If the 17th Earl of Oxford was the creative force of the works of Shakespeare, how is it that no one let the cat out of the bag? Ok, he was an aristocrat and writing was beneath him – he couldn’t disparage his own reputation. But he didn’t live in isolation and certainly having his works publicly performed invited commentary. Where is it?
Bought Wit is Best, or Tom Long’s Journey to London to buy Wit, is only the surface of commentary on the Earl, his relationship with other writers and William of Stratford. What lies beneath is a watery wonderland of allusions and in-jokes waiting to be explored. Rambler does just this on Quake-speare Shorterly blog. His blog is an eye-opener.
Plays of the time are full of insider jokes and references that he fastidiously unpacks in his posts. His blog demonstrates how well playwrights of the time knew each other, worked within each other’s circle of influence, and responded to Oxford/Shakespeare.
1. How did you first come to doubt that William of Stratford wrote the works?
I wasn’t interested in Shakespeare until my curiosity was aroused by reading a paragraph in a non-literary newsletter about J.T. Looney’s book. (“Shakespeare” Identified as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.)
2. Did you discover allusions to Oxford in the Elizabethan drama first, or did you have an idea that Oxford was the one and go looking for him?
Reading about Vere (as I prefer to call him) in Looney was my first exposure to early modern literature. So after reading Looney I was already intrigued. Only later, after I’d read an Oxfordian book by H.H. Holland, did the identification of Vere in certain Shakespeare plays set me on my present path.
3. What is the most painfully, obvious allusion to Oxford that has been overlooked by mainstream scholars?
In the world of literary allusion, nothing is obvious.To put it another way, with circumstantial evidence there’s no such thing as ‘too much’. My approach entails an accumulation of allusions, such that the sheer weight of numbers becomes as close to irrefutable as possible in this kind of investigation.
For example, one of the most powerful discrete observations was made in Holland’s book, Shakespeare Through Oxford Glasses, published in 1923. While studying, Romeo and Juliet, he noted certain lines which seemed to him to bear on Vere’s genealogy. Here’s a transcript from pages 71-2 of his book:
Turning to the Oxford allusions, we will first consider Romeo’s remark in Act 1, Scene 4: “For I am proverbed with a grandsire phrase. I’ll be a candleholder and look on.” It is admitted that this may be taken for a very ordinary remark to be used in the play. So far as the play is concerned, it presumably means that as the proverb – which is as old as the time of his grandparents – has it, he will be a candle-holder and look on. This is quite a natural thing to say, assuming that there were such a proverb in existence, and there is no reason to question it. When, however, a lookout is kept for personal allusions, there are points in the remark which are noticeable. If it is not a presumption to say so, it does appear a clumsy way of expressing the meaning, to say he is proverbed with a phrase; and if this clumsiness is admitted, and it is consequently accepted as not the real meaning, then it appears that Romeo had some family motto, or something of that nature, to which he is punningly alluding. There is nothing, however, in his name to cause such a remark. Now turn to the Earl of Oxford. His grandmother’s name was Elizabeth Trussell. “Trussell” is an old way of spelling, “trestle”. [OED: “16-17 trussell”, under the entry for “trestle”] and an old meaning for the word trestle is a stand or frame for candles or tapers burning in religious worship [OED:”Obs.”]. It can, therefore, be literally said that through his grandmother, the Earl was a candle-holder. In his grandmother’s name of Trussell, he is, in fact, proverbed with a grandsire phrase, and consequently he will be a candle-holder and look on. If it is merely a coincidence it is a most extraordinary one.
Quite some time – several years, probably – after reading Holland, I saw a remark by Gabriel Harvey: “I cannot stand nosing of candlesticks, or euphuing of similies, ala Savoica,” which seemed to refer somehow to Vere and his relationship with Lyly at the Savoy. I wondered whether the “candleholder” (Vere/Shakespeare) and the “candlesticks” (Harvey) might not be a kind of related literary argot for Vere, a marker for someone not to be named outright. I was faced with the daunting task of exploring large areas of early modern prose and poetry and drama in order to confirm or explode my suspicions. Naturally there are considerable areas that I’ve not touched, because the field is so vast. Nevertheless, there are very, very strong indications that the word, “candlelight” is an allusion to Vere. So there seems to be a constellation incorporating candleholder-candlestick-candlelight. As more ground was covered in my investigation, it emerged that contemporary writers expanded the circumference of this marker group to include other concepts associated with light when they wanted to allude to Vere.
