Chapter 25

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

Chapter Twenty-Five


A NOTABLY SENSIBLE MAN, who was also an independent thinker and a poet, Walt Whitman, had the following to say about the chronicle plays of this great dramatist:

The English historical plays are to me not only the most eminent as dramatic performances (my mature judgment confirming the impression of my early years, that the distinctiveness and glory of the Poet reside not in his vaunted dramas of the passions, but those founded on the contests of English dynasties, and the French wars) but form, as we get it all, the chief in a complexity of puzzles. Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism—personifying in unparallell’d ways the mediaeval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air of arrogance (no mere imitation)—only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works—works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature. (1)

“Only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ . . . or some born descendant and knower”could possibly be “the true author of those amazing works,” beginning with King John and running the gamut. These dramas of English civil wars between the Lancasters and Yorks, and wars against the French, with their Warwicks, Somersets, Montagues, Northumberlands, Westmorelands, Mortimers, Stanleys, Hastings, Oxfords, and the rest, are absolutely authentic, “conceived,” as Whitman puts it, “out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism” by one of the tribe, “a born descendant and knower.” It is preposterous to suppose that anyone could from mere hearsay have re-created these men with such vividness and power; and before Oxford wrote of them, there was no opportunity for an outsider intimately to learn their ways. But the Earl of Oxford himself was one of them: he had spent his childhood in just such a feudal castle as their fortress-homes were and had heard of their exploits from the counterparts of these doughty men and their descendants. The tang of barbarism which characterizes Warwick, Clifford, and the others had informed the very air he had breathed in those early days when he had acquired so keen a taste for the “old tales” upon which he drew for his dramatic writing until the end of his career.

In our judgment, there is no doubt that the Earl himself wrote all of 2 and 3 Henry VI. They bear the stamp of his early manner—incidentally, they have much in common with his other plays of that period: Arden of Feversham, Edward II, Edward III, and The Spanish Tragedy, to name the foremost—and he probably did not care enough about them to revise them as he frequently revised and augmented most of the others; although certain correspondences with the Sonnets indicate late additions in Part 3.

We have spoken elsewhere of the striking parallels between Edward de Vere’s early signed poem, Love and Antagonism, and passages in 3 Henry VI; there are also examples of his euphuistic manner of the 1570’s; for instance:

Even then that sunshine brew’d a shower for him,
That wash’d his father’s fortunes forth of France. (II.2.156-7.)

It never ceases to be amazing to observe how Lord Oxford was able to graft the events of his time upon those of an earlier era without as a rule doing much violence to either. He performs this feat in 2 Henry VI with his customary legerdemain, while adhering closely to the actual historical incidents. As always, he is writing to and for the Queen. Henry and his French wife, Margaret, are a kind of fluid composite of Elizabeth and Alençon, with Margaret’s selfish, dominating, and ruthless characteristics suggesting those of Catherine de’ Medici, whose influence, as the dramatist seems more than once to be saying, is something to be reckoned with in projecting the French marriage. He could never forget the Queen Mother’s responsibility for the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. In Part 3 he allows himself one passionate expression of his opinion of Catherine, in York’s long speech (I.4.111 et seq.):

She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth!
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph, like an Amazonian trull,
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!
But that thy face is visor-like, unchanging,
Made impudent with use of evil deeds,
I would assay, proud queen, to make thee blush.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .
‘Tis beauty that doth oft make women proud;
But God he knows, thy share thereof is small:
‘Tis virtue that doth make them most admir’d;
The contrary doth make thee wonder’d at:
‘Tis government that makes them seem divine;
The want’ thereof makes thee abominable.
Thou art the opposite to every good
As the Antipodes are unto us,
Or as the south to the septentrion.
O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless. . .

Henry stands for Elizabeth chiefly in respect of his vacillation, his weak policy, and procrastination. And here the dramatist minces no words. Even in the case of Cade’s rebellion, Henry is disposed to arbitrate, instead of taking immediate and drastic action:

King Henry. I’ll send some holy bishop to entreat;
For God forbid so many simple souls
Should perish by the sword! And I myself
Rather than bloody war shall cut them short,
Will parley with Jack Cade, their general. (2 H. VI: IV.4.9-13.)

