unknown variables leave us.  Therefore, the “rhetoric and logic of academic discourse” (Roger Stritmatter’s phrase) we adopt for examining any aspect of the play contingent upon this elusive date should reflect this basic limitation on our knowledge.

My theory – that Ben Jonson was primarily responsible for The Tempest of 1623 – posits an intentional correspondence between The Alchemist (published 1612) and its near-perfect inversion, The Tempest, (documented as performed twice at court,  in 1611 and 1613).  With this premise in mind, it is probably no coincidence that Jonson himself provides an earlier terminus ante quem for The Tempest when he embeds the date of the initial performance of Bartholomew Fair within the text of his play.  Onthe one and thirtieth day of October, 1614″, he tells us,  – the day before Hallowmas, that is – he offered the public a rambunctious farce, one in which he seems to cast aspersions on The Tempest that had been performed for the Hallowmas festivities of 1611:

If there be never a servant monster i’ the Fair, who can help it, he says, nor a nest of antics?  He is loath to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, tempests, and suchlike drolleries, to mix his head with other men’s heels; let the concupiscence of jigs and dances reign as strong as it will amongst you.

If the documents of court performances in 1611 and 1613 had not survived, Jonson’s sly but unmistakable allusions to Caliban and Trinculo under the gabardine would have been the strongest indication available to scholars that The Tempest must have been written before 1614 – except for one pesky detail.  This play, too, was not published until much later, in 1631.

Yes, we do have a record of Bartholomew Fair played at court on Hallowmas, the following day, confirming Jonson’s internal date.  However, we have no text or manuscript dated 1614 to prove that Jonson’s embedded references to servant monsters and tempests were in the play performed on that day.  When we accept this covert allusion as evidence in dating The Tempest, we do so on faith.  Jonson’s complete overhaul of Every Man in His Humour for publication in his 1616 Collected Works should keep us alert to the chance that he may have inserted something new into the text, convenient to his own purposes.

On the other hand, if we can be certain that no one has monkeyed with the 1612 publication date for The Alchemist (as Thomas Pavier did with his false dating of Shakespearean quartos in 1619), I believe that this play will eventually yield the surest terminus ante quem, or date before which The Tempest must have been written.  David Lucking has already begun the work, with the intriguing correspondences between the two plays that he revealed in 2004 (“Carrying Tempest in his Hand and Voice: The Figure of the Magician in Jonson and Shakespeare“).  When his project is carried forward to cover every act in both plays, those who play The Tempest’s Dating Game may begin to shift their focus away from Strachey’s letter and onto Jonson’s securely-dated Alchemist.

Now for the other side of the question: What is the earliest possible date that anyone could have written The Tempest?  Here, the terminus post quem theories become infinitely more subjective and nebulous.  However, the paper I delivered at the Shakespeare Symposium in Watertown (“Caliban’s Dream and Shakespeare’s Purge”, May 2010) offered strong evidence that the author of The Tempest drew on the play Satiromastix, published in 1602.  Solely on the basis of Caliban and Prospero’s debt to Captain Tucca (a character who appears in Jonson’s Poetaster and reappears in Satiromastix), I am certain that The Tempest must have been written after these two plays of 1601, which were furiously rushed into print by 1602.

Richard Malim’s theory that the mysterious Tragedy of the Spanish Maze, played at court on Shrove Monday, (February 11, 1605) was really The Tempest is truly tempting, especially from my point of view.  Five months after Edward Oxenford’s lonely death on June 24, 1604 – a death for which not one recorded soul shed a tear or wrote an open, sincere epitaph – the court of King James began its Christmas Revels season with a Hallowmas production of Othello, followed by six additional plays attributed to “Shaxberd”.

Curiously, the only other playwright included in this Shax-fest was Ben Jonson, whose two famous comedies, first Every Man Out of His Humour and then Every Man In His Humour, served as bridges between performances of Henry V , Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merchant of Venice.  As Malim wisely observes:

Why [Every Man Out of His Humour] was chosen baffles the orthodox professor Peter Thomson, but its clear caricatures of both Shakespeare and Oxford, and the demonstration of the relationship between them, readily explain why the choice was made: to keep the record straight.

Just imagine!  A third, new play, written by Benjamin Jonson specifically for this Shrovetide occasion honoring his beloved “Shakespeare”, the master-poet who gave him that humiliating “purge”.  Here’s his auspicious chance to have Lean Macilente (who’d just appeared onstage in Every Man Out of His Humour) bid a Lenten farewell to the Lord of Misrule embodied by dark, dishonest Iago and merry Sir John Falstaff – ah, heart be still!  I confess, this theory sounds terribly, seductively reasonable to me.

