The Earl of Oxford, Man of the Theater – Part Three of Reason 66 Why he was “Shakespeare”

Taking an “aerial view” of Edward de Vere’s connections to the stage reveals a map of the terrain with a single major thoroughfare running through the landscape.  This unbroken line consists of the life spans of the three major acting companies linked one to the other in three successive chapters:

Chapter One: Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1573-1583)

Chapter Two: Queen Elizabeth’s Men (1583-1593)

Chapter Three: Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1594-1603)

actorsUpon the death of Queen Elizabeth on March 24, 1603 and the succession of King James, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men.   Here is the basic story up to 1603 according to the three chapters:

Chapter One: The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1573-1583)

During the 1570’s until 1583 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under the Earl of Sussex brought play after play to the royal court, indicated by the keepers of the records.  Many of these were identified by Eva Turner Clarke in 1931 as early versions of dramatic works destined to be revised and issued, under new titles, as the works of “Shakespeare” in the 1590’s.

Ms. Clarke supported her identifications with extraordinary scholarship, linking events of contemporary history to characters and scenes in the Shakespeare plays.  She often noticed the different stages of revision within a given play – the way archaeologists can “read history” by the fossils or the rings within a tree trunk.  Given Edward de Vere’s intense involvement with writers and play companies, along with his great friendship with Lord Sussex, I believe that Ms. Clarke must have been largely correct: many of the first versions of future “Shakespeare” plays were initially performed for Elizabeth at Court by the Lord Chamberlain’s men under Sussex.

Chapter Two: Queen Elizabeth’s Men (1583-1593)    

Sussex died in June 1583 and that fall the Queen’s Men were formed with a dozen of the best actors from the different other companies.  Oxford lent his secretary John Lyly as stage manager and coach for performances at court; but then the Queen’s Men, often with two separate troupes, traveled around the countryside – often performing plays of royal history, geared to rousing patriotic fervor as England prepared for invasion by Philip of Spain and his armada.

Early version of Shakespeare's play of King John, performed by the Queen's Men in the 1580's

Early version of Shakespeare’s play of King John, performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s

Now that scholars are becoming more aware that early versions of Shakespearean history plays were performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s, with titles that would remain quite similar, the next logical step is to see that Edward de Vere – despite his involvement in companies under his own name – was actively behind first the Chamberlain’s Men under Sussex and then behind the Queen’s Men under the patronage of Her Majesty and Francis Walsingham of the secret service.

[Oxford’s extraordinary annual grant of a thousand pounds, begun in June 1586, was drawn from the government treasury with the same formula used for the secret service, bringing him into close alignment with the Queen’s Men from that angle as well.]

Chapter Three: The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1594-1603)

The new Lord Chamberlain’s company gave its first performances at court in the Christmas season of 1594.  It would become known to us as “Shakespeare’s Company,” given that its actors gave the initial performances of the vast majority of the Shakespearean plays.

In government records for March 1595, actors Richard Burbage and Will Kempe along with “William Shakespeare” are listed as payees of the new Chamberlain’s Men — collecting payment for those court performances the previous December.  The inclusion of “Shakespeare” in that record is highly suspicious, however, since the name had just been introduced as a poet in the dedications of Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594) to Southampton, and because the name would never again be listed a payee for the Chamberlain’s Men.

The playhouse known as the Curtain

The playhouse known as the Curtain

[After the succession of 1603 and the creation of the King’s Men, we have another story.  I believe that once King James took the throne, with Robert Cecil retaining his power behind the monarch, the government made a feeble attempt to indicate Shakespeare as an actor with the company.]

The Lord Chamberlain was Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, followed by his son George Carey, Lord Hunsdon – but these were nominal figures when it came to the running of the company.  The logical conclusion is that Oxford himself was the guiding hand of “Shakespeare’s Company” – not because of his title of Lord Great Chamberlain, but, rather, because this new group was an extension of the previous companies, first under Chamberlain Sussex and then the Queen’s Men, with Oxford having used them as the primary vehicles for his plays.

This perspective on the history requires taking that aerial view and connecting the dots to see the larger picture – which is, to put it simply, that Edward de Vere was the guiding hand behind the three great acting companies of the Elizabethan reign, all three of which were linked together to produce (1) the renaissance of English literature and drama in the 1570’s and 1580’s, followed by (2) the phenomenon of the Shakespeare works in the 1590’s.

Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s, put on some of the most dangerously political plays of the reign, yet it never got in trouble with officialdom.  Quite obviously it was receiving protection from on high.  In the 1590’s the government was moving rapidly to take control of the theater – by limiting the play companies in London to two, by restricting the use of playhouses for the drama to two, and by exercising increasingly heavy censorship that led, for example, to the bonfire of books in 1599.

