Chapter 21

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

Chapter Twenty-One


THE YEAR 1580 was an eventful one, and it was for Elizabeth a precarious period. Philip of Spain was ostentatiously preparing his fleet, and at the same time, with the Pope’s cooperation, supporting Desmond’s Irish rebellion; William of Orange was striving desperately against the successful moves of Parma in the Low Countries to re-unite Flanders and Holland with Alençon at the head. This put Elizabeth in a predicament, for if she antagonized Alençon, she would have to stand alone against Spain.

Religious frictions were stronger than ever in England; and now the Queen had made herself for the first time unpopular by her light behavior with Simier. Her insistence upon her determination to marry Alençon antagonized the Puritans, awakening the old fears and hatreds against the Papists and the French as well. Meanwhile James VI of Scotland was appealing to the King of France to release his mother from English surveillance and to protect him against his heretic subjects.

During this year Oxford acquired the Earl of Warwick’s company of actors and in 1583 leased a private theatre at Blackfriars. In 1581 his men began making tours of the smaller cities of England—Dover, Norwich, Coventry, Bristol, and perhaps others—giving performances throughout 1581-82-83-84. In 1583 and ’84 Lord Oxford’s company played at court and would have played there earlier had all gone smoothly for him. But he had reached his zenith in the year 1580 and, after that, so far as his position at court was concerned, he was in a state of protracted eclipse. However, his work continued; his genius flowered in adversity, though with a new and darker magnificence.

The English had long been fond of puppet-shows and plays of all kinds. Miracle and Guild plays had been and still were given in the streets on scaffolds, extremely crude and often rickety. The Prologue of Pyramus and Thisbe, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a travesty of just such rude performances, indicating the lengths to which these actors’ makeshifts were obliged to be carried:

This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper, at the which let no man wonder.
This man, with lanthorn, dog, and bush of thorn,
Presenteth Moonshine…. (V.1.131-6.)

One of Elizabeth’s first acts upon coming to the throne was the authorization of a law to “restrain the abuses connected with . . wandering players.” These men were the lowest kind of vagabonds, for the most part dirty, shiftless ne’er-do-wells. She made and enforced a regulation requiring them to be licensed and another forbidding them to perform plays in which religious or state matters were touched upon.

It was in 1580 that Richard Farrant and William Hunnis, both Masters of boys’ Choirs, had initiated a plan for rehearsing the Chapel Boys in a public theatre, with paid admission, before they presented plays at court, renting space in the old Blackfriars Convent where, as early as 1550, the Office of the Revels had been established. In 1583 their lease was acquired by Henry Evans, a Welshman, who turned it over to Lord Oxford. By then Farrant had died, but Hunnis, Lyly, and Evans all worked there together under the Earl’s direction, and it was in his name that Lyly took a company to court in 1583 and Evans in 1584. (1) Thus was the Earl of Oxford connected with the founding of the first private theatre in England. What could be more fitting, or indeed more gratifying?

Afterwards Lyly sold the lease to Signor Rocco Bonetti, who established a fashionable fencing-school, and with whom Lord Oxford presently fell out for causes unknown, getting the last word in Romeo and Juliet (II.4.25-9):

Mercutio. Ah! the immortal passado! the punto reverso! the hay!
Benvolio. The what?
Mercutio. The pox of such antick, lisping, affecting fantasticoes, these
new tuners of accents. (2)

While still living apart from his wife, Oxford must have established some kind of correspondence with Burghley for, in June 1580, a letter was addressed to the Lord Treasurer in his role of Chancellor of Cambridge University by the Vice-Chancellor, John Hatcher, regretting that, despite his and Lord Chamberlain Sussex’s recommendations that Lord Oxford’s men should be permitted to “show their cunning in several plays already practised by them before the Queen’s Majesty,” he must refuse them license to do so. (3) He explained that because of the pestilence, the pre-commencement requirements for studiousness, a previous refusal to the Earl of Leicester’s men, and a Privy Council order of 1575 against assemblies at Cambridge, he had given them twenty shillings and sent them on their way. Since Burghley would surely have known, none better, of the Privy Council’s prohibition, to say nothing of restrictions in times of the plague, his request was hardly more than a gesture. This sort of thing happens again and again when he appears to be interceding for Oxford; it will be seen how often he approaches Christopher Hatton, of all people, to ask for favors for the hated “boar.” One can hardly blame him at this point, but the pretence of benevolence is characteristic.

However, Oxford’s company played elsewhere with marked success.

