Chapter 31

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

Chapter Thirty-One


WHEN, in the bleak gloom of a March dawn, Anne Vavasor and her new-born son were summarily conveyed, by order of the Queen, to the dungeon-like cell of the Tower, the girl’s heart must have quailed in horror. Weakened by the physical ordeal, removed from all comfort, abandoned by her friends and, for as much as she knew, by her lover himself, she was, indeed, desolate.

Whether he was able to go to her at once we do not know. But it does not require a stretch of the imagination to picture his anguish when he saw her lying pale and spent in this grisly place. To him. it would have been like a tomb where their “inauspicious stars” had destined their “buried love” to lie.

              Ah! dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? (V.3.101-2.)

And he must have decided that if death should indeed claim her, he would surrender himself also,

And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again. (107-8.)

It stirs one’s heart, after nearly four hundred years, to think of the tumult of baffled emotion which overwhelmed this ardent yet acutely sensitive nature. It was as if the tempestuous blood that coursed through his veins had been abruptly dammed and was churning morbidly, with no relief possible save through conversion of passion into thought within the delicate corridors of his brain, where such a powerful surge must all but unseat his reason.

Affliction is enamour’d of thy parts,
And thou art wedded to calamity. (III.3.2-3.)

So he felt it was with him.

The girl’s plight was piteous. Not only does the woman in such cases bear the physical burden, she bears the greater share of the obloquy as well. But a poet has much of the feminine in his nature. Oxford certainly had: the implications were for him serious, penetrating to the roots of his being, his proud honor, his good name, his dependence—a profound, subtle, almost mystic relationship here—upon the Queen. The fact is that Anne Vavasor did recover; she must have been intrinsically the wanton portrayed in Love’s Labour’s Lost. She passed on to new conquests and, moreover, continued to bedevil this same lover for years, in more ways than through his infatuation for her, as the Sonnets attest. But Oxford himself, although draining off seething emotion through the channels of his art, never entirely recovered from this catastrophe. It left him shaken, more susceptible to others to come. There would be others; for to a man so passionate, not only in feeling but in idealism as well, a man so deeply involved in personal and public relationships, recurrent crises were inevitable, crises mental, moral, emotional. He was ever striving to know himself, to apprehend the meaning of human character and human experience. In the end he succeeded in both as no other artist has done.

When Lord Oxford had got himself sufficiently in hand he wrote this play. Come what might, he was determined to tell the truth. Even for the premier earl of England it was dangerously rash to give expression to the things he has Romeo say when he forsakes the inconstant Rosaline for her Maid (II.2):

He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Because it was an established convention among court poets that Elizabeth was the moon, was Diana, Venus, and so on, this would be well understood. Juliet (Anne Vavasor), her Maid, was the sun, then, “far more fair than she,” and she was “envious.” It was because of envy—pretense to the contrary notwithstanding—that the Queen had imprisoned and banished Oxford. As if this were not enough, Romeo adds that “her vestal livery is but sick and green”; which, the Tudor livery being green and white, caps the climax. In bitterness he remarks that “none but fools do wear it,” as this courtier had found to his confusion and despair, and as he would say again more than once in an access of disillusionment.

Presently Juliet is charging Romeo (II.2.109-11):

O! swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

When Friar Laurence reminds Romeo that he had hitherto doted on Rosaline, the young man replies (II.3.85-7):

. . . she, whom I love now,
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow;
The other did not so;

implying that Elizabeth took far more than she gave, which was emphatically the truth.

There is a highly significant passage regarding the Queen, when Mercutio is summoning Romeo. We have already spoken of it as indicating that Romeo is a poet and an actor. Mercutio continues (II.1.16 et seq.):

The ape is dead, and I must conjure him.
I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us.
Benvolio. An if he hear thee, thou wilt anger him.
This cannot anger him: ‘twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle
Of some strange nature. . . my invocation
Is fair and honest, and in his mistress’ name
I conjure only but to raise him up.

This reference to Elizabeth’s “circle” at court will be made more explicitly and with frank scorn by Jaques (A.Y.L.I.: II.5):

   If it do come to pass
That any man turn ass,
Leaving his wealth and ease,
A stubborn will to please,
Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame:
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he,
An if he will come to me.

Amiens asks:

What’s that “ducdame”?
Jaques. ‘Tis a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle.

