Chapter 45

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

Chapter Forty-Five


IT MAY BE that long before he became, for a fleeting moment, Alençon, Bottom had been Oxford himself: as he is certainly Oxford in the end. For there is a faint foreshadowing of him in The Comedy of Errors (II.2.203-11):

Dromio of Syracuse. I am transformed, master, am not I? . . . both in mind and in my shape?
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   
If thou art chang’d to aught, ’tis to an ass.
Dromio of Syracuse. ‘Tis true; she rides me and I long for grass. . . .

In January 1576, the year before the first recorded performance of The Comedy of Errors, Lord Oxford wrote Burghley bemoaning his discouragement about ever getting preferment: “I am to content myself according to the English proverb that it is my hap to starve while the grass doth grow.” So evidently he felt Elizabeth was riding him, making an ass of him, and he longed for grass.

The skill with which the Earl has again combined in one—this time comic—character two such antipodal personalities as his own and Alençon’s is remarkable indeed. During 1583, however, the situations of Oxford and Alençon had been in one particular identical: both had found themselves, after having enjoyed the highest peak of favor, reduced to the bottom status. We shall take up the Alençon presentment first.

Bottom calls the fairies “mounsieur” (IV.l.l0 et seq.), requesting:

Mounsieur Cobweb, good mounsieur, get your weapons in your hand. . . and good mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag. . . and good mounsier, have care the honey-bag break not.

This recalls Alençon’s need of “weapons” against the Spanish in the Low Countries, and his constant, unremitting plea for money: money-bags. The French prince was called “mounseer” in England. In one of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe-books, the following entry occurs:

Item, one little flower of gold, with a frog thereon; and therein mounseer his physnomye and a little pearl pendant. (1)

Alençon is combined with Oxford when Bottom says (I.2.27 et seq.):

I will move storms, I will condole in some measure. . . yet my chief humour is for a tyrant. I could play Ercles rarely. . . . This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein; a lover is more condoling.

Alençon “moved storms”—or, as we should say, raised hell—in Flanders, but he flattered and cajoled Elizabeth in his ardent love-letters. His name was Hercule (pronounced Ercule)–François; and he played the strong “Ercles” role in his tyrannical proceedings called the “French Fury” in Antwerp; but as “a lover,” he was ever politic, “more condoling.”

A realistic picture of Elizabeth’s ugly suitor is conveyed in Bottom’s speech (III.1.117-21):

I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this place, do what they can: I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.

When Sussex had warned Alençon that, if he went away this time without being married, the marriage would never take place, no matter what pledges Elizabeth made him, and had “entreated him not to be driven out of England,” Alençon, knowing

that Sussex at least was honest in his desire to see the Queen married and freed from the baleful influence of Leicester, put his back to the wall and plainly told the Queen that not only would he refuse to leave England, but he would not even vacate the rooms in her palace until she had given him a definite answer as to whether she would marry him or not. (2)

It was a bold thing for him to have done. He may have had to whistle, or “sing,” to keep his courage up.

Bottom adds (141-2):

. . . reason and love keep little company together now-a-days.

Oxford might well have said this too, but it is certainly a comment the harassed Frenchman could have made upon the situation, which Crofts, the councillor in Philip’s pay, thus described to Mendoza: “When the Queen and Alençon are alone together she pledges herself to him to his heart’s content, and as much as a woman could do to a man, but she will not have anything said publicly.”

Puck brings the news to Oberon (III.2.6):

My mistress with a monster is in love.

It is not the first time Alençon has been called a monster. And it will be remembered that Oxford’s enemies had called him one also. Well before this play was revised and brought up to date, Elizabeth had awakened to the necessity for a more realistic attitude. She knew she had been “enamour’d of an ass.” And she may, indeed, have said, in effect,

O! how mine eyes do loathe his visage now. (IV.1.81.)

The unworthy affair had to come to an end. And her Turk held the mirror up “to show scorn her own image.”