On the 6th of April, 1580, occurred the earthquake of which we have already spoken, and of which Stowe reported that “throughout England [it occasioned] such amazedness of the people as was wonderful for that time, and caused them to make earnest prayers to Almighty God.” We mention it again, for it will be referred to in Oxford’s plays, as it was in other contemporary literature, thereby setting approximate dates for their events.

The autumn of that year brought another famous occasion to excite Londoners. Sir Francis Drake, who had finally been given up for lost after a three-years’ absence, returned from his circumnavigation of the globe, bringing the Pelican (later called the Golden Hind) “quietly into Plymouth Sound,” with untold riches in her hold.

This seizure of wealth was, of course, a risky business which might mean war. He proceeded at once to the Queen, with whom he was closeted for six hours. There was much anxiety—we have spoken of this before—much conferring of ministers with the Queen: Mendoza talked of “war and vengeance.” But in the end the treasure was kept, and Drake was made a national hero. The Queen and her counsellors might weigh the matter with much concern, while keeping the loot locked tentatively in the Tower, defending or deploring the ethics of the great seaman’s conduct; but that the people approved and were thrilled is attested to by the ballad celebrating the welcome they accorded him. Apparently the court and the populace turned out together for the event, and Elizabeth as well as the hero received wild acclaim when she knighted him on the quarter-deck of the Golden Hind.

Sir Francis, Sir Francis, Sir Francis is come!
Sir Robert, and eke Sir William his son,
And eke the good Earl of Huntington
Marched gallantly on the road.

Then came the Lord Chamberlain with his white staff,
And all the people began to laugh;

And then the Queen began to speak,
“You’re welcome home, Sir Francis Drake.”

You gallants all o’ the British blood,
Why don’t you sail o’ the ocean flood?
I protest you’re not all worth a filbert
If once compared to Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

For he went out on a rainy day,
And to the new-found land found out his way,
With many a gallant both fresh and green,
And he ne’er came home again. God bless the Queen! (4)

The Lord Chamberlain at this time was still the Earl of Sussex, a grave and dignified man weakened now by consumption, but the hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain was the young and dashing Earl of Oxford. It was undoubtedly he whom the people greeted with friendly laughter. Many of them had seen him taking “kingly parts in sport” or even rollicking through comedy parts in the theatre. Feuillerat said that he was, “le meilleur acteur comique de son temps.” Too exuberant to be restrained, the “madcap Earl” would have used an assumed name, for the theatre was held in low esteem. But like Prince Hal he went where it pleased him to go, and the people were quick to recognize his face and his buoyant personality. Not only did they delight in seeing royalty unbend—and Lord Oxford was virtually a prince—they responded with high spirits to his jaunty jollity. In the little ballad, the Lord Chamberlain is mentioned before the Queen, and he would have stood just ahead of her in the procession from the court, as he does in the only engraving that survives which shows them walking together.

For his part, the Earl was learning about people en masse from the London throngs: the tinkers, the tailors, the joiners, the common citizens. He knew the weavers better, for they were centered in Lavenham, Long Melford, where the de Veres had for years, off and on, occupied the moated manor house, and where their memorial window in the lovely Norman church shows an Ox fording a stream. On these occasions of public ceremony he had an opportunity to observe the people’s volatility, their mob-emotionalism, their easy response to whoever could catch their fancy and play upon their sentiment. When he wrote about these people he had seen in crowds or in shifting groups, he called them First Citizen, Second Citizen, and so on, or gave them names descriptive of their general appearance: Wart, Quince, Flute, Snout, Starveling, Mouldy, Bullcalf, Elbow, Pompey surnamed Bum. It is interesting that when such a dramatist as Jonson used the common citizens in his plays, they were natural, while the nobility were artificial: Sir John Daw, Sir Amorous LaToole, Sir Politick Would-Be, Knowell (in Every Man In, who, by the way, had been Lorenzo, sr., for Oxford, in the early edition), Lady Haughty, Lady Centaur. Even the greatest artists see the world and its inhabitants from their own special coign of vantage, through the medium of their understanding and according to their accustomed scale. (5)

During the ’80’s—it may have been in this same year—the Earl of Oxford took on another company of actors, drawn from the Choir, called Oxford’s Boys. It was not unusual for a nobleman to maintain a group of singing-boys who subsequently became actors in other noblemen’s employ. Lyly, serving as Oxford’s secretary from 1579, if not earlier, until well into the ’90’s, was stage-director and sometimes manager. As we have said before, the only plays John Lyly ever produced were written while he was associated with the courtier-poet-dramatist who was, except in the case of some of his earliest verses, so scrupulously anonymous.

