A few reasons why the Earl of Oxford could not have written Shakespeare
Some people commenting on my recent piece on Bacon have asked whether I could give equally cogent reasons against the Earl of Oxford’s claim. I can.
Even if I could believe for a split second that an Elizabethan Earl would stoop to the “indignity” of writing plays for the public theatres under cover of a front man, I would still find ample reasons to argue against the Earl of Oxford’s authorship of the Canon. I shall, however, leave to my colleagues arguments of style, character, etc., and concentrate here on two points: a) The class objection and, b) The dates of composition of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. I will also leave for another time my comments on the various attacks against Oxford that we find in the Canon, including the extraordinary All’s Well that Ends Well and, by omission, the unhistorical absence of the Earl of Oxford among King Hal’s small band of brothers, in the Battle of Agincourt.
Things that an Earl would not do
In the 1580s, writing plays for the public theatres was a mere notch above bear baiting. While monarchs, aristocrats and courtiers were busy writing poems, plays for private performances, such as the Countess of Pembroke’s Antonius; and even some long narratives, such as Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia, the job of entertaining the masses was left to the professionals, as indeed was being done in the continent, by the various Mecenas who sponsored composers and dramatists. The Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo Gonzaga (1562-1612), for example, was a conspicuous and generous patron of Opera and Drama, including the groundbreaking commedia dell’arte, but nobody has suggested that he wrote any of the plays or librettos, although he probably slept with the sopranos.1
The much-discussed appearance of Oxford in Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia (1598) must be considered in this light. After assigning to Shakespeare all the Shakespearian comedies that had appeared so far, Mr. Meres includes the name of “Edward, Earl of Oxford” among “the best for comedy.” As he doesn’t explain to which comedies he refers, Oxfordian followers have taken for granted that he must be referring to the very comedies that he believes were written by Shakespeare. But how can that be?
By declaring the Earl of Oxford to be among “the best for comedy,” Meres is surely telling us that he has had the opportunity to watch at least one comedy that he knows to have been written by Oxford. So, either he is referring to a funny poem and not a play at all, or he must mean a private performance of some (untitled) play or masque written by the Earl for his guests or friends; otherwise we must believe that the Oxford/Shakespeare secret was so little a secret that the likes of Francis Meres knew about it. And, even worse, that he not only knew about it, but that despite the efforts made by the Earl to keep his authorship secret, he could not prevent/destroy/explain Mr. Meres’ tell-tale document.
We know that many aristocrats, courtiers and lawyers wrote masques and plays, often in Latin; quoting the sources for this information would be an endless task. Francis Meres’ reference would be most satisfactorily explained by one, or more, private performances he may have attended, of which fact he was proudly showing off; his comment cannot be but an attempt at flattery. Had he put his foot in it by disclosing an activity that Oxford was, allegedly, taking such pains to keep secret, his flattery could have backfired most distressingly. The Earl of Oxford was not a man to take such a faux pas sitting down; getting Palladis Tamia out of circulation would have been child’s play to him. The reason why he didn’t was surely because it never occurred to him that anybody would interpret Meres’ reference to mean what the modern Oxfordians, brought up in a class-less society, think it means.
When around 1586 a very young "Shakespeare"2 wrote The Famous Victories of Henry the Fift (an anonymous play, the authorship of which is much debated by scholars), he did not disguise his flattering intentions towards the Earl of Oxford; unlike Henry V, written in 1599, The Famous Victories has an Earl of Oxford permanently present, both where his presence was historically correct and where it wasn’t. The fact that on 26th of June of that year, the Earl had just been granted by the Queen an annuity of one thousand pounds for no clear reason,3 has led to the conjecture that the sum was granted so that he could organize and pay for the production of “historical” plays that would enhance the virtues of the Lancastrian/Tudor Monarchs. If this were the case (and we don't know that it was), we can hardly wonder at the young "Shakespeare" lavishing praise on a glorified Oxford, King Hal’s friend and advisor. In that scenario, we can easily guess also that a man who, apparently, had a gift for comedy, would have added to such plays, written by one or more professional dramatists, a few speeches of his own, just as Hamlet does for his “Mousetrap." An officious Francis Meres would have considered any of such speeches excuse enough for his flattering homage to a powerful Earl.
