THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
WHEN, IN The Tempest, Prospero finally released Ariel from his bonds, we interpreted his act as symbolic of the release of Oxford’s imagination from the fetters of unpleasant subjects which had perforce, since he was serving Her Majesty, constricted it for “a dozen years”: above all, the French match. Though part of his resolve pertained to a later period, this part held good in 1583. And soon thereafter he took up a youthful masque undoubtedly presented in 1572-73, as propaganda for that distasteful project, adapting it effectively and with amazing scope and wit to put a gay and flourishing period not only to l‘affaire Alençon but also to his own long amatory thralldom to the Queen. With a gesture at once nonchalant and poignant, he dismisses the whole devastating conglomeration as a fantastic dream.
Our belief is that A Midsummer-Night’s Dream was at this time still called A Pastorall of Phillyda and Choryn, under which title it was “presented and enacted before her maiestie by her highnes servauntes on St. Stephens daie at night [Saturday, December 26, 1584] at Grenewich,” (1) that it had been partially, if not wholly, revised before Sussex’s death, in July 1583, and that by the time it was recorded as presented at court, Lord Oxford had already finished the masterpiece of his prime, Hamlet. He ties up many threads in The Dream, his chief purpose being, we feel sure, to make merry with Elizabeth over some of the painful experiences of the past years, reassuring her as to his own affectionate loyalty towards her, and restoring their relationship to a sane basis, or perhaps we should say to one somewhat more sane. Theseus is Lord Oxford speaking to his Queen when he says (I.1.16-19):
Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
He had used his “sword” or words to take her severely to task for her vacillation and her injustice; but they will revel now and be gay.
The play, as we have it today, is a still later revision, made for the wedding, ten years afterward, of Oxford’s daughter to William Stanley, Earl of Derby. Several commentators have suggested that it was written for the fete given at Elvetham, in 1591, by the Earl of Hertford, as propaganda for the Suffolk succession; (2) but with this notion we emphatically disagree, if only because we are quite sure that Lord Oxford was not in favor of the Suffolk succession in 1591, as we expect to show. However, it may well have been presented there, for the Elvetham fete is pointedly alluded to in the phrase, “a fair vestal throned by the west” (II.1.158); a picture of that occasion still survives showing the Queen seated upon a throne, surrounded by her maids, and the word “West” engraved on the throne. The basis of the allusion is the fact that Elizabeth de Vere and Lord Derby–we have this on Ward’s authority–are believed to have fallen in love at that magnificent al fresco celebration.
Mr. Percy Allen makes an interesting statement in this connection: that
such spectacular entertainments and water-pageants continued to be extremely popular in the courts of western Europe throughout the fifteen-eighties, as witness, for example, those intensely interesting tapestries by Quesnel, of 1585, in the Long Gallery of the Uffizi Palace at Florence–a city visited by Oxford in 1575–and introducing a group of individuals who figure prominently in the Shakespearean plays, including Catherine de’ Medici, Henry III, and Henry IV. One of these tapestries depicts a great water-pageant, with a dolphin-ship, and another vessel following it, filled with siren-mermaids making music–a picture that at once recalls. . . Oberon’s
“Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath”—
a phrase, indeed, that’may have been actually suggested by some such pageant, first seen by Oxford in France or Italy. (3)
Or, may we add, a picture that may have been suggested to the artist by Lord Oxford’s phrase.
Few of the plays reveal more clear-cut conjunction with their various dates than does this charming melange of moonlit magic, classical-cum-personal innuendo, and sheer moonshine. Although the time of its first performance is unknown, certain topical references tie its early composition unmistakably to 1572-73; there may, however, have been a simpler, still earlier version. We shall cite only a few of the thirteen allusions mentioned by Admiral Holland, who finds–to begin with–that because the final day of the action, the day of the new moon, was May Day, and because the new moon and May Day coincided in 1573 and not again until 1592, the year 1573 is corroborated as the date of an early version.
And then the Moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. (I.1.9-11.) .
Theseus. No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May. (IV.1.134-5.)
Quince’s description of his play as “the most lamentable comedy” (I.2.11) refers to the title of Cambyses, a lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth, entered on the Stationers’ Register 1569-70 and published some time later.