As Simier was sent to England to arrange with Elizabeth for her marriage with Alençon, so Suffolk had been dispatched to France,(2)

To marry Princess Margaret for your Grace. (2 H. VI: I.1.4.)

And as Elizabeth had fallen in love with the French emissary, so had Margaret done with the English. Nevertheless the Queen greeted Alençon on his arrival at London in the same welcoming spirit that informs Henry’s greeting to Margaret:

King Henry. Suffolk, arise. Welcome, Queen Margaret:
I can express no kinder sign of love
Than this kind kiss. (I.1.17-19.)

The last couplet may have been added late in 1581, to bring the play up to date, for in November of that year, Elizabeth kissed Alençon full on the lips, in the presence of Castelnau, Leicester and Walsingham, announcing that he would be her husband.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the Protector, is also a composite presentment of those of Elizabeth’s advisers who opposed the French alliance and abhorred her affair with Simier; he is shown in several particulars to stand for Leicester. For one thing, he is married to a woman consumed with ambition, and Margaret boxes her ears (I.3.139), as Elizabeth had boxed the Countess of Leicester’s. While the Countess of Leicester had no thought of reigning, as the Countess of Gloucester has in the play, still she did not, as one historian writes of her,

demean herself in a manner likely to soothe the feelings of her injured cousin [Elizabeth]. Instead . . . she did all in her power to demonstrate that Lettice, Countess of Leicester, was every whit as great a personage as Elizabeth, Queen of England. She came to Whitehall in dresses whose magnificence exceeded those of the Queen’s Majesty. Elizabeth expressed displeasure, but my Lady of Leicester paid no heed. Elizabeth, goaded beyond endurance, soundly boxed the Countess of Leicester’s ears, at the same time declaring that as but one sun lighted the earth, so there should be but one at the Court, which henceforward would be closed to the Countess of Leicester. (3)

It is almost as if the historian had taken his information from the dramatist, who gives the picture graphically (I.3.43-152), beginning:

Queen Margaret. My Lord of Suffolk, say, is this the guise,
Is this the fashion of the court of England?
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .
What! shall King Henry be a pupil still
Under the surly Gloucester’s governance?
Am I a queen in title and in style,
And must be made a subject to a duke?
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .
Not all these lords do vex me half so much
As that proud dame, the Lord Protector’s wife:
She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies,
More like an empress than Duke Humphrey’s wife.
Strangers in court do take her for the queen:
She bears a duke’s revenues on her back. …

There is a touch of clear verisimilitude in Gloucester’s soliloquy about his Duchess’s downfall, as he reflects how the common people will gloat over her shame

That erst did follow thy proud chariot wheels
When thou didst ride in triumph through the streets. (II.4.13-14.)

Since the historic Duchess of Gloucester had lived more than a hundred years before coaches were introduced into England, she could not have had a chariot. But one of the things that had most infuriated Queen Elizabeth against the Countess of Leicester had been her “driving about London in a richly appointed coach.”

A striking historical parallel appears in Leicester’s serving as partial prototype of the Protector; for his father, the Duke of Northumberland, formerly the Earl of Warwick, had succeeded in supplanting Somerset, Protector for the ten-year-old King Edward VI, Elizabeth’s brother, and his ambition knew no bounds.

We have spoken of the ear-boxing scene (I.3.139-40). This must have occasioned quite a flutter at court. Lettice Leicester was not accused of witchcraft, but the historical prototype of the Countess of Gloucester, Dame Eleanor Cobham, was. Holinshed, who relates that “Humfrie duke of Gloucester was much against” the French marriage—that of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou—says of his wife that she was “accused of treason; for that she by sorcerie and inchantment intended to destroie the king, to the intent to aduance hir husband unto the crowne.”

Gloucester’s passive attitude in the face of his wife’s public humiliation (II.4) may be intended to indicate Leicester’s standing tamely by when Elizabeth insulted Lettice; but the dramatist himself seems to feel compassion for her. Further, he has the Cardinal taunt Gloucester with cowardice (II.1.36-42). He himself had a low opinion of Leicester’s manhood. And the Queen had once spoken of her Robin as a little dog that followed her about. Others had been of a like opinion. In March 1560, Quadra had written Feria of Lord Robert, “He is the worst and most procrastinating young man I ever saw in my life, and not at all courageous or spirited.”