Lord Oxford, as a prolific writer and scholar, an eclectic, devotee of the theatre, generous patron of literary men and musicians, drew into his orbit the best writers and wits of the day. He was the center and prime inspiration of the University Wits: such men as Lyly, Watson, Kyd and Munday—all of whom he employed—Greene, Peele, Marston, Dekker, Lodge, Nashe, Marlowe. Somewhat older than most of them, infinitely greater than any, he attracted these intellectuals as a magnet attracts steel chips; and in defiance of circumstance and of the rigid tradition to which in other ways he loyally and even reverentially subscribed, he supported, encouraged, and directed these men, broadening their classics-bound culture through his knowledge of Italian, German, and French literature, as well as of feudal customs and the ways of court-life, while devoting his abundant creative energies to the production of dramas which not only entertained and stimulated the elect but also delighted and edified the intelligent though unschooled.

Because the name and personality of this extraordinary genius have been with authoritative and consummate thoroughness erased from the record of his time, for reasons which we shall set forth, even conscientious historians have been forced to rationalize an untenable situation and thus pronounce the most superficial judgments in their discussions of the great literary renaissance in England. For instance, Green, whose History of the English People is a pleasant, suave and comprehensive essay founded upon the best histories obtainable—though his research seems not to have led him to the original documents—sums up his interesting survey of the Elizabethan theatre thus:

Wild, reckless, defiant of all past tradition, of all conventional laws, the English dramatists owned no teacher, no source of poetic inspiration, but the people itself…. Few events in literary history are so startling as this sudden rise of the Elizabethan theatre. The first public theatre was created only in the middle of the Queen’s reign. (6)

Dryden spoke more wisely when he said, “Shakespeare found not, but created first the stage.” In writing of the language of his own contemporaries, Dryden threw further light upon his Elizabethan predecessors, acknowledging as he did “the benefit of converse” with patrons at court. “Now if they ask me,” he said, “whence it is that our conversation is so much refined? I must freely and without flattery, ascribe it to the court.” Thus the playwrights of Elizabeth’s day learned from their courtier patron.

Born in 1550, Oxford, and all his work as well, belonged to the Elizabethan, not the Jacobean, age. Munday was three years younger than he, Lyly four, Kyd (probably) eight, Chapman seven or perhaps nine, Nashe seventeen, Marlowe fourteen, Bacon eleven, Jonson twenty-three, and so on. Oxford was their master: they derived from him; they borrowed extensively from him, and never were they, by him, rebuked. Laughed at a little they sometimes were, mischievously taunted—Jonson and Chapman, after they had become too personal and insulting, neatly speared and ridiculed for their grossness, but suffered to go their ways and never repudiated for plagiarism.

G. W. Phillips makes out an interesting case for identifying Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol (Peesel) with Marlowe, Kyd, and Peele, finding scraps and parodies of their writings introduced into these characters’ lines. But Bardolph and Pistol were merged for Marlowe, for he shows that Pistol, the “swashbuckler [who] talks like a theatrical poet” is really a caricature of Marlowe, and he quotes Falstaff’s opinion of Pistol as perfectly hitting off Marlowe:

He’s no swaggerer, hostess; a tame cheater, i’ faith; you may stroke him as gently as a puppy greyhound: he will not swagger with a Barbury hen if her feathers turn back in any show of resistance. (2. H. IV: II.4.97-100.)

“We know,” says Phillips, “that he [Marlowe] was a brawling quarreller, as Pistol was; but according to a recent discovery, he was as tame as Pistol.” (7)

One can find almost at random plenty of parodies of “Marlowe’s mighty line,” such as:

Pistol. And hollow pamper’d jades of Asia,
Which cannot go but thirty miles a day,
Compare with Caesars and with Cannibals,
And Trojan Greeks? nay, rather damn them with
King Cerberus; and let the welkin roar. (2. H. IV: II.4.168-72.)


Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!
Why, then, let grievous, ghastly, gaping wounds
Untwine the Sisters Three! Come, Atropos, I say! (201-3);

while the line, “Then feed and be fat, my fair Calipolis” (183), spars lightly with Marlowe’s handsome periods about “Persepolis,” though taking “Calipolis” from a work of Peele’s.