Definite reference, embodying a favorite Elizabethan pun, is made to the hope entertained by both France and England, in 1572, that an heir to the French crown would be born, although it turned out that the child born in October was a princess:
Some of your French crowns have no hair at all. (I.2.95.)
In 1572, the Queen had been unable to take the accustomed route on her progress to Warwick because of the bad condition of the roads. Nichols records that “the weather having been very foul a long time before, Her Majesty was led another way.” And Titania says (II.1.96 et seq.):
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud. . .
The garden at Theobalds must also have been sodden, for she, adds:
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are indistinguishable.
Oberon’s speech to Puck (II.1 148 et seq.) has unmistakable significance for the years 1572-73, as well as that we have mentioned for the 1590’s, and also a permanent and vital meaning:
Oberon. My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou remember’st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
Oxford-Oberon had sat aloof in 1572 when the negotiations for a match between Elizabeth and Henry, duc d’Anjou, were broken off, and the Queen Mother of France proposed Alençon in his stead. The “mermaid on a dolphin’s [dauphin’s] back” who uttered “such dulcet and harmonious breath” that the rough waters parting France and England “grew civil” was, of course, Elizabeth beguiling Alençon, the dauphin (Holinshed calls the French dauphin “prince Dolphin”), and thus smoothing the difficulties between England and France; while the “certain stars” which “shot madly from their spheres” were Hatton and Leicester, as well as other Protestant objectors to the match, whose fortunate position would have been seriously affected had the Queen really gone through with the affair.
Oberon. That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d; a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress pass’d on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower, .
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it Love-in-idleness.
Undoubtedly many Elizabethans, as well as later commentators, took this passage to refer to Leicester’s efforts to persuade the Queen to marry him and to her statement in 1573 to the French Ambassador that she would never condescend to marry a subject–“The imperial votaress pass’d on”–and Oxford would have been willing to have it so interpreted at that time. But it had a far deeper significance for Elizabeth and Oxford himself–the purple flower being the one which “sprung up” where Adonis lay dead, in the poem that we believe was being written ‘over a lengthy period of time and long before it was published. It was, by the way, in 1573 that Gilbert Talbot wrote, “Lady Sheffield is very much in love with my lord of Leicester,” and in the following year that she bore him a son, whereupon Leicester was banished from the court.
Thus hath he lost sixpence a day during his life; he could not have ‘scaped sixpence a day. . . . (IV.2.19 et seq.),
refers to the payment made to John Smith, the last of the Court Interluders, who, up to about 1573, although these men were no longer functioning in the Revels, kept up an organization of sorts and received 61/2d. a day.
Roger Ascham, one of the most learned men of the time, wrote a book called The Schoolmaster, published in 1570, which lectured the young noblemen at court upon the importance of scholarship and of languages, if they were to maintain the high status of their fathers. He had, ironically enough, died in extreme poverty two years before; and it is to this fact that reference is made (V.1.52-4):
‘The thrice three muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceas’d in beggary.’
That is some satire keen and critical.
We have already spoken, in the account of the Queen’s progress to Warwick (Chap. Seven), of her speech to the “little recorder,” to which allusion is made by Theseus (V.1.95-103). This is followed by Hippolyta’s pun (122-3):
Indeed he hath played on his prologue like a child on a recorder.
Having accompanied Elizabeth on this progress, Lord Oxford had, of course, heard her words and had made poetic allusion to them in the play soon to be presented before Her Majesty. At that time, Leicester was in high favor with the queen; she visited him at Kenilworth Castle during this progress. And Leicester was indubitably the prototype of Theseus in one early version of The Dream, though Alençon, or even Anjou, may have been in another. This becomes patent in the Titania-Oberon quarrel (II.1.60 et seq.), in which reference is made to the progress of 1572 and of which we shall speak presently. There still exist in The Dream as we know it, many features common to Lord Oxford’s youthful poems (some of these are noted in Chap. Six), certain verse-forms, the use “eyne,” and so on.
As he so often did, Oxford drew upon Ovid’s Metamorphoses for this play which can be taken to have been first entitled A Pastoral of Phillida and Choryn, since Titania’s speech upbraiding Oberon for philandering gives the key:
Then, I must be thy lady; but I know
When thou hast stol’n away from fairy land.