Undoubtedly some of the accusations levelled at Gloucester by the Cardinal and the lords were true of Leicester:

Cardinal. The commons hast thou rack’d; the clergy’s bags
Are lank and lean with thy extortions.
Somerset. Thy sumptuous buildings and thy wife’s attire
Have cost a mass of public treasury.
Buckingham. Thy cruelty in execution
Upon offenders hath exceeded law,
And left thee to the mercy of the law. (I.3.129-35.)

All this except the phrase about the “wife’s attire” applied quite as forcibly to Burghley as to Leicester: the “clergy’s” ravaged “bags,” the “sumptuous buildings,” and the “cruelty in execution upon offenders” that “hath exceeded law” (like Antonio, for instance): this is aimed at Burghley, who could be coupled with Leicester here, because they were both scandalized by Elizabeth’s behavior with Alençon and, though Leicester wavered, taking bribes from both sides, the Lord Treasurer, while outwardly supporting the French match, was actually more partial to Spain than to France.

Elizabeth had the same tender feeling toward Leicester as that which Henry expresses after Gloucester is deposed from the protectorship and arrested (III.1.198 et seq.). Here Suffolk and the Cardinal plot Gloucester’s death; but actually Leicester had tried to assassinate Simier, and later tried again.

It was while Queen Elizabeth was on progress through Essex and Suffolk in the summer of 1579 that she received news of the Papal invasion of Ireland: she may actually have been at St. Alban’s, as King Henry and Margaret are. York says (I.4.73):

The king is now in progress towards St. Alban’s. . . .

The scene in which Saunder Simpcox feigns blindness is too allegorical and recondite to engage us here; but Mrs. Clark makes the point that, after the leader of the invasion, the Papal envoy, Fitzmaurice, had been killed, Nicholas, “Doctor” Sanders, took charge; and there seems to be a play on this name in “Saunder Simpcox,” the given name being Oxford’s way of pronouncing “Sander,” and the surname a combination of syllables of two words which mean vain fool.

York, who is sent to Ireland, stands for Lord Grey of Wilton, whom Elizabeth sent there at this time to command the English forces.

Cardinal. My Lord of York, try what your fortune is.
The uncivil kerns of Ireland are in arms
And temper clay with blood of Englishmen:
To Ireland will you lead a band of men. . . . (III.1.309 et seq.)

The historic Richard of York had actually subdued an uprising in Ireland; other scenes in which York figures are historical rather than topical.

The effect upon Elizabeth of the Papal invasion of Ireland, abetted by Spain, was to make her interrupt the French negotiations and deny herself to Simier. Undoubtedly she was disturbed by the people’s antagonism at this time. In the play (III.2) there is the “Noise of a crowd within,” and Salisbury re-enters.

Salisbury. Sirs, stand apart; the king shall know your mind.
Dread lord, the commons send you word by me
Unless fillse Suffolk straight be done to death,
Or banished fair England’s territories,
They will by violence tear him from your palace.
And torture him with grievous lingering death.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .
Commons (within). An answer from the King, or we will all break in! (242 et seq.)

So, as Elizabeth severed negotiations and temporarily banished Simier from her presence, King Henry banished Suffolk from England:

He shall not breathe infection in this air
But three days longer, on the pain of death. (287-8.)

Suffolk’s dialogue with Walter Whitmore, in which he says,

Thy name is—Gaultier, being rightly sounded (IV.1.37),

indicates that the character he stands for is French. Incidentally, the beginning of this scene, which suggests Macbeth, is strikingly similar in tenor to Arden of Feversham: the same hand is unmistakable in both.

In 1579, when the opposition to the French alliance was rife, one John Stubbes wrote a pamphlet setting forth objections to it, entitled, The Discovery of Gaping Gulph, wherein England is like to be swallowed by another French match. And the Queen punished him by having his right hand cut off. There are several allusions to this regrettable incident in the play.

Cade. . . . Is not this a lamentable thing, that the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings; but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax, for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since. (IV.2.77-82.)