But it had been an extremely serious business with the Queen; and that Oxford had well realized this is attested by the number of plays he had written romanticizing the alliance. At one time, in 1581, things had reached a crucial stage. By then Elizabeth had been for nine years playing her complicated, disingenuous game with Alençon and the French. Anyone less wily and resourceful, less mendacious and brazen, than this daughter of Henry VIII could never have protracted the tricky situation for a fraction of the time—now proposing fresh conditions when everything had seemed settled, now protesting her eagerness when the French grew suspicious of her good faith. She had been the amazement and the despair of her ministers. She had made love shamelessly to Alençon, at times convincing those who knew her best, if not, indeed, herself as well, that she was passionately enamoured of him.

As Hume says, it is impossible not to believe that she had an ardent love-affair with Simier; but she was on terms of the greatest intimacy with Alençon, embracing him publicly and visiting him in his bedroom, weeping when he was obliged to leave because she herself was sending him away! Once when, with a typical volte-face, she was explaining to Castelnau the reasons why her marriage to Alençon was now necessary, he, weary of the farce, remarked that the most important reason was that people were saying “she had already given him the privileges of a husband.” And Alençon himself declared that she was “already his wife before God and man, and on this plea had obtained large sums of money.” (3)

But Elizabeth had kept it up, astonishing, baffling them all. She had been coy and flirtatious, shrewd and devious, amorous and politic, soft and yielding, then abruptly impervious to any sort of reason or fond appeal, all with such rapidly shifting effect and such astounding plausibility that even Walsingham, her Ambassador, harassed beyond endurance by the intolerable position she put him in, said by God, he had rather be shut up in the Tower than to bear longer these vexations and trials. “Poor, honest, consumptive Sussex” suffered untold exasperation at being made a cat’s-paw, alternately wheedled and repudiated; Burghley wisely kept at home for frequent intervals with gout.

There is really something to be said for the tortured dupe, Alençon, weak, emotional, detested by his brother, despised by his cruel mother: he must, in a final flare-up, have perpetrated the French Fury in a kind of cynical and desperate fatalism.

Elizabeth, by her volatility and shameless guile, had succeeded in strengthening herself against the constant threat of Spain by maintaining this tenuous tie with France, securing French support against the Spanish invader, and thus saving her country from conquest by the Catholic powers led by Philip with Mary Stuart for Queen. It was a life-and-death game she played for titanic stakes, and she used her ministers, her lovers, her own honor, as pawns. Never did she lose sight of her goal: no consideration, whether of person or virtue, interfered with its attainment. After more than a dozen years of maintaining a precarious balance between what she herself had spoken of as Scylla and Charybdis, she had won her victory: independence and a measure of safety for England. She had achieved all her ends, even that of preserving what she was pleased to call her chastity and remaining the reputed virgin she said she preferred to be. It was enough to have caused what Nashe called “a general hicket” throughout the island, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats—a tremor or relief mingled with a deep shudder of amused content. She had made use of her femininity to a fantastic degree and she had diddled the most powerful monarchs and canniest diplomats of the world.

In 1581, however, she had faced one of her most precarious crises. Catherine de’ Medici and Henry III were ready to call her bluff and force her into a single-handed contest with Spain. So she became girlishly eager for the marriage again and notified them to send representatives of high degree to conclude the negotiations, stipulating for princes of blood to do honor to the great occasion. The young Prince Dauphin, of Montpensier, was therefore sent, and also François de Bourbon, Dauphin of Auvergne. The festivities were of surpassing splendor. A vast banqueting-hall at Whitehall was covered with painted canvas and lavishly decorated with pendants of fruits and vegetables hanging from “festoons of ivy, bay, rosemary, and flowers, the whole. . . sprinkled with spangles. The ceiling was painted like the sky, with stars and sunbeams intermixed with escutcheons of the royal arms, and a profusion of glass lustres illuminated the whole. . . The walls were hung with cloth of gold and silver, the throne. . . on a dais surmounted by a silken canopy covered with roses embroidered in pearls. The Queen herself was dressed in cloth of gold spangled with diamonds and rubies.” (4)

This had been in April, while Lord Oxford was in the Tower. How bitter he must have felt can only be imagined. But he wrote of that, too, altering, if it had been necessary, the passage about the “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.

