Chapter 39

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

Chapter Thirty-Nine


REPUGNANT AS THE IDEA SEEMS to be to a certain type of reader who responds with a deeply subjective sense of poetic affinity to the beauty, the pathos and humor, the noble tragedy of the dramas, and recoils from any suggestion of the poet’s personal immanence in his work or of any mundane connection, it is an indisputable fact that the plays were not only always personal, but always topical as well. They were not “airy nothing” given “a local habitation and a name.” Many of them were based upon some political theme, with the chief characters visualized as historical or symbolical figures, as was the case with Shylock. Yet so powerful was the poet’s imagination, so acute his sense of the drama of life and the forces animating men and women, so superhuman his creative gift, that his characters become individuals in their own right, often retaining only a vestigial trace of the primary concept which brought them into being.

The Earl of Oxford, placed as he was in close relation to the Queen, with an intimate knowledge of affairs of state, of domestic and international problems and tensions, of political personages and their maneuvers–placed thus, as we say, at the very center of a turbulent, rapidly developing dynamic national organism, Lord Oxford had a world to portray, a world of events and of passions too. And he, more than any other artist the human race has yet produced, had the sentience, the mental scope, the imaginative and philosophical power, to comprehend and dramatically to project an image of his age, while crystallizing, in language “fire-new from the mint,” the ethos of his race.

Edward de Vere remains unique in many ways, perhaps the most striking–apart from the miracle of his genius–being that he is the only man of princely status who has become a supreme artist. There are a number of reasons why the high nobility of the Old World never seriously practiced the creative arts, thouugh of course some titled aristocrats wrote or painted with rare talent and skill, a few even making art a profession, Lord Byron an eminent example. But it is noteworthy that one of the greatest peers of England surpassed all others in the realm of literature, and that, in order to follow his “bright particular star,” he was obliged to sacrifice his illustrious name.

The tragedy, Othello, furnishes a lucid example of the method we have spoken of; actually, it furnishes three examples, for it celebrated one political situation when it was first ‘written in 1583, another when it was rewritten in 1585, then a grand merging of the historical-symbolical and personal in 1588; while Othello’s final speech must have been given a last touch shortly before its author’s death, since it constitutes Oxford’s own plea to posterity.

An indication that Othello was familiar to the public by 1590 is found in a book, Fair Em, published that year; for one of the characters says, “I cannot, Madam, tell a loving tale or court my mistress with famous discourses.” But this is merely by the way. Literally dozens of topical references relate the play to the years we have cited. Allusions in the Moor’s long speech to the Duke about how he “did thrive” in Desdemona’s love (I.3.128 et seq.) show that the dramatist had received from Montaigne’s Des Cannibales suggestions for some of Othello’s experiences:

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. . . .

The first edition of Montaigne’s Essays appeared in 1580, the second in 1582. Since, during this period, Lord Oxford was restored to his wife and was therefore in his father-in-law’s good graces, if not in his home, he may have received the book through Burghley’s agents who kept the Lord Treasurer supplied with all the latest European publications.

Not more than the skeleton of the plot of Othello was taken from Cinthio’s tale in the Hecatommithi, a rather cheap Italian horror- story written in 1565, translated nineteen years later into French–evidently after Lord Oxford’s play had called attention to it–but never translated into English. That the Elizabethan court-dramas were known on the Continent there is definite proof in the fact that certain political pamphlets written as late as 1615 followed the themes and the symbolism of at least two of Oxford’s plays, Othello and Lear; also that Philip of Spain was infuriated by some of them; and further, that Henry of Navarre invested himself for his popular legend with several of the attributes of Prospero. Since Lord Oxford, like Benedick (M.A.: V.1.166), had “the tongues,” he could well have read Cinthio’s tale in the Italian, as he had read Montaigne’s work in French.

The first version of Othello must have appeared under another title, the name having patently been suggested by points distinctive in the later symbolism. Cinthio’s leading character had no name, though his wife was Disdemona (the ill-fated one); but he was a Moor. Elizabeth often called the swarthy Alençon her Moor. And this correspondence the dramatist seems to have taken in 1583 as his point d’ appuis.

The Duke was repulsive in appearance, with coarse features and blotchy, pockmarked complexion. The Queen appears to have felt a kind of morbid attraction to this satyr. Motley wrote of him:

Alençon’s nose was so swollen and distorted that it seemed to be double. This prominent feature did not escape the sarcasms of his countrymen, who, among other gibes, were wont to observe that the man who always wore two faces, might be expected to have two noses also.