Another stresses the man’s simplicity and seems to carry a rebuke. Elizabeth’s Turk will soon be showing her even more emphatically that she has been more sinning than sinned against.

Cade. . . . Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee. What is thy name?
Dick. They use to write it on the top of letters. ‘Twill go hard with you.
Let me alone. Dost thou use to write thy name, or hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?
Clerk. Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up, that I can write my name.
All. He hath confessed; away with him! he’s a villain and a traitor.
Away with him! I say; hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck. (IV.2.96-109.)

Again Cade says (IV.2.163-71):

Fellow kings, I tell you that that Lord Say hath gelded the common-wealth, and made it a eunuch; and more than that, he can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor. . . . the Frenchmen are our enemies; go to, then, I ask but this, can he that speaks with the tongue of an enemy be a good counsellor or no?

This is in line with Stubbes’s argument, whereas Cade’s passage about corrupting the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school, etc. (IV.7.32 et seq.) also probably alludes to Stubbes, while being the historical Cade’s own policy, he and his followers having burned all books, writings, court-rolls, as Holinshed says, “that they might lay hand upon.”

Two points connect the action intimately with Oxford. One is the occasion of Jack Cade’s striking his staff on London Stone (IV.6), and the other is Cade’s instructions to his followers (IV.7.1-2):

Now go some and pull down the Savoy; others to the inns of court: down with them all.

Vere House stood beside London Stone, of which Ward says that it “is probably a fragment of the old Roman defences of the City. . . having been built into the south wall of St. Swithin’s Church, just south of the Mansion House.” And Oxford had for a long time rented apartments in the Savoy. He felt this public discontent was coming very close.

The death of Somerset, which has no historical parallel, may allude to that of Sir Nicholas Bacon, of St. Alban’s, the Lord Chancellor, which occurred in 1579. The fact that he was Burghley’s brother-in-law makes especially significant the opening line of the following speech, for this was a favorite expression of Burghley’s:

Richard. So, lie thou there;
For underneath an alehouse’ paltry sign,
The Castle of St. Alban’s, Somerset
Hath made the wizard famous in his death.
Sword, hold thy temper; heart be wrathful still:
Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill. (V.2.66-71.)

It seems that documents in Bacon’s possession disclosed proof that, when first the marriage negotiations had been broached, in 1572, the French plan had been to ravage the country, kill Elizabeth, and put Mary Stuart upon the throne. Oxford had played up the alliance in The Merchant of Venice and to a lesser degree elsewhere, faute de mieux, in support of Elizabeth’s position, but his heart had never been in it, as Castelnau was aware; and certainly at this point he was only too willing to show the Queen what an unpopular project it was.

Henry’s reflections (IV.9.l et seq.) are reminiscent of the little rhymed duet between Oxford and Sidney, which began:

Were I a king, I might command content.

Henry says:

Was ever  king that joy’d an earthly throne,
And could command no more content than I?

Edward de Vere had come very near being Elizabeth’s consort (we shall go into this matter more fully later); hence the significant use of “ever.” He is reminding the Queen of their close relationship.

He touches this same subject when another Edward—this one of York—says, in 3 Henry VI (IV.3.44-6):

Edward will always bear himself as king:
Though Fortune’s malice overthrow my state,
My mind exceeds the compass of her wheel.

And it would be gratifying to know whether he were thinking of his suppressed authorship when he said (3 H. VI: III.3.76-7):

For though usurpers sway the rule awhile,
Yet heavens are just, and time suppresseth wrongs.

He believed in the power of truth to prevail.

There are a number of Latin phrases used in 2 Henry VI, as there are in many of the early dramas—signally in The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus—and also a little French. The Cardinal’s Medice teipsum (II.1.53)—Physician, heal thyself—may be a pun on Catherine’s name. And one notes (I.1.140) a phrase Elizabeth used upon occasion in a scheme to acquire for Hatton the Bishop of Ely’s much-coveted house in Holborn, in 1573. When Bishop Cox stoutly resisted, she wrote him as follows:

Proud Prelate: I understand you are backward in complying with your agreement, but I would have you know that I, who made you what you are, can unmake you, and if you do not forthwith fulfill your engagement, By God, I will immediately unfrock you.