Even the title fits Jonson all too well, making it almost impossible to resist.  Poor Ben, the apprentice Bricklayer, had been publicly scorned in Satiromastix for his rugged acting in The Spanish Tragedy. And his Masque of Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue shows what a strong hold the figure of the labyrinth had on his poetic imagination.  “The Subtlest Maze of All”, a phrase from this masque, is the subtitle of Robert Wiltenburg’s Ben Jonson and Self-Love (1990).  Yes, indeed, there’s solid ore to mine in this vein.

And yet…and yet…alas!  I’m afraid I have to agree with R. Chris Hassel, who faced a similar temptation when imagining the possible relevance of the “lost play” A historie of the crueltie of a stepmother (1578) to his excellent thesis:

However interesting these early parallels might seem, they are finally, of course, inconclusive without an actual play.

~Marie Merkel

Sir John Falstaff vs. Lean Macilente

February 5th, 2011 4 comments
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A Movable Feast: The Liturgical Symbolism and Design of The Tempest

by Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky

Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. XVII, 2010

So much depends on an impossible-to-answer question: When was The Tempest written?  Oxfordian scholars Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky have just posted what they believe to be “the most important” in their series of published articles challenging the assumption that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest not long before Hallowmas night, 1611, when The King’s Men performed a play by that name for James and his court at Whitehall.

I agree.  This is the most important of the six pieces that Stritmatter and Kositsky have so far published, for the delightful reason that it’s the first in which they’ve allowed Ben Jonson his place within The Tempest’s rarefied circle of “measured harmonies”.  As a specialist who “understands [the paradoxical merging of pleasure and virtue]”, Jonson even earns a spot in their concluding paragraph:

Evidence adduced in the present essay shows that both the symbolism and design of The Tempest are explicable on the premise that the play was written for a Shrovetide performance.  Indeed, so rich and detailed are the associations between Shrovetide and Lenten practices and the design of Shakespeare’s play that it may safely be concluded that it was in fact written, as R. Christopher Hassel has said of Jonson’s epiphany masques and Twelfth Night, “with the major outlines of the festival season firmly in mind”.

Once again, I agree, but this time with a few reservations.  For all we know, The Tempest may not have been written specifically for an upcoming Shrovetide performance, such as that on “Shrovmonday” of 1604/5, when The Spanish Maze appeared and then disappeared.  And the play’s undercurrent of Lenten imagery doesn’t necessarily rule out its necromantic relevance to a Hallowmas night performance. This seems to me the weakest portion of their essay, with insufficient quotations from the scholars whose theories they dismiss as “incorrect”, and no mention of John B. Bender’s essay, “The Day of the Tempest” (ELH, 1980).  Nevertheless, I do think that the authors have tapped into an aspect of the play’s allegoric design that now seems incredibly obvious, after they’ve pointed out the clues.  Here’s one vivid example:

Among the most popular emblems of the season was Jack-a-Lent, a puppet made from a Leek and a Herring and set up on Ash Wednesday as a scapegoat for the deprivations experienced at Lent.  Decorated with herrings, and pelted with missiles he became “both a manifest and a ubiquitous symbol of the long period of austerity and at the same [time?] operated as a kind of safety valve.”  Caliban’s likeness to this “ubiquitous” Lenten scapegoat, half man and half fish, hardly requires emphasis.

If, indeed, the author saturated his scenes with Shrovetide and Lenten imagery and philosophy, how does this fresh insight affect our view of The Tempest from the Oxfordian perspective?

The answer isn’t immediately apparent in “A Moveable Feast”, since Stritmatter and Kositsky’s arguments for a Shrovetide-Tempest never require a mention of Edward de Vere.  “Shakespeare’s” great rival, however, just happens to come in for a lion’s share of their Shrovetide references.  When collected in one place, Ben Jonson’s résumé in the field of Shrovetide and Lenten entertainment and commentary is quite impressive, as witnessed by these quotes from “A Moveable Feast”:

On p. 338:

“In Time Vindicated (1622) Ben Jonson has Fame denounce “lawless Prentices, on Shrove Tuesday” who “compel the Time to serve their riot:/ for drunken Wakes and strutting Beare-baitings, that savour only of their own abuses.”

On p. 346, a reference to The Haddington Masque:

…the title page of Ben Jonson’s 1608 Shrovetide production celebrating the wedding of Viscount Haddington to Lady Elizabeth Ratcliffe, illustrates the traditional association” [of Shrovetide and marriage masques].

