Chapter 12

“William Shakes-speare”
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn

Chapter Twelve

The 1570’s

IT WAS during these tempestuous days that Oxford was said to have become a Catholic and then temporarily to have turned atheist. But little can be definitely known from reports made in enmity or in fear.

Certainly in the year following his marriage he had been overtly anti-Catholic, not only because he now wished, as he wrote his father-in-law, “to count myself a follower of yours in all fortunes,” but because of his horror at the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. In 1572 he had written Burghley upon this subject one of his most eloquent and warm-hearted letters:

I would to God your Lordship would let me understand some of your news which here doth ring doubtfully in the ears of every man, of the murder of the Admiral of France, and a number of noblemen and worthy gentlemen, and such as greatly have in their lifetime honoured the Queen’s Majesty our Mistress; on whose tragedies we have a number of French Aeneases (1) in this city that tell of their overthrows with tears falling from their eyes, a piteous thing to hear but a cruel and far more grievous thing we deem it then to see. All rumours here are but confused of those troops that are escaped from Paris and Rouen where Monsieur (2) hath also been, and like a Vesper Sicilianus, as they say, that cruelty spreads all over France, whereof your Lordship is better advertised than we are here. And sith the world is so full of treasons and vile instruments daily to attempt new and unlooked for things, good my Lord, I shall affectionately and heartily desire your Lordship to be careful both of yourself and of Her Majesty, that your friends may long enjoy you and you them. I speak because I am not ignorant what practices have been made against your person lately by Mather, and later, as I understand by foreign practices, if it be true. And I think if the Admiral of France [i.e., Coligny] was an eyesore or beam in the eyes of the papists, that the Lord Treasurer of England is a blot and a crossbar in their way, whose remove they will never stick to attempt, seeing they have prevailed so well in others… . [Complete Letter.]

Burghley gave up a fine relationship in playing false with this young man. Oxford’s disaffection with his father-in-law four years later no doubt embraced all that Burghley stood for: the sanguine, temperamental de Vere was nothing if not thoroughgoing. Any tendency toward the older Church at this time may have been chiefly a veering away from the new, Burghley being the Protestant leader. Many of Oxford’s closest friends had never relinquished Catholicism. Elizabeth herself, as we have noted, preferred the more aesthetic ritual of the Roman Church, going so far as to burn candles in her private chapel and to declare that in her beliefs she was a Catholic. Protestantism was simply a state policy with her.

This attitude toward outward forms was altogether consistent with the sumptuous attire, the magnificent banquets and festivities and courtly elegance which were the established order of the Renaissance. In Italy, Holland, France, and Spain, artists were painting even the Madonna in robes of gorgeous Quattrocento brocade, often with a delicate wimple, a crown, or head-dress set with gems. The manger of the Nativity was frequently like the portico of a palace, with an amiable cow or two in the foreground as a concession to the Christian story, while the Holy Family were arrayed like worldly monarchs and appeared lusty and plump with good living. The popes were of course notoriously licentious.

If Oxford did indeed turn atheist for a time, it might have been to some extent from an intellectual revulsion against these very extremes: he did not fail to satirize again and again. the excesses of foppishness and artificiality to which court-practices—and pedantry also, for that matter—led. However, he himself liked fine clothes and was foppish in his dress during the ’70’s. There were, in any case, quite sufficient reasons for his volte-face, for more than once again he was to see to what depths of dishonor and brutality fanaticism could bring even those whom he had known best and had trusted.

Toward the close of 1576, four years after the horror of St. Bartholomew’s Day, occurred the terrible massacre in Antwerp, called the Spanish Fury, also perpetrated by the Catholic fanatics. Elizabeth, who stood in constant danger from Catholic intrigue, had been quietly supporting William of Orange, with whom were allied the Huguenots of France, against the efforts of Philip of Spain to wipe out Protestantism in the Netherlands. The aim of Philip, together with the Papal powers and Catholic France, was to put Mary Stuart on the throne of England. Whatever may be thought of Burghley’s character or his methods, it must be admitted that he and Elizabeth played a masterly game against the immense power and wealth which was leagued against them. Burghley was, of course, the man for the place: it was his very qualities of craft, dissimulation, inconstancy, devilish guile, and cruelty which helped to save Elizabeth’s life and England’s independence.

Two days after the presentation of Timon of Athens—as “the Solitarie knight“—at Whitehall, and three and a half months after the Spanish Fury had occurred, a play entered as The historye of Titus and Gisippus “was showen at Whitehall on Shrovestuesdaie at night [February 19, 1577], enacted by the Children of Pawles.”