(It was some years later that Bacon adopted this idea, writing of the courtiers “surrounding the deep and inscrutable circle which is Her Majesty’s mind.”)

If Oxford was reckless in such statements as this, what about Mercutio’s intimate allusions to Elizabeth’s person in the first lines quoted above? Our answer is that the Elizabethans cannot under any circumstances be judged by a Victorian code, and that when eminent historians write elaborately documented books to prove that the “Virgin Queen” was not what they call “immoral,” they are being extraordinarily ingenuous.

The Queen’s eyes were gray. Romeo had now been

. . . stabbed with a white wench’s black eye. (II.4.14.)

That Anne Vavasor’s eyes were black was made clear in the description of “dark Rosaline” in Love’s Labour’s Lost; and it is interesting that only some thirty lines before the passage reminiscent of Anne Vavasor’s Eccho occurs—in which poem, by the way, it is apparent that Anne herself took the initiative in the real love-affair—Juliet, speaking of their “faithful love’s vow,” says (II.2.127):

I gave thee mine before thou didst request it;

although here of course she may be Anne Cecil too. Mercutio taunts Romeo with his susceptibility. Now he will write sonnets!

Now he is for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. (II.4.38-9.)

This is, of course, Oxford taunting himself. In the very height of his poetic flights, in the very depths of his suffering, he had the amazing power of detachment which is an attribute of the truly creative mind. His own heart, his private life, his amour-propre, his lovers, his friends, everything was at the mercy of this power of his genius, at times diabolic, at times god-like.

He had loved fair Rosaline: Elizabeth knew he had loved her, had given her all his loyalty, and she had held it so lightly as to dishonor him for a whim of vanity. He makes this clear in the beginning (I.1.166 et seq.):

Benvolio. In love?
Romeo. Out—
Benvolio. Of love?
Romeo. Out of her favour, where I am in love.
Alas! that love, so gentle in his view,
Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof.

Romeo remarks later (I.4.25-6) that love

. . . is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous; and it pricks like thorn.

This was a barbed thrust, for it informed Elizabeth—as Oxford was to inform her again in the Sonnets—that her motto, Rosa sine spina (A rose without a thorn) was not applicable to the particular Tudor Rose which was herself.

Romeo is willing to have it believed—as the Earl of Oxford finally paid the price of his own recognition in order to testify—that he was spurned by his mistress because of her dedication to chastity.

Romeo. . . . she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O! she is rich in beauty; only poor
That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store. (I.1.210-18.)

(The last line foreshadows the Sonnets, of course.)

Benvolio. Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?
She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste.

Yes, he would keep it up superficially, if she would have it so. But between them, they knew. And later he was to put the whole story into the Sonnets. It is, indeed, the Book of Sonnets “That in gold clasps locks in the golden story,” which is the subject of Lady Capulet’s seeming eulogy of Paris’s face (I.3.81-94). The poet is speaking directly to Elizabeth here; she knew exactly what he meant, though many thousands of readers have never even dimly suspected. But elucidation of this point must be deferred.

It is provocative, in passing, to speculate upon whether it were “the misty mountain tops” near Verona (III.5.10) which the poet had in mind in Sonnet 33. They were surely nowhere in the vicinity of Warwickshire.

The Friar, we may be confident, spoke truth for Oxford when he said to Romeo (II.3.69-70):

Jesu Maria! what a deal of brine
Hath washed thy shallow cheeks for Rosaline. . . .

Benvolio advises Romeo to regain his peace of mind by forgetting to think of fair Rosaline.

Romeo. O! teach me how I should forget to think.
By giving liberty unto thine eyes:
Examine other beauties.
Romeo.                       ‘Tis the way
To call hers exquisite, in question more.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
He that is strucken blind cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost:
Show me a mistress that is passing fair,
What doth her beauty serve but as a note
Where I may read who pass’d that passing fair?
Farewell: thou canst not teach me to forget. (I.1.228-39.)

And Romeo replies to Benvolio’s query whether he is mad, with:

Not mad, but bound more than a madman is;
Shut up in prison, kept without my food,
Whipp’d and tormented. . . (I.2.54-6.)

He was showing Elizabeth what she had trifled with, how she had driven him to someone else.