But, as I say above, one would need to understand why the Earl of Oxford, if he were Shakespeare, when turning Famous Victories into Henry V, totally obliterated his ancestor from the play, thus depriving his own name of deserved fame and glory.
Henry V: Act IV, scene 3: Agincourt.
“….then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.”
Alas, poor Oxford! To have risked his life for King and Country in this glorious battle, and to be removed from the list of “household words” by his own descendant!
But wait! A new theory is now being aired that explains the absence of Oxford from Agincourt: According to the Oxfordians, Edward de Vere was not really the Earl of Oxford, (although he did use the title and, it seems fraudulently, passed it on to his own son), because he was Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate child. As far as I know, there are already three would-be “Shakespeares” making the same claim: Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, and a new one, William Hastings.4
One wonders how the poor Queen managed to keep all those little bastards secret from the Puritans, and from her people in general, despite the amount of midwives, nurses and other necessary servants, both at the palace and in the homes of the respective foster parents, that would have known the truth and gossiped. But maybe it’s all true and Queen Elizabeth was for several years giving birth to sundry little Spear-shakers.
But then there is the puzzling fact that, except for Faulconbridge in King John, Shakespeare doesn’t like bastards very much; some of his most despicable villains, Prince John in Much Ado, and Edmund in King Lear, are illegitimate.
And now let me move on to more scholarly arguments. When arguing Oxford’s authorship of The Tempest, his followers wave aside the date of 1609 and the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda, saying, not unreasonably, that tempests are all very much the same.5 The tempest in The Tempest could have been any tempest, and since the the Earl had died in 1604, the tempest of 1609 could not be the tempest in The Tempest.
That is not the case for other historical events, though. The story of Prospero and Antonio surprisingly echoes the rivalry between the eccentric Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II and his brother Matthias. Matthias repeatedly betrayed Rudolph and, as early as 1606, convoked a family (Habsburg) meeting in order to have Rudolph declared incapable of ruling. However, it was not until, precisely, 1611 that Matthias succeeded in forcing his brother to abdicate so that he, Matthias, could be elected Emperor.
The description that Prospero makes of himself when he says that he, as Duke of Milan, had been for the liberal arts /without a parallel, matches Rudolph’s reputation as a lover of astronomy, alchemy and chemistry; he was a patron of Occultist painters, such as Arcimboldo, and scientists such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. He was obviously uninterested in politics, and had often left Matthias in charge of political concerns while he, like Prospero, remained rapt in secret studies. This strange Emperor, who died in 1612, is confusedly reputed to have been a scientist, a magician and a freethinker as well as a Catholic. He established his Court in Prague, which became the European centre of Occultism.
So, although perhaps all tempests are much alike, Occultist Habsburg rulers being dethroned by their brothers in connivance with their families don’t grow on trees. While looking at those Habsburg royals in The Tempest, acting towards each other in the play, more or less as they did in reality, one wonders what is Shakespeare trying to tell us. That this historical parallel may help us to fix once and for all the date of composition of The Tempest, sweeping the “comedy-loving” Earl of Oxford off the board, is a bonus, and, as far as this essay is concerned, it is a major bonus. However, the main object of our author for having all those Habsburgs on stage seems clear enough to me: To establish a firm link between Spain and the redeemed Magus, Prospero. The name Prospero is the Spanish/Italian name for the Latin Prosperus, and it is synonymous to Fausto/Faustus, and thereby hangs a tale, to be told in the ripeness of time.
The Spanish links and sources
As it happens, the historical Duke of Milan in 1611 was the Spanish Habsburg King, Philip III, who was also King of Naples, which means that there are seven Spanish royals in The Tempest: Prospero, Antonio, Miranda, Alonso, Claribel, Sebastian and Ferdinand. Rudolph and Matthias were their Austrian cousins, so our author is keeping the parallel in the family. Moreover, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (a good option for the nickname “Claribel”) was in fact “next heir of Naples," as we are told Claribel was, in the same scene6 where we are unnecessarily informed that Widow Dido’s Carthage and Claribel’s new kingdom, Tunis, are one and the same place.