While we agree with Mrs. Clark that Oxford wrote this early version of Titus Andronicus in haste for production as soon as possible after the recent massacre, we believe that he was spurred to re-write it by another débâcle which occurred at the end of the decade. We shall, therefore, take it up in connection with that period. Ben Jonson, in the Induction of Bartholomew Fair, in 1614, wrote that “Hee that will sweare Jeronimo [afterward The Spanish Tragedy] and Andronicus are the best playes … [is one] whose judgment hath stood still these five-and-twentie or thirty yeares.”

One other play was produced during 1577—one which would seem to have been the initial version of Pericles. It was probably the same play which was more specifically recorded as given during the following year: “A pastorell or historie of a Greeke maide shewen at Richmond on the sondaie next after Newe yeares daie enacted by the Earl of Leicester his servauntes furnished with some thinges in this office”—the Revels Office having provided “Three yards of gray cloth to make my Lord of Leicester’s man a fishermans coat.”

The general theme of Pericles derives from the Gesta Romanorum, of which Lord Oxford may well have been reminded by a translation made, in the form of a novel, by Lawrence Twine in 1576; and, since the story was similar to recent happenings in his own life, he took occasion to use it in a “device.” Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus and Pericles certainly expressed the passionate gloom which had darkened his mind after his return from his travels; and all three plays are intimately connected with his contemporary experience. In our opinion, Pericles may have been little more than a masque in the beginning—perhaps something like Hamlet’s play about the murder of Gonzago, and no less spiced with significance. Much of the action seems pictorial, lending itself to tableaux vivants. How anyone can believe Pericles to have been as a whole a work of the dramatist’s maturity, one of his last plays, is beyond our comprehension; but of course scholars reasoning from a fixed premise—in this case, the wrong dates—have had to cut the pattern to fit the skimpy cloth.

In a general and necessarily symbolic fashion, Pericles is autobiographical, except that the sequence of events is somewhat altered. Pericles had travelled; he had acquired a powerful enemy, Antiochus, who sounds extremely like Burghley:

… the great Antiochus,—
Gainst whom I am too little to contend,
Since he’s so great can make his will his act,
Will think me speaking, though I swear to silence;

Nor boots it me to say I honour him,
If he suspect I may dishonour him;
And what may make him blush in being known
He’ll stop the course by which it might be known.

This was the case with Oxford: he was actually in great danger from Burghley.

(Incidentally, the verse here is in the dramatist’s early manner: it is similar to that of Arden of Feversham, The Spanish Tragedy, Edward III.)

Pericles travels again, and is wrecked in a storm—which of course symbolizes the “storm” Oxford had been through, and also the one Timon had suffered, the “winter’s brush” which had stripped him of his leaves—and he expected to have a grave, like Timon’s, on the shore of the sea—as Oxford would have had if the pirates had killed him.

Yet cease your ire, you angry stars of heaven!
Wind, rain, and thunder, remember earthly man
Is but a substance that must yield to you;
Alas! the sea hath cast me on the rocks.
* * * * * *
To have bereft a prince of all his fortunes;
And having thrown him from your watery grave,
Here to have death in peace is all he’ll crave. (II.1.1 et seq.)

Pericles participates and is declared the champion in a tournament (II.2) which is actually an Elizabethan tournament, where the knights, instead of coming from foreign lands, were merely dressed as if they had. (3) He marries the daughter of a powerful man (a king in this case, rather than the Chief Minister.) He is the victim of another “storm”; a daughter is born to him, but his wife is lost because of the child’s birth: he is obliged to cast her overboard. (Symbolism again here.)

All this of course prefigures The Winter’s Tale, a later and more skilful play, in which the bereaved husband consults the oracle, instead of sending, to the temple of Diana (Elizabeth), and in which the “dead” wife is also restored.

Pericles describes himself as

A gentleman of Tyre, my name, Pericles;
My education been in arts and arms…. (II.3.81-2.)

His speech is courtly:

I am at your Grace’s pleasure. (112.)

(No provincial, no man of the people, however great his genius, would have had, in Elizabeth’s day, any opportunity whatever of learning court-speech or the ways of the nobility. He simply could not have acquired this kind of thing. Oxford taught all the playwrights what they knew of court-manners, of the ways of knighthood and of kings. He had, on the other hand, not a trace of peasant shrewdness about money, no knowledge of how to acquire any.)