However, all this lures us ahead of our story, the point here being that, although the Renaissance had its earliest beginnings in English poetry with de Vere’s kinsmen, the Earl of Surrey and Lord Sheffield, and with Lord Vaux, it was brought to its full flowering by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, keeping all the while, like Benedick, as “secret as a dumb man, but on my allegiance, mark you that, on my allegiance.” Through the benefit of his familiarity not only with Greek and Latin writers, but also with Dante, Ariosto, Castiglione, Ronsard, and the rest, he did more than any other single man—more indeed than any other five score mento convert English into one of the eloquent and flexible vernacular languages. True product of the Renaissance, he had an intellectual magnetism which not only attracted but vitalized those who came within his orbit. As Mr. Addington Symonds put it,

Not without reason are we forced to personify the Renaissance as something external to its greatest characters. There is an intellectual strength outside them in the century, a heritage of power prepared for them at birth. The atmosphere in which they breathe is so charged with mental vitality that the least stirring of special energy brings them into relation with forces mightier than the property of single natures. In feebler periods of retrospect and criticism we can but wonder at the combination of faculties so varied, and at miracles so easily accomplished. . . . The Revival of Learning, begun by Petrarch, was no mere renewal of interest in classical literature. It was the emancipation of the reason in a race of men, intolerant of control, ready to criticise accepted canons of conduct, enthusiastic in admiration of antique liberty, freshly awakened to the sense of beauty, and anxious above all things to secure for themselves free scope…. Men so vigorous and independent felt the joy of exploration. (8)

Such an independent and creative mind, such abundance as Oxford’s, surpassed the endowment of those we commonly refer to as geniuses: it was that of genius in the time of the flowering of a new spirit, when there were many exceptional men. Sir Walter Ralegh, adventurer, courtier, explorer, poet, historian, with his barbaric love of splendor, and his unscrupulousness coupled with religious fervor, was another man of the Renaissance. But great though he was, he lacked the high quality of Oxford, the moral integrity, the divine spark that lighted his whole era and still illumines our own. Small wonder that Harvey’s hexameters broke up under the strain of describing this “passing singular odd man.” There had never been anything like him before, there has never been anything like him since. The pedants, their prim feathers ruffled, strode back and forth and squawked. Harvey was shocked, admiring though apprehensive; the saturnine Chapman was jealous and embarked upon a program of stubborn rivalry; Jonson, coming much later, was envious, secretly awed but outwardly superior and lofty, tempering his praise with innuendo and his criticism with saccharine words; but Edmund Spenser, though himself adhering to antique forms, was warm and sincere, paying honor to the genius and loving the man.

The inner circle understood their leader’s handicap of enforced anonymity, and when they could they told what they knew, somewhat fearfully, ever cryptically, but unmistakably, as we shall show. His contemporaries praised him as the best of them all; but if they pronounced his name, they were vague about his work, while in specifying the work, they avoided using the real name of the author.

Lord Oxford’s attitude toward his literary protégés may be judged, as one authority has suggested, by his letter to Bedingfield, which testifies to the “generosity and largeness of his disposition, the clearness and sobriety of his judgment, and the essential manliness of his actions and bearing towards literary men whom he considered worthy of encouragement.” (9) When he genuinely liked them, he was a good fellow with them too, although from those whose company he did not enjoy he kept aloof. Hearty and convivial at times, he was capable of a cold hauteur; he subscribed to the code of knighthood and by second nature abided by its tenets.

Toward the close of the 1580’s, Nashe wrote a revealing passage about some of the Earl’s hangers-on:

I will … talk a little in friendship with a few of our trivial translators. It is a common practice now-a-days, amongst a sort of shifting companions that run through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint, whereto they were born, and busy themselves with the endeavour of art, that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca [i.e., Oxford] read by candle-light yields many good sentences, as blood is a beggar, and so forth; and if you intreat him fair, in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets; I should say handfuls of tragical speeches. But O grief! Tempus edax rerum—what is that will last always? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be dry; and Seneca, let blood, line by line, page by page, at length must needs die to our stage. (10)

It would seem from this that Nashe believed the literary satellites were draining their spring. He knew well enough who was doing the “borrowing.” Later writers testify to the Earl’s amazing fluency and copiousness in conversation, as Arundel did to the elaborate inventions with which he regaled his companions at dinner. Nashe knew the drain was considerable, and this was nine years before Jonson began building his satires upon Oxford’s text. Whatever faults the Earl may have had, he was ever generous to his friends and followers. Bred in him was his noblesse oblige. It was a man of naturally grudging temper pricked by bitter jealousy who nevertheless affirmed that Oxford was “valiant, and learn’d, and liberal as the sun.”

