THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
DURING THE REMAINDER of the 1570’s Edward de Vere worked With a vigor, concentration, and copiousness of invention staggering to one of our more effete age. Not only did he turn out court-poems, together with a great deal of Latin verse, prefaces to dedicated books, articles, translations, he also wrote and produced a continuous series of plays, in some of which he himself acted at court.
His interest in the drama, whetted while. he was a student at Gray’s Inn, had been heightened by his sojourn in Italy. He had brought back with him a number of Italian plays and novellas, as well as some in Latin, and he would soon make use of these as source-material for plays and interludes of his own with which to entertain the Queen and her court. He had already initiated this practice with certain early ones, among them The Rape of the Second Helene, previously mentioned, which combined a tale of Boccaccio’s with several striking circumstances of his own life. His earliest dramas were comparatively brief, in some cases mere silhouettes of their final forms. He was to revise them at later dates, most of them, in fact, again and again, as we have said, working on his greatest tragedies almost to the day of his death, and imbuing them all with the grace and nobility of spirit, the unfailing humor, which were innately his, and with the compassion and wisdom which he acquired through his own suffering.
If the conventions of the day forbade that a nobleman concern himself seriously with the trivialities of literature, it cried anathema upon any who had traffic with the theatre. To the end of his life, Lord Oxford never signed his name to a single play or even masque of his own composition; but, we hasten to add, this was not due solely to the convention. That even the Queen was powerless to alter this fixed code appears from a statement in The Arte of English Poesy:
But in these days (although some learned Princes take delight in Poets) yet universally it is not so. For as well Poets as Poesie are despised, and the name become of honourable infamous, subject to scorn and derision, and rather a reproach than a praise to any that useth it.
And in his Apologie for Poetrie, Philip Sidney deplored the fact that “Poetrie … is among us throwne down to so ridiculous an estimation,” and pondered “why England (the mother of excellent mindes) should bee growne so hard a step-mother to Poets, who certainly in wit ought to passe all other… .”
From 1578 to 1598 Oxford stood supreme both as poet and dramatist, as his contemporaries have abundantly testified. In 1578, Gabriel Harvey began an oration by declaiming, “Thy splendid fame, great Earl, demands even more than in the case of others the services of a poet possessing lofty eloquence.” Peacham, Master of Arts at Cambridge, writing in 1622, put the Earl of Oxford’s name at the top of a list of writers who had made Elizabeth’s reign a Golden Age of Literature. He was proclaimed by scholars and historians who spoke sincerely, and not through subversion, fear, or malice, as the greatest of them all.
I may not omit [wrote William Webbe] the deserved commendations of many honourable Lords and Gentlemen in Her Majesty’s Court, which, in the rare devices of poetry, have been and yet are most skilful; among whom the Right Honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of most excellent among the rest.
The author of The Arte of English Poesie declared that
in Her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly makers [i.e., poets (1)], Noblemen and Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well, as it would appear if their doings could be found out, and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman, Edward Earl of Oxford.
There were other tributes similar to these.
Oxford’s fascinated absorption in the drama seems to have been equalled only by that of Elizabeth, who was insatiable and abetted him in his work, delighting in the new comedies he presented before her, enjoying the topical references, the thinly veiled caricatures, and allusions to happenings at court. He was given the privilege, on his high scale, of a Court jester; but his barbs, often aimed at public policy, sottish custom, unctuous fraud, or threatened danger, probed more deeply, found out the center of weakness or treachery, and prescribed a cure. It was the Earl himself speaking when Jaques said (As You Like It: II.7.34 et seq.):
Motley’s the only wear.
O worthy fool! One that hath been a courtier.
* * * * * *
I am ambitious for a motley coat.
… It is my only suit.
… I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please; for so fools have.
* * * * * *
Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.
Certainly Elizabeth gave him immense and unprecedented license, to the extent of herself receiving salutary doses of realism, for, from this poet-dramatist of brilliant intellect, sound judgment and impeccable honor, she knew she would have the truth. And truth, understandingly conveyed, is a rare boon to a monarch. He saw all, comprehended all, kept au courant of significant movements and events, foreign and domestic, simply through his abnormal sentience and wit.