Simonides thanks Pericles (II.5.26-8):

For your sweet music this last night:
I do Protest my ears were never better fed
With such delightful pleasing harmony.

Oxford was gifted in music, as contemporaries testify.

But an especially interesting point is the introduction of Cerimon, a Lord of Ephesus, whose first words identify him with the Earl himself. We take him to be a composite presentment of Oxford and Dr. Dee, a famous astronomer—or astrologer—of the time. Elizabeth had consulted Dr. Dee as to the most auspicious date for her coronation and had followed his advice. She sometimes visited him, on one occasion at least accompanied by the Earl of Oxford, who had studied with Dr. Dee, after making his acquaintance in 1573. (4) His interest in astronomy is apparent in the plays, and incidentally in Sonnet 14.

In Pandora, a volume of light verse dedicated to Oxford and published in 1584 by John Soouthern, a Frenchman who was at that time a member of Lord Oxford’s household, the following lines are apropos of his patron:

For who marketh better than he
The seven turning flames of the sky?
Or hath read more of the antique;
Hath greater knowledge of the tongues?
Or understandeth sooner the sounds
Of the learner to love music?

Cerimon’s first words, as we say, identify him:

                … I hold it ever
Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches; careless heirs
May the two latter darken and expend,
But immortality attends the former,
Making a man a god. ‘Tis known I ever
Have studied physic … which doth give me
A more content in course of true delight
Than to be thirsty after tottering honour. (III.2.26 et seq.)

“Virtue “—which Oxford spelled vertue—and “immortality” were this poet’s prime desiderata, the former of course embodying the name Vere. So was “honour,” but not in the sense of honors, as here.

Pericles bears the indelible stamp of its author, in more particulars than we can stay to elaborate upon here. In a number of ways, this play might almost be said to be a preliminary version of The Winter’s Tale. Not only is Pericles’s wife lost to him, though not dead, his daughter Marina is another Perdita. Compare her words spoken as she enters with her basket of flowers (IV.1.13 et seq.)

No, I will rob Tellus of her weed,
To strew thy green with flowers: the yellows, blues,
The purple violets and marigolds—

with Perdita’s beautiful O Proserpina!

For the flowers now that frighted thou let’st fall
From Dis’s waggon! daffodils
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty…. (W.T.: IV.3.116 et seq.)

Pericles is simply the work of the artist as a young man.

One more thing which we hesitate to mention, since we cannot go into it at length, is that Dionyza is at least a partial representation of Catherine de’ Medici and would have been so recognized by the audience at court. Her scene with Cleon (IV.3) is sharply suggestive of Macbeth. This point will subsequently become clearer.

Now we come to the important, and the difficult, part. We are told that the editors of the First Folio, and those of the Second as well, failed to include Pericles, “probably because they did not regard as within the Shakespeare canon a play known—as we may conjecture—at the time to be in large part the work of another hand.” (5) Here the authorities have made an erroneous “conjecture.” For it was precisely because the editors of the First Folio—and of the Second as well—did know this play to be the work of “Shakespeare” that they left it out. (By the time the Third Folio was issued, in 1664, it seemed safe to include it. The play had been acted in 1608 and printed in quarto in 1609, but certainly without the sanction of the author’s family.) They understood the terrible revelation that is made in Pericles, and they could not afford to publish it for the world to take note.

Lord Oxford was in a grim and vengeful state of mind upon his return to England. There is reason to believe that he suspected Burghley of instigating the attack upon his ship by the pirates. For Burghley had found himself in a critical position, and he knew he was pitted against the finest intelligence in the kingdom. Thus cornered, he might be safer in attacking first the man who was coming to confront him. He must have been as frightened as he had ever been in his often precarious career. His daughter had given birth to a child who it was said could not be her husband’s; and her husband, proud, impetuous, a born fighter, high in the Queen’s favor, had been apprised of this by an agent of Burghley’s enemy, Henry Howard. Burghley took a grave risk in having the pirates make the attack, if he did do so, but he was taking a graver one if the Earl of Oxford returned and accused him of what Pericles found out about Antiochus. Moreover, the Vere name and the Vere estates would be lost to him and his heirs.

This may sound lurid, but we are dealing with people of more violent emotions and far more ruthless personal behavior than those of our time who belong to a corresponding class. We have here one of the most dramatic and startling stories of the modern world. Its chief participant has related it for us in the clearest, most eloquent language, and in the only way that was possible to him.

A subtle clue is provided in the First Fisherman’s words to Pericles (II.1.111):

… he hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow is her birthday.