Iago swears by Janus: an oath which occurs only once again throughout the dramas. And Roderigo speaks of Othello as “the thick-lips” (I. 1.66).

The French nobles, continues Motley,

Alençon’s mignons, struck the basest chords of the Duke’s base nature by awakening his jealousy of Orange. (1)

Cassio then stands in part for William of Orange, although like many of the leading characters whose names end with “io,” he has a clear strain of Oxford too, especially when he deplores the catastrophe caused by intoxication, reverting to the Howard-Arundel charge of “bestiality” in several speeches:

O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. (II.3.259-61.)
O, thou invisible spirit of wine! (278.)
O God! that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains: that we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts. (286-9.)
To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast. (301-3.)

All this recalls the convivial dinners where the Earl had given rein to his invention. The charge of drunkenness he took to heart: the others he could laugh at.

Later when Othello says (IV.1.62),

A horned man’s a monster and a beast,

he is Oxford stating that a man who is made to believe he is a cuckold is ipso facto “a monster and a beast,” as his traducers had said he was.

There are many passages in both plays and Sonnets, as we have previously noted, which testify to the poet’s acquaintance with insomnia. It is natural that with his impressionable and abnormally stimulated mind, he found sleep tormentingly elusive and was often tempted to court relaxation with drink. Iago implies this when he says of Cassio (11.3.130-2):

‘Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep;
He’ll watch the horologe a double set,
If drink rock not his cradle.

This was patently not characteristic of Cassio, who has to be urged to take wine; but it is easy to picture a high-strung poet like Oxford watching the clock round twice before sleeping.

Iago’s highly significant speech (II.1.221 et seq.) which predicts that Desdemona-Elizabeth will weary of her Moor, Alençon, concludes with a mocking caricature of Cassio-Oxford:

A knave very voluble. . . a slipper and subtle knave, a finder-out of occasions, that has an eye can stamp and counterfeit advantages. . . . Besides, the knave is handsome, young, and hath all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after. . . .

Othello was undoubtedly begun as an allegory, with Desdemona impersonating the city of Antwerp topically, and the chaste Elizabeth romantically, while Alençon was the prototype of Othello. That the scoundrel, Alençon, was called by Elizabeth “her Moor” is arresting, in view of the fact that the only villain throughout the plays comparable with Iago for cold perfidy is Aaron the Moor, of Titus Andronicus. Othello must have been a far less sympathetic character in the original version, for Oxford despised Alençon, and the burden of the play at that time, as things had fallen out, was to show how terrible it would have been if the fair Elizabeth had married her Moor.

Although Iago stands, topically, for Alençon’s mignons, the spirit of Howard and Arundel imbues him in his shameless admission (II.3.348-50):

When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now.

These men had beguiled Oxford with “heavenly shows” of religion and friendship, only to use his trust as a weapon against him. Complete betrayal of faith is one of the most shattering experiences that can befall any man, especially a sanguine idealist.

In the year this play was first written Alençon was twenty-eight, while Iago remarks–though this line was surely added to augment Howard’s and Arundel’s villainy with the Moor-Alençon’s, to make an arch-fiend–

I have looked upon the world for four times seven years. (I.3.312-13.)

Early in 1583 Alençon could have said with Othello–as Oxford could have too (III.3.177-9):

Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy,
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions?

The moon was, as usual, Elizabeth whose variability so tormented her French suitor.

Motley relates how Alençon’s mignons played upon his “false and fickle nature,” arousing and whetting his jealousy of Orange. One night early in January 1583, he sent for several of his intimates, to confer with them upon his dastardly program of revenge, in which the destruction of Antwerp was to be his special enterprise. Inflamed by these flattering rogues, Alen\on sprang from his bed, “and kneeling on the floor in his nightgown, raised his eyes and clasped hands to heaven, and piously invoked the blessing of the Almighty” upon his terrible project.

When, maddened with jealousy by Iago’s insinuations and lies, Othello swears vengeance, he also kneels and also pronounces a pious oath (III.3.461-3):

          Now, by yond marble heaven,
In the due reverence of a sacred vow
I here engage my words.

Whereupon Iago kneels too, adding perjury to infamy.