It was, by the way, from this same man that the scholarly Dowden—misled by the old confusion of dates—believed the author of Antony and Cleopatra had “borrowed” when writing the lines (IV.12.2-3):

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion.

But, on the contrary, Chapman was the one who, writing Bussy d’Ambois in 1607—at least four years after the final version of the older play, twenty-seven years after its first draft—did the borrowing, with:

Like empty clouds
In which our faulty apprehensions forge
The forms of dragons, lions, elephants.

By the time Chapman wrote Bussy, he would long ago and frequently have heard Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius upon this subject, although it was a late addition to the drama. (11)

As one of the four remaining plays which belong to the year 1580 Antony and Cleopatra must engage our attention only briefly. There is sufficient evidence that an early version was produced at court in February of that year to bear out Mrs. Clark’s theory that the title of the play which followed Portio and demorantes and was recorded as The history of Serpedon (12) should have been The history of Cleopatra, and that it was the one called Ptolome in its preliminary performance at the Bull. Unless the connection is joined between the plays Gosson mentioned having seen at the’ Bull and these two as they now stand, the original versions vanish into thin air, leaving no trace. But since Antony and Cleopatra, no less than The Merchant of Venice, rests upon a substantial foundation of contemporary allusion, it inevitably follows that these are the two plays belonging to February 1580. In our opinion, Antony and Cleopatra was drastically revised more than once ‘ and while the Egyptian Queen was partially Anne Vavasor in the first version, to Oxford’s Antony, she was in the last all Elizabeth, with the great drama becoming an epic of Lord Oxford’s tragic relationship with his Queen. (This aspect is discussed in Chap. Eighty-four.)

There can be no doubt that the character of Cleopatra, while historically accurate, was also a recognizable representation of Elizabeth in this particular year, while she was flirting publicly with Alençon, using all her power and all her wiles.

The French Ambassador, Castelnau, wrote as follows to Queen Catherine:

These loving conferences have lasted eight days. The lady being captivated, overcome with love. She begs me to write to Your Majesty asking you not to punish him too much for the great folly of risking so much in coming to see a woman so unworthy as she is.” [Hume adds:] She gave a ball on Sunday night . . . when . . . news came that his [Alençon’s] staunch friend, Bussy d’Ambois’ had at last been killed in a duel…. [After Alençon left her to go to Calais] almost daily couriers sped backwards and forwards with exchanges of presents and loving missives between the Queen and Alençon. . . .(13)

Plutarch wrote of the Queen of Egypt:

As Cleopatra found that Antony’s humour savoured more of the camp than of the court, she fell into the same coarse vein, and played upon him without the least reserve. Such was the variety of her powers in conversation: her beauty, it is said, was neither astonishing nor inimitable; but it derived a flavour from her wit and her fascinating manner which was absolutely irresistible. . . . She spoke most languages. . . . Cleopatra was not limited to Plato’s four kinds of flattery. She had an infinite variety of it. Whether Antony were in the gay, or the serious humour, she still had something ready for his amusement. She was with him night and day; she gained, she drank, she hunted, she reviewed with him.

This is very striking, for Elizabeth was using all her “variety” to charm Alençon. She too, “not limited to Plato’s four kinds of flattery,” practised one kind on her suitor, another upon the Queen Mother, still other types upon her ministers and his. A description of Queen Elizabeth by Lytton Strachey, draws the analogy further:

The variations of her own behaviour were hardly less frequent than nature’s. The rough hectoring dame with her practical jokes, her out-of-doors manners, her passion for hunting, would suddenly become a sternfaced woman of business. . . . Then as suddenly the cultivated lady of the Renaissance would shine forth. For Elizabeth’s accomplishments were many and dazzling. She was mistress of six languages besides her own. . . . She danced . . . with a high magnificence that astonished beholders. Her conversation, full not only of humour but of elegance and wit, made her one of the supreme diplomats of history. (14)