Yours, as you demean yourself, Elizabeth. (4)

Alfred Hart has established the fact that the plays entitled The Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York were pirated memory versions of 2 and 3Henry VI, which had been written by the author of the Folio versions but had been garbled. (5)

The final part of Henry VI is closely allied to Richard III. But the latter play belongs partially to another, later time, and it was undoubtedly more thoroughly revised, thus comprising, as we have it today, a wider frame of reference. We shall only touch on Richard III here for its relation to 3 Henry VI, taking it up again in a subsequent chapter.

In 3 Henry VI there is a steady reminder to Elizabeth of Henry’s inveterate temporizing in crises when he should have acted. Her position is as seriously threatened as his had been.

Exeter. But when the duke is slain, they’ll quickly fly.
King Henry. Far be the thought of this from Henry’s heart,
To make a shambles of the parliament-house!
Cousin of Exeter, frowns, words, and threats,
Shall be the war that Henry means to use. (I.1.70-3.)

The dramatist indicates that Elizabeth risks too much when she avoids punishing conspirators, or makes concessions to them, as Henry was willing to do.

King Henry. Not for myself, Lord Warwick, but my son,
Whom I unnaturally shall disinherit.
But be it as it may; I here entail
The crown to thee and to thine heirs for ever;
Conditionally, that here thou take an oath
To cease this civil war, and, whilst I live,
To honour me as thy king and sovereign;
And neither by treason nor hostility
To seek to put me down and reign thyself. (I.1.192-200.)

When Oxford presently warns the Queen, it is in the words of another Edward’s wife, another Queen Elizabeth (IV.4.30):

For trust not him that hath once broken faith.

Clifford admonishes Henry in a long speech (II.2.9 et seq.):

My gracious liege, this too much lenity
And harmful pity must be laid aside.
To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den. . . .

Later Clifford, near death, soliloquizes (II.6.3 et seq.):

O Lancaster! I fear thy overthrow
More than my body’s parting with my soul.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
For what doth cherish weeds but gentle air?
And what makes robbers bold but too much lenity?

Like Henry, Elizabeth seems to think the people will stand by her, because she has been kind to them (IV.8.38 et seq.):

King Henry. That’s not my fear; my meed hath got me fame:
I have not stopp’d mine ears to their demands,
Nor posted off their suits with slow delays;
My pity hath been balm unto their wounds,
My mildness hath allayed their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears;
I have not been desirous of their wealth;
Nor much oppress’d them with great subsidies. . . .

But even as he ceases to speak, the usurper arrives triumphant and takes him prisoner.

It is significant that the Earl of Oxford in the play praises and encourages the young Prince (V.4.50-4):

Oxford. Women and children of so high a courage,
And warriors faint! why, ’twere perpetual shame.
O brave young prince! thy famous grandfather
Doth live again in thee: long mayst thou live
To bear his image and renew his glories!

But it is the Seventeenth Earl reminding his Queen in the poignant scene (II.5) where a father discovers that he has killed his son and a son that he has killed his father of the horrors of civil war. Such terrible things have been happening in France, and the Earl has read contemporary accounts by the French poets, some of whom are his friends. He reminds her that she can inspire her people as Queen Margaret eloquently inspires her followers in the speech (V.4.1 et seq.), beginning:

Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss,
But cheerly seek how to redress their harms. . . .

Instead of temporizing, she should rise to the emergency and take control. He loves England, as the Queen does. As has been suggested earlier, he may have warned her in this play of the danger that threatened before he finally went to her with the accusation against Howard and the others which he felt obliged to make.

There is even an indication in Richard III that he had warned his friends before openly accusing them, and that they may have publicized their defense prematurely. This ominous drama was written either while he was in the Tower or soon afterwards.

It will be recalled that the blue boar was Oxford’s cognizance. Now, the white boar was Richard’s, an animal of a very different color. The Earl was willing to make double use of the symbol, in order to drive home his point. We take him to mean that Howard had feared and suspected (“dreamt”) that Oxford would accuse him when he says:

He dreamt the boar had razed off his helm. (RIII: III.2.11.)

