Shakespeare’s “Fluellen” Identified As a
Retainer of the Earl of Oxford
Copyright 1941 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, August 1941.
For I do know Fluellen valiant,
And, touch’d with choler, hot as gunpowder,
And quickly will return an injury. . .
King Henry the Fifth, IV.7.171.
All serious students of the documentary evidence which shows the personality of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, dominating the plays and poems published under the obvious pseudonym of “William Shakespeare,” know that this testimony is too voluminous and far too diverse to be merely a tissue of coincidences.
As Mr. J. Thomas Looney, original discoverer of the Oxford-Shakespeare parallels, has pointed out, much of the legal evidence that plays so important a part in the administration of civilized courts of justice is based upon coincidence, backed with documentary or personal affirmation.
If coincidence should be declared inadmissible, very few verdicts could be rendered by either judge or jury in what we know today as courts of law and equity. There can be no argument on that score.
Yet in the realm of Shakespearean research, self-appointed “authority” either ignores or distorts the whole issue of coincidence here involved; and to protect a well-established vested interest of its own, has nothing but scorn and contempt for Oxfordian investigators of the admitted mystery of the Bard’s personal identity as a man among the men of his own times.
The very fact that the Oxfordian point of view is that of the scientific realist, who sets out to track down the long-missing personality to match the masterly works that have never before been satisfactorily explained from the point of view of human accomplishment, seems enough to set the orthodox pundits in a dither of voluble negation. Not only is the law of coincidence vehemently denied by these gentry: Sir Oracle would prevent all such heretics from submitting the new Oxford evidence to the court of public opinion. He who opens his mouth to question the moth-eaten and illogical tenets of the highly commercialized Stratford tetrarchs is in for unscrupulous handling and must be capable of wielding a well-loaded blackthorn of his own.
The opening chapter of Prof. E. E. Stoll’s new book, Shakespeare and Other Masters, provides a good example of the ill-natured, opinionated belittlement which professional Stratfordians offer in lieu of logical rebuttal of the Oxford-Shakespeare evidence.
Meanwhile, Oxfordian research industriously continues to pile documentary proof upon documentary proof that the literary nobleman, Edward de Vere—amply certified by his contemporaries as the foremost poet at Elizabeth’s Court—is inextricably bound up with the very warp and woof of the Shakespearean creative mystery. Where William Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon fails most signally to present credentials of personal accomplishment, Lord Oxford appears in person to answer the oft-repeated question:
“How could Shakespeare have known that point of law, that particular bit of Court etiquette—or that Elizabethan notable so well?”
The long-obscured personality of this eccentric genius who disposed bit by bit of one of the greatest earldoms in the Tudor realm to help bring to flower the golden age of English drama, comes to light between the lines of the Shakespeare plays as unmistakably as his hidden features and personal symbols have been brought to the surface of the most ancient of the painted portraits of the Bard.
We are in position to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that it is in this man’s life and activities that the true and satisfying answers to the most thorny questions of the Shakespearean creative background are to be found. Edward de Vere provides the human solution to every problem that has gone by default when submitted to the uncouth and inarticulate business man of Stratford who had such difficulty in writing his own name legibly.
Instead of Stratfordian assumptions, based upon familiarity with the printed works without attempting to account for the human agency which made them possible, Oxfordians offer facts relating to the many-sided genius of the cruelly misunderstood peer who looked like Shakespeare, wrote like Shakespeare and had so many of the personal experiences and personal associations which are adumbrated in the plays and poems.
The discovery of a new and highly significant Shakespearean association of the literary Earl can now be announced. This brings to our attention, one of the most picturesque real life notables of Elizabethan times, the doughty Sir Roger Williams, the Welsh soldier of fortune, who is said by all modern editors of King Henry the Fifth to have been the prototype of Shakespeare’s characterization of Captain Fluellen.