Alençon, for all his “vivacity which passed for wit,” showed up at this period in Antwerp for the dastardly brute he was. Although, in the beginning, when fearful rumors had arisen regarding inimical intentions on his part, he had protested with many oaths that he had only the deepest loyalty and affection for the Netherlands, particularly for Brabant and his beloved Antwerp, yet as soon as he had crossed the bridge on leading his troops out of the town, he rose in his stirrups, waved his hand, and shouted, “There is your city, my lads; go and take possession of it!”–precipitating the hideous carnage thereafter known as the “French Fury.” (2)

We have here a fundamental correspondence between Titus Andronicus, originally written to dramatize the terrible Spanish Fury of 1576 in Antwerp, and Othello, originally written to dramatize the appalling French Fury of 1583 in Antwerp. In each play a Moor is guilty of criminal barbarity. When Oxford wrote Titus, he was still under the influence of his classical studies and reading; when he wrote Othello, he was more experienced and mature.

Evidence that Desdemona symbolized Antwerp and her father, Brabantio, the province of Brabant, of which Antwerp was the capital, seems to be irrefutable. It is clearly the city’s escutcheon of “two lifted hands” to which Othello alludes when he says (III.4.46-7):

A liberal hand; the hearts of old gave hands,
But our new heraldry is hands not hearts.

And in the shocked wonder with which Desdemona confronts her husband, asking of him (IV.2.30-2),

Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?
I understand a fury in your words,
But not the words,

she personifies the city in the hush of dread which preceded the massacre called the “French Fury”

The watchword in Alençon’s dastardly attack was “broken leg”; and reference would seem to be aimed at this in Cassio’s cry:

My leg is cut in two! (V.1.71.)

So Oxford’s had almost been in the Knyvet (Howard) duel. Cassio says:

I am maim’d for ever. (V.1.27.)

This, after Iago has come up from behind and wounded him. We are to take all of Iago’s machinations with regard to the fight as a figurative statement of Henry Howard’s doings; and we probably have here (V.1.27-103) a fairly graphic account of Oxford’s duel with Knyvet, even to Cassio’s final statement, “nor do I know that man.” This scene and lines 89 et seq. of the following one contain a perfect volley of expletive O’s.

Thus the Earl brings into play the different facets of the Howard-Arundel treachery: the slander of his wife; the duel caused ostensibly by his affair with Anne Vavasor, which itself may have been the result of their well-laid plot and the details of which they revealed to the Queen, while spurring Knyvet to revenge; the accusations against him made by the traitors, and their slander of his “good name.”

Roderigo seems to portray the young and innocent Oxford, wounded in the duel with Cassio, the easily intoxicated side of his nature, and slain by Iago, who, in one presentment, is the Earl’s own dark ambition, intellectual detachment, and jealousy.

This is a very complex psychological pattern and will be better understood when Oxford is seen later to excoriate himself for his former ambition. Iago momentarily becomes his erstwhile dark self–Iago–the instigator of his “bewailed guilt,” which had betrayed his nobler nature; and further, a calculating villain personifying a capacity he feels in himself for cold intellectual aloofness. “I am not what I am,” says Iago (I.1.65), in contradistinction to Oxford’s own proud affirmation in a letter to Burghley and again in Sonnet 121, “I am that I am.” (3)

Iago protests to Roderigo,

If ever I did dream of such a matter,
Abhor me (I.1.5-6);

and, as he goes out after a second interview, he reflects (I.3.382),

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.

Roderigo has resolved to raise money in just the way the young Oxford had done:

Roderigo. I am changed. I’ll sell all my land. (I.3.380.)

Since the Earl always visualized Elizabeth as his prime auditor, he introduced two comments upon her attitude toward him resulting (professedly) from his charges against Howard and the other traitors–for it must be remembered that he was still in banishment when he wrote the first version of Othello.

Emilia [to Cassio]. . . . the Moor replies
That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus
And great affinity, and that in wholesome wisdom
He might not but refuse you; but he protests he loves you,
And needs no other suitor but his likings
To take the safest occasion by the front
To bring you in again. (111.1.46-52.)

This is, of course, the Queen’s stated position that, because Howard is “of great fame” and of “great affinity,” or connections, in England, she cannot do otherwise than keep Oxford in banishment for the time being, but it is unnecessary for him to have Burghley and others intercede for him, since she will receive him again when the occasion warrants.

The other comment is as follows:

Desdemona [to Cassio]. You do love my lord,
You have known him long; and be you well assur’d
He shall in strangeness stand no further off
Than in a politic distance.
Cassia. Ay, but lady,
That ,policy may either last so long,
Or feed upon such nice and waterish diet,
Or breed itself so out of circumstance,
That, 1 being absent and my Place supplied,
The general will forget my love and service. (III.3.10-18.)