To fly the boar before the boar pursues,
Were to incense the boar to follow us
And make pursuit where he did mean no chase.

Go, bid thy master rise and come to me;
And we will both together to the Tower,
Where, he shall see, the boar shall use us kindly. (III.2.28-30.)
Come on, come on; where is your boar-spear, man?
Fear you the boar, and go so unprovided? (III.2.72-3.)

It is impossible to cite all the points connecting Richard III to this period, but it would seem to be highly significant that in this play the Tower is mentioned twenty-six times; the chill gloom of the place pervades it as with a recurrent shudder.

Prince. . . . . . . . . . and with a heavy heart,
Thinking on them, go I unto the Tower. (III.1.149-50.)

No doubt Lord Oxford as he was conducted there was, like the young Prince, reminded of his “uncles.” The Twelfth Earl of Oxford and his son Aubrey, the poet’s great-great uncle, had been confined and executed here during the early part of Edward’s IV’s reign, for having corresponded with Queen Margaret, wife of the defeated Lancastrian, Henry VI; and the poet Earl of Surrey, his uncle by marriage, was executed there about three years before his nephew, Edward de Vere, was born. Whitman was right: the man who wrote these historical plays was “a born descendant and knower” of these “wolfish earls.” He may have been transferring to Hastings his own experience when he said (III.4.83-4):

Three times today my footcloth horse did stumble,
And startled when he looked upon the Tower.

He certainly had been reflecting bitterly upon the Queen’s fickle favor when he wrote Clarence’s words (I.1.60-1):

. . . such like toys as these
Have mov’d his highness to commit me now,

and those, again, of Hastings (III.4.95-100):

O momentary grace of mortal man,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hope in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready with every nod to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

This was a philosophy that he would express frequently in succeeding years, finally revealing it as poignantly personal in the Sonnets. By the time he does so in Sonnet 125 he will be speaking of more than one crisis in his life when “suborn’d informers” had tried to impeach his integrity.

Through its historical parallel in the Wars of the Roses, where John de Vere, the Thirteenth Earl, had so valiantly supported Henry VII, Elizabeth’s grandfather, the poet Edward de Vere found a means of stressing his intrinsic loyalty to her, while implying that the spiritual descendants of her grandfather’s traitors were likewise treacherous to her. He was also taking occasion to remind her, in Richard III, as he had so patently done in 3 Henry VI, of the part his family had played in uniting the English nation. John de Vere, the Thirteenth Earl, had been the last to maintain the cause of the red rose, in his castle in Cornwall, for many months after the kingdom had submitted to Edward IV. The Thirteenth Earl appears in the Third Part of Henry VI as a distinguished and honored supporter of the King: there had been no special need to bring him forward in the Second Part, and the First was yet to be written. What could be clearer than the author’s intention when, in this play written in a crucial stage of England’s existence, he puts the following words into the mouth of the (Thirteenth) Earl of Oxford (3 H. VI: III.3.101-7):

Call him my king, by whose injurious doom
My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere,
Was done to death? and more than so, my father,
Even in the downfall of his mellow’d years,
When nature brought him to the door of death?
No, Warwick, no; while life upholds this arm,
This arm upholds the house at Lancaster.

From then on he is praised in many lines:

And thou, brave Oxford, wondrous well-belov’d (IV.8.17);
Sweet Oxford (IV.8.30);
Where is the post that came from valiant Oxford? (V.1.1);
Ocheerful colours! see where Oxford comes (V.1.58);
Oxford, Oxford for Lancaster! (V.1.59);
O! welcome, Oxford, for we want thy help (V.1.66);
The queen is valu’d thirty thousand strong,
And Somerset, with Oxford, fled to her (V.3.14-15);
Why is not Oxford here another anchor? (V.4.16);
Thanks, gentle Somerset; sweet Oxford thanks. (V.4.58.)

In the speech of Oxford (V.4.50-4), the descendant of this noble house speaks directly to his Queen, granddaughter of the Lancastrian who defeated the traitors of his day:

. . . thy famous grandfather
Doth live again in thee: long mayst thou live
To bear his image and renew his glories!