The Queen had been wise to deny this poet a military career, recognizing his genius from the beginning. In her service, his powers developed, wisdom increasing with sophistication, and his pen became a potent instrument for conveying with magic art a deathless vision, not only of the English scene of his epoch but of the world of man.
The court of Elizabeth was a macrocosm, elaborate, complex, full of variety, the center of which was Her Majesty’s unaccountable mind. (Bacon was later to speak of it thus.) Life was never hum-drum or even tranquil where the Queen was in residence. During the days there was much business of state to be dispatched, there were endless conferences with her ministers, decisions to be made, and often straightway revoked, diplomatic moves to be planned and hazarded upon the international chessboard, all the great affairs of a disorganized but vital, growing country, teeming with energy and surrounded on every side by enmities and threats. Foreign guests and diplomats flocked to the court; and for them, as well as for her own immediate circle of courtiers, maids, ministers, Gentlemen Pensioners, nobles and their wives, the Queen required lavish entertainment.
One historian of the period writes as follows:
The arrival of ambassadors of high rank … afforded the Queen an opportunity of displaying all the magnificence of her Court; and their entertainment has furnished for the curious inquirer of later times some amusing traits of the semi-barbarous manners of the age… . The gorgeousness of the [French] ambassador’s dress was thought remarkable even in those gorgeous times. The day after their arrival they were conducted in state to the court, where they supped with the Queen; and afterwards partook of a “goodly banquet” with all manner of entertainment until midnight. The next day Her Majesty gave them a sumptuous dinner; followed by a baiting of bulls and bears. “The Queen’s grace” herself stood with them in a gallery looking on the pastime till six o’clock; when they returned by water to sup with the bishop their host. (2)
This was in about 1559. Oxford’s few references to bear-baiting are not from the standpoint of a devotee. He was a fastidious, civilized man, in most ways far ahead of his time. The plays he produced at court, even his early ones, were on a higher scale, not only in subject matter but in lightness of touch, flexibility of wit, esprit, than those of his predecessors.
In 1575 Walsingham wrote to Herbert, “Nothing is thought of at Court but banqueting and pastime.” During the heyday of Elizabeth’s reign—certainly in the 1570’s, ’80’s, and most of the ’90’s—there was an abundance of both.
A story is told how, when her great dramatist was taking part in a play one evening before the Queen, she teasingly dropped her glove at his feet, so that he was obliged to pick it up. He stooped and, with perfect aplomb, handed Gloriana her glove, while improvising in the same metre as his interrupted speech:
Although engag’d on this high embassy,
Yet stoop we to pick up our cousin’s glove,
and continued with the lines of his part.
It always charmed Elizabeth to meet her match in her Turk..
Gilbert Talbot, in a letter written during the late 1570’s to his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, spoke of the shows given before the Queen on Shrovetide, of which “the chiefest was a device presented by the persons of the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Surrey, the Lords Thomas Howard and Windsor. The devise was prettier than it had hap to be performed,” he wrote; “but the best of it, and I think the best liked, was two rich jewels which were presented to Her Majesty by the two Earls.” (3)
Elizabeth’s rapacity was not only feminine but catholic; she was a true Tudor in her appetite for self-gratification. In this case, however, it would seem that the Queen had objected to the subject-matter of the “device,” for thereafter Lord Oxford wrote no more plays based upon simple domestic tragedy. This seems to have been the one recorded in the Feuillerat Documents as “The history of murderous mychaell shewen at Whitehall on shrovetuesdaie at night by the Lord Chamberleynes servauntes furnished in this office with sondrey things.” The plot was taken from a recent account in Holinshed of the murder of Arden of Feversham by his wife Alice (spelled “Ales”) and her willing servant Michael; the play, later revised, was entitled Arden of Feversham. It can be demonstrated beyond the possibility of refutation, so we believe, that it was written by Lord Oxford. Nichols records a progress the Queen made to Feversham in 1573—the Earl of Oxford had undoubtedly accompanied her, since he was in highest favor at the time—which had cost the town a great sum.