It has been observed that certain picturesque and prominent characters identify themselves with special myths. Cleopatra considered herself to be the personification of Isis. Plutarch says that “she appeared in public dressed in the habit of the goddess Isis and gave audience to the people under the name of the new Isis.” She wore the falcon hood of the goddess, and so on. The asp which she is said to have used to take her own life was the familiar of the goddess: she was making a ritualistic death. We have all seen men of our time who played up a personal resemblance to Napoleon or capitalized a likeness to Abraham Lincoln—in the latter case, wearing a long frock coat and perhaps speaking in a drawling voice. It may be that Queen Elizabeth had some such impulse to pattern herself after the ancient seductive Queen of Egypt, who knows? If this were the case, no one would more shrewdly have penetrated her design than her Turk, her foremost dramatist. He certainly utilized the identification in this drama of ancient history. It may, indeed, have been he who suggested the idea to her in the beginning, for he would have read Plutarch’s dictum regarding Cleopatra that “it was far more her erotic intellectual culture than her physical charms that entitled her to represent the female as developed into the earthly embodiment of Aphrodite.” (15)And was not Elizabeth called Aphrodite at court, Venus, Cynthia, Sylvia, and so on? What could have been more natural than for the young romantic courtier-poet to have drawn the analogy and even to have thought of writing the play because of it? He had sat with Elizabeth in her royal barge, which was strikingly like Plutarch’s description of Cleopatra’s:

. . . she came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces. . . .

The Queen’s barge was only slightly less sumptuous, though probably less exquisite, than Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra’s, in the play (11-2-196-223), a passage which shows what the poet did to Plutarch’s account:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy out-work nature. . . .
* * *
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthron’d i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

Who would not believe that, years before this play was written, the ardent young poet, dazzled by the favor of his Queen, had lounged beside her in the royal barge murmuring to her of this other siren, or perhaps once, like Antony, watched her from the shore, experiencing a poet’s sudden poignant loneliness as she drifted past amid the people’s cheers, while whimsically identifying himself with Antony? (16) For thus is great poetry written.

Oxford has idealized Antony, departing widely from Plutarch’s characterization, though in one place the Roman general sounds like the Elizabethan who wrote of him:

He had also a very good and noble appearance … his forehead large, his nose aquiline…. In love affairs he was very agreeable; he gained many friends by the assistance he gave them in theirs, and took other people’s raillery upon his own with good humour. And his generous ways, his open and lavish hand in gifts and favours to his friends and fellow-soldiers, did a great deal for him in his first advance to power . . . and long maintained his fortunes, when a thousand follies were hastening their overthrow.

The only time in the play when Cleopatra appears ugly and debased is in her rage at the news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Then abruptly she is a tigress: all her seductive charm is gone as she rails brutally at the innocent messenger (II.5.42):

I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak’st . . .

And she does; she strikes him down (61):

The most infectious pestilence upon thee!
* * *
Horrible villain, I’ll spurn thy eyes
Like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head;
Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire and stew’d in brine .. . .

Compare this with Elizabeth’s conduct when she heard of Leicester’s marriage to the Countess of Essex. Hume says:

Her fury passed all bounds of decency and decorum; she raged and swore against the “she-wolf,” as she called her. (17)

The dramatist had doubtless been at hand and seen the Queen’s behavior. (Plutarch records no particulars of Cleopatra’s jealous anger.) Not long afterward, infuriated again by the sight of the gorgeously dressed Countess of Leicester, the Queen boxed her ears.

Cleopatra. These hands do lack nobility that they strike
A meaner than myself. (82-3.)

Probably no one else in the kingdom would have dared write these words. Elizabeth must have flushed when she heard them upon the stage at Greenwich, and some of her maids and courtiers must have squirmed uneasily. Her Turk felt very sure of himself to take such liberties of candor. Invested in his motley, he knew himself immune, for at this time all was still fond and well between them. Strenuously occupied with her French amours, she had not yet had cause to suspect his affections of slipping from her possessive grasp.

It is, of course, impossible to say just when the Dark Lady invaded the personality of the poet’s Cleopatra, but there are unmistakable signs of his quenchless passion for her combined with his passionate dedication to Elizabeth in his portrayal of Antony’s sacrifice of everything for love. Dowden, who probably never heard of the Earl of Oxford and Anne Vavasor, nor could in his wildest dreams have pictured “Shakespeare” in love with a Queen, was able to touch the quick of their special relationship when he said of Antony that “he seeks for something infinite and absolute through the passion which is his destruction.” Dowden thought a man could imagine all this when he had led a prosaic, thoroughly practical, colorless life. The Sonnets show what the Dark Lady did to the poet. It is not that a great dramatist cannot imagine great characters, for of course he can; but they must partake of his own being, of the impressions which have colored and filled his consciousness, for they are created in that medium and come through that crucible, a product of his emotions and experiences, albeit transmuted and sublimated by his art.

It is not feasible to go further into Antony and Cleopatra at this point, but we must note three passages which have especial interest for their connection with the dramatist himself.