How better could he have advertised his loyalty to the Tudor Queen than by recalling to her thus stirringly—in 3 Henry VI and Richard III—the historic part borne by the Earls of Oxford in defeating the usurpers and restoring the Lancastrians to power? It is one of the most magnificent gestures ever made by a great artist in defense of his country’s honor.

The logical sequence to Henry VI was Richard III, which concludes with the final restitution of the kingdom to the Lancastrians in the victory of Richmond over Richard, with the Earl of Oxford at his right hand, and the downfall of the House of York.

The real Richard of Gloucester was not a hunchback—one shoulder was higher than the other from excessive practice with the battle-axe—but he was to staunch Lancastrians the devil incarnate. Although modern historians are inclined to view him with more lenience, Sir Thomas More portrayed him, in 1513, as infamous; so did Bacon in his History of Henry the Seventh; and so did the chroniclers.

It is of more than passing interest that Robert Cecil, upon whom the mantle of his father fell in the late 1590’S, was similarly deformed some accounts say that he was a hunchback, others that he was very small with a pronounced curvature of the spine—and that his grandfather was named Richard. Richard III was certainly given some of the Cecilian qualities which so galled the poet; for example (I.3.334-8):

Gloucester. But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odds and ends stolen forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

We have learned to recognize the pious opportunist; we are indeed not allowed to forget him, because the dramatist himself never could. (Antonio said of Shylock: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”) More’s description, however, might have been of William Cecil, rather than of Richard Gloucester:

He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart; outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill, despiteous and cruel, not for evil will always, but oftener for ambition, and for the surety or increase of his estate.

The likeness is uncanny. So the Earl was provided with an excellent alibi.

However Richard may have been characterized in the original version, the author would subsequently have subtilized the portrait with qualities he was to observe with considerable loathing as the years passed; but the earliest picture would have been intensified by the youthful Oxford’s violence; and Queen Margaret addressed him (I.3.228-30) as:

Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog.
.  .  .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .   .   .   .   .  .
Thou slave of nature and the son of hell.

As we have said, the Earl of Oxford was always writing for and at the Queen. In this connection, it is especially interesting that he seems to have had Seymour in mind for at least one facet of Richard’s personality. Seymour, brother of the Protector, Somerset, was the man who had compromised the thirteen-year-old Elizabeth and caused her dangerous embarrassment, while her brother Edward VI was on the throne. In Richard’s courtship of Anne (I.2) we may have such a picture of the wily Seymour as the Queen herself had given her young favorite. One historian says of this man:

His ultimate intentions are made clear by the fact that some four days after he was rejected by Henry’s daughter [Elizabeth], he was paying attentions to Henry’s widow, to whom he proposed with such charm and ardour that Katherine, who had already buried three husbands, seems to have been led to the altar thirty-four days after the death of her last! The bridegroom proceeded to celebrate this success by renewing his attentions to the girl who had so recently refused him, and who was now a guest in his house at Chelsea. (6)

During Richard’s reign a merry wag named Richard Colyngbourne wrote a rhyme about the King and certain of his ministers, who appear in the play, Catesby, Ratcliff, Lovel, giving Richard himself the name he was often called by, because of his favorite badge, the white wild boar, which he wore embroidered on his clothes and emblazoned on his armor and trappings—no more to be confused with Oxford’s blue boar than the white rose was to be confused with the Lancastrian red. Colyngbourne was beheaded for this and other indiscretions:

The catte, the ratte, and Lovell our dogge
Rulyth all England under a hogge. (7)

Of contributory interest in this play is the fact that the historic villain, Tyrrell, who was said to have accepted the brutal charge of directing the murder of the little princes, had the same name as Oxford’s stepfather, long since dead—the man his mother had married with such unseemly haste—and was endowed in, the play with what the disgusted son, regarded as his characteristics:

I know a discontented gentleman,
Whose humble means match not his haughty spirit. (IV.2.36-7.)

The same man appears as Mosbie in Arden of Feversham.

This powerful tragedy, Richard III, in the form we have it today, was, in large part, the work of the poet’s mature genius; but the original version would have been forceful enough to make his urgent point. Its sombre chords must have vibrated upon the nerves of its audience with a calculated orchestration which left no doubt as to the dominant theme.