Thus Oxford to the Queen. And he must have known his play would be performed before her and that she would get this reply to messages she had evidently sent him. (Leicester–who becomes the Marcus Luccios of the 1585 version–would have been delighted to lend his company of players for the performance, if only because he so detested Alençon.) The dramatist says, in effect, that he understands Elizabeth’s point of view, but that this “policy” of repudiation has been protracted far too long–he has been banished more than two years now–and he is losing out, being supplanted. He is Cassio, the’ broken one. Oxford felt he was a broken man.

In spite of the symbolic implications of Desdemona, she herself is one of the lovely aristocratic women of the dramas. Only a man of such culture and breeding as wealth, leisure, and established position made possible could have created the high-minded, sensitive, exquisitely feminine creatures that Desdemona, Juliet, Imogen, Isabella, Portia and many of the others are, true aristocrats of the mind as well as of manner.

Desdemona’s remark (II.1.122-3),

I am not merry, but I do beguile
The thing I am by seeming otherwise,

is Oxford’s own youthful confession,

I am not as I seem to be,
For when I smile I am not glad.

The storm which caused Othello’s delay in reaching Cyprus–“A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements” (II.1.6)–is analogous to the strong northeast gale at Greenwich that had whipped the seas persistently, lashing at anchored ships and forcing Alençon to postpone his departure for the Netherlands for several weeks. And the “Barbury horse” scurrilously mentioned by Iago (I.1.111) corresponds to the “white Barbury horse caparisoned with gold” upon which the Duke rode in state when making his grand entry into the city of Antwerp. It has a further, obscene reference–which the curious and energetic may look up–to a report which had evidently stemmed from Howard and Arundel, since Iago speaks of it here.

The fact that the fortification protecting Antwerp was called the Citadel makes the employment of the word “citadel” five times in Othello out of a total of seven in all the plays, especially significant.

Iago’s famous injunction to “put money in thy purse” (I.3.336 et seq.) refers, historically, to Alençon’s chronic need of money and to Simier’s and Marchaumont’s incessant efforts to procure it for him. Whether Oxford meant to include Simier in the early characterization of Iago cannot be said; his disgust at Elizabeth’s flirtation with Simier may well have made him hate the man, but we have found no definite evidence.

It was inevitable that Oxford should eventually identify Othello with himself, when, after his wife’s death, he was lacerated by remorse for what he regarded the blackness of his guilt toward her in stifling her life, who may have been innocent, who certainly was loving. The Duke’s words to Brabantio (I.3.290-1),

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black,

could well have been spoken by Elizabeth to Burghley, in defense of the young Earl; this, after Brabantio, like Shylock, had wailed,

My daughter! O! my daughter. (I.3.59.)

Iago, warning him that his daughter has been stolen, might be speaking to Shylock of his “sober house,” his daughter, and his ducats:

Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags! (I.1.80.)

But Iago also speaks highly of the old Senator (I.2.11-14):

          Be assur’d of this,
That the magnifico is much belov’d,
And hath in his effect a voice potential
As double as the duke’s.

There seems to be a dual reference in Brabantio’s speech to Othello (I.2.62 et seq.):

O thou foul thief! where hast thou stow’d my daughter?
Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her;
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
So opposite to marriage that she shunn’d
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation.

This is the Privy Council puzzled by the professional virgin Elizabeth’s apparent infatuation for Alençon, who was said to have bewitched her; it is only vaguely Anne and the remorseful Oxford who imputes to himself a “sooty bosom.” The allusions became blurred as adjustments were made with the passage of time and the changes of focus.

The Duke’s welcome to Brabantio (I.3.50-1), ending with,

We lack’d your counsel and your help tonight,

was a realistic version of Elizabeth’s attitude toward Burghley, who, often kept at home with gout, was welcomed when he returned.

By the time of the revisions of 1585 and 1588, the political situation had altered drastically. Alençon had died in 1584, and the memory of the protracted marriage-negotiations, together with his perfidy, had become submerged in the mounting fear of Spain’s forthcoming attack. But already, during the previous year, Elizabeth had descended from the tight-rope upon which she had been teetering with tricky skill for so long a time, for, in September 1583, she had practically terminated the Alençon affair with a cold letter protesting against further requests for pecuniary aid.

My God! Monsieur, [she wrote] is this the way to keep our friends? Is the King your brother so weak that he cannot defend his own blood without the help of his neighbour? . . . God save you from painted counsels, and enable you to follow those who respect you more than you respect yourself.

