“Do Not So Much as My Poor Name Rehearse … My Name Be Buried” — An Answer to “Why” the Earl of Oxford Used the “Shakespeare” Pen Name

On one of our Internet-based forums discussing the theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the “Shakespeare” poems and plays, I recently found my thoughts pouring onto the paper about Oxford’s use of the pen name.  Here’s an edited version:

In my view we Oxfordians make a big mistake by trying to explain “Shakespeare” in conventional authorship terms, that is, by saying Oxford  used the pen name “because he was a nobleman who loved to write poems and plays, but, because it was a disgrace for a noble to take credit for such writing, he adopted a pen name.”

A Portrait of "The Two Henries" circa 1619 -- demonstrating the close tie between Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, son of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

I think we Oxfordians also make a mistake saying Oxford used the pen name “because he had lampooned highly placed figures such as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, and exposing his own identity meant exposing them as well.”

The story is much bigger than that.

The fact is Oxford had published songs or poems under his own name, publicly, in the collection Paradyse of Dainty Devices of 1576; and he had advertised his writing earlier in his prefaces to The Courtier of 1572 and Cardanus Comforte of 1573. He had used names of living or deceased persons and fictional names.  He had written anonymously, too.

He had done this through his most productive years in his twenties and thirties, and not until age forty-three in 1593 did he adopt the Shakespeare pen name.

I say we Oxfordians might acknowledge the obvious, that Edward de Vere’s s adoption of “Shakespeare” on Venus and Adonis in 1593 and Lucrece in 1594 was different than all the other cases.  In this instance he linked the pen name by dedication to a person, that is, to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton.  It’s clear that in this case Oxford’s motive in using the pen name  “Shakespeare” was TO CALL ATTENTION TO THE EARL OF  SOUTHAMPTON PUBLICLY, which he did with dedications to him on those two sure-fire bestsellers.

The Earl of Oxford's initials E.O. are on the cover page of The Paradyse of Dainty Devices, 1576, with Edward de Vere's early poems and songs among the collection

We Oxfordians would do well to acknowledge that the case for Venus and Adonis and Lucrece as somehow “anti”-Southampton has NOT been made.  Those who have claimed that either the dedications or the poems carried negative intentions toward Southampton have FAILED TO MAKE THEIR CASE.  There is no evidence for that claim and all the evidence we do have is on the positive side.

Oxford used “Shakespeare” and the dedictions and the narrative poems to call attention to Southampton in a POSITIVE way.

After Burghley’s death in 1598, Oxford’s revisions of his own plays began to have the Shakespeare name on them as well; and there is some evidence that he used these plays to call positive attention to the Essex faction, of which Southampton was a leader.   On its face the conspirators of the 1601 Essex rebellion (and Southampton as leader of its planning) used Richard II by Shakespeare in a positively intentioned way against the power of Secretary Robert Cecil to control the coming succession.

It emerges, therefore, that Oxford’s writing life had two phases:

(1) during the 1560’s, 1570’s and 1580’s, he wrote under various names or anonymously in the service of England under Elizabeth, as court play producer and writer, as head of a team of writers, developing an English cultural identity, rousing unity in the face of threats from within and without; and

(2) from 1593, after Southampton had rejected a Cecil alliance through marriage, when Oxford supported him as “Shakespeare” and, therefore, TURNED AGAINST the Cecil-run government … and after Burghley’s death, with escalation of this struggle culminating in the utterly failed rebellion.

After the abortive revolt and during 1601-1603, it was Robert’s Cecil’s single minded, nerve-wracking task to engineer the succession of James without Elizabeth learning of the secret correspondence with that monarch.  Cecil could not afford any opposition, much less civil war.  If he failed in this endeavor he was a dead man.  He needed all the help and support he could get.

He killed Essex quickly, as his father had killed the Duke of Norfolk in 1572 and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots in 1587, because these Catholic figures had stood in the way of the continuing Protestant reformation.  Cecil wrote a letter saying he probably could not avoid the Southampton execution — and I think this was part of his own setup for taking credit later on, as the man who got the Queen to spare Southampton’s life.  (In fact it was Cecil himself who decided Southampton should be spared, not because of affection or pity but so he could hold him hostage in the Tower until after King James was safely and securely on the throne.)