When Benvolio, urging him to go to the ball, says he will see beauties who will make his swan a crow, Romeo pronounces his testament—or rather Oxford pronounces his testament of love for the Queen, which, curiously, although. he often censures and upbraids her, he stands by to the end:

When the devout religion of mine eye
Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires!
And these, who often drown’d could never die,
Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!
One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun. (I.2.90-5.)

She made him weep often enough. The word “tears” trickles softly through this play like an obbligato to the theme. Only “banishment” occurs more frequently, “name” slightly less so. He wishes Elizabeth to see how deeply he had been bound to her.

Romeo and Juliet was published anonymously in 1596. (It is easy to see why the author’s name had to be kept secret.) Ben Jonson was probably not acquainted with the Earl of Oxford when, soon afterwards, he wrote Every Man Out of His Humour) in which the nobleman-dramatist is caricatured as Puntarvolo. He parodies the balcony-scene of Romeo and Juliet as a continuation of the one we quoted as a satire on Twelfth Night, when Lady Puntarvolo comes to the window and her husband, with considerable affectation, addresses her from below. We give the original, then the travesty:

Romeo. . . .
But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she. (II.2.2-6.)

Puntarvolo. What more than heavenly pulchritude is this?
What magazine, or treasury of bliss?
Dazzle, you organs, to my optic sense,
To view a creature of such eminence:
O, I am planet-struck, and in yond sphere
A brighter star than Venus doth appear!

There is always a slight sneer in Jonson’s satire.

The word “humour” is used strikingly in Romeo and Juliet; but this is only one of many plays Jonson parodies in Every Man Out. He scatters his dubious favors. It is in Cynthia’s Revels, by the way, that he puts into Amorphus-Oxford’s mouth words which reflect Romeo’s philosophy regarding the “yoke of inauspicious stars” (V.3.111) and “star-cross’d lovers” (Prologue). However, in other plays of Oxford’s other characters representing himself make similar allusions, while Sonnet 25 begins,

Let those who are in favour with their stars;

and Number 26 puts the same idea with exquisite poignancy. Jonson has Amorphus apologize for defeat in some enigmatic duel of wits by saying (V.2):

Forgive it now: it was the solecism of my stars.

Two years after Romeo and Juliet was first written, when time had softened the Earl’s resentment against the Queen, he placated her, and no doubt “pleasured” himself, by producing an absurd travesty of a part of it for the lovely Pastorall of Phyllida and Choryn—later called the The Midsummer Night’s Dream—which was presented before Her Majesty during the Christmas season of 1584. Perhaps she almost forgave him, as he had by then almost forgiven her; but the rift was never to be entirely closed, and in fact Elizabeth’s Turk had not spoken his mind to her for the last time. Mercutio’s delightfully fanciful speech about the fairies (I.4.55-104) seems to furnish a kind of connecting link for the two plays. It is preceded by a significant bit of dialogue:

Romeo. I dream’d a dream to-night.
                   And so did I.
Romeo. Well, what was yours?
Mercutio.                        That dreamers often lie.
Romeo. In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

The Midsummer Night’s Dream, like all the other plays, was about “things true.”

With what seems a curious impartiality, Oxford, as we have said, combined the two Annes in the character of Juliet. At times she is altogether the dark-eyed votary of love; again she is the childish daughter of a domineering father. The poet is assuredly speaking of the young wife he had wronged when Romeo says (III.3.94-7):

Now I have stain’d the childhood of our joy.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Where is she? and how doth she? and what says
My conceal’d lady to our cancell’d love?—

chiding himself later with (III.3.128):

Killing that love which thou hast vow’d to cherish;

which is precisely what Oxford had done and now reproached himself for doing.

And it is Burghley and Anne Cecil he visualizes when Capulet affirms (III.4.13-14):

              I think she will be rul’d
In all respects by me; nay, more, I doubt it not;

and also when he explains (III.5.179-84):

. . . still my care hath been
To have her match’d; and having now provided
A gentleman of noble parentage,
Of fair demesnes, youthful, and nobly train’d,
Stuff’d, as they say, with honourable parts,
Proportion’d as one’s thought would wish a man!

This is Cecil-Oxford family history. We have here another version of “my daughter and my ducats”; while a still more famous father-and-daughter relationship will soon follow.