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida. (II.1.64-8.)
It will be noted that Oberon takes the shape of a shepherd and makes verses; and this is another key.
When we learn that Ovid gave the name Titania to the goddess Diana, and further, that during the early 1580’s it was the fashion for poets to refer to Elizabeth and her maids as “nymphs and fairies” (this play having perhaps set the style), then when we read, “The cowslips tall her pensioners be” (II.1.10), and recognize the allusion to the Queen’s Gentlemen Pensioners, we are bound to accept Elizabeth’s identification with Titania, who—as it happens—was quite simply called “the Queen” in the original (published) stage-directions.
Oxford, then, appears in the role of Oberon (another name with the e and o sounds prominent) and is identified with the day, Auberon, as Titania is with the night. At court he had long been referred to as Phoebus; the cultured Elizabethans not only conversed in Latin, they were steeped in the classics, and they had, it must be remembered, fantastic minds.
It is Phillips who suggests, in a penetrating study of this play, (4) that Oberon implies Auberon, from the French aube, dawn. And he observes that, if this is true, “we have a link with the story of Cephalus and Procris, which may not have been noticed.”
But we interrupt to point out that it has been noticed, after Mr. Phillips’s hint, by us, in Pyramus’ and Thisbe’s dialogue (V.l.198-9):
Pyramus. Not Shafalus to Pro crus was so true.
Thisbe. As Shafalus to Procrus, I to you.
In any case, continues Mr. Phillips, Oberon says,
I with the morning’s love have oft made sport;
And, like a forester, the groves may tread,
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams. (III.2.389-93.)
Which is reminiscent of the familiar
Tithoni croceum linquens Aurora cubile
and its Homeric counterpart,
Now Aurora, the Dawn, fell in love with Cephalus; and he had by her (as some say), a son, Phaeton. It was this Phaeton who turned all the Ethiopians black, by his misfortune in driving the sun’s chariot too near the earth, in order to prove that he was really the son of the Sun. Others say it was not this Cephalus, husband of Procris, who had a son by Aurora: but that he made sport with the Morning’s love, and rejected her addresses,’ the father of her son (they say) was another Cephalus, and the son’s name was Tithonus. So, in this double Cephalus, we have a counterpart to Demetrius-Lysander, as well as to Oberon.
And in Demetrius-Lysander we have the poet again in a dual role (as in Valentine-Proteus), filling the part he took in his youthful plaintive verse:
The more I followed one,
The more she fled away.
As Daphne did full long agone,
Apollo’s wishful prey;—
Apollo, of course, being another name for Phoebus.
There is layer within layer of symbolic allusion here, and nothing can be more sure than that Queen Elizabeth, to whom both the early poem and this play were addressed, apprehended the most delicate nuances of meaning. We have italicized the lines in the passage quoted from Mr. Phillips which seem to us especially significant; for in the reference to Phaeton’s turning all the Ethiopians black, we seem to touch the fringes of the mystery of Aaron the Moor and his little black offspring who grew up to be “a warrior and command a camp,” like Othello; further, we have a hint of Hamlet’s, “I am too much i’ the sun;” whereas Oberon-Cephalus’s making “sport with the morning’s love and rejecting her addresses” suggests the theme of Venus and Adonis, who are of course Elizabeth and Oxford. (Not to be overlooked in this connection is the Duke’s angry protest to Valentine, who had dared to love Silvia, T.G.of V.: III.1.154-5:
Wilt thou aspire to guide the heavenly car
And with thy daring folly burn the world?)
But the most realistic and outspoken evidence of all, and one bit which positively and publicly identified Oxford with “the sun,” was the magnificent role he had played in the 1581 tournament, when he was the “Knight of the Tree of the Sun” and sat under a “great high Bay-tree, the whole stock, branches, and leaves whereof were all gilded over, that nothing but Gold could be discerned.” Elizabeth was always the Moon, Silvia or Venus, Queen of the Night, and Lord Oxford was Phoebus, the sun-god, Auberon, god of the dawn, and so was the father of Phaeton, the “son of the sun.” And Oberon was demanding “a little changeling boy” of Titania, who was his own son— though that statement takes us ahead of our story.