Both Sir Sidney Lee and Prof. John Dover Wilson of Cambridge have written at length to prove that the dramatist had Williams clearly in mind when he drew the colorful figure of the Welsh firebrand. The idiosyncrasies of the living soldier and his stage counterpart are, as a matter of fact, identical. The parallels embrace not only broad outlines of appearance, nativity and calling, but extend to those known tricks of speech, peculiarities of reasoning, and reaction to events, as well as the telling defects of character which lend verisimilitude to all true portraits.
No one who studies the contemporary accounts of Sir Roger Williams, together with the published writings of this remarkable swashbuckler—with his delightful mixture of bravery, impulsiveness, native honesty, chauvinism, pawky humor and resolute devotion to “discipline”—can for one moment doubt that the author of Henry the Fifth had this particular Elizabethan notable before his mind’s eye when he created Fluellen. The two men think, speak and act exactly alike. They even use the same verbal similes and the same historical incidents to drive home identical arguments.
In his sketch of Sir Roger Williams in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Sidney Lee tells us that the Welsh hero was born in Monmouthshire (exactly the same county which Fluellen so pride fully claims as his birthplace); 1540 is the year given as the most probable date for this event. Anthony à Wood says that Williams studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, beginning, in 1554, and that soon after he left Oxford, he became a soldier of fortune.
From other sources, including his own writings, it is known that Williams was among the first British soldiery to serve on the Continent during Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, nearly all of his mature life can be shown to have been spent in active service in the Lowlands, in France and other Continental countries.
In referring to Sir Roger’s character, Lee states:
“He rapidly acquired a wide reputation for exceptional courage and daring. Like Shakespeare’s Fluellen, he was constitutionally of a choleric temper and blunt of speech, but the defects of judgment with which he is commonly credited seem exaggerated.”
Serving under Henry of Navarre during the late 1580’s and early 1590’s, after a long experience in the Low Countries, Sir Roger Williams finally returned to London in 1594 with the French Ambassador. His first book, A Brief Discourse of War, with his Opinion concerning some part of Military Discipline had been published in London in 1590. It was not until 1618, however, that the volume upon which his literary fame rests, The Actions of the Lowe Countries, was finally printed.
Broken in health, Williams did not long survive his return to Elizabeth’s Court in 1594. His death was the occasion of public mourning during the following year.
While the evidence proving Sir Roger Williams to have been the prototype of Shakespeare’s Fluellen is too voluminous and clear-cut to admit of doubt, no particle of proof has ever been adduced to show that William Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon ever came face to face with this dashing Welsh military hero. Neither can it be shown that Shakspere was ever vouchsafed a glance at the manuscript of Williams’ book, The Actions of the Lowe Countries, published posthumously in 1618, though many of the speeches that the author of Henry the Fifth puts in the mouth of the argumentative Fluellen are merely poetical paraphrases of Sir Roger’s own arguments and “instances” in the Actions.
Both Williams and his stage double are extravagant admirers of Edward III and his military exploits. (See Williams’ account of the Battle of Middleburgh and Fluellen’s reference to Edward III in Henry the Fifth, IV.7.89.) Both men refer quaintly to Alexander the Great, speak boastfully of their native soil and evince reverence for “the literature of the wars.” Williams is a firm advocate of military discipline, which he expatiates upon endlessly and uses in the wording of two of his book titles. This same insistence upon “discipline” becomes a catchword with Fluellen: “the disciplines of the wars,” “the disciplines of the pristine wars of the Romans,” “the true disciplines of the wars,” ad infinitum. In his amusing encounter with the Irish engineer, Captain Macmorris, Fluellen immediately suggests, “a few disputations with you as partly touching or concerning the disciplines of the wars.” At the end of his chapter describing the Battle of Middleburgh in the Actions, Williams exclaims in the unmistakable phraseology of Fluellen:
“But I will dispute against any souldier, that no fight hath been comparable unto it by sea, these five hundred yeares . . .”
These are but a few of the verbal parallels. Space does not permit at this time of a complete presentation of the Williams-Fluellen characterization.