As the Oxfordian researcher Nina Green has suggested, Oxford may well have been “40” in the secret correspondence with James; and I recommend G. P. V. Akrigg’s book of James’ letters* including the one to “40”, promising to deal with him “secretly” and “honsestly” and only through Cecil.

*(The Letters of King James VI and I)

King James VI of Scotland & King James I of England

Both Cecil and James needed Oxford’s support, on various levels, and the perpetual confinement of Southampton — as the base commoner “Mr. Henry Wriothesley,” or “the late earl” in legal terms — was a way of securing Oxford’s agreement to help.

If we believe Oxford was Shakespeare, and if we believe he had told the truth publicly to Southampton that “the love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end,” and that “what I have to do is yours,” then we must conclude that Oxford did whatever he could do to ensure that, if he did help James become king and helped Cecil to regain his power, then Southampton would be released with a royal pardon and all his lands and titles restored.

Sir Robert Cecil, Principal Secretary to Elizabeth

These things did result and they have not been explained by conventional history.

But it’s explainable if all those remarkable rewards were in return for Southampton’s pledge to cause no trouble for a peaceful succession.  Oxford and Southampton both had potential disruptive moves to make, moves they did not make.  And they did not make such moves despite the fact that in no way did any of these English nobles really want James on their throne.   And in any case, legally he had no claim because he’d been born on foreign soil.

And it’s here that we have the Sonnets with Oxford’s expressions of fear for Southampton’s life, and his pledge that “my name be BURIED,” not just hidden behind a pen name, but really buried and that he would “die” not onlyphysically, which was a given, but die “to all the world,” that is, his identity would die and be buried.

In his place would be “Shakespeare” the pen name (the so-called Rival Poet) which was the “better spirit” that “doth use your name, and in the praise thereof makes me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.”

This is no routine anonymity as before, but, now, obliteration to “all the world” in terms of his writing and his positive intentions toward Southampton.  And in the sonnets he tells Southampton, “When I perhaps compounded am with clay, do not so much as my poor name rehearse.”

So if we choose to take him seriously as speaking to Southampton under these conditions, then here is the correct answer to the authorship question in terms of “why” — why his name was buried: because he had promised this self-obliteration in order to avoid another civil war in England, to bring about a peaceful succession, and to save the life and future of  Southampton.

All of which was accomplished.

“To all the world” meant to contemporary generations and the next two or three as well.  The sonnets become a “monument” for posterity.  All we need to do is read sonnets 55 and 81 for that theme.  And in 107, the climax of the story, he celebrates all these bittersweet results at once, ending with yet another pledge that this will be Southampton’s monument that will outlast all other kinds of tombs.  And even he, Oxford, “will live in this poor
rhyme,” that is, he will cheat death in the end through these sonnets.

So the Sonnets were not published to be sold, and not printed for commercial reasons.  They were printed in hopes that they would survive until some future time when “all the breathers of this world are dead.”  (81)

The Sonnets are nonfiction dressed as fiction — a statement I make for the Sonnets, uniquely so, NOT for all the other Shakespeare works — and I believe we Oxfordians would do well to emphasize that we do NOT contend that the plays are autobiographical in the strictest sense.  They are works of the imagination, fiction, with many autobiographical elements and, since this is a case of hidden authorship, Oxford undoubtedly inserted clues to his presence.

But as Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the rich are different than you and me, so we can say that the Sonnets are different than the poems and plays.  The Sonnets, unlike the plays of Hamlet and Othello, are written with the personal pronoun “I” in reference to the author himself.

Oxford’s agreement to bury his name and identity was different after the rebellion of 1601 than it had been in 1593 when he first used the Shakespeare pen name.   After 1601, he was pledging to take another huge step, not one he had committed to before:

“Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write above a mortal pitch,” he asks about “Shakespeare” in Sonnet 86, “that struck me dead?”

He had agreed to be “tongue-tied” by “authority” or officialdom.  The government which he had worked so hard to help, even to the point of testifying against his Catholic cousins — that same government was the cause of his demise.  A terribly sad, ironic story — but a much more dynamic one, and a more accurate one, I contend, than the one we Oxfordians have been trying to communicate over the past ninety years.

