But could he have written Shakespeare? Besides the circumstance that he died in 1604 (a date no one disputes) and that scholars believe eleven of the Bard’s plays were written after his death (a position Oxfordians certainly dispute), a man as self-centered, unethical, vindictive and materialistic as he was lacked the moral make-up to do so. If one believes that the works of Shakespeare were written by a sage man to reflect core ethical values and mirror human nature back to the audience, an inestimable gift to humanity, one would need to assume a massive transformation of character at some point in Oxford’s life. There is, however, no evidence that Oxford changed. This article discusses Oxford’s moral make-up, apparent references to him in Thomas Nashe’s Summers Last Will and Testament and William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, and Oxford’s general writing ability.
Various episodes demonstrate the Earl of Oxford’s character over time. Oxford married Lord Burghley’s daughter Anne at Oxford’s own request in 1571, when he was twenty one and she was fifteen. He did not sleep with her. One theory explaining why he did not share Anne’s bed was that Oxford wished to manipulate Burghley into securing a pardon for his cousin the Duke of Norfolk who had been accused of treason and, after Norfolk was executed, to revenge himself by denying Burghley grandchildren.3 Oxford did lay with his wife, however, in October 1574 at Hampton Court (he admitted this) before heading off on a trip to Europe the following January.4 Baby Elizabeth was born to Anne on July 2, 1575.
European travel was expensive, and Philip Sidney spent £750 - £1080 during his three-year tour of Europe. In contrast, however, Oxford burned through £4,561 in fourteen months of travel.5
Before he returned, Oxford heard unspecified, derogatory information about Anne. As a result, he refused to see his wife and child for five years. Whatever it was that Oxford heard, a less arrogant, more considerate man would at least have taken his wife’s feelings into account and talked to her face to face about his suspicions. He would at least have agreed to meet a child that looked up to him as her father. A year later Oxford wrote Lord Burghley, “For always I have and will still prefer mine own content before others.”6
When thirty years old, Oxford got a maid of honor to the Queen pregnant. Sir Walter Ralegh and the Earl of Southampton fell in love with maids of honor, too, and Ralegh got his paramour with child. Both men, however, were unmarried at the time, and wed the ladies. The reaction of the already-married Oxford to Vavasour’s pregnancy was talk of flight to Spain. She had a miscarriage, but he got her pregnant again. Knowing the Queen would react poorly toward him as Anne Vavasour began to show, Oxford chose Vavasour’s sixth month of pregnancy to re-embrace Protestantism and publicly denounce three friends who, along with himself, had turned Catholic (one of them was Charles Arundel, who later slandered him). Oxford’s maneuver backfired, however, as the Queen was unhappy about being forced to act against these three whom she esteemed. After Vavasour delivered a son and was placed in the Tower of London, the rumour that Oxford would escape abroad caused the government to monitor the ports; instead, he joined Vavasour for a brief stay in the Tower, Queen Elizabeth’s usual punishment for this type of transgression.7 The following year, Oxford reconciled with his wife.
At age thirty eight, Oxford refused an assignment during the Armada year to govern the seaport of Harwich and the two thousand men appointed to defend it because, he said, the position would do him no credit. He vowed to go over the Earl of Leicester’s head and ask the Queen for a different post.8 A less egocentric man would have served the Crown in whatever capacity was requested of him, particularly since the two fleets had engaged in battle a few days previously and England was in a state of crisis.