The historical Infanta, later known as Archduchess Isabella, Regent of the Netherlands, was also heiress to the rest of the Spanish Empire, should her brother die childless (as is feared in the play), but more relevant to our story, she was the official Catholic Pretender to the English Throne, after the death of Mary Queen of Scots. Plots and counter-plots on Catholic issues in reference to England and the continent would have been discussed at the Catholic centres of power, such as the Jesuit-run Royal Seminarie College of St. Alban, in the city of Valladolid, where King Philip III settled his Court between 1601 and 1606, and the nearest of such colleges to the previous centre of power, Madrid. That the English government was taking Claribel’s claim seriously seems to be proven by, among other things, the fact that the Earl of Essex during his trial in February 1601, openly accused Robert Cecil of favouring her claim over King James’ of Scotland.7
But the links to Spain do not end there. Try as they may, Stratfordians have found it difficult to ignore Antonio de Eslava’s Noches de Invierno (Winter Nights).8 Eslava’s collection of tales was published in Pamplona in 1609 (so five years after Oxford’s death), but to believe that William Shakespeare could read books in Spanish is too much even for Stratfordian Bardolaters. There is no record that the book was translated into any language, until a German version appeared in Vienna in 1649: Winternächte…aus dem Spanischen in die Teutche Sprache, by Mateo Drummer. Some of the tales are ingenious, but their pseudo-philosophical background is rather trite. Despite the book’s lack of special merit, there are some coincidences worth mentioning.
Both The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are supposed to have been written late in 1610 or early 1611. We have a “digest” of The Winter’s Tale left by Dr. Simon Forman, who saw it at the Globe on 15th May 1611.9 In Eslava’s Winter Nights, the story of Milon and Berta and the birth of their son, Orlando/Roldan,10 nephew to the Emperor Charlemagne, has a happy ending after a series of adventures not altogether unlike the happenings in The Winter’s Tale, as we know it today, but no more than that.11 The official source for The Winter’s Tale is Robert Greene’s Pandosto (1588), in which the falsely accused Queen really dies; sixteen years later, Pandosto falls in love with his recovered daughter not realizing who she is, and ends up committing suicide.
The Tempest and The Tale were performed at Court that same year, on November 1st and 5th respectively, and although none of Eslava’s stories are as obvious a source for The Winter’s Tale as his King Dardano’s tale is for The Tempest, it is nevertheless curious to find that in the corresponding Revels Accounts (5th November) the title of the play is A Winter Night’s Tale. So, in 1611, Shakespeare used Eslava’s title for one of the plays, and one of Eslava’s tales for the other.
In his Arden Edition of The Tempest, Prof. Kermode12 gives a summary of the story of Niciforo and Dardano,13 and comments: “More attention has been paid to Eslava’s story, which has found supporters from Garnett to Hardin Craig. This tale has no magic island, but it has a dethroned king, skilled in magic, who is forced to sail away from his Kingdom, taking with him his daughter; he builds himself a palace under the sea and eventually leads to it the disinherited son of his enemy, as a husband for his daughter.” Etc. Kermode goes on to quote Hardin Craig: “This Spanish tale (...) in its political intrigues, its adventures and its use of tempest and sea, has much in common with The Tempest.”14
So we find that some Stratfordians have reluctantly agreed that Eslava’s tale may have to be considered as a source for Shakespeare’s play, while others have gone to much trouble trying to find the thread by which the man from Stratford could have possibly known/read the story; as usual, after much scholarly digging, the thread became so elaborate that the further they delved into it, the more questions it begged. Prof. Kermode gave up the struggle with the following comment: “This weird structure of Bulgarian, Byzantine, Latin, Italian, Spanish and German testimony is a prize mare’s nest, and it is politic to avoid stirring it any further.”15 Quite.