I say it’s time to move the authorship debate forward by putting forth the far more powerful, and human, story that is both personal and political — necessarily political, given that our candidate for “Shakespeare” was in fact the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, highest-ranking earl of the realm and — despite his Hamlet-like eccentricities, his Shakespeare-like multiple personalities — an extraordinary figure at the very center of the Elizabethan royal court, within the context of the Anglo-Spanish War that officially spanned the two decades from 1584 to 1604, when England was always a nation struggling to survive as well as grow.

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Gee, Hank, you’d think that Oxford’s motivations had no connection to the Stage, that his writing was little more than some sort of hobby by a man who was primarily a politician.

    Oxford was a playwright, an artist, one of the greatest of all time. By the time Southampton and Essex entered the picture he was a professional. His work was necessary to the success of a team of men he’d been working with since he was a kid, a success that was very precarious. For him to continue to supply them with the stuff they needed to succeed, he had to be anonymous. There had to be no way to connect the characters the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men created on the public stage with the real personalities and situations that caused their author to create them originally. By the 90s, this was their need as well as his. And by the time his two worst enemies, Henry Howard and Robert Cecil, took over power at Court, he and the King’s Men needed him to be physically protected as well. Luckily this time the monarch was on their side.

    What Oxfordians need is to remember that Oxford/Shakespeare was an artist and what it means to be an artist. If Oxford was involved in politics he could hardly avoid it, born as he was Lord Great Chamberlain, but his life effort was to be able to express himself onstage, not to manipulate Court politics for Southampton’s, or anyone’s benefit. Sonnet #126 says it all. By the time he wrote 126 (IMHO long before the Essex Rebellion), the Fair Youth was no longer “Fair.” He’d betrayed him for Essex. It was over.

    Like Sidney’s sonnet cycle and those of the Italians before him, Oxford’s sonnets to Southampton and Emilia Lanier were private love letters, published later only because they were great art. Nobody wrote sonnet cycles for any other purpose, certainly nothing political.

    • Hey, Stephanie, I appreciate your thoughtful points. Many or most readers here know of your work and very good blog site, politicworm and I encourage all to spend time with you there. We have fundamental points of agreement and of disagreement.

      In my blog post to which you are responding, I was offering an explanation of why Oxford used the “Shakespeare” pen name in 1593 and then, later, agreed to bury his identity “to all the world” of his contemporaries. I certainly agree that Oxford was a great artist; he was the author of the Shakespeare works. What we disagree about, it appears, is the context of time and circumstances within which his genius grew and flourished; and the context in which, as he reports in the Sonnets, the burial of his identity was linked inextricably to Southampton: “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.” (55)

      Why? That’s the question. Perhaps I’ll put up your comments on my regular blog and try to respond to the different points you make — regarding Sonnet 126 and Essex etc. Obviously our main disagreement is whether the private sonnets, ostensibly written for posterity, are expressing Oxford’s involvement in, and reactions to, a real-life love story or a real-life political story. Right there is the great divide for Oxfordians in terms of the Sonnets as a key, perhaps even “the” key, to the authorship question.

      In any event, folks, Stephanie and I are colleagues and friends, and her contributions to the development of the case for Oxford as Shakespeare are immeasurable.

  2. Hi Friend, all in good fun! But the so-called “love story” is not the only problem; making that (not exactly sure what “love story” you have in mind) the central issue in Oxford’s life skews everything.

    Oxfordians need to stay focused on what it was that Oxford-Shakespeare actually did. He created the language we speak, he kept the Renaissance love of poetry and music alive during the darkest days of Calvinist repression, and (with the help of patrons and businessmen like the Pembrokes, Burbages, and Hemmings) he created the London Stage, theaters and all.

    Oxford may have loved individuals and wanted to help them, but if there was a choice between helping someone (his wife for instance) and doing what he pleased, namely creating theater, he would choose the theater, first, last and always. That’s what great artists do, and what almost always makes them hell for others to live with.