The first is a phrase in Antony’s speech (I.2.186 et seq.) which occurs also in a letter Oxford had written his father-in-law:

Antony.                     Sextus Pompeius
Hath given the dare to Caesar, and commands
The empire of the sea; our slippery people—
Whose love is never link’d to the deserver
Till his deserts are past—begin to throw
Pompey the Great and all his dignities
Upon his son; who in high name and power,
Higher than both in blood and life, stands up
For the main soldier, whose quality, going on,
The sides o’ the world may danger. . . .

The letter from the young Earl to Burghley reads:

And good my Lord, think not I do this presumptuously but to admonish you, as one with whom I would spend my blood and life, so much you have made me yours.

The second is the scene between Mark Antony and the Soothsayer (II.3.15-38), which is an elaboration of Plutarch’s account:

Antony.                              Say to me,
Whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?
Soothsayer. Caesar’s.
Therefore, O Antony! stay not by his side;
Thy demon—that’s thy spirit which keeps thee,—is
Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable,
Where Caesar’s is not; but near him thy angel
Becomes a fear, as being o’erpowered; therefore
Make space enough between you.

Antony. Speak this no more.
Soothsayer. To none but thee; no more but when to thee.
If thou dost play with him at any game
Thou art sure to lose, and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds; thy lustre thickens
When he shines by. I say again, thy spirit
Is all afraid to govern thee near him.
But he away, ’tis noble.
Antony. Get thee gone.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Exit Soothsayer.)
He hath spoken true; the very dice obey him.
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance; if we draw lots he speeds,
His cocks do win the battle still of mine
When it is all to nought, and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhoop’d at odds. . . .

We feel confident that the reader will, as the story develops, agree with us that this is Oxford versus Leicester: Oxford knowing that Leicester would always beat him “gainst the odds.” He refers to it again in Macbeth. (III.1.54-7.) The point is made here for the light it sheds upon later events.

The third passage is the one in which Cleopatra speaks of her probable fate if she is conquered and taken to Rome (V.2.206-19):

Cleopatra.             Now, Iras, what think’st thou?
Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown
In Rome, as well as I;
mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view; in their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded,
And forc’d to drink their vapour…. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rimers
Ballad us out o’ tune; the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squealing Cleopatra boy my greatness
F the posture of a whore.

It is, of course, England she is talking about, as well as Rome. This was what the English audiences expected to see at court, and in the theatres too: events and personages of the times, disguised perforce, but more or less discernible according to the degree of their own acuity. Hamlet himself will soon be saying that the players are “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time.”

When this play was first presented, under the title of Ptolome, or The history of Serpedon, it was a roman á clef ostensibly depicting Elizabeth and her soldier-suitor from over the sea. For at this time she would have needed the help of her leading dramatist in flattering the French Duke with whom she was performing her diplomatic tight-rope dance—though even then we may be sure Antony was fundamentally Oxford, and only enough allusions were put in to satisfy the French. Later when Alençon was cast aside, Antony could appear as the middle-aged lover of a middle-aged queen.

In this drama the author kept unusually close to his source. Plutarch’s Lives was first translated into English by Sir Thomas North, from the French of Amyot, in 1579; but Edward de Vere had been familiar with it long before this: how familiar can be realized when one reads Plutarch’s Antony and follows the correspondence between play and biography. It will be recalled that he had bought a copy of Plutarch’s Lives in French in 1570

When Antony and Cleopatra was written, in 1579-80, Lord Oxford’s star shone clear at the zenith. Leicester was still in disgrace. Even Hatton was, because of his Puritan politics, under a cloud. Ralegh had not yet appeared at court. It looked as though the Earl would go on from triumph to triumph, superlative in the Queen’s favor and affections throughout his life. Of all the praise, the flattery, the acclaim that Elizabeth had received in abundance, none could ever have pleased her more than her characterization as Cleopatra by her poet-lover—her identification with this charmer of history and romance, regal, capricious, “a lass unparallel’d.”

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish. (II.2.240-5.)

This was her own dish. She took it for granted that the world would know Cleopatra was Elizabeth.

And how sure of himself Lord Oxford was when he had Cleopatra say, upon the death of Antony:

                              O sun!
Burn the great sphere thou movest in; darkling stand
The varying star of the world. O Antony,
Antony, Antony! (IV.13.9-11.)

Thus he knew Elizabeth would have felt, had she lost him then.