And here is Eslava’s tale: Dardano, King of Bulgary, being dethroned by his enemy Nicífero, Emperor of Greece, has to flee in a boat with his daughter, Serafina. He builds a magic palace at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea where he teaches his daughter philosophy and history. They live there happily until such time as Serafina reaches a marriageable age. Meanwhile, Nicífero has died, disinheriting his eldest son, Valentiniano, a nice, amiable man, in favour of his second son, Juliano, proud and arrogant. Fearing for his life, Valentiniano approaches a port in the Adriatic Sea, looking for a ship. An old man, no other than Dardano, offers to take him in his small boat; Valentiniano is then transported by magic to the sea palace where he falls in love with Serafina. Meanwhile, Juliano has taken sail in order to marry the daughter of the Emperor of Rome. During the return voyage, a fierce tempest breaks out. At this point, Dardano emerges from the bottom of the sea and shows himself to all those who believe him dead. He then accuses Juliano of being worse than the cruel Hyrcanian tiger. Shortly after the tempest, Valentiniano and Serafina become the king and queen of the joint kingdoms.
Well, if this is not a source for The Tempest, I don’t know what is. Which means, among other things, that the author of the play had to read Eslava’s book in Spanish and after 1609, either in the edition published in 1609 in Pamplona, or in the edition published in Brussels in 1610. Which doesn’t look good for William Shakespeare or, indeed, for the Earl of Oxford, dead since 1604. And if anybody is tempted to suggest that both The Tempest and Eslava’s story may derive from a common, earlier source, they will still need to explain the coincidence in time of The Tempest with the title of The Winter Night’s Tale.
© Isabel Gortázar, December 2009 Emmerich Anonymous Shakespeare
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
1Bellonci, Maria. Segreti dei Gonzaga. Milan, 1947.
2A revision of the original Famous Victories of Henry the Fift was published anonymously in 1598. This revised version, which contains heavy Marlovian clues, introduced the character of Sir John Oldcastle, turning him into a clownish figure. This instantaneous transformation of Sir John in the very first act, is accepted by scholars to be the origin of Falstaff.
3The National Archives E 403/2597, ff.104v-105 1.
4Nield, Robert. Breaking the Shakespeare Codes. CC Publishing, 2007.
5Stritmatter, Roger and Lynne Kositsky. "Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited." Review of English Studies 58, 2007. p. 447-472. I am grateful to Donna Murphy for bringing this essay to my attention.
6The Tempest, Act II, scene 1.
7THE HELMINGHAM MS: The Arraignment, conviction and condemnation of Rob. Earle of Essex, and Henrie Earle of Southampton houlden at Westminster the XlXth. of Febr.. 1600 43rd Reg. before the Lord high Steward1 appoynted for that daye beeing the Lord Treasurer of England, as followeth: ETC.
8Antonio de Eslava’s Noches de Invierno, 1609, Pamplona, Spain. I must thank my late friend Roberta Ballantine for bringing Eslava’s book to my attention, well before I found the Stratfordian comments on it.
9Forman, Dr. Simon. Book of Plays. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1611.
10Eslava, Antonio de. Winter Nights, Chapter VIII: Do se cuenta los amores de Milan de Aglante con Berta y el nacimiento de Roldán y sus niñerias.
11In his synopsis of the play, Dr. Forman does not mention the statue of Hermione, so either he was a forgetful spectator or the statue was not there in May 1611; Perdita, however, was duly “lost” (as befits her name) for sixteen years, like the girl in Pandosto. Which means that the happy ending, as far as the slandered Queen was concerned, was not in the original play as seen by Dr. Forman.
12Prof. Frank Kermode’s edition of The Tempest, in the Arden series, is dated 1954, revised 1961-2.
13Eslava, Antonio de. Winter Nights. Chapter IV: Do se cuenta la soberbia del rey Nicifero y incendio de sus naves y la arte mágia del rey Dardano.
14Craig, Hardin. Interpretation of Shakespeare. 1948. p.345.
15Kermode op cit. p. 66.
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