That Oxford was subject to tempestuous rages similar to those which Howard and Arundel accused him of he seems to admit, with the curious detachment—or the absolute honesty—which constantly impelled him. He has done so before, in Timon of Athens. Now Friar Laurence rebukes him for what is apparently an impulse to suicide (III.3.107-14):

Hold thy desperate hand:
Art thou a man? thy form cries out thou art:
Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast:
Unseemly woman in a seeming man;
Or ill-beseeming beast in seeming both!
Thou hast amaz’d me; by my holy order,
I thought thy disposition better temper’d.

And when Paris calls him “haughty Montague” (V.3.49) he is no doubt using an epithet not uncommonly applied to Lord Oxford in his youth. As for the effeminate strain in the Earl’s nature, geniuses are admittedly somewhat androgynous.

There is reason to believe that Friar Laurence’s fatherly concern for Romeo was much like that of Sussex for Oxford. From their early association during the Rebellion in the North, when the young Earl was seeing his first military service as his aide, until the time of Sussex’s death, the two men were devoted friends; they stood by each other against the powerful and sometimes sinister machinations of Leicester; and Sussex, besides helping him with his theatrical activities at court, did all that was possible to aid Oxford when he was in trouble, as Friar Laurence did to befriend Romeo and Juliet. In the concluding scene, the Friar’s speech to the Prince must be reminiscent of pleas and extenuations Sussex had made to the Queen on behalf of his young friend.

There are a number of topical allusions in the play, of which we shall mention a few. (1) For example, Damon and Pithias, a new edition of which was printed and probably acted in 1582, had a coal-carrying scene, to which the audience would have recognized an analogy in the opening lines:

Sampson. Gregory, O! my word, we’ll not carry coals.
No, for then we should be colliers.
I mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.

In line 64 of the same scene,

Gregory, remember thy swashing blow,

may refer either to Pope Gregory’s feeble interference in Irish affairs in 1579-80, or to Gregory’s faculty of 1580 to Father Campion, reviving the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by Pius V. In any case, Gregory was exceedingly unpopular in England at this time. The phrase, “swashing blow,” occurred in Frampton’s Marco Polo, 1579.

The Nurse’s

‘Shake,’ quoth the dove-house (I.3.33),

whatever else the allusion, would have reference to the earthquake of 1580, still vivid to Londoners—although supposed, of course, to be the terrible one which shook Verona in 1570.

In 1581 there was a plague in London, which could have suggested the plague that prevented Friar John’s delivery of the letter from Friar Laurence to Romeo.

Stubbes published in 1583 his Anatomy of Abuse, in which the statement was made that “They that give themselves to dainty fare and sweetmeats are in weak health. Doth not. . . their teeth rot and all fall out?” Lord Oxford would already have seen the book in manuscript when he wrote (I.4.77):

Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.

(It will be recalled that he had shown sympathy for Stubbes in 2 Henry VI.) And it is to a story in this same book that reference is made by the Prince (III.1.196):

Mercy but murders pardoning those that kill.

A man who has killed two men is pardoned by the king, then kills another. When the king asks why he has killed three men, his jester remarks that the king himself had killed the last two.

More topical references occur in the text, but these suffice to connect Romeo and Juliet with other contemporary events besides the special one of the “three civil brawls” of which the Prince speaks.

As for the identity of the characters, we could have no better proof that the author intended Elizabeth as the prototype of fair Rosaline than is revealed by Capulet’s list of persons invited to the ball, read by Romeo (1.2.65-71), in which is included “my fair niece Rosaline.” Now, there is no point, and certainly no fictional purpose served, in having Romeo’s former mistress a Capulet; for if Tybalt, who was merely Lady Capulet’s nephew (III 1.145), was ipso facto a sworn enemy to the Montagues, then so would Rosaline, as Capulet’s niece, have been. Yet no such impasse is even hinted at. But Queen Elizabeth was a cousin of the Howards, and Oxford was thinking of the Queen as allied with the Howards against himself, as indeed she had seemed by her behavior to be. And this is the only reason Rosaline was related to the Capulets. He even had the Prince, when putting a firm stop to the brawls, show he was related by blood to the Capulets (III.1.188 and 190), as Elizabeth was to the Howards.

Furthermore he was thinking of Mercutio as himself when he made the pun, after having been stabbed by Tybalt (III.1.96):

. . . ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. . . .