Fantastic, yes; but this was the time of the Renaissance in England, a time of splendor, of leisure and learning, with “scholarship a romantic passion,” and of a magnificent intellectual, as well as physical, vitality. Superstitions about ghosts, Hobgoblin, a personal devil, still lingered in the subconscious mind, even when not openly acknowledged; witchcraft was widely credited, was a civil offence. Imaginations were lusty, minds eager, the world full of mystery and wonder, not the least part of which was the potency of the word.
We are indebted to Mr. Phillips for a subtle and provocative interpretation of The Dream, and if we cannot go all the way with him in his analogies and conclusions, we are none the less grateful for those which seem to us apt and illuminating. We spontaneously agree with his statement that “Robin (or Puck, or Will-o’-the-Wisp) . . . is surely the ‘little Robin’ of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the ‘Will’ [we should say one of the Wills] of the Sonnets.” In other words, we believe, the Fair Youth. Puck, by the way, was originally called Robin. We also agree that
Egeus (in mythology the father of Theseus, but here perhaps his father-in-law, and father of Hermia) is so much like old Polonius that we might be tempted to think that Hermia was another name for the daughter of Polonius.
But there we leave him and suspect that Helena, who ‘is not so much an individual as a personified lure,was blended of Anne Vavasor and the Queen: Helen will stand for the Queen in Oxford’s next play, Troilus and Cressida, and Helena would have been altogether Elizabeth in the early 1570’s. When Mr. Phillips adds that “in fact their identities are not attached to their names,” we should stipulate, not inflexibly: they are intermingled, like images reflected in water, or seen in the deceptive light of a new moon, or indeed, for that matter, in a dream; they are almost but not quite interchangeable:
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition. (III.2.209-10;)
For instance, this dialogue occurs (IV.I.191-4):
Hermia. Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double.
Helena. So methinks:
And I have found Demetrius, like a jewel.
Mine own, and not mine own.
All of which is even more provocative when compared with a stanza of that strange and lovely poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle:
So they lov’d as love in twaine,
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none,
Number there in love was slaine.
These cryptic lines did not just happen in casual coincidence; they were primed with meaning, essentially for the queen. It was an idea that appealed to Oxford. In Venus and Adonis we find (st. 178):
His face seems twain, each several limb is doubled;
For oft the eye mistakes, the brain being troubled.
Helena is transparently Elizabeth-Venus, the moon, etc.when Lysander-Oxford says (III.2.187-8):
Fair Helena, who more engilds the night,
Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light:
which means O’s and I’s; in other words, the moon is brighter than such stars as O, who is also I.
Hermia is predominantly Anne Cecil; for she is small and dark, as Anne always is; she is a “burr,” because she stuck so fast to her lord: she will be called so again in Troilus and Cressida; and she is partially Kate (cat) of Kate’s Hall. The disaffected Lysander cries (III.2.257, 259, 263):
Away, you Ethiop!
. . . . . . . . . .
Hang off, thou cat, thou burr!
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . out, tawny Tartar, out!
She is also small:
Hermia. And are you grown so high in his esteem,
Because I am so dwarfish and so low? (III.2.294-5.)
Being partially Kate, of The Shrew, she is “curst”—”Kate the curst”:
Helena. Let her not hurt me: I was never curst;
I have no gift at all in shrewishness;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let her not strike me. You perhaps may think
Because she is something lower than myself,
That I can match her. (300-5.)
We are given a taste of Hermia’s shrewishness in her scene with Demetrius, highlighted by a series of name-clues, including “worm” (Ver), “serpent,” and “adder,” which are of the worm-family; Ralegh had spoken, in befriending Oxford, of laying “the serpent before the fire”; and in Sonnet 112, Oxford himself writes of his “adder’s sense.”
Hermia. Out dog! out, cur! thou driv’st me past the bounds
Of maiden’s patience. Hast thou slain him then?
Henceforth be never number’d among men!
O! once tell true, tell true, e’en for my sake;
Durst thou have look’d upon him, being awake,
And hast thou kill’d him sleeping? O, brave touch!
Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?
An adder did it; for with doubler tongue
Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung. (III.2.65-73.)