Elizabeth Tudor would have missed none of the implications of the speech pronounced by her grandfather, Richmond, on the eve of becoming Henry VII, for whose wife she herself was named. And she must have been stirred, as only her first-ranking poet knew how to stir her, by the prayerful words which brought it to its conclusion (V.4.48-54):

Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again,
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land’s increase
That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace!
Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again:
That she may long live here, God say amen!

In 3 Henry VI (II.6.55), Warwick pronounces a phrase which would return to its author’s mind in the terrible depression soon to follow and be used to caustic purpose:

Measure for measure must be answered.

This was the feudal’s lord’s principle, and it was bred in the Earl of Oxford.

Distinct evidence that Part 3 of the Henry VI trilogy was finished before he was committed to the Tower appears in Edward’s concluding speech, as he disposes of the French peril:

And now what rests but that we spend the time
With stately triumphs, mirthful comic shows,
Such as befit the Pleasure of the court?
Sound, drums and trumpets! farewell, sour annoy!
For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy.

The great feudal barons, certainly during the Tudor period, maintained companies of players to entertain them through the long winter months in their remote fortress-homes. Edward de Vere’s father had supported such a company, and like the young Hamlet at Elsinore, the youth had greeted them cordially when they arrived at Castle Hedingham, delighting in their performances. This is one feature of the feudal lord’s life that Whitman did not take into consideration, but it was a valid part of the dramatist’s equipment.

Let us pause for a moment to compare Walt Whitman’s intelligent, perceptive, and thoughtful pronouncement with that of one of the orthodox authorities. We quote the eminent Professor Dowden’s Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth. (8) He is speaking of Robert Greene’s famous warning to other playwrights against the “upstart crow,” in 1592:

This is the earliest allusion to Shakespeare in print that has been discovered. . . . A sting is put into the attack on Shakespeare as poet and Plagiarist by the parody of the line—perhaps Shakespeare’s—which appears in both The True Tragedy and Henry VI, Part III. . . . It looks as if Greene resented Shakespeare’s appropriation of work of his own as well as certain original work of the actor-poet who was robbing the university men of their legitimate profits.

In our view, this is a shocking statement. If Dowden’s premise led him to the conclusion that this genius “appropriated” the work of his associates, that it was possible for a man of such wealth of imagination, such copious invention, to say nothing of such nobility of mind, to be a plagiarist, why did he not at least examine his premise? Actually, the “university men” were no more capable of writing 2 and 3 Henry VI, not to mention Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, Love’s Labour’s Lost, than even a hypothetical miraculously brilliant provincial businessman was.

But quite apart from this, what of a simple playwright’s daring to present dramas about conspiracy against the throne of England, when any reference on the stage to political personages or affairs was a Star Chamber matter? Stubbes had his right hand cut off for presuming to write a pamphlet opposing the French marriage. What would have happened to this man whom Dowden believes to have been called an “upstart crow” by Robert Greene, had he undertaken to demonstrate to Queen Elizabeth, by historical analogy, the dangers implicit in her policy of laisser-faire? Supposing the play had appeared at the turn of the century: even then, although the Catholics had subsided and Mary Stuart’s rivalry was a thing of the past, the Essex rebellion was brewing. There was never a period during that era when a man of the people, with no position or influence, could have dreamed of producing such plays as these; yet they continued to appear in public theatres, bringing Henslowe gratifying receipts, although his records show that the author himself never received a farthing for them.


1. Whitman, Complete Prose; from a monograph, Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, Vol. XIV. under the heading, Walt Whitman’s Estimate of Shakespeare; by Clifton Joseph Furness.

2. When Simier returned to France, he was accompanied by Stafford,—the name similar to Suffolk.

3. E.T.C.: Hidd. All.; p. 182; quat. Wilson: Q. Eliz.’s Maids of Honour; p. 122.

4. Edward Foss: Judges of England; under the heading, Hatton.

5. Stolne and Surreptitious Copies; pp. 449-69.

6. F. Chamberlin: The Priv. Char. of Q. Eliz.; pp. 2-3.

7. Patrick Carleton: Under the Hog.

8. Oxford ed.

Contents | Chapter Twenty-Six