“The certain stars” were, this time, the high nobility of France who had shot excitedly across the “rude sea,” the Channel, “to hear the sea-maid’s music.” They must have shot back in disgust when they discovered the whole thing had been done purely for their bedazzlement and nothing whatever was to come of it.

It was eight months after this that Elizabeth had told Burghley she would not marry Alençon “to be empress of the world.” And Titania says (IV.I.78-9):

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour’d of an ass.

So much for Alençon, to whom we bid farewell no less gladly than Lord Oxford did. We now come to Bottom as a presentment of the Earl himself; and Oxford was seldom more engaging than when he was mocking his own peculiarities. The very first words the weaver (of tales) says are characteristic (I.2.2.):

You were best to call them generally. . . according to the scrip.

Doubtless this gave the audience the clue.

Quince, who is obviously Lyly, uses the phraseology of the Master of Revels in proposing

. . . our interlude before the duke and duchess on his wedding-day at night.

And Bottom immediately assumes the direction of proceedings, as of course Oxford did in the Court Revels.

Bottom. A very good piece of work. . . . Now good Peter Quince, call forth your actors. . . . .
Quince. Answer as I call you. Nick Bottom, the weaver.
Bottom. Ready. Name what part I am for, and proceed.
Quince. You. . . are set down for Pyramus.
Bottom. What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
Quince. A lover, that kills himself most gallantly for love.
Bottom. That will ask some tears in the true performing of it; if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some measure. . . . I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split. . . .

He illustrates his virtuosity with an alliterative rhyme. Quince gives out the parts, but Bottom wishes to play all of them. (The court must have rocked with laughter at this.)

Bottom. An I may hide my face, let me play Thisby too. I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice. ‘Thisne, Thisne!’ ‘Ah, Pyramus, my lover dear; thy Thisby dear, and lady dear!’
Quince. No, no; you must play Pyramus; and Flute, you Thisby.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Snug. Have you the lion’s part written? pray you. . . give it me, for I am slow of study.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Bottom. Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me: I will roar, that I will make the duke say, ‘Let him roar again, let him roar again.’
Quince. An you should do it too terribly, you would fright the duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek. . . .
Bottom. . . . but I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you as ’twere any nightingale.
You can play no part but Pyramus; for Pyramus is a sweet-faced man; a proper man as one shall see in a summer’s day; a most lovely, gentleman-like man; therefore you must needs play Pyramus.
Bottom. Well, I will undertake it. What beard were I best to play it in?

He continues to run the show (III.1.) He even sets the date (50-I):

A calendar, a calendar. . . find out moonshine, find out moonshine!

Oxford mocks the imagery used in his own poems when Flute declaims (90 et seq.):

‘Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue,
Of colour like the red rose on triumphant brier. . .’

which suggests that whenever this passage was inserted he had already . written some of the Sonnets which allude to Elizabeth’s motto, A rose without a thorn, although even in his early poems he used the rose-and-lily imagery. And that at least part of this scene belongs to a later date–1586-88–would seem to be indicated in the following:

Quince. . . . it shall be written in eight and six.
Bottom. No, make it two more: let it be written in eight and eight. (23.5.)

It is Bottom’s singing when he has been made an ass that awakens and enchants Titania, as Oxford’s verses and songs surely enchanted Elizabeth. Incidentally, we have evidence that the Earl liked mustard in Bottom’s words (189 et seq.):

Good Master Mustard-seed, I know your patience well; that same cowardly, giant-like ox-beet hath devoured many a gentleman of your house. . . .

(Jonson, who thoroughly understood all these implications, will, in Every Man Out, portray Oxford applying “mustard” to “a gentle- man” of another house.)

But the really poignant correspondence between Bottom and his creator, who had believed himself truly beloved of the Queen and had a rude awakening—

In sleep a king, but waking, no such matter—

is Bottom’s dream, after he has been deserted by his friends:

Bottom. . . . I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and me thought I had—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream; it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it at the latter end of a play, before the duke; peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death. (IV.1.206-20.)