In footnote 41, p. 366:

Jonson’s Chloridia, a 1630 Shrovetide masque [which, like The Tempest] also features Juno and Iris as prominent characters.

In footnote 63, p. 368:

The prologue to Staple of News, a play thought to have been written for Shrovetide, emphasizes the connection between the festival and “merrymaking”: “I am Mirth, the daughter of Christmas, and Spirit of Shrovetide.  They say, It’s merry when Gossips meet; I hope your Play will be a merry one!

In footnote 91, p. 370:

The association between Shrovetide and the labyrinth is conventional in early modern drama and would have been readily recognized by Shakespeare’s audience.  Daedalus even appears as the narrative voice of Jonson’s Shrovetide masque, For the Honour of Wales, constructing a knot so cunningly interwoven that “ev’n th’observer scarce may know/Which lines are pleasure’s and which are not” (225-27)  and R. Chris Hassel calls him the “most important interpreter of the Shrovetide festivities” (132) , one who “understands [the paradoxical merging of pleasure and virtue] better than any …subsequent interpreters of this Shrovetide tradition” (129).

One play NOT mentioned by the authors, but with immense relevance to any study of Edward de Vere and/or The Tempest, is Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humor. Not only do we find Jonson building his plot within a merry Shrovetide context, but in the 1601 Quarto of the play, the rascal slyly hitches his play to the turnip-cart of Shakespeare’s Gargantuan hero:

Marry, I will not do as Plautus, in his Amphitryo, for all this: Summi Iovis causa, plaudite:  beg a plaudit for god’s sake.  But if you (out of the bounty of your good liking) will bestow it, why, you may (in time) make lean Macilente as fat as Sir John Falstaff.

The evidence offered in “A Moveable Feast” puts a new spin on this passage.  What does Shakespeare’s fat Falstaff represent for Ben Jonson, and his lean and mean Macilente?   The excess of Carnival vs. the sobriety of Lent?  Purses swollen by the hilarious misrule of London’s infamous “Vice” vs. the empty pockets and hungry rumblings of a Virtuous Poet?  Sir Epicure Mammon vs. Surly Caliban?  Subtle the Alchemist vs. Prospero?  Once again, whether we want him or not, Ben Jonson offers himself as the savviest guide to the mysteries of The Tempest.

~*~*~

NOTE: Two small errors that the authors may wish to correct in their online text:  “6 Nov. 1611” as the date for the first recorded performance of The Tempest (p. 341) and the attribution to Sebastian of Antonio’s very strange and final words of the play: “A plain fish, and no doubt marketable.” (p. 345-6)

“Carrying Tempest in His Hand and Voice”

January 31st, 2011 4 comments
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Have you ever read The Alchemist and The Tempest at the same time?  I don’t mean consecutively, one after the other, but literally, at the same time, Act by Act and scene by scene?  If you do, I guarantee you will be amazed to find out how closely the two plays “talk back” to each other.

Right from the opening scene, Jonson’s thunderous altercation between Face, Subtle and Doll slaps the audience with an in-your-face parody of The Tempest’s thunderous altercation between The Boatswain, Antonio & Co. and The Master, with “The Master” ingeniously split between the ship’s captain and God himself, king of all roarers, who commands the “Elements”.

In both plays, beastly insults foul the air, with “dogs” as a constant theme.  In The Alchemist, Face – who is a mere servant in the house of his absent master – tags his senior partner, Subtle the Alchemist, with several doggy epithets:  “You most notorious whelp”; “my mongrel” and “Doctor Dog”.  Doll calls them both “perpetual curs.”

In The Tempest, we find the reverse situation, with a passel of frightened Lords barking out the canine curses.  Sebastian hollers at the Boatswain, “A poxe o’your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable Dog!”  When the Boatswain dares to backtalk, Antonio roars, “Hang, cur, hang, you whoreson insolent Noise-maker.”

If you look closer, the parallels only intensify.  At line 9 of The Alchemist, Doll warns the two growling pups, “Hark, I hear somebody,” after which Subtle snarls, “I shall mar/All that the tailor has made, if you approach.”  Compare this to The Tempest, line 10, when Antonio demands, “Where is the Master, Boson?”  and the Boatswain growls, “Do you not hear him?  You mar our labour/ Keep your Cabins: you do assist the storm.”