Three years later, Oxford signed over Castle Hedingham to Lord Burghley to be placed in trust for his three daughters, since he had otherwise spent their inheritance.9 Before parting with Hedingham, however, Oxford ordered the property to be stripped or razed.10 Oxford repeatedly thought of himself before others, even his own children. Burghley raised Oxford’s three daughters after their mother died in 1588. Oxford’s dereliction of duty was recorded for all time on the Burghley tomb in Westminster Abbey: the girls’ grandfather “has the care of all these [Oxford’s daughters] children.”11
Edmund Spenser alluded to this self-centeredness in his 1590 dedication to Oxford, one of a series of dedications to aristocrats in The Faerie Queene:
And also for the love which thou dost bearIn letters written between 1590 and 1602 Oxford complained of poor health, infirmity and lameness. In March 1603, as the Queen lay dying, he railed against her unofficial successor, the Scots King James VI, and spoke with the Earl of Lincoln about the possibility of sending Lord Hastings to France to raise troops. But as the commander of the Tower of London later reported to Cecil:
To the’Heliconian imps [Muses]—and they to thee—
They unto thee and thou to them most dear:
Dear as thou art unto thyself.12
I knew him [Oxford] to be so weak in body, in friends, in hability, and all other means to raise any combustion in the state as I never feared any danger to proceed from so feeble a foundation.13The author of the Shakespeare plays was a premier judge of character. It is therefore noteworthy that Oxford employed as one of his most trusted servants a man named Rowland Yorke, who would later sell out English positions in the Netherlands to the Spanish. William Camden called Yorke a “man of loose and dissolute behavior and desperately audacious...the first that...brought into England that bold and dangerous way of foining [thrusting] with the rapier in dueling.” Oxford biographer Mark Anderson termed him “the most venal man who ever served the seventeenth earl—a real distinction, considering the Elizabethan rogues and hooligans who at one time or another wore the livery of the blue boar [were employed by Oxford].” Some of the Earl’s servants were highwaymen, and one was hung for murder.14 Oxford himself killed a man, an unarmed undercook, but was declared not guilty by a Burghley-influenced jury that found the unfortunate fellow had committed suicide by “running upon a point of a fence-sword of the said earl.”15
Thomas Nashe appears to have held a low opinion of Oxford—a blow that is, in my view, fatal, given the close interrelationship between the works of Nashe and Shakespeare. While we cannot, of course, assume that any fictional character represents a real person, it is worth reporting instances where fiction and reality seem to intersect. In his Summer’s Last Will and Testament (written c. 1592, when Oxford was forty two years old), the character Spring is consistently called “Ver” (Latin for “spring”) whereas the other three seasons are called by their English names. Nashe specialist Rita Lamb and Oxfordian Mark Anderson both view Ver as a stand-in for Oxford.16 Nashe calls Ver a “monstrous unthrift,” employing an adjective contemporaries used to describe Oxford: Fulke Greville called him a “monstrous villain,” while to Arundel he was a “monstrous adversary.”17
Ver refuses to live within financial bounds, and claims that since the world is transitory and is made of nothing, he must help consume it to nothing. Oxford had entirely consumed a fortune worth between £3,000 and £12,000 per year by the time Nashe wrote. Summer—a representation of Queen Elizabeth—who has been quite generous to Ver, as Elizabeth was to Oxford, responds, “So study thousands not to mend their lives/ But to maintain the sin they most affect.”
All’s Well That Ends Well
According to Francis Osborne, writing fifty years after Oxford’s death, Oxford was the target of a “bed trick.” He was brought to Anne’s bed under the notion that he would be sleeping with a different lady, and impregnated his own wife. From this union, a baby was born.18 The account identified the baby as Susan de Vere, but this makes no sense, as Anne bore two children between 1584-6 before Susan’s birth in 1587. Osborne may well have gotten his names wrong and meant their first child, Elizabeth, with Oxford being tricked into sleeping with Anne at Hampton Court in 1574.19
In All’s Well That Ends Well, Count Bertram is forced into marrying Helena, whom he believes is beneath him. Bertram refuses to sleep with her and goes off to war. The lady is patient and virtuous, as was Anne; Bertram is rash and unbridled, as was Oxford. Bertram makes plans to sleep with a chaste woman who, unbeknownst to him, is outraged by his behavior. The word is spread that Helena is dead; then the woman has a still-living Helena take her place in bed. Bertram gets his wife pregnant without knowing that it is her, and they reconcile.
