The Bed Trick: Number 36 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

“[Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford] forsook his lady’s bed, but the father of the lady Anne [Cecil], by stratagem, contrived that her husband should, unknowingly, sleep with her, believing her to be another woman, and she bore a son to him in consequence of this meeting.”The History and Topography of Essex by Thomas Wright, 1836 – discussing Oxford in relation to his wife Anne and her father William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

Measure“…the last great Earle of Oxford, whose lady [Anne Cecil] was brought to his Bed under the notion of his Mistris, and from such a virtuous deceit she [Susan Vere, Countess of Montgomery] is said to proceed.” Traditional Memoirs of the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth & King James by Francis Osborne, Esq., 1658.Although these two reports differ in the particulars, they both assert that Edward de Vere had been the victim of a “bed-trick” perpetrated by his wife Anne Cecil [at the bidding of her father, Lord Burghley] – the same situation that “William Shakespeare” immortalized in no less than four of his plays – All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Hampton Court Palace

The so-called “bed-trick” became a popular convention by the end of the sixteenth century, but the evidence shows that “Shakespeare” employed it earlier than any other playwright of the English renaissance; and when Oxford is viewed as the great poet-dramatist, the dates of composition go back even earlier.  Whether the incident actually happened or Oxford merely thought so, the story from Thomas Wright [and probably also from Francis Osborne] stems from the royal visit to Hampton Court Palace in October 1574, when Anne Cecil requested additional lodgings so that she might entice her husband to join her, as she wrote to the Earl of Sussex, Lord Chamberlain of the Household:

Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (1526-1583)

“My good Lord, because I think it long since I saw Her Majesty, and would be glad to do my duty after Her Majesty’s coming to Hampton Court, I heartily beseech your good Lordship to show me your favour in your order to the ushers for my lodging; that in consideration that there is but two chambers, it would please you to increase it with a third chamber next to it … for the more commodious my lodging is, the willinger I hope my Lord my husband will be to come hither.”

Oxford was in Italy the following September when he received a letter from Burghley telling him that Anne had given birth to a girl, Elizabeth Vere, in July; and later, upon learning of Court gossip that he had been cuckolded, he came to doubt that he was the father and separated from his wife for five years.  Had he really been deceived in a bed-trick according to the “stratagem” devised by his father-in-law, the most powerful man in England?  In that case, the girl Elizabeth Vere was in fact his natural child; but the other possibility is that Burghley concocted and spread the bed-trick story to cover up the fact that, at his bidding, Anne had become pregnant by some other man – a rather shocking explanation held by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in The Mysterious William Shakespeare of 1984:

“I strongly incline [to the explanation] that her father was determined as far as humanly possible to ensure the continuation of the marriage and the status of his descendants as Earls of Oxford.  Three years had passed since Anne’s and Edward’s wedding and still there was no sign of issue, while it had now become impossible any longer to deny his son-in-law a Continental trip from which, given the hazards of travel, he might not return.  Thus, exploiting his daughter’s uncommon filial submissiveness and the argument that a child would be the surest means of binding her husband to her, he overcame her compunctions and resistance and brought her to accept service by another male and one of proved fertility …”

Cover of Wright’s History of Essex – 1836

While working on his 1920 breakthrough book “Shakespeare” Identified [as Oxford], the British schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney realized that Bertram in All’s Well is virtually a self-portrait of Edward de Vere – but only after completing his manuscript did he discover Wright’s claim that Oxford himself had been deceived by a bed-trick.  The excitement he feels is palpable when introducing “what has been the most remarkable piece of evidence met with in the whole course of our investigations: a discovery made a considerable time after this work had been virtually completed …

“This evidence is concerned with the play, All’s Well; the striking parallelism between the principal personage in the drama and the Earl of Oxford having led us to adopt it as the chief support of our argument at the particular stage [Chapter XVI: “Dramatic Self-Revelation”] with which we are now occupied … What we have now to state was not discovered until some months later. 