And the correspondences keep on coming.  Read the two in tandem, and this image of keeping within cabins will call to mind the claustrophobic setting of The Alchemist, where the trio of cony-catching rascals have set up shop in Lovewit’s house – “Lovewit” being Face’s absent master.  The Boatswain’s “You do assist the storm,” will have you flipping back the pages of The Alchemist to find Doll’s attempts to quiet her two madmen, with “Will you  betray all?”, and a few lines later, “Will you mar all?” and finally, “Will you be/your own destructions, gentlemen?”

The Tempest’s Boatswain asks a similar question of his “gentlemen” passengers, as he frantically does his best to save the ship:

A plague— [A cry within.  Enter Sebastian, Antonio & Gonzalo.] —upon this howling: they are louder then the weather, or our office.  Yet again?  What do you here?  Shall we give o’er and drown?  Have you a mind to sink?

As you pick up the scent, each pungent echo leads on to the next.  In The Alchemist, Face threatens to turn Subtle in for practicing magic, thus putting the rogue’s “neck/ within a noose.”  In The Tempest, Gonzalo says the Boatswain’s complexion is “perfect Gallows.”  And why does that “gallows” complexion suddenly stop you in your tracks?  Flip some more pages, and you’ll find Face’s vivid description of Subtle-the-bankrupt-and-worthy-to-be-hanged magician, with his “…complexion, of the Roman wash/Stuck full of black and melancholic worms.”

Not convinced yet?  Here’s one more, this time beginning with The Tempest, and Gonzalo’s strange comment on the sinking ship:

“I”ll warrant him for drowning, though the Ship were no stronger then a Nut-shell, and as leaky as an unstanched wench.”

Following this “unsavory simile” (so uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, I might add; where else does he so crudely refer to the privy topic of a woman’s menses?), the Boatswain does his best to save them all, but to no avail.  In come the wet Mariners, crying,  “All lost, to prayers, to prayers, all lost.”  Now turn back to The Alchemist, where you’ll find that the raging human storm also climaxes in a cry of “Lost!”:

SUBTLE:  Cow-herd.

FACE:                           Conjuror.

SUBTLE:                                            Cutpurse.

FACE:                                                                    Witch.

DOLL:                                                                                  O me!

We are ruin’d! Lost!

A few lines later, we hear the shattering of a vessel, as Doll takes matters firmly in hand:

She catcheth out Face his sword: and breaks Subtle’s glass.

Subtle’s glass is one of his alchemical vessels, variously termed curcurbits, gripe’s eggs and bolt’s-heads within The Alchemist.  In The Tempest, the three uses of “vessel” all refer to the cracked ship, which as we’ve just seen, the author oddly and imprecisely likens to an “unstanched wench”.  Which brings us to Doll’s highly significant command to Subtle, after she breaks his alchemical glass:  “And you, sir, with your menstrue, gather it up.”  Menstrue, as you’ll see if you click the link to George Ripley’s work, was a term used in alchemy, as Jonson no doubt knew, given his mention of Ripley within The Alchemist.

David Lucking has many more correspondences in “Carrying Tempest in his Hand and Voice“, but he doesn’t seem to know what to make of it all.  One conclusion he shyly offers is that Ben Jonson’s cynical Alchemist must be commenting on Shakespeare’s Romantic Tempest, rather than the other way around, as the traditional dating has led scholars to believe.  But how does all this intertextuality play out from the Oxfordian perspective, given Oxford’s death in 1604, and the sure dating of The Alchemist to 1610?

The way I see it, these plays are two golden eggs, hatched by the same cackling bird.  Or fraternal twins, nursed on the same rich Shakespearean Boar’s milk.  They are anti-masque and masque, the Cain and Abel,  or Romulus and Remus,  of Ben Jonson’s fiercely independent Novo Orbe.

You cannot fathom the mystery of The Tempest without the aid of The Alchemist.  That’s how the Master planned it.

 

 

 

FACE: You might talk softlier, rascal.

SUBTLE:                                                  No, you scarab,

I’ll thunder you in pieces.  I will teach you

How to beware to tempt a fury again,

That carries tempest in his hand and voice.

FACE: You might talk softlier, rascal.

SUBTLE:                                                  No, you scarab,

I’ll thunder you in pieces.  I will teach you

How to beware to tempt a fury again,

That carries tempest in his hand and voice.

“You bee a sort of knaves”, sayd Skelton

January 16th, 2011 No comments
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What is your theory?  That Oxford was born in 1548, the son of Joan Jockey?  What difference would that make to the creation of the Shakespeare canon?