In an earlier scene between Hermia and Lysander, there are many name-clues, with the question brought out again of Oxford’s higher birth than Anne’s, as well as an obstacle to his love for Elizabeth:
Lysander. Ay me! for aught that ever I could read,
Or ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood,—
Hermia. O cross! too high to be enthrall’d to low.
Lysander. Or else misgraffed in respect of years. . .
(I.1.132 et seq.)
The scene continues with more “O’s,” “true’s,” and “ever’s.”
Since these two passages are between Hermia and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander respectively, it is obvious that both men stand for Oxford. He is, as a matter of fact, in the 1584 version, all the male characters—Oberon and Theseus, as well as the others: he is even, partially, Bottom. The play is really like a dream. The themes, as well as to some extent the characters, merge and shift, with the same effect of unreality and enchantment that is found in certain types of modern music—in Debussy, say, where the modulations are subtle, flowing, the statements only hazily resolved.
When, at the close, Theseus says (V.I.286-7.):
This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad,
the dramatist is referring to his own “passion” which he has just parodied and ridiculed in Pyramus and Thisbe and to the death of his “dear friend” Sussex.
Oxford is talking directly to Elizabeth. He has made a travesty, for her sake, of his own recent “passion” for Anne Vavasor, shadowed by the memory of his youthful love for Anne Cecil, which he had described with such profound emotion in Romeo and Juliet. For the Pyramus and Thisbe episode is simply a device for turning that poetic tragedy into a pathetic little comedy and saying to the Queen, “Oh well, let’s laugh at it and let it all go by.” Perhaps in the face of such handsome amends, Elizabeth was willing to forgive her poet the terrible affront made to her vanity in that other play, in which she had been “the envious moon. . . sick and pale with grief” because her maid was “far more fair than she.”
Romeo and Juliet, like Pyramus and Thisbe, had begun with a Prologue, while another Prologue for the Second Act had frankly announced:
Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;—
this being all the more trenchant since Oxford’s early Desire poems had been inspired by the Queen.
In The Dream, the burden of the Prologue is that, if the play is offensive, we hope you will believe in our “good will” and know that “we come not to offend.” The other time, the dramatist implies–in Romeo and Juliet–it was different: good will was not a consideration, and offense was meant to be taken. It is a masterly touch to have Quince “make periods in the midst of sentences,” as Theseus puts it (V.l.96), so that there is not the faintest touch of mawkishness. One of Oxford’s high qualities was a wonderful sense of proportion, of discrimination and good taste.
When Theseus declares (V.1.81-3),
I will hear that play,
For never anything can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it,
Oxford is giving Elizabeth her cue: she can relax and enjoy this, because it is written in a spirit of simplicity and loyalty. Her Turk is fond and dutiful once more.
He has already shown that his temporary blindness has been dissipated and that he has returned to his wife. The little passage where Hermia appears, exhausted and spent with the ordeal of Lysander’s defection, and he recognizes her at last for his legitimate love is very revealing and certainly very candid (III.2.439-64):
Puck. . . . Here she comes, curst and sad:
Cupid is a knavish lad,
Thus to make poor females mad.
Hermia. Never so weary, never so in woe,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I can no further crawl, no further go.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Puck. . . (squeezing the juice in Lysander’s eyes.)
When thou wak’st,
In the sight
Of thy former lady’s eye:
And the country proverb known,
That every man should take his own,
In your waking shall be shown.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That Pyramus and Thisbe is a travesty of the play which had constituted a grave offence on Oxford’s part, becomes unmistakable when the scene from Romeo and Juliet in which the Nurse bewails the seeming death of Juliet (IV.5.49-54) is compared with that of Pyramus appearing for his rendezvous with Thisbe (V.1.170-7):
Nurse. O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!
Most lamentable day, most woeful day,
That ever, ever I did yet behold!
O day! Oday! O day! O hateful day!
Never was seen so black a day as this:
O woeful day, O woeful day!
Pyramus. O grim-look’d night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night! O night! alack, alack, alack!
I fear my Thisby’s promise is forgot.
And thou, O wall! O sweet, O lovely wall!
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine;
Thou wall, O wall! O sweet and lovely wall!