To a large extent, All’s Well That Ends Well follows its source, which was ultimately Boccaccio’s Decameron, the ninth novel of the third day. Boccaccio had not yet been translated from the Italian, but this story had been included in William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, 1566. On the basis of slight differences in character names, H.G. Wright argued that Shakespeare employed the French translation of Boccaccio by Antoine le Maçon.20 All three works have been considered possible sources for the purposes of this discussion. The bed trick is contained in all of them, and is an old ruse which dates back to the Bible.
How does All’s Well That Ends Well differ from them in ways that link it to the Earl of Oxford? In all three sources, Bertram is always called “Count.” French and Italian do not have a linguistic equivalent to “Earl.” Yet in Shakespeare’s version, twice he is called an earl. After Bertram's father dies, he is “left under the royal custody of the king,” according to Painter, “nelle mani del re lasciato,” according to the Italian, and “sous la garde-noble du Roi” in the French. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Bertram says, after his father’s death, that he was “in ward” to his majesty, using the word which best applied to Oxford, who was brought up by Lord Burghley as a ward of the crown after his father’s death. In the play a clown says, while speaking about Bertram, “I know a man that...sold a goodly manor for a song.” (III.ii.8-9) The remark may well refer to the fact that Oxford signed over a family estate to a musician he admired, Chapel Royal organist William Byrd.21
In all three sources, Bertram’s wife bears him twin sons; at the end of Shakespeare’s play she is still pregnant, leaving the sex of her child (no twins are implied) unstated. Finally, Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well comes off as a harsher character than in the sources. Shakespeare’s ending is less satisfying, with Bertram given only one line to signal a shift from hating to loving his wife, and that line starts with “if.” There is no sense that Bertram has become a caring, honorable man.
Some who think the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare cite All’s Well That Ends Well as evidence.22 But if the play were intended as a mea culpa, Bertram ought to have undergone a heart-warming transformation at the end. Instead, Oxford seems to be memorialized in an unfavorable light. All’s Well That Ends Well was first published in the First Folio, and is traditionally assigned a composition date of 1603/4. The Earl of Oxford died June 24, 1604.
A few words about writing ability: regarding Oxford’s existing poetry, his themes are conventional and his work is not timeless. But Oxfordians believe that Oxford wrote the bulk of Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590’s, while his poetry dates mostly from the 1570’s, and ability can improve over time. B.M. Ward pubished ten of Oxford’s letters, however, that date from 1590-1602, and letters speak volumes. The letters of contemporary author John Lyly are clever, even when his purpose is to request something; they display his euphuistic writing style, his wit, his ability to craft a joke and turn a phrase.23In Christopher Marlowe’s one existing letter, a sixteen-line dedication to the Countess of Pembroke, he incorporates numerous classical allusions (including to Philomela, whose story influenced Titus Andronicus), hyperbole, metaphors, antithesis and personification.24 It sounds like something he would write. Oxford’s letters are straightforward. They are neither clever nor interesting to read. The few metaphors are commonplace. They are not at all like something one would expect from the pen of the Bard.25 The same, of course, can be said of William Shakspere’s will.
It might be argued that Christopher Marlowe did not have the moral make-up to have written the works of Shakespeare, either, because he was accused of heresy. Jolly olde England, however, was a time of spies and secrets, an era when agents provocateurs slandered enemies, leading to their ruin and death. Marlowe parodied Richard Baines, an English intelligencer who posed as a student at the Rheims seminary, was arrested, and confessed that he had suggested killing everyone at the seminary by adding poison to the communal well or to the soup. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas bragged that he went about poisoning wells, and proceeded to kill an entire religious community by tainting its broth. This is the same Baines who accused Marlowe of coinage in Flushing, and then wrote the Baines Note, with its allegations of heresy against Marlowe: there was bad blood between these two.
Fellow author Thomas Kyd denounced Marlowe as well, but he did so in prison under the duress of torture. In Lenten Stuffe, Thomas Nashe railed against torture, complaining that it would make a man confess he crucified Jesus Christ rather than abide the extremities of suffering. The two extant documents by Kyd regarding Marlowe were written after the news of Marlowe’s “death.” At that point Kyd would have viewed it as too late to save Marlowe’s skin; he was desperately trying to save his own.