Many thanks to the reader (identified below) who sent me this and a few other sharp questions about my re-examination of the documents relevant to Oxford’s birth.  Since any theory about Oxford’s true parentage would require DNA analysis to prove or conclusively refute, I’d better call this my hunch rather than theory.  In the spirit of possibility, I suggest these hypothetical and (to my mind) sensible reasons for the seemingly irrational or irresponsible marriages of John de Vere:

1. John de Vere made a bigamous marriage with “Joan Jockey ” because she was pregnant.  Otherwise, he would have just “kept her”, in the same manner that the witnesses of 1585 say he kept Anne of Tilbury Hall.

2. Earl John’s brothers-in-law Darcy and Sheffield disapproved of this alliance because Joan was a nobody, a mere village wench, and they wanted him to marry a somebody, preferably one of their kin.

3. Knowing that Lady Dorothy was dying, Darcy and Sheffield arranged for Enowes and Smith to “rid [Joan and Anne of Tilbury Hall] away from the …earl” because they wished him to marry one of their kin.  In Joan’s case, this “ridding away” required an act of horrific violence because John de Vere was very attached to his expectant second wife.  The men resorted to raping Joan and cutting her nose because they wished to destroy her as an honorable or attractive woman, and/or because their “spoiling” would cast permanent doubt on the paternity of Joan’s child, (if she was in the early stages of pregnancy), and/or because they wanted to leave the earl with zero temptation to make his marriage to Joan legal after the countess died.

4. John de Vere needed a wife in the spring of 1548 because Joan had given birth to a boy, and he wanted very much to raise the boy as his son and heir.  John became emotionally attached to this firstborn son from the woman he had married in White Colne Church because of the trauma she had suffered at the hands of his kin, and/or because his ancestors, the 13th and 14th earls of Oxford, had died without leaving a male heir, and/or because after ten years of marriage, his first wife Dorothy had only produced two daughters, with one dying “in swaddling clothes”.

I’ll be the first to admit that even if we find all of the above to be within the realm of possible, this very “possible” son may not have been Edward de Vere, and may not even have survived.  Nevertheless, I often imagine that Edward was Joan’s son.  For me, this narrative offers a more compassionate reading of John de Vere’s actions.  And the stain of bastardy –  in particular, the thought of such base blood possibly running in his noble veins – adds tremendous psychological depth to Edward Oxenford’s biography and to the works of his greatest biographer, William Shakespeare.

But that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’d like to follow up the theme of John de Vere’s passion for his firstborn son (as I imagine), with another question from the same reader:

Once the Nevil heiress left [Earl John], [Darcy and Sheffield’s] need as representatives of the ruling party in their county, was to have the earl produce a male heir, as soon as possible, legally, by an appropriate member of the Essex upper classes, not someone like Joan Jockey.  Had Joan had a child, what need would there be to go through the elaborate process of getting him taken on as a foundling by another mother, one that was perfectly capable of producing children, as she did with Mary Vere.

On the first point, I’m not sure that Earl John’s in-laws needed him to produce a male heir, a.s.a.p.  What they didn’t need or want was an heir by commoners such as Joan, or Anne, or Dorothy Fosser.  Margery Golding’s family had the right connections – maybe not as good as the Wentworth match that Seymour and Darcy had hoped for, but she was a choice they could live with.

If Joan had given birth to the earl’s son, it would have been natural and humane for him to want to raise his own flesh and blood as his legal heir, rather than abandon him.  I imagine the price he might have demanded in return for lifting Margery Golding into the nobility was that she accept and raise this boy as her own.  It all comes down to a matter of the heart.  I believe John de Vere had a good one, and that his son remembered him with bemused respect and great melancholy.

Whatever the truth may be, as biographers seeking an empathetic understanding of our subject, how might we imagine Edward responding to the gossip he was bound to hear about Joan Jockey from his earliest years?  In 1566, three years after his sister Katherine challenged his “legitimacy of the blood”, someone put together a jest book deceptively entitled Merry Tales of Skelton.  Much to my surprise, in the Seventh Tale, I found an uncanny mirror of just how I’d imagined John de Vere’s love for his boy:

Skelton, the next Sunday after, went into the pulpit to preach, and said: Vos estis, vos estis, that is to say, You be, you be.  and what be you?  said Skelton.  I say, that you be a sort of knaves, yea, and a man might say worse then knaves; and why, I shall show you.  You have complained of me to the bishop that I do keep a fair wench in my house: I do tell you, if you had any fair wives, it were some what to help me at need; I am a man as you be: you have foul wives, and I have a fair wench, of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think, and as you all shall see.