It was Shakespeare’s company, also, that performed Richard II at the Globe on February 7, 1601, for conspirators of the Essex Rebellion, which erupted the following morning – yet the actors were let go after cursory questioning and the author was never summoned at all.

globe more

Meanwhile Oxford had withdrawn entirely from court life after 1590.  Remarrying in 1591, he and his new Countess (Elizabeth Trentham) moved to the village of Stoke Newington, just north of Shoreditch – the center of the London theater scene, where the Curtain playhouse would become the premier venue of Shakespeare’s Company.

“Thus we see him moving quite close to the ‘Shakespeare’ work, but never in it,” J.T. Looney wrote in 1920, describing a man who had become virtually invisible – and yet a man who, in the view here, was singularly responsible for the eruption of the Shakespearean plays in public performance, igniting the explosion of theatrical activity that remains a grand chapter, perhaps the grandest of all, in the history of the stage.

Edward de Vere emerged briefly from his retirement to serve as highest-ranking earl on the tribunal at the trial of Essex and Southampton on February 19, 1601.  He had no choice but to join the twenty-four other peers in finding both earls guilty of high treason and condemning them to death.  Essex was beheaded six days later; but Southampton, the “fair youth” of the Shakespeare sonnets, unofficially had his sentence reduced to life in prison and, two years later, in April 1603, King James granted him his freedom with a royal pardon.

Meanwhile the adult acting troupe under Oxford’s own name, which was mainly a touring group, had merged with Worcester’s company in 1602.  Even the aging Queen Elizabeth became involved in this new, expanded company, and ordered the Lord Mayor of London to allow them to play at their favorite Boar’s Head tavern.  “In August of that year the united company was acting at the Rose under Henslowe,” wrote B.M. Ward in 1928, “and among the actors we find the names of William Kempe and Thomas Haywood, the playwright.”

Will Kempe!  This was the same man listed back in 1595 as a payee of the new Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with Richard Burbage and “William Shakespeare” — and now as the Elizabethan reign draws to its close, Kempe is acting in the company patronized by the earls of Worchester and … Oxford!

I’d say that’s a fitting way to conclude this attempt to “connect the dots” and glimpse a larger picture.  All along, just beneath the surface, or standing in the wings, we find the figure of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a man of the theater all his life.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice one, Hank! As always!

    • Jim, thanks — good to hear from you.

  2. Whittemore, I didn’t found time to explore more of The Spanish Tragedy but I’ve been reading a little of “Antony and Cleopatra” in Portuguese.

    I found some special “things”. In the begin of the play, Antony receives a letter saying his wife, Fluvia, is dead. She died because of a plague, though not indentified. Just like Anne Cecil, who died of plague in 1588.

    In the end of the play, many persons are trying to persuade Cleopatra to do not suicide and accept Cesaer’s conditions to save her bastards and kingdom. I think this the same way Robert Cecil tried (and did it) Elizabeth making James Stuart (Caesar) her heir, to save her kingdom (England) and her bastards (Oxford, Southampton, Bacon and Essex)

    • Hi Francisco — I wonder how “suicide” is translated into the context of Elizabeth. Lucrece has this concept, yes? When she commits suicide, does she take an unborn child with her to the grave? Charles Beauclerk has some great pages on this. But I must re-read Antony and Cleopatra to see more.

      • I had that idea, Whittemore. Is curious how this play is just an imitation of reality. All of them, or near them.

        I believe Marlowe was one of Oxford’s name and “Dido, the queen of Cartago” is, according to many marlovians, one of the sources to “Antony and Cleopatra”. The plot is similar. And Mena noted how incest is in a very modest way explored in Dido. In both plots, a queen fall in love with a man of weapon and when the man they love run to Italy, they suicide.

        But “Antony and Cleopatra” is cleary rewritten. It makes reference to Anne Cecil’s death in 1588 and to Elizabeth’s heritage and the pression she suffer to choose James Stuart as such in 1601-3.

  3. Hank, a masterful summary of the theatrical career of de Vere: producer, sponsor, master of his guild, and playwright of three forms of Elizabethan drama–history, comedy, tragedy.

    Notice that Meres’s list of the comedies and tragedies are in the exact orders that appear later in the First Folio.

    Somebody knew somebody who knew something although nobody knew nothing. The hand behind the curtain as Peacham portrayed it on the frontispiece of Minerva Britannia (1612).

    • Thanks, Bill. Perhaps some day we’ll find good further evidence that Oxford was the guiding hand of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The inclusion of Shakespeare with Burbage and Kemp in the 1595 document of payments (first one of such for LCM) is suspicious. Also the involvement of Heneage, who marries Countess Southampton just as the third earl is proclaimed by Shakespeare as his guiding star. My thinking is that Oxford had aimed earlier to use the Swan as the main vehicle for productions of revised works in the 1590’s, but that Cecil used Isle of Dogs in 1597 to end that dream and gain more government control of playhouses. The debacle ended the Swan as theater for plays.


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