We shall adduce further proof, but must not do so here, although we may remark in passing that one of the characters is quoted as “Saying he served Sir Anthony Cooke” (II.1.42), and Sir Anthony Cooke was Lady Burghley’s father. There is also the inevitable reference to Ovid, which can almost be said to be an Oxford cachet. In fact, it occurs in a passage suggestive of Romeo and Juliet, which was written only a few years later:
Arden. Sweet love, thou knowest that we two,
Ovid-like, Have often chid the morning when it gan to peepe
And often wisht that darke nighte’s purblind steedes
Would pull her by the purple mantle back. (I.1.60-3.)
Ales connived at the murder of her husband, in order to marry a man of inferior quality; Oxford’s mother had married a man of meaner station soon after her husband’s death (though no question of murder arose), and so did the Queen in Hamlet. But this is anticipating.
The years immediately following his return’ from his travels found Lord Oxford and the Queen enjoying the finest period of their relationship. Passion had subsided, infatuation had mellowed into love and esteem, which was fostered by their congeniality of attitude and of tastes, constituting an instinctive bond. Oxford had developed a more mature judgment; the Queen knew she could depend upon his absolute integrity. He was living apart from his wife and had not yet become thrall to a younger rival to Elizabeth’s claims; so that for the time being—a brief time—he was relatively free from the distraction of women, toward whom his emotions, ever powerful, were ever mixed: ardor thwarted by tormenting mistrust. But the world and human nature being what they are, this satisfactory relationship between such temperamental individualists could not last. Forces of entropy are always at work, and never were their agents more alert than here at court. Still, while it did last, it was a rich and fruitful experience for both the poet and his sovereign; and the bond between them was never actually severed—could never have been: it was too tightly woven, too intrinsic a part of themselves.
Oxford spent more and more time at his lodgings now, devoting himself to literature. His companions were other writers—his “lewd friends,” as Burghley called them—and his cousins, the Howards’ Henry and his nephew, Philip, Charles Arundel, Francis Southwell, and young courtiers who shared their tastes.
The Queen was increasingly taken up with affairs of state, not the least urgent of which was the question of a foreign alliance. Almost from the beginning of her reign there had been a tremendous public interest in the matter of her marriage. Paramount was the consideration that she should have an heir, in order to prevent another civil war of succession, so costly to the country in lives, money, energy. Moreover, it was believed that England’s precarious position would be stabilized if the Queen were allied through marriage with one of the strong royal houses of Europe. Francis II of France had died in 1561, and his young wife, Mary of Scotland, had returned to her home to become Queen of the Scots. This meant ceaseless danger to the English throne; for Mary, as the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, considered herself the rightful Queen of England, because, a devout Catholic, she held Elizabeth to be a bastard, with no rights at all.
Two years after Mary Stuart’s return, Parliament presented its first official plan to the Queen to marry. She was thought to be delicate in physique, her reign might be cut short. The old aristocracy represented in the Privy Council favored continuation of close ties of friendship with Catholic Spain. The newcomers, Cecil and Nicholas Bacon, preferred an alliance with France. The Queen gave a haughty reply, to the effect that whatever decision was made, it would be she who made it, that moreover, she was English and would be married only to her country.