Free thinkers were sometimes accused of heresy in the era during which Marlowe lived, Galileo Galilei and Sir Walter Ralegh being famous examples. Marlowe, at least, stood in honorable company. The same cannot be said, however, for the Earl of Oxford, the band of hooligans he employed, the friends he betrayed, the children he failed to support, and the opponents to the succession of King James with whom he associated toward the end of his life.
Donna N. Murphy
© Donna N. Murphy, November 2009
Donna Nielsen Murphy is currently teaching English in Tokyo and working to determine authorship of English Renaissance literature via linguistic analysis. She has been published in Notes and Queries, Cahiers Élisabéthains and The Marlowe Society’s Research Journal and Newsletter. She is a former economic analyst and author of the novel Heaven on Earth.
Editor's Note: Congratulations to Donna Murphy for co-winning the 2010 Calvin and Rose G. Hoffman Prize for a Distinguished Publication on Christopher Marlowe.
1Oxford’s poetry is collected in “The Poems of Edward DeVere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex,” ed. Steven W. May, Studies in Philology 77 (1980).
2Anderson, Mark. Shakespeare by Another Name (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 154.
3Anderson, 48-9,60-1. Two sources report that Oxford was refusing to sleep with Anne in 1572. The first, apparently written before Norfolk’s execution, said that Oxford forsaking Anne’s bed was a result of “Burghley’s role in Norfolk’s predicament,” and the other, written afterward, that servant Rowland Yorke was barring Anne from Oxford’s bedchamber, presumably at Oxford’s command (Anderson, 51, 60). Nelson reported that Oxford was not sleeping with his wife during the period leading up to October, 1574 in Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary. The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Liverpool University Press, 2003), 145.
5Anderson, 93; and Kathryn Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 69.
9A challenge to Oxford by Thomas Vavasour dated January 19, 1585 speaks of “thy [Oxford’s] forlorn kindred, whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels.” B.M. Ward, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford 1550-1604 (John Murray: London, 1928), 229.
10Anderson, 248; and Nelson, 335.
13Anderson, 291, 344-5.
14Anderson, 115, 66.
15“Edward DeVere,” Dictionary of National Biography.
16Lamb, R. “Does Nashe’s only surviving play contain satire?” http://sicttasd.tripod.com/ttheory.html, accessed September 28, 2009; and Mark Anderson, 254-6. Summer’s Last Will and Testament is quoted from The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), Vol. III, 243.
17Nelson, 197, 214.
18Osborne, Francis. Memoires on the Raigne of Queen Elizabeth and King James (London:1658), 79; cited in William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, ed. G.K. Hunter (London: Metheun and Co., Ltd, 1966), xliv.
19Anderson favored the theory that Osborne meant Elizabeth instead of Susan, 484. In February, 1575, Anne asked for medicines that would induce an abortion, saying, “[I] stand in doubt whether he [Oxford] pass [judgment] upon me and it [the pregnancy] or not” (Anderson, 119). If Oxford had been tricked into sleeping with his wife, at the time he might have told her that he would disavow a child if he had made her pregnant. One can only hope that Anne was rewarded by a special place in heaven for all the suffering Oxford caused her during their marriage.
20Wright, Herbert G. “How Did Shakespeare Come to Know the ‘Decameron’?” Modern Language Review 50 (1955): 45-8.
22See, for example, J. Thomas Looney, “Shakespeare” Identified (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1920) and Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1984).
23The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), Vol. III, 28-9, 64-5, 68-9.
24Marlowe’s dedication is published in its original Latin and Sutton's translation into English in The Complete Works of Thomas Watson (1556-1592), ed. Dana F. Sutton (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), Vol. II, 201.
25For Oxford’s 1590-1602 letters, see Ward, 329-44.
Click here for "The Case Against Oxford as Shakespeare," a compilation of some of this blog's articles on the Oxford theory. Emmerich Anonymous film
Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.