Thou wife, said Skelton, that hast my child, be not afraid; bring me hither my child to me; the which was done.  And he, showing his child naked to all the parish, said, how say you, neighbors all; is not this child as fair as is the best of all yours?  It hath nose, eyes, hands, and feet, as well as any of your:  it is not like a pig, nor a calf, nor like no foul nor no monstrous beast.  If I had, said Skelton, brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, being a monstrous thing, I would never have blamed you to have complained to the bishop of me; but to complain without a cause, I say, as I said before in my antethem, vos estis, you be, and have be, & will and shall be, knaves, to complain of me without a cause reasonable.

Does anyone else hear Shakespearean echoes in this?

Hamlet, as he contemplates suicide and the hereafter: “To be, or not to be.”

Shylock,  the despised, claiming his common humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes; hath not a Jew hands?”

In Much Ado about Nothing, the 2nd watchman’s hilarious bumbling: “Bring Deformed forth”.

And Aaron the Moor, exulting in the birth of his bastard son:

‘Zounds, ye whore! is black so base a hue?
Sweet blowse, you are a beauteous blossom, sure.

Many thanks to Stephanie Hopkins Hughes for her good questions, and willingness to re-visit these disturbing years in Oxford’s biography.

“Why dost not speak to me?”

January 9th, 2011 No comments
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Marcus Andronicus,

to his niece, Lavinia:

 

Why dost not speak to me?

 

Alas, a crimson River of warm blood,

 

Like to a bubbling Fountain stirred with wind,

 

Doth rise and fall between thy Rosed lips,

 

Coming and going with thy honied breath.

 

But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee,

 

And lest thou shouldst detect them cut thy tongue.


Without her saying a word, Marcus already knows an unspeakable shame has befallen his niece.  “And lest thou shouldst detect them” he says; he knows that she’s been attacked by more than one Tereus, and knows that the blood he sees on her face comes from a cut tongue.

Yet nothing in the play gives us any reason to suspect him of complicity in the crime – quite the opposite.  Throughout the furies of bloody vengeance, Marcus remains a totem of noble, compassionate stability.  He knows more than he should simply because his creator is not offering realistic drama, but a stylized pageantry of mythic revenge.  “Shakespeare”, in the person of Uncle Marcus, speaks like a young poet stumbling through a textbook translation of brute and nasty fact into beautified, exalted truth.

Some truths are too horrifying, or embarrassing, or dangerous to speak of, except through the shimmering veils of poetry or the grotesques of old wives’ tales.  Richard Enowes’ confessed crime of 1585 falls into this category.  Forty years pass before even a whisper of this callous gang rape surfaces in the records, and even that document leaves us with more questions than answers.  When did John de Vere learn of the attack on Joan?  When, if ever, did he discover who was responsible?  If he’d known that his sister Anne’s husband, Edmund Sheffield, and his sister Elizabeth’s husband, Thomas Darcy, had organized the assault, would he have chosen to remain silent rather than accuse his own kinsman and shame his family name?  Could he possibly have known all along just what they were up to?  As Alan Nelson observes:

The 16th Earl’s exact role in the attack on Joan Jockey is uncertain.  Either his two brothers-in-law acted to destroy an alliance that they regarded as a threat to their own interests; or the Earl cooperated in an effort to drive away a woman who had become a liability.  That the Earl was somehow complicit is suggested by the fact that Enowes and Smith stayed in his service, as revealed by the Earl’s will of 1562, while he remained on exceedingly good terms with Darcy, as revealed in his will of 1552.

When I first read this, it seemed to me that Nelson’s bias against Edward de Vere’s person had unfairly spilled over to the father.   He starts out on firm footing, recognizing the benefits of a potential new alliance to Darcy and Sheffield.  But then he neglects to examine other possible reasons for Earl John’s continued employment of Enowes and Smith, or the full, coercive context of those “good terms with Darcy”.  No where in his account do we learn of Earl John’s shattering loss of another brother-in-law, Henry Howard, beheaded in the midst of his erratic marriages.  Perhaps one needs to have lived in terror to recognize when others are manifesting the strains of life under a tyrant.

Truth to tell, my own response to the 1585 depositions has been equally biased.  In my earliest phase of writing about Titus Andronicus from an Oxfordian perspective, I was too ready to interpret “Shakespeare’s” dramatization of a similar rape, and how Uncle Marcus responds, as evidence of how the real author, Edward Oxenford, knew his father had reacted to the assault on Joan.  The lines I’ve quoted above, along with so much of the play,  seemed to me a wonderfully compassionate record of his father’s helpless fury over what his in-laws had done.  But for all we know, Oxford had never heard of Joan Jockey before 1585.