For as Tybalt killed the wit, Mercutio, so did Knyvet’s thrust’rob the debonair Earl of some of his spontaneous gaiety, making him a graver man than before. The fact that Romeo tried to prevent this duel would seem to indicate that Oxford had really preferred not to fight Knyvet, that he had been conciliatory, as Romeo was earlier in the scene. Perhaps in the end, however, his tongue ran away with him, as Mercutio’s did.

Imprisoned in the Tower for nearly two months, Oxford had abundant time for entertaining melancholy thoughts, as well as for reading many books, among which were surely Hall’s and Holinshed’s Chronicles, the source of his projected historical plays. His grievances would have caused him to muse upon his ancestors and their valiant deeds. Perhaps recollections of Castle Hedingham and of his early youth spent in that medieval fortress brought to mind the Benedictine Monastery which had been situated not far outside the walls, even conjuring up the figure of some kindly monk like Friar Laurence. After Mary Tudor’s death and the change from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Friars had come often to Hedingham to conduct services for Lord John de Vere and his family in their private chapel.

Certainly the dramatist’s familiarity with such a place as Earl’s Colne furnished him the lines for Juliet as she shrinks from the thought of dissembling death before drinking from the vial (IV.3.37-42):

Or, if I live, is it not very like,
The horrible conceit of death and night,
Together with the terror of the place,
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,
Where, for these many hundred years, the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are pack’d. . . .

He was soon to be working—if, indeed, he had not already begun doing so—upon The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, himself a poet, with a poet’s tendency toward reflection instead of action; he knew from his present experience the plaintive melancholy with which the unhappy monarch would speak:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

The chill dusk of the Tower must have been, for this morbidly imaginative and informed man, peopled with mute figures—like the dead kings passing before Macbeth, the apparition of a child crowned, or of a murdered queen—while he felt, re-lived in his own being, the accumulated terror, wretchedness and despair of those who had sojourned here before him, his own forbears, too, many of them never to see the outside world again.

Mary Stuart had endured this death-in-life imprisonment, a shadowy, hopeless procession of days, ever since he himself was a boy. Hopeless? No; perhaps she still hoped, for she had a son, with whose government she had instituted friendly relations, joining James with herself in sovereignty, and now she was in correspondence with Spain again through the Archbishop of Glasgow in Paris. (2) She was like Constance, mother to Arthur, who had schemed to supplant King John. Mary of Scotland had been unlucky from the first; it seemed that her genius was rebuked by Elizabeth’s, as Mark Antony’s was by Caesar’s, and Macbeth’s by Banquo’s.

His own cousin, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who was to have been married to Mary if the conspiracy of 1571 had been successful, had said as he stood upon the scaffold, “Nothing that was begun by her or for her has ever turned out well.”

Perhaps the Earl recalled, as he sat in the isolation of the dim cold chamber, while the wind howled outside and the candlelight flickered upon the page before him, the story of Mary’s escape from the palace soon after the murder of Rizzio to re-establish her regal integrity and give birth to her son.

At Holyrood, shortly after midnight—the tale was familiar to him—the Queen, followed by Darnley, had stolen down the stairs in the thick silence of the sleeping palace, tiptoeing past the servants’ quarters and blindly feeling her way through the cellarage until she came to the door of a subterranean passage which led to the churchyard. Here in the wavering glow of torches loomed the burial-vaults; a dank vapor assailed her nostrils from the crypts along the walls where the bones of the dead lay in moisture that gleamed in the fitful light and coffins made oblongs of deeper darkness among the shades. She moved with caution, stepping gingerly, Darnley’s long shadow looming crazily now on this side, now on that. There remained only a few yards to traverse before they would emerge into the outside world, where attendants awaited them with horses. Suddenly there was a muffled exclamation. Darnley had stumbled over a freshly made grave. Together, stiff with horror, he and Mary looked down upon the shallow mound where Rizzio had so lately been buried. (3)

Brooding upon such memories and upon such scenes, the author of Romeo and Juliet would have known his course. He would tell the tale so vividly that even Elizabeth would have, at the end, recognizing it for the truth, to say with the Prince of Verona that

            never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.


1. These recorded by Holland: Sh., Ox., and Eliz. Times; pp. 44-57.

2. Hume: The Gr. Ld. B.: p. 317.

3. For the realistic description of this scene we have drawn upon Stefan Zweig’s Mary Q. of Scotland and the Isles; p. 132.

Contents | Chapter Thirty-Two