This was really the end; and the mechant little Frenchman died some months later. Probably no one was more relieved than the premier dramatist of Gloriana’s court. He was weary of the subject of which he had been obliged to take cognizance for the Queen’s sake, standing by her as no one else had done. It was in the following year that he was to write Burghley, “I serve Her Majesty.” He served her, indeed, as constantly and specifically, if less officially and more secretly, than her great ministers did. His second version of Othello, for instance, is the most magnificent example of propaganda for one’s country that any nation has ever had. The Earl of Oxford was a loyal patriot and a faithful subject, true to the high code of chivalry, even sacrificing his good name in fulfillment of his duty. We dare to say that he is entitled to at least equal credit with Elizabeth in making England a great nation.

Although the full presentment of Oxford as Othello belongs to the 1588 revision, we must cover it briefly here, because there is so much yet to be said about this complex drama. For one thing, Iago shows he understands Othello just as Howard had understood the young Earl.

Iago. . . . The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so. . . . (I.3.398-9.)

When he adds that “hell and night,” which is to say, lies and black treachery,

Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s sight,

he seems to refer to the terrible report the man for whom he stands had spread about Anne Cecil, the one which is adumbrated in Pericles. We are given a searing view of Oxford’s reaction to it in Othello’s anguished speech (IV.2 .46-61):

Had it pleas’d heaven
To try me with affliction, had he rain’d
All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head,
Steep’d me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some part of my soul
A drop of patience; but alas, to make me
The fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow and moving finger at;
Yet could I bear that too; well, very well:
But there, where I have garner’d up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up;
to be discarded thence!
Or keep it for a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!

This is the young Oxford, mad with outraged pride and shame, his disgrace made “the fable of the world,” his marriage, through which his life and that of his race must survive or else be extinguished, desecrated by the foulest kind of calumny.

Iago is using all his guile when he reminds his innocent victim,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed. (III.3.155-61.)

When Othello was first written Oxford was suffering from the second serious slander of his “good name.” It was one of the scourges of time from which he never recovered; the wound was still sore in 1585; while by 1588 he was enduring terrible pangs of remorse. Othello says, when he believes himself betrayed by Desdemona (III.3.348 et seq.):

           O! now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

And Iago, partially personifying the Earl’s baser self, who has undermined the credulous faith of the proud and noble Othello-Oxford, comforts him with the cynical words,

I am your own for ever. (III.3.480.)

When Othello finally denounces Iago, the Earl is not only denouncing the treacherous villain, Howard, but also repudiating the unworthy side of himself–this, we believe, largely the intellectual coldness and aloofness which enabled him to see and forced him to portray friends and enemies alike, just as they were. Iago, whose salient sin is pride of intellect, has been almost constantly present with Othello, like an alter ego, as Mephistopheles is with Faust. It has ‘been said that Faust and Mephistopheles represent the dialectic sides of Goethe’s nature. Thus do great artists reveal themselves.

Iago will be tortured. So was the Earl for his misdeeds. His final remark is (V.2.303):

From this time forth I never will speak word.

It is the essential Oxford speaking in the person of Othello–black with passion and jealousy–when he says (V.2.294):

For nought did I in hate, but all in honour.

When he turns away from Iago, the Earl himself is turning away from Howard:

Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnar’d my soul and body? (300-1.)

Hamlet will be written several years before Othello is put into final form; and there is a distinct parallel with Hamlet vis-a-vis Ophelia in the scene with Othello, Desdemona, and Lodovico (IV.1.237-59):

Desdemona.            My lord?
Othello.                                 Are you wise?
Desdemona. What! is he angry?
Lodovico.                              May be the letter mov’d him.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Desdemona. Trust me, I’m glad on ‘t.
Othello. Indeed!
Desdemona.           My lord?
Othello. I am glad to see you mad. . . . O devil, devil!
If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!
Desdemona. I will not stay to offend you.
Truly an obedient lady;
I do beseech your lordship, call her back.
Othello. Mistress.
Desdemona.          My lord?
Othello. What would you with her, sir?
Lodovico. Who, I, my lord?
Othello. Ay; you did wish that I would make her turn:
Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on,
And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient,
Very obedient. Proceed you in your tears.
. . . O, well-painted passion! (4)

This is Oxford-Hamlet driven almost wild by Anne-Ophelia’s docility.

Desdemona’s piteous appeal to Iago in her grief at having lost her husband is so much like Anne’s in her letters to Oxford that it could only have been based upon the attitude of the real Anne Cecil.