Since her accession, Elizabeth’s hand had been sought by Prince Eric of Sweden, the Archduke of Austria, Philip of Spain, even Ivan the Terrible, by the Duke of Holstein, nephew of the King of Denmark, by Charles IX of France, then upon his death by the duc d’Anjou, afterwards Henry III. In 1566, when Vulcob, after extravagantly praising his master, Charles IX, to the Queen, expressed to Elizabeth’s physician some concern about the likelihood of issue, because of the difference in their ages, the physician replied: “Your King is seventeen and the Queen only thirty-two. Take no notice of what she says in that respect, it is only her passing fancies. If the King marries her, I will answer for her having ten children, and no one in the world knows her temperament better than I do. If you like, I will secretly arrange this business.” (4)
Now, in the latter 1570’s, the long-standing question of Elizabeth’s marriage to the duc d’Alençon—who, after his brother’s accession, had also become duc d’Anjou—was being pressed. It became a diplomatic instrument which she wielded with consummate skill for several crucial years. Elizabeth was at this time walking on a tight-rope between the powers of France and Spain, and she manipulated Alençon like a wand, twirling him this way and that to maintain her balance. With amazing dexterity and guile she kept herself mistress of the situation, while he was now dazzled, now unnerved by her maneuvers. She flattered and cajoled him, brandishing him before the world as her mainstay and delight, until the moment when, her purposes achieved, her safety assured, she tossed him aside, directing her ministers, who were themselves exhausted from the long strain, to reimburse him from the exchequer for his disappointed hopes.
Meanwhile Burghley persisted tirelessly in his efforts to bring the Earl and Countess of Oxford back together, but without success. Oxford turned over to his wife his country house at Wivenhoe and his lodgings in the Savoy, but he apparently considered their relationship at an end. Lord Burghley wrote:
I perceive he would make the sons of the younger uncle his heirs if he could, which I think he cannot, of the Earldom.
These were Horace—some times called Horatio—and Francis Vere, afterwards known as “the fighting Veres,” sons of Sir Geoffrey Vere; they were Oxford’s favorite cousins. Queen Elizabeth declared at one time that Sir Francis was the best general in her service.
Lord Oxford’s homecoming had been bitter and harrowing. He had lost his wife, and the fine gloss of his reputation: this on top of the financial strain which had hampered him constantly during his travels and which Burghley ought to have prevented. Another galling irritation was the outrage perpetrated against his book, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, while he was away, with Gascoigne taking credit for his poems, and the concomitant appointment of Gascoigne as Poet Laureate. Besides, there had been the business of the pirates’ attack on his ship and the theft of many of his possessions.
Ward connects with this period the following incident recorded in Stowe’s Annals (p. 868), though we are inclined to believe it belongs to an earlier, unheralded trip the Earl had made to the Continent, in 1571, for which there is only incidental evidence:
Milliners or Haberdashers had not any glove s embroidered, or trimmed with gold or silk, neither gold nor embroidered girdles nor hangers, neither could they make any costly wash or perfume; until about the fourteenth or fifteenth year of the Queen the right honourable Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, came from Italy, and brought with him gloves, sweet bags, a perfumed leather jerkin, and other pleasant things; and that year the Queen had a pair of perfumed gloves trimmed only with four tufts, or roses of coloured silk: the Queen took such pleasure in those gloves that she was pictured with those gloves upon her hands, and for many years after it was called the Earl of Oxford’s perfume.
In spite of other reverses, he continued high in Elizabeth’s favor, although he now came less frequently to court. Liberty was what he had most desired after many years spent at Cecil House under the domination of the busybody Burghley and the detested Lady Burghley. He had assiduously tried to serve the Queen in the armed forces and been balked; he had entreated her for years before she had consented to his travelling abroad, one great obstacle having been the Lord Treasurer’s firm conviction that “France and Italy were sinks of iniquity.” Now at last he was free of restrictions, and he had had his travels: now he could give full rein to his genius. His wife felt crushed, but this, he assured himself stonily, had not been his doing. Liberty had offered; he would embrace it gratefully and follow his own destiny.
Unwittingly Burghley made it all easier. Whispers and insinuations he had let pass about his son-in-law came to Oxford’s ears. That settled it. He felt himself free, and a good riddance it was.
Later, when Arundel was fighting for his life, he gave another example of Oxford’s after-dinner tales which belonged to this period:
I have often heard him tell that at his being in Italy, there fell discord and disunion in the city of Genoa between two families, whereupon it grew to wars…. [He had moreover declared] that the cobblers’ wives of Milan are more richly dressed at every working day than the Queen at Christmas. That a merchant at Genoa hath a mantel of a chimney of more price than all the treasures of the Tower.