So Holland’s claim that Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet was alluding to Vere by means of the word, candleholder, was compelling but not conclusive, and of course has been dismissed by orthodox scholars, because you can’t prove a one-off. So far I’ve seen about a half-dozen uses of the word, candlelight, by several different authors, which seem to indicate Vere. You can either interpret this as sheer coincidence or as deliberate strategy by Vere’s contemporaries. That’s the way it is with circumstantial (textual) evidence and inductive reasoning: you take your choice. The candle/light constellation isn’t the only one I’ve discovered.
4. Do you have a favourite allusion?
See question 3. I also have a favourite type of allusion. As we know, the orthodox, i.e., Stratfordian chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is sacrosanct, broadly speaking. Hamlet, 1599-1602. Twelfth Night, 1601-2. No real wiggle room. It’s particularly gratifying to uncover allusions to Shakespeare plays in works by other writers at a time when Shakespeare’s plays had, according to the scholarly consensus, yet to be written.
For example, the character of Dowsecer in George Chapman’s, A Humorous Day’s Mirth. This successful play was written in 1597 and published in 1599. There is one scene which is clearly derived from Hamlet; in fact much of Dowsecer’s manner and personality shadows that of Hamlet. Millar Maclure, preeminent Chapman critic in his day, wrote in his 1966 literary biography of Chapman that, “Premonitions of Hamlet abound in this scene”. A less challenging explanation than that some mysterious psychic powers were bestowed on Chapman is that Hamlet was already in the domain of Shakespeare’s fellow writers.
Another instance relates to Twelfth Night. In his 1599 play, Every Man Out of His Humour, Ben Jonson supplied a remarkably accurate precis of the plot of Twelfth Night, a play which, we are confidently told, wouldn’t be composed for another two years. Still, the presence of more, yet more, psychic phenomena amongst Shakespeare’s contemporaries has made some critics nervous – as it should. The late Anne Barton, one of the most respected critics of recent times in 1981 called Jonson’s summary an, “alarmingly prescient account of Twelfth Night, a play Shakespeare had not written”. Three years later she wrote her literary biography entitled, Ben Jonson, Dramatist, by which time she had somehow suppressed her anxiety. She substituted for the phrase, “alarmingly prescient account of Twelfth Night,” the more quaint, though almost equally fantastic, “wistful anticipation of Twelfth Night“. Trepidation alleviated by a sprinkling of magic dust.
5. In his day, Shakespeare was not the most popularly patronised playwright. In light of the allusions, on the whole, how do you think other playwrights/poets saw him?
Every other writer perceived Shakespeare differently, and their views must have changed over time. So there is no, “on the whole.” A repeated theme seems to imagine Vere as an ass-genius, idiot-savant, wise fool. As a man who squandered his birthright, and violated the traditions that accompanied it. When they discuss him at all, other writers see Shaxper(2) as an ambitious parvenu in London, an aspiring man-about-town, someone whom Vere had taken under his wing but who ultimately disappointed the earl.
6.“Exit pursued by a bear,” – what does it mean?
It means that he exits and a bear is chasing him. Or it might allude to the Earl of Leicester, whose family emblem was a bear and ragged staff. Or it might be a metaphor for something else entirely. That’s what I mean by an accumulation of evidence. If the same or a similar stage direction or text were found elsewhere, it might give you some indication of what the direction in Winter’s Tale means. As things stand, the Winter’s Tale phrase remains a singleton, a one-off, with no precedent and no subsequent (which is a noun I just invented). There are no referents available for corroboration, so any interpretation remains guesswork.
Thank you, Rambler, for your detailed responses throwing light on Vere and his peers and allowing me to interview you for my blog.
(1) Nicholas Hillard’s Unknown Man clasping a Hand, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
(2) One of the many variations of the name used by the family of the countryman from Stratford who went to London and donned the mantle, William Shakespeare. (Crafty Theatre)