1. E. K. Chambers: The Eliz. Stage; vol. IV, P. 497.

2. Ward points the analogy; p. 269; cit. J. Q. Adams: Sh. Playhouses; p. 195.

3 Ward; p. 268; quot. letter in full: S.P.Dom. 139.26.

4. EIizabethan Lyrics, coll. by Norman Ault.

5. Dr. Louis Bénézet contributed a clever essay to the Shakespeare News-Letter [see below] for June-July, 1940, apropos of the resentment on the part of the English upper middle class against the superiority of the titled nobility. He cited Dickens’s Lord Mutanhed and Lord Verisopht, Sheridan’s Sir Benjamin Backbite and Lady Sneerwell, W. S. Gilbert’s Lord Tolloller and Lord Mountararat.

6. P. 428.

7. Ld. B. in Sh.; p. 51 et seq.; cit. Eccles: Marlowe in London.

8. The Renaissance in Italy; pp. 335-6.

9. Letter quoted Chap. 6. Comment by Mr. Percy Allen.

10. Thomas Nashe: Epistle to the Gentlemen Students of the Two Universities, 1589. One suspects that there is a reference to Kyd, who, since his father was a scrivener, was born to “the trade of Noverint,” or attorney’s clerk, though he is not, of course, the only writer Nashe means. “Translators” was a polite word for plagiarists.

11. Another example of the scholars’ tendency to take away credit from Shakespeare and bestow it upon others occurs in the matter of Come Live with Me and Be My Love, which Jaggard printed in The Passionate Pilgrim. “It is now pretty well settled,” as Elson puts it, “that the verses are Marlowe’s.” Settled by whom? one wishes to know. Who would have had better information than Jaggard? There was a rumor that Shakespeare protested the publication of this collection. But.that is something quite different from disclaiming authorship, and in this case, understandable. Nothing is less likely than that the Earl of Oxford ever appropriated anything from Marlowe or any other poet. He adapted the “old tales” he loved, to tell his symbolic stories; but that also is a different matter.

12. Hidd. All.; p. 203.

13. Hume: The Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 212.

14. Elizabeth and Essex; p. 18.

15. We have taken this notion of identification with a myth from Thomas Mann’s Essays of Three Decades: Freud and the Future; p. 423.

16. That he actually made this identification several of his early poems provide evidence. See Appendix, Note 4 (3)—g, for one set of youthful verses about these lovers. back

17. The Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 209.


[from The Shakespeare Fellowshop News-Letter, June-July, 1940, p. 5.]

Shakespeare and Ben Johnson

As one reads the plays of these two greatest dramatists of the Elizabethan-Jacobean era one is immediately struck by a great contrast between them. One is aristocratic, the other bourgeois. The nobleman of one author are natural, at ease, convincing. They talk the language of their class, both in matter and manner. Even more is this true of Shakespeare’s heroines. They are aristrocrats to the core. On the other hand in portraying the lower classes Shakespeare is unconvincing. He makes them clods or dolts or clowns, and has them amuse us by their gaucheries. He gives them undignified names: Wart, Bullcalf, Mouldy, Bottom, Dogberry, Snout, etc. Only occasionally does Shakespeare hold up a gentleman to ridicule, as he does in the case of Slender and Aguecheek, said by Professor Dowden to represent the same person, a sentiment strongly seconded by certain Oxfordians, who see Philip Sidney as the original.

On the other hand Jonson’s bourgeois characters are natural, while his nobles are caricatures.

They bear the same kind of names that Shakespeare gives to his commoners: Sir Paul Eitherside, Sir Amorous La-Foole, Sir Epicure Mammon, lady Haughty, Sir Diaphanous Silworm, etc.

There is always a strong tendency on the part of English writers from the upper middle class to be resentful of the attitude assumed toward them by the titled nobility.

This same ridiculing of class distinction is a mark of talented commoners. Recall Dickens’ Lord Mutanhed ad Lord Verisopht, Sheridan’s Sir Benjamin Backbite and Lady Sneerwell, W. S. Gilbert’s Lord Tolloller and Lord Mountararat.

It is characteristic of Ben Jonson. He has no sympathy with aristocratic aloofness and superiority.

On the other hand Shakespeare is the natural aristocrat. He never has to think to make his characters of gentle blood act their parts. They do so as naturally as they breathes. Says Edmund of Gloucester of his distinguished brother Edgar:

“In wisdom I should ask they name;
But since thy outside looks so fair and warlike,
And that thy tongue some say of breeding breathes,
What safe and nicely I might well delay
By rule of knighthood, I disdain and spurn.

Louis P. Bénézet

Contents | Chapter Twenty-Two