Desdemona.            O good Iago,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him: for, by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him. Here I kneel:
If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love,
Either in discourse of thought or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense,
Delighted them in any other form;
Or that I do not yet, and ever did,
And ever will, though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement, love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much;
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love. (IV.2.148 et seq.)

Anne had written her husband in December 1581:

My Lord, In what misery I may account myself to be, that can neither see any end thereof nor yet any hope to diminish it. And now of late having had some hope. . . I am informed. . . that your Lordship is entered into for misliking of me without any cause in deed or thought. And therefore, my good Lord, I beseech you in the name of that God which knoweth all my thought of love toward you, let me know. . . upon what cause you are moved to continue me in this misery, and what you would have me do in my power to recover your constant favour. . . . I appeal to God, I am utterly innocent. . . . But I will the more patient abide the adversity. . . and make it my comfort to bear part with you. . . . Good my lord, assure yourself it is you whom only I love, and so am desirous above all the world to please you. . . .

If the correspondence between Desdemona’s heartbroken speech and Anne Cecil’s heartbroken letters does not show the two suspect wives one and the same, what does internal evidence count for? The dramatist has done everything he could do except name both Desdemona and Ophelia Anne.

There is another parallel with Ophelia in Desdemona’s song (IV.3.40 et seq.). And a further one occurs in the story of The Gaoler’s Daughter, in The Two Noble Kinsmen, in which Oxford undoubtedly had a controlling hand. The poignant little song is found (according to Furness) in Thomas Tallis’s MSS Lute Book, dated I583. (5)Oxford was a composer and a patron of composers. It is pleasant to come upon the musician with the charming name in conjunction with the famous dramatist who sacrificed his great one.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones;–
Sing willow, willow, willow:
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
I call’d my false love; but what said he then?
Sing willow, willow, willow;
If I court moe women, you’ll couch with moe men. . . .

Straightway one recognizes the “noted weed” in which the poet dressed in invention, re-creating the story of betrayal and remorse. Naturally one thinks of Ophelia’s death in “the weeping brook,” as related by the Queen (Hamlet: IV.7.166 et seq.):

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
There with fantastic garlands did she come. . . .

and remembers Viola’s

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
And call upon my soul within the house. (T.N.: I.5.276-7.)

It is the inveterate Elizabethan symbolism. Ver(t) meant green, and Ver meant wyll, or spring, or brook. Will. was Oxford’s nickname. So here we have, with variations, a “green Will O,” growing beside a “brook,” about which one sad maiden sings, beneath which another is drowned, and within which a third would make her abode. There it is, whether it suits modern taste or not. It is too consistent to be accidental.

The plea for just judgment made by Othello on the eve of his death is Oxford’s own plea. He knew that the “letters” and documents pertaining to Elizabeth’s reign which were preserved would furnish historians with their information. He knew that his name to all the world must die”: yet the thought was a constant anguish to him. In the person of Cassio he had said (II.3.259-61):

O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself.

The only recourse he had was to speak to us through the poems and the plays, telling us who and what he was. So it is that Othello says (V.2.337-55):

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some ‘service, and they know ‘t;
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu’d eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their med’cinable gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

Every word of this, in only the faintest disguise, applies to Lord Oxford. We say he was speaking to us. He was speaking to his immediate successors too. He was willing to stand or fall by the true record. Perhaps they did the best they could in publishing his works, even though they felt impelled to conceal his name. They could scarcely have expected that nearly three hundred years later men would be altering the old letters and documents, and forging new ones, in order to perpetuate the hoax and thus sanction their own erroneous position. John Payne Collier and William Ireland did this in the nineteenth century. Why should anyone who loves the plays not wish to keep faith with the man?


1 The Rise of the Dutch Republic; vol. III, pp. 529 and 560.

2 Motley: OF. cit.; p. 565.

3 Chap. Forty-Three. It is striking that in this same letter the Earl had written, “I scorn to be offered that injury to think I am so weak of government as to be ruled by servants”; whereas Othello says (III.3.256): “Fear not my government.” The letter is dated October, 1584.

4 Compare “well-painted passion” with “painted counsels” in Elizabeth’s letter quoted above.

5 In an anthology published in 1578, called A Gorgeous Gallery at Gallant Inventions, there is an enchanting set of verses devised to be sung to the lute, which, together with many, if not most, of the others in the collection, was patently written by Lord Oxford. We have the word of Gabriel Harvey that he continually revised his work, and Ben Jonson corroborated this statement. For this-no doubt the earliest version of Desdemona’s song-see Appendix, Note 5 (1).

Contents | Chapter Forty