How would a trained historian approach the evidence, both documentary and literary? It seems to me that any account of Oxford’s life must begin with a clear, emotionally detached – left-brained if you will – assessment of the documents, before flying aloft with right-brain intuitions of a deeper, camouflaged truth.  I now know that my own first, second and third readings of the 1585 depositions failed to pick up many small hints and inconsistencies within the five different accounts.  The layout of the document made it very difficult (for me at least) to keep track of what question each man was answering, and who said what before and after him, in response to the same question.  For ease of comprehension, I’ve now reformatted the questions and answers, and posted what I hope will be a more reader-friendly version: 1585 Depositions Concerning Oxford’s Legitmacy. [filed under “The Life”, top menu]

In two earlier posts, “John de Vere’s firstborn son” and “The Goddess of Justice“, I’ve been laying the groundwork for an in-depth re-examination of every piece of evidence relevant to Oxford’s birth.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing six different summaries of what the 1585 depositions actually say:

1. Alan H. Nelson, who gives the fullest account of the Joan Jockey incident on  pp. 14-19 of Monstrous Adversary (2003).

2. Daphne Pearson, who briefly discusses Oxford’s legitimacy problems on pg. 25 and on pg. 112 of Edward de Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis and Consequences of Wardship (2005).

3. Mark Anderson, who talks about John de Vere and his marriage problems on pg. 3 and discusses the”bastardy lawsuit” of 1563 on pg. 24 of Shakespeare by Another Name (2005).

4. Charles Beauclerk, who summarizes these claims of illegitimacy on pp. 56-7 of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom (2010).

5. Christopher Paul, whose article, “The ‘Prince Tudor” Dilemma: Hip Thesis, Hypothesis, or Old Wives’ Tale?” is frequently cited as a rebuttal to adventurous theories about Oxford’s birth.

6. Nina Green, who deftly summarizes the 1585 Depositions; mentions the issue in the footnotes to her 2009 Brief Chronicles article,  “The Fall of the House of Oxford”, and again in her Oxmyth’s involving other individuals page, where she lists as “Myth” the assertion that “the 16th Earl’s second marriage, to Margery Golding, was ‘irregular’.”

If you know of an important discussion of this document that I’ve overlooked, whether published in a book, journal, newsletter or online, please send me a message so I can include it in this survey.  Many thanks!

Why dost not speak to me?

Alas, a crimson River of warm blood,

Like to a bubbling Fountain stirred with wind,

Doth rise and fall between thy Rosed lips,

Coming and going with thy honied breath.

But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee,

And lest thou shouldst detect them cut thy tongue.

The Goddess of Justice

December 25th, 2010 No comments
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Terras

Astraea

reliquit

“Astraea has left the earth.”

The phrase is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but Shakespeare gives it new meaning when he has the grieving Titus Andronicus rouse his kinsmen to join him in some madcap archery, shooting arrows into the emperor’s court, each one tipped with a supplication to the gods.

Titus, if you recall, had very good reason for his madness, whether feigned or real: the emperor’s step-sons had raped and horribly disfigured his daughter Lavinia, and he had seen the heads of two of his sons tumbled at his feet, knowing full well that they’d been executed on false charges and through a heartless deceit that had cost him his own hand.  “We may go pipe for justice,” he tells his gathered family, including his brother Marcus, grandson Lucius, and several assembled nephews.

As Jonathan Bate notes in his edition of the play, “Queen Elizabeth was frequently mythologized as Astraea.”

Had John de Vere lived to see Titus Andronicus played onstage, he might well have appreciated the old warrior’s fantastical, near-treasonous shenanigans with bow and arrow.  Back in Great Harry’s time, his brother-in-law, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, had cooled his heels in the Fleet prison after a shooting spree with “stone bows” through the streets of London.  While incarcerated, he wrote an indignant poem mocking the citizens of London and those who had detained him.

The “emperor” – as Henry VIII had styled himself – was not pleased.  Two years later, on Dec. 12, 1546, Surrey and his father, Thomas, 3rd duke of Norfolk, were arrested on specious charges, and soon condemned for treason.  Surrey was beheaded five weeks later, on January 19.  Only the death of Henry VIII had saved Norfolk from the same fate.  Earl John’s sister Frances was eight months pregnant when her husband was executed.  Since the records are silent as to their reactions, we can only imagine what John and Frances thought about the king’s “justice”.