One can almost fancy one hears Elizabeth’s laughter ringing down the centuries at the absurdities of this Bottom, whom she really loved in her own selfish fashion; and surely, at Bottom’s dream, tears may have been like to temper her mirth. She had forgiven him at last, for who could have held out against such ingratiating wit, such generous capitulation? He had been an ass to love a queen. But he would continue to serve her.

There is an arresting point in connection with Oberon’s lovely speech (II.1.249 et seq.):

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine. . . .

He refers to musk-roses” twice again (II.2.3 and IV.1.3.) Hakluyt asserted that in 1582 this species had only recently been introduced into England. (5)

Lord Oxford had for many years taken delight in the magnificent gardens at Theobalds, for which Gerard, Burghley’s great horticulturist, would certainly have obtained this new flower. Its pleached bowers and allées, banks of violets, lily-beds, arbors covered with honey-suckle and rose-vines, its formal vistas set off by sun-dial and “silver fountains”–all this provided him with lovely imagery in the Sonnets, no less than in the plays:

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang (73);

Rough winds to shake the darling buds of May (18);

The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses (54;)

Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose. (98.)

It is another interesting fact that the Veres had long owned the manor-house at Lavenham, which was the center of the weaving industry. Thus Oxford took the part of a weaver. But pre-eminently he was a weaver of dreams,—not only Bottom’s Dream, but an enchanting allegorical dream for a midsummer night.

Oberon and Puck are palpably another presentment of Prospero and Ariel. Oberon is addressed by his little minion as “king of shadows” (III.2.347), which means king of actors, or king of the stage, which is just what Prospero was.

Puck can

Put a girdle round the earth
In forty minutes,


Jump both land and sea as soon as think,—

all with the same immaterial speed as Ariel. We believe that the “little changeling boy” whom Oberon succeeded in acquiring from Titania was the Fair Youth, now about ten years old; and that he himself played the part of Puck. In the Epilogue he says,

Jump both land and sea as soon as think,—

Here again, as in The Tempest—which, by the way, was one of the “storms” that Oxford had “moved,” as Bottom put it–there has been “no harm done.” Oberon arranges things—which is to say, the King of Shadows arranges things—so that all may return to their homes and

. . . think no more of this night’s accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (IV.1.70-1.)

When A Midsummer-Night’s Dream was presented at court in 1594-95, in honor of the marriage of Lord Oxford’s daughter, the Earl of Derby and Lady Elizabeth Vere would have been Theseus and Hippolyta, before whom the play was performed.

These two authoritative characters have a highly significant dialogue (V.1.1-27), in which Theseus pretends to take the disparaging attitude that all the strange happenings of this midsummer night have been fanciful, something created out of nothing in a poet’s frenzied imagination; but Hippolyta insists they have an underlying meaning and integrity:

Hippolyta. ‘Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of,
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
M are than cool reason ever comprehends.
.      .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .      .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
.      .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .      .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .
Hippolyta. But all the story of the night told over,
And all the minds tranfigur’d so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy,
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

The dramatist has given Hippolyta the last word; for there is indeed “something of great constancy” in all his “antique fables,” much “more than cool reason ever comprehends.”

He could have had only one purpose in bringing up the question here, for Theseus and Hippolyta have shared in the action of the other characters whom they speak of now so objectively. This purpose was to answer those detractors who strive to delimit the poet’s depth and scope, who subject him to a prosaic judgment. He is telling his future critics and belittling interpreters that in a true poet’s work there is something far more profound than “fancy’s images”: there is “something of great constancy,” of significance “strange and admirable.” He is really pleading against a superficial reading of his plays.


1 Strickland; p. 322.

2 Hume: The Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 268.

3 Op. cit.; pp. 312 and 327.

4 Op. cit.; pp. 239-40.

5 E.T.C.: Hidd. All.; p. 447; cit. Singleton: The Shakespeare Garden.

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