One can imagine the high spirits with which the raconteur had spun these yarns. But Arundel would have forgotten the jibes and laughter when, for lack of serious evidence of Oxford’s dishonesty, he was obliged to use this elaborate nonsense to confound the man who was defending his country against its traducers.
Still, although Oxford was irrepressibly gay at times, he had moments of bitter pessimism, for he was in bad straits financially; and this was one cause of his absenting himself whenever possible from court. Until his recent journey, he had never questioned that there would always be an ample sufficiency; he was accustomed to live on a lavish scale and had never suspected that he would not continue to do so. It seems a very curious thing that Burghley, who had had charge of the Earl’s affairs for so many years, had not been able to manage them better, when he did so conspicuously well with his own. Lord Oxford was growing somewhat cynical about the state of his fortune and its effect upon his life when, in 1576, he wrote the play which was later to become the Timon of Athens we now know. This was presented at Whitehall on February 17, 1577. (5)
However, on January 1 of that year an earlier play had been performed at Hampton Court, announced as follows: “The historie of Error shown at Hampton Court on Newyeres daie at night, enacted by the Children of Powles.” (6) This is the “old Court-drama” from which Shakespeare is “supposed” to have derived The Comedy of Errors, which he is “supposed” to have written, sometime after 1595, making “as much use as answered his purpose” of the “long hobbling verses” of the original play. As a matter of fact, Oxford wrote the original version at some time before 1577. Certain features point definitely to a 1572 version. Since it is adapted from the Menoechmi of Plautus, he may have begun it during his days at Gray’s Inn, after Gascoigne had initiated the vogue of translating plays from the Latin and Italian. In its final revision, it was presented at Gray’s Inn again, in the mid-1590’s, with the Earl of Southampton very likely taking part; certain allusions to him belong necessarily to the late revision.
One reason for our connecting The Comedy of Errors with Oxford’s period at Gray’s Inn is the familiarity it shows with what Heard calls “some of the most refined principles of the science of special pleading, a science which contains the quintessence of the law.” (7) And Lord Chief Justice Campbell wrote that the jests (II.2) “show the author to be very familiar with some of the most abstruse proceedings in English jurisprudence.” (8) That part, however, we take to belong to the revision.
While this comedy is less personal than most of the others, there are unmistakable revelations to be found of Oxford’s state of mind during the latter part of 1576, as well as the resemblance, previously noted, to one of his early poems, Grief of Mind, in the speech of Dromio of Ephesus (I.2.47-52.)
A man is master of his liberty (II.1.7)
reflects his current preoccupation; so does the Abbess’s query (V.1.49-53)
Hath he not lost much wealth by wrack of sea?
Buried some dear friend? Hath not else his eye
Stray’d his affection in unlawful love?
A sin prevailing much in youthful men,
Who give their eyes the liberty of gazing.
His “dear friend,” buried in 1572, was the Duke of Norfolk. And he was Elizabeth’s lover at that time.
But he was extremely sensitive, and he was well aware that Anne was suffering, as she had suffered when the Queen was monopolizing him. This enabled him to see Adriana’s side and to give her the speech (II.1.87 et seq.) which concludes:
… My decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair;
But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale
And feeds from home: poor I am but his stale.
And he knows the evils of jealousy, being himself subject to its pangs:
Self-harming jealousy! (II.1.102);
How many fond fools serve mad jealousy! (II.1.116.)
There is, as it happens, a definite personal connection introduced into this play which corresponds with the prominence given the Earl of Oxford in The Famous Victories. This has to do with the character of the Abbess; for a leaf from the Vere family history states that the second wife of the third Alberic de Vere, “created Earl of Oxford by the Empress Maud and confirmed by Henry II in 1155, [was] Lucia de Albrincis, [who] founded a nunnery at Hedingham. … [becoming] its first Prioress.” (9) Here the good lady is called an Abbess.