Show me a chink to blink through with mine eyne.
Here again, besides many name-clues–O’s and ever I’s–we have the day and night contrast, to match Oberon, King of Day (Auberon, Apollo, Phoebus—or, as Bottom calls him, Phibbus, etc.), and Titania, Queen of Night (Diana, Cynthia, the Moon, Venus, etc.) It is all very rich and deep.
As Juliet stabs herself upon finding Romeo’s corpse, so Thisbe does at the sight of Pyramus dead at Ninus’ tomb.
Moonshine and Lion are left to bury the dead,
says Theseus sardonically (V.1.347) as the poor little play comes to a close—
No epilogue, I pray you. . . for when the players are all dead, there need none to be blamed.
Does the author mean that when the heart has been taken out of a man, when passion has been so shamed and punished that the lovers feel numb and dead, blame is merely supererogation?
When Bottom announces (V.1.350),
The wall is down that parted their fathers,
we are given to understand that Pyramus and Thisbe has ended precisely as Romeo and Juliet did. The wall is down. . . .
Lord Oxford must have written and witnessed the performance of this wistfully ludicrous parody with a twisted smile, if not with a twisted heart. But if he had yielded thus much, he had nevertheless stood his ground in certain particulars: he was not the man to humble himself or misrepresent the truth. His reference to Ninus’ tomb must have given pause to the Queen in the midst of all the drollery. She would have known that Ninus was the second husband of Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, who, although she had made that city the most magnificent metropolis in the world, had coupled cruelty with lust by habitually putting her lovers to death, lest they should reveal her licentiousness. So that “Ninny’s tomb” was the grave of one who had been foolish, fatuous enough to love the Queen! One can only glory in the spirit of Edward de Vere. He could be modest, but he was indomitable when it came to telling the truth.
He had also made the greeting between Oberon and Titania sufficiently plain-spoken (II.1.60 et seq.):
Oberon. Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.
Titania. What! jealous Oberon. Fairies, skip hence:
I have forsworn his bed and company.
Oberon. Tarry, rash wanton! am I not thy lord?
Titania. Then I must by thy lady; but I know
When thou hast stol’n away from fairy land,
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oberon. How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst thou not lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravished?
And make him with fair AEgle break his faith,
With Ariadne, and Antiopa?
We surely have here in this dialogue a poetic recapitulation of the June 1583 meeting between Oxford and the Queen when they reconciled their differences after his long banishment. For in this passage Theseus is Leicester again, who, to Oxford’s disgust, was the Queen’s lover off and on till the end of his life. She did all she could to make him “break his faith” with’, the women he seduced or married. It is especially striking that Antiopa is mentioned; for she was the wife of Lycus, King of Thebes, and Jupiter, disguised as a satyr, led her astray. Leicester was said to have poisoned Lord Sheffield, in order to pursue his affair with Lady Sheffield, by whom he had a son in 1574, for several years unacknowledged. From his early youth through Hamlet, Oxford wrote of Leicester as a “satyr.” He was, indeed, a notorious libertine and had many affairs at court.
So we are given dearly to understand here that, when Elizabeth chided Lord Oxford for his amours, he retorted with spirit, “How canst thou thus for shame?”—reminding her of her own misdeeds. Roger Manners had written of this meeting:
Her Majesty came yesterday to Greenwich from the Lord Treasurer’s. . . . The day she came away. . . the Earl of Oxford came into her presence, and after some bitter words and speeches, in the end all sins are forgiven. . . .
In the passage partially quoted above, the Earl has characteristically given a report of some of the “bitter words and speeches.” He could scarcely say more plainly that Elizabeth had banished him—”forsworn his bed and company”—simply because of his love affair. And though we knew this all the time (Burghley having said so too, in effect), it is gratifying to have his word for it.
Elizabeth, for all her wanton ways—Oberon calls Titania “rash wanton”—demanded chastity of her maids and fidelity of her courtiers. She, like “the moon” (III.1.196-8),
looks with a watery eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
And Elizabeth, like Titania, would have ordered,
Tie up my love’s tongue, bring him silently.
But it was a difficult business to tie up this love’s tongue!
Which brings us to Bottom, that touching, absurd, and captivating creature.