“In tracing the parallelism between Bertram and Oxford we confined our attention to the incidentals of the play, in the belief that the central idea of the plot — the entrapping of Bertram into marital relationships with his own wife, in order that she might bear him a child unknown to himself — was wholly derived from Boccaccio’s story of Bertram.  The discovery, therefore, of the following passage in Wright’s History of Essex furnishes a piece of evidence so totally unexpected, and forms so sensational a climax to an already surprising resemblance that, on first noticing it, we had some difficulty in trusting our own eyes.

“We would willingly be spared the penning of such matter: its importance as evidence does not, however, permit of this,” Looney added, with what Ogburn describes as “quaint Victorian delicacy” in the face of such scandalous matters.  After citing the passage from Wright’s History of Essex quoted above, he continued:

“Thus even in the most extraordinary feature of this play; a feature which hardly one person in a million would for a moment have suspected of being anything else but an extravagant invention, the records of Oxford are at one with the representation of Bertram. It is not necessary that we should believe the story to be true, for no authority for it is vouchsafed … In any case, the connection between the two is now as complete as accumulated evidence can make it.”

Marliss C. Desens, in her book The Bed-Trick in English Renaissance Drama (1994), states that this plot device appears in at least forty-four plays of the period; but she also reports that “an examination of English Renaissance dramas shows that bed-tricks were not being used on stage prior to the late 1590’s” and, more specifically, that the bed-trick “begins appearing in plays starting around 1598.”  This means that if Oxford was “Shakespeare” we can say with certainty that during the Elizabethan reign he was the first to incorporate it; and, too, that he did so after being a victim of it in real life or believing it was so.  Oxfordians date the original versions of the plays far earlier than the orthodox dates dictated by the life of William of Stratford.  In the case of the four plays with bed tricks, here are the differences:

All’s Well That Ends Well – tradition is circa 1604, but Oxfordians say 1579 or 1580

Measure for Measure – tradition has 1603-1605, but Oxfordians say 1581-1585

Cymbeline – Orthodox date is 1610, while the Oxfordian date is 1578-1582

The Two Noble Kinsmen – Orthodox date is 1612-13, but Oxfordians say 1566, revised 1594

Reason No. 36 demonstrates yet again how replacing “Shakespeare” with Oxford stands previous scholarship on its head (or turns it inside-out).  The whole picture of “Shakespeare’s” creative process and its journey is transformed!  No wonder the academic world has such built-in resistance to seeing the change of paradigm!

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Just discovered your blog & am enjoying & learning ever so much! I do believe that you have mis identified The Countess of Oxford’s portrait here; it is more likely Henry’s [the 18th] countess painted in 1614 by William Larkin–will send you the link when I have a bit more time later.

    • Thanks very much! Please let us know if/when you can. I’ll try to find out myself, but you’re probably right. Appreciate your comments.

      I took out the image.

      Countess of Stafford? By the name of Anne Cecil? Circa 1615?

      • Here are the links

        The Countess of Oxfords portrait 1614 by William Larkin found two sites:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_de_Vere,_18th_Earl_of_Oxford

        entries in A Who’s Who of Tudor Women lived at least part of their lives between 1485 and 1603 by Kathy Lynn Emerson http://www.kateemersonhistoricals.com/TudorWomenIndex.htm

        portrait by van Dyck 1638 [plumper but happy looking]

        http://thepeerage.com/p1174.htm#i11740

        best wishes with your good work!

        ‘twould like to know more about Oxford &

        1 any possible connections w Veronica Franco [an impressive poet, did you see film ‘Dangerous Beauty’ from Rosenthal research?]

        2 Oxford’s music: compositions for & lyrics in the plays.

        Eleanore Sarah Wootton, Adjunct Professor, Humanities ________________________________________

      • Thanks very much! I’ll see what I can find. And will check out your links. Were there any portraits of Oxford’s wife Anne Cecil, Countess of Oxford?

      • I have looked for portraits of Oxford’s wife Anne Cecil, Countess of Oxford & Eliz Trentham too, sans success, seems strange as there are many of Burghley & Anne was said to have been a favourite..

        best wishes,

        Eleanore Sarah Wootton, Adjunct Professor, Humanities
        ________________________________________


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