The portrait is, indeed, so realistic that it is abundantly evident that the creator of the stage Fluellen knew Sir Roger Williams as intimately as Charles Dickens knew the original of the irrepressible Mr. Micawber. Yet it is not susceptible of proof that the Stratford native ever came into contact with the Welsh soldier of fortune. What is the answer to this riddle?
As usual, we find a reasonable and satisfying answer in the documentation relating to the 17th Earl of Oxford, the great concealed dramatist of Elizabeth’s Court.
In Volume 17 of the Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Salisbury, published 1938 by the Royal Historical Manuscripts Commission, I have come across the transcript of a holograph letter written by Sir Francis Vere, favorite cousin and intimate friend of the 17th Earl of Oxford, to Sir Robert Cecil, Principal Secretary of State. It is dated November 171, 1605, and evidently accompanied another letter from one Thomas Morgan, a notorious spy, at this time in the pay of certain Continental interests desirous of stirring up trouble in England. The first paragraph of Vere’s letter reads as follows:
“I received the enclosed from Thomas Morgan this morning by an Englishman, a stranger to me, but as he says well known to Sir William Waad. It was delivered to him by Sir Robert Dormer. The contents are strange to me, for I never borrowed money of him, nor to my remembrance spake with him; but such a man I saw when I was very young at Paris, by reason of the company I kept with Sir Roger Williams and one Denys a Frenchman, followers of my Lord of Oxford’s, to whom he sometimes resorted.”
Here we have unquestionable contemporary proof that the playwriting Earl of Oxford knew the living prototype of Shakespeare’s Fluellen from personal contact!
“Merely a coincidence…?”
But as these innumerable coincidences continue to come to light, their cumulative effect creates a documentary case history of impressive proportions.
To paraphrase a speech from the comedy, Once In a Lifetime: “The whole thing couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?”
The answer is: “Yes, and the kind of all-embracing coincidence that wins verdicts in the highest courts in the land.”
For, as we have shown in other instances too numerous to mention, Oxford is the one man who can be proven to have possessed the poetical genius, plus the particular knowledge and essential opportunity to meet the definite requirements of “Mr. William Shakespeare’s” role in this all-important matter of creative background. Where William of Stratford is merely the pale simulacrum of a random guess, the playwriting Earl appears as a documented entity in the known Shakespearean circle.
Such evidence as this which shows the close relationship between Lord Oxford and the original Fluellen cannot help but strengthen belief that the Shakespeare plays are—contrary to orthodox pronunciamento—full of topical allusions and alive with speaking portraits and biting satires of many famous Elizabethan characters.
Both Mrs. Eva Turner Clark and Dr. Lily B. Campbell are fundamentally right in emphasizing this highly important aspect of the plays.
When all of the existing documentation relating to Lord Oxford’s activities and personal associations is printed, it should be possible to convince all who study the evidence with open minds that the true personality behind these immortal works was deliberately concealed primarily because his creative approach was so largely auto biographical.
In other words, Edward de Vere, publicly designated as one whose “countenance shakes a spear” by Gabriel Harvey, had committed the unforgiveable social error of “holding the mirror up to nature,” of realistically featuring both himself and many of his personal associates as “a motley to the view.” As a result, he could never acknowledge authorship of these creations without scandalizing his caste beyond all redemption.
Robert Louis Stevenson tells us in his account of the writing of Treasure Island how he evolved the characterization of Long John Silver from a slightly accentuated study of his friend and collaborator, William Ernest Henley.
This method of literary creation is thoroughly sound. And Stevenson, living in a different age, and belonging to a different stratum of society, could have his fun and invite the whole reading public to enjoy it with him. But the Lord Chamberlain of England obviously could do no such thing in the days of Good Queen Bess.
But, by the same token, it is undoubtedly this very quality of lifelike portraiture in the dramatic recreation of such personalities as Sir Roger Williams as Fluellen, the Great Lord Burghley as Polonius, Sir Christopher Hatton as Malvolio and Oxford himself as Bertram and Hamlet-to mention but two of several self-portraits—which has given these stage figures their deathless vitality down the centuries.
Charles Wisner Barrell