For Anne Cecil was married near the time of her birthday.

It suited Oxford’s purpose both as artist and man to couch the terrible suspicion in the form of a riddle. Pericles guesses the riddle of Antiochus (I.1.64-71) and escapes.

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed;
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild,
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

Oxford himself seems never to have been quite sure, though he was almost persuaded, that he had guessed the riddle posed by Burghley’s extraordinary behavior. He seems to have believed it in his heart.

But Burghley knew what Oxford suspected, and for this reason the Earl’s life was in serious danger. This is what is meant when Pericles says of Antiochus that he

can make his will his act,—
Will think me speaking, though I swear to silence;
* * * * * *
And what may make him blush in being known,
He’ll stop the course by which it might be known.

The prophetic truth of these words is staggering. For Burghley did exactly that. Although he did not succeed in killing Oxford, or even in preventing him from telling the story, he did “stop the course by which it might be known.” He stopped it for three hundred and fifty years. This man, too, had genius.

It may be that the only thing that saved the Earl of Oxford from some sudden and mysterious death in 1576 or ’77 was Elizabeth’s protection. The one person Burghley dared not oppose was the Queen. And the Queen loved and valued Oxford. She would have had the Lord Treasurer’s head without a moment’s delay if he had made way with her Turk.

Oxford had gone straight to her upon his return to England, and we may be sure he told her the whole story. Whether Henry Howard’s agent had insinuated the worst, or whether the enraged young Earl had some other reason for his suspicion we cannot say. But we may be sure Oxford gave the Queen the facts and his worst suspicions. And this is why Burghley wrote such an abject, self-righteous and incoherent letter to Her Majesty. He had got himself into an appalling situation.

Well, Oxford has told us the story in Pericles; and he will tell it again and again. The suspicion—the “riddle “—tormented him to the end of his wife’s life, if not of his own. Hamlet is referring to it when he says to Polonius, (Burghley):

… conception is a blessing; but not as your daughter may conceive. (II.2-184.)

But to this we shall come in good time.

There is another thing of which we may be sure: that, for all his surface suavity—and Burghley was suave to his worst enemies, never losing his temper even with the inimical and exasperating Leicester—Lord Burghley hated the Earl of Oxford with a cold and abiding hatred to the last day of his life. As for Oxford’s attitude toward him—we shall see. He will tell us; for, as he truly said, “The players … tell all.”

It is curious how events have played into Burghley’s hands. In the seventeenth century, “Shakespeare” was not appreciated: his plays were adapted for the stage with no little cheapness and vulgarity. Dryden finally vindicated himself to some extent and was astute enough to pronounce Pericles the first of all the plays. As for the eighteenth century, it was too cold and rationalistic. Pope, who belonged partly to the seventeenth and partly to the eighteenth, failed to respond to the grandeur and profundity of the dramas, believing them to have been devised for an “Audience [which] was generally composed of the meaner sort of people”; while Dr. Johnson, though one of the ablest of the critics, made some astonishing pronouncements. He considered “the style of Shakespeare … in itself ungrammatical, perplexed and obscure,” and pronounced much of the text “obscured by obsolete phraseology, or by the writer’s unskilfulness and affectation”; he could, he declared, “scarcely check his risibility” at the passage in Macbeth about “the blanket of the dark.” Coleridge responded to Shakespeare intellectually but was limited by his Puritanical rigidity. The nineteenth century, with its moralistic and sentimental approach, was not equal to compassing the vigorous genius of this great man of the Renaissance. Indeed, the Victorians were no match in either subtlety or fire for the Elizabethans. The Elizabethans would have scorned their prim and pursy ways. And so the story has been read, a million times, and not comprehended. Yet here it is, still vivid and palpitant with life. And its author, who was also its protagonist, wished above everything to have his story known—as Hamlet says.

But we have not finished with Pericles, which, by the way, was probably never produced-unless privately in the home of some nobleman—in its entirety on the stage. This was certainly the case with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is even more dangerously revealing.

Oxford was by nature spontaneous and open; but in case of necessity he could match even the Lord Treasurer in guile. He had learned to cloak his feelings. So, after paying his respects to Antiochus, he portrayed Burghley as a distinguished and gracious father, in the role of Simonides. Pericles marries his daughter, Thaisa, and Pericles is Oxford; therefore Simonides must stand for Burghley! There is even a passage in which Simonides jests quite as the Lord Treasurer was wont to do—and as he will do again in the plays:

Yea, mistress, are you so peremptory?
[Aside] I’m glad on’t, with all my heart.
I’ll tame you; I’ll bring you in subjection,
Will you, not having my consent,
Bestow your love and your affections
Upon a stranger … (II.5.73 et seq.)