    No doubt Oxford was saddened to see Southampton in so much trouble, but the once Fair Youth had let him down badly when he turned his attention, and his financial aid, to Essex. So the playwright in need of an angel turned his attention in directions where it was going to bring in the money to keep producing plays. Frankly, he was in no position to help Southampton anyway. If he was, where’s the proof?

  3. Hi Hank,

    The the medley of thoughts you put down on 7 January 2010 deserve a far wider audience. One of the newsletters, perhaps? You may be right and you may be wrong but you sure do tell a cracking story.

    Your theory is an astonishing achievement of unblinkered, innovative ideas and insights, fashioned into a cohesive and credible whole. You know that I don’t agree with all of it, but let me tell you, again, how much I admire your masterwork, crafted with originality and leavened with the Collingwood principle, and how I continue to think The Monument is one of a small handful of truly seminal Oxenfordian texts.


    Clive Willingham

    • Dear Clive –

      Well, thanks so very much. Such positive words from you are worth more than I can adequately express. I’d like my readers to know that there’s no one whose knowledge, incisive and clear thinking, and writings I value more. This is just a quick note to express my gratitude. Looking forward to our continuing dialogues…


  4. Hi Hank:
    The thought recently occurred to me that perhaps the ransom ageement that freed Southhampton (whereby Oxford agreed to forfeit his identity as the author William Shakespeare) might have been much more comprehensive and punitive than was previously thought. In order to spare Southhampton’s life, did Oxford agree to surrender his entire identity, possibly including a forced lifetme exile?

    Perhaps the agreement was something like this: Southhampton would be released shortly after the death of the queen. In payment (or ransom) for this reprieve, Oxford would surrender his entire identity, and accepted a forced exile within a certain period of time after the queen’s death, maybe up to a year and a half. He would have that time to get his affairs in order; and then a date would be established for his public “death.”

    At that time, he would depart for an undisclosed destination (perhaps the Isle of Man), maybe taking only his manuscripts and books with him, and then would be forever lost to history…or at least until Southhampton paid his ransom and freed Oxford’s name. And, as we know, that had taken 400 years.

    This would explain a lot of the wordage in the Sonnets where he seems to know when the end is coming and his resignation in accepting it. It doesn’t always seem as if he is simply talking about his physical death. Could he be refering to his upcoming date of exile?

    I know Paul Streitz has suggested the possibility that Oxford may not have actually died on June 24, 1604, but he doesn’t go so far as to suggest exile. Concernig Oxford’s death, he says that Oxford “disappeared under mysterious circumstances and left no will.” We also know that he wrote a letter in January of 1604 in a very strong hand and appeared to be in no immediate health difficulty.

    So maybe Oxford didn’t die on June 24, 1604, but went into a forced lifetime exile that he agreed to as part of the bargain to spare the life of Southhampton.
    Just thought I’d run this by you…

    • Gary, it’s very plausible. Thanks for suggesting it to us. I have often felt that Oxford did not want to stay around after the Queen died and Robert Cecil brought James to the throne. It was no longer his England — no longer the humanist country that was England of the Shakespearean and Elizabethan ages, as though some great shadow was arriving. And Oxford may well have had to flee England. Try the first act of the Tempest when Prospero describes to Miranda ( his daughter, his child, his plays?) how they got to the island. Sounds like a report. And then I believe Oxford’s daughter (of record) Elizabeth Vere, wife of the Earl of Derby, actually went to the Isle of Man (owned by her husband) and became governor for a few years. Was Oxford there, too? Growing old, with long white beard, revising more manuscripts while contributing to the new bible? Who knows?
      All best and thanks again –

  5. This post was very good to read.

    I’ll link it to my blog as to “Why did Edward de Vere permit his name to be buried?”

    • Thanks! I’ll put up a link to your blog.

  6. Really interesting post. I just randomly happened to find your web site when I was busy with work on google. Just wanted to say I liked this blog and to keep on doin what you’re doin. Also, remember to enjoy the climb.. dont put too much emphasis on the final result.

    • Thanks for the comment, and for the reminder to “enjoy the climb.” I’m glad you stopped by. Best from Hank

  7. I think it has been shown by Alexander Waugh that Oxford is indeed “40” or 4T in the letter referenced in this blog post.

    See YouTube video series “where is Shakespeare buried”

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