The speech of Antipholus of Syracuse to Dromio could have been written only from the point of view of an aristocrat:
Because that I familiarly sometimes
Do use you for my fool, and chat with you,
Your sauciness will jest upon my love,
And make a common of my serious hours.
When the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport,
But creep in crannies when he hides his beams.
If you will jest with me, know my aspect,
And fashion your demeanour to my looks…. (II.2.26-33.)
(It is interesting to compare this speech with the King’s admonition to Clarence—2 H. IV.: IV.4.27 et seq.—as to how to treat Prince Hal—with whom Oxford always identified himself.)
Adriana’s speech to her supposed husband (II.2.177 et seq.) could only have been made by a woman of quality:
How ill agrees it with your gravity
To counterfeit thus grossly with your slave…
And Dromio’s a few lines later (198-201) embodies a phrase which will appear in Lyly’s Endymion, in 1586, after having been used in The Merry Wives of Windsor the year before:
This is the fairy land: O! spite of spites,
We talk with goblins, owls, and elvish sprites:
If we obey them not, this will ensue,
They’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue.
But more of this later.
It is surely a nobleman who speaks so familiarly about the making of a carkanet (III.1.4)—the same one who speaks, in Sonnet 52, of “captain jewels in the carcanet.” Antipholus has ordered such a handsome gift as Timon was wont to order from his jeweler, and as Oxford was, if we are to judge by the “very fair jewell” he gave the Queen in 1575:
Say that I linger’d with you at your shop
To see the making of her carcanet.
He instructs Angelo, the goldsmith (114-15):
Get you home,
And fetch the chain; by this I know ’tis made.
And it is a man accustomed to the appurtenances of wealth who, in sending his servant for money, says (IV.1.104-6):
Give her this key, and tell her, in the desk,
That’s cover’d o’er with Turkish tapestry,
There is a purse of ducats: let her send it.
In Elizabeth’s day, a man of humble birth could have had no possible information about such luxuries.
Oxford used the matter of the chain for a little jibe at Hatton, who was inordinately proud of the gold bell and chain the Queen had given him after his creditable part in the 1571 tournament, when she had presented Oxford, as champion, with the tablet of diamonds. Dromio of Syracuse says:
A chain, a chain. Do you not hear it ring?
Adriana. What, the chain?
Dromio. No, no, the bell. (IV.2.51-3.)
Hatton, whom Elizabeth called her Sheep, was called the Belwether by some of the courtiers.
In the long passage between Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse about the geographical properties of the kitchen-wench, there occurs a pun which was a great favorite with the Elizabethans, on hair and heir, with which they often included hare (III.2.130-2):
Antipholus of Syracuse. Where France?
Dromio of Syracuse. In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war against her heir.
When Charles IX died in 1574, his brother, who became Henry III, was in Poland, as King. The Protestants and anti-Guisans were all ready to take action—”armed and reverted”—but Catherine de’ Medici, acting with forcefulness and dispatch, rounded up and imprisoned their leaders, crushing the scattered units one by one; so that the war in France “against her heir” was unsuccessful.
The speech of Antipholus of Syracuse (IV.3.1 et seq.) foreshadows Timon:
Some tender money to me; some invite me;
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
Some offer me commodities to buy:
Even now a tailor call’d me in his shop
And show’d me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal, took measure of my body… .
This is the kind of thing the Earl of Oxford was accustomed to; and so is Timon, who is an only slightly disguised representation of Oxford, disillusioned by the loss of his wealth and his realization that many of those whom he believed his friends were merely flatterers and hangers-on. Because he was himself sincere, spontaneous, and generous, it went hard with him to find how many people were politic and calculating. He felt everything so intensely that this first serious disillusionment was a bitter tragedy to him.
3. Harleian MSS., No. 285.3-75. The record says: “The young Noblemen, it seems, did not so well acquit their parts.” Lord Oxford, considerably older than the other three, was the only experienced one.
Contents | Chapter Eleven