The dramatist established for himself what we should nowadays call a capital alibi.

But there is a trick in this too; for Thaisa is not altogether Anne, with whom Oxford was decidedly at outs at this time. She is partly Elizabeth, before whom tournaments are habitually performed and who is courted by princes from foreign countries (as Portia will presently be). In the original story, the princess’s name was Tharsia. Mrs. Clark suggests that Oxford changed it to embody the first part of the name of the Muse of lyric poetry and comedy, Thalia, and the last part of Elisa, the name by which Elizabeth was often called by the poets of the day. This would have pleased and flattered Gloriana; and she was, after all, Lord Oxford’s best friend at the time. Incidentally, it was not unpleasing to the Queen to have Oxford living apart from his wife. She was intensely jealous of her favorites; and she not only liked having him to herself when there was time, she also wished him to write plays for her.

In the plays of the period it was customary to have one character represent more than one actual person, or to have one person represented by several characters. The Earl of Oxford had need of more discretion than he frequently used in this regard, although he of course had little to fear from the Star Chamber, before which other playwrights were in danger of being summoned if they caricatured a contemporary recognizably upon the stage. The law at that time was stricter than are modern libel laws. In Every Man Out of His Humour, Ben Jonson portrayed a single man in the guise of three different characters, each having one of his salient features.

Oxford is complimenting Elizabeth in Pericles’s words (V.1.108-14):

… my queen’s square brows;
Her stature to an inch; as wand-like straight;
As silver-voiced … in pace, another Juno;
Who starves the ears she feeds, and makes them hungry,
The more she gives them speech.

(He will soon be speaking similarly of her in her presentment as Cleopatra.)

Gloriana had a fine strain of malice in her composition. She probably took no little pleasure in her Turk’s revelation. As for Oxford, he confessed in a signed poem, which may, indeed, belong to the very period of the early version of Pericles, to a fault Hamlet was later to acknowledge in himself, that he was vengeful.

Fain would I sing, but fury makes me fret,
And Rage hath sworn to seek revenge of wrong;
My mazed mind in malice is so set,
As Death shall daunt my deadly dolours long;
Patience perforce is such a pinching pain. 6
As die I will, or suffer wrong again.

I am no sot, to suffer such abuse
As doth bereave my heart of his delight;
Nor will I frame myself to such as us
With calm consent, to suffer such despite;
No quiet sleep shall once possess mine eye
Till Wit hath wrought his will on Injury.

My heart shall fail, and hand shall lose his force,
   But some Device shall pay Despite his due;
And Fury shall consume my careful corse,
Or raze the ground whereon my sorrow grew.
Lo, thus in rage of ruthful mind refus’d,
I rest reveng’d on whom I am abus’d.

EARLE OF OXENFORDEThis was precisely what he had done here. His Wit had “wrought his will on Injury.” By “some Device”—this play—he had paid “Despite his due.” The Boar would “raze the ground,” and he would “rest reveng,’d.” The Earl of Oxford was a man very close to the medieval knights in temper, to whom personal honor was a religion. We cannot judge him by our own standards, for he was an Elizabethan, which is something very different from ourselves.

The Epilogue of Pericles concludes:

So on your patience evermore attending,
New joy wait on you! Here our play hath ending.

E. Vere had had his say.

And now, having relieved his mind of its intolerable burden, he felt clear and revitalized. The “storm” had spent itself, his spirit soared.


1. It is well worth noting that Oxford received first-hand report of the tragedy; for he will allude to it vividly in his later work. Some of these “French Æneases” were Huguenot poets. Compare line 2 with The Two Noble Kinsmen (I.1.133): ” … your fame knolls in the ear o’ the world.”

2. “Monsieur” was the name by which Elizabeth’s suitor, Alençon, had been called before he became a duke; it continued as a nickname.

3. In Victor von Klarwill’s Elizabeth and Some Foreigners, there is a description of the 1584 tournament (in which the Earl of Oxford participated), showing that the knights dressed in queer costumes, some as savages, some like the natives of Ireland, etc.

4. Ward; P. 49.

5. Edward Dowden: Intro. to Pericles in the Oxford ed.

6. “Patience perforce” and “pinching pain” are used in the Earl’s poem to his wife, over his posy, Meritum petere, grave. See Chap. 5, note 18.

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