Titus first played in London sometime between 1584 and 1589, according to Ben Jonson. On January 19, 1585 – exactly thirty-nine years after the beheading of Surrey – Richard Enewes, aged 92 “or thereabouts” admitted to the queen’s attorney general what he had done to Joan Jockey many long years ago:

…in the absence of the Earl, [John de Vere] the Lord Darcy and Lord Sheffield came to Earl’s Colne, and this examinant [Enewes himself] & two more with him brake open the door where the same Joan was and spoiled her, and this examinant’s fellow, John Smith, cut her nose, and thereupon after she was put away.

Joan Jockey was the village girl whom the 16th earl of Oxford had married at White Colne Church in the spring of 1546 or 47, after his first wife Dorothy had left him.  Curiously, her fate – an attack led by two men of the new nobility, both related by marriage to her husband – seems unnervingly close to what befell Shakespeare’s Lavinia.

It appears that Earl John’s reckless wedding was not well-received by Lord Darcy and Lord Sheffield, who were married to the earl’s sisters Elizabeth and Anne, respectively.  While their motivations remain obscure, it does seem that these two lords were responsible for organizing the vicious attack on Joan.  “Spoiled her” most likely indicates that she was raped, since Enewes speaks of the cutting as a separate action.

Would Astraea, goddess of Justice, now punish Richard Enewes and his surviving fellows, for their hideous crime?

Not on this day.  At issue was a lawsuit initiated by Hugh Key against Richard Masterson, over a manor bequeathed to Margery Golding by her husband, John de Vere, as Nina Green explains in her summary of the case.  Apparently, Hugh Key sought to prove that Edward de Vere’s birth was unlawful; unfortunately, his side of the story is missing from the records.  The testimony that we read in the surviving documents was offered “on the part & behalf of Richard Masterson gentleman, defendant against Hugh Key complainant.”  The job of these five witnesses was to give evidence in support of Masterson, whose claim to any interest in the disputed property required that Edward de Vere be the legal heir of Earl John.  To a man, each swore that to the best of their knowledge, the birth of Edward, now earl of Oxford, was lawful.

But if any one of them had knowledge to the contrary, would they have dared to offer it?  Although she doesn’t pose this question, Nina Green unintentionally implies as much when she observes:

Had the marriage been found to be illegitimate, it would have invalidated Oxford’s right to the earldom and therefore the Queen’s right to Oxford’s wardship, and the Queen would have had to repay to those now found to be the legitimate heirs all the profits she had taken under Oxford’s wardship from 1562 to 1585. It was perhaps for this reason that the Queen appointed her two highest-ranking legal officers, her Attorney-General, John Popham, and her Solicitor-General, Thomas Egerton, to conduct the examinations of the five witnesses. [emphasis added]

Certainly, on pecuniary grounds alone, it was not in the queen’s self-interest to allow anyone to find that Oxford was a bastard. Yet even without this selfish motivation, Elizabeth’s instincts would have been to protect Lord Burghley’s son-in-law, as Walter Ralegh might have cunningly reminded her.  On May 12, 1583, he’d written to Burghley, trumpeting his success in coaxing the queen to drop her present inclination to re-open the Howard-Arundel affair:

I answered that being assured her Majesty would never permit anything to be prosecuted to the Earl’s danger, if any such possibility were, and therefore it were to small purpose after so long absence, and so many disgraces, to call his honor, and name, again in question, whereby he might appear the less fit either for her favor or presence, in conclusion her Majesty confessed that she meant it only thereby to give the Earl warning… [emphasis added] (Monstrous Adversary, p. 290)

Consummate politician that he was, Ralegh used the queen’s devotion to Burghley, and concern for the old man’s health, as his trump card:

I delivered her your lordship’s letter and what I said farther, how honorable, and profitable it were for [her] Majesty to have regard to your Lordship[s] health and quiet…

Thanks to the aggravated testimony of Charles Arundel, back in December of 1580, we know that Oxford had been bitterly stung by the queen’s true opinion on his birth.  As Arundel remembers it, the earl had both complained and threatened revenge for her taunting comment: “That the Queen said he was a bastard, for which cause he would never love her, and leave her in the lurch one day. One mistress for love, another for the pound.”

Knowing that her Majesty knew something about his doubtful legitimacy, Edward de Vere must have been just a tad anxious to learn what questions her Attorney-General Popham and Solicitor-General Egerton would put to the five men, and how they would reply.  Would the goddess of Justice bring to light dark truths that even he had never suspected about his father’s irregular marriages?  Or would Elizabeth use the opportunity to once again “give the Earl warning”, reminding him of how very much – including “his honor, and name” –  he owed to her good will?