“A Pleasant Conceit of Vere Earl of Oxford, Discontented at the Rising of a Mean Gentleman…” – Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” as Christopher Hatton – Part One of Reason 68 to Believe Oxford was Shakespeare

In 1732 the antiquary Francis Peck published a book called Desiderata Curiosa or a Collection of divers Scarce and Curious Pieces relating chiefly to matters of English History, consisting of Choice Tracts, Memoirs and so onThis was Volume I, which ended with a list of items to be included in Volume II, among them an intriguing manuscript described as “A pleasant Conceit of Vere Earl of Oxford, discontented at the Rising of a mean Gentleman in the English Court, circa 1580.”  (Note: the list is not online, but survives in the volume in the British Library.)

DESIDERATA CURIOSAEdward de Vere was thirty in 1580 and had served for a decade as the highest-ranking nobleman at the Court of Elizabeth.  He had enjoyed Her Majesty’s continuous royal favor, with gossip in the early 1570s that he was the Queen’s lover.  During that decade, however, he had been increasingly “discontented” at the “rising” in fortune of his rival Sir Christopher Hatton, Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard, whom he regarded with disdain as “mean” – inferior by birth, as a commoner, but also in terms of his conniving and duplicitous character as well as his mawkish personality.

Christopher Hatton      1540-1591

Christopher Hatton
1540-1591

Peck noted that the “pleasant conceit” by Oxford (likely a satire for the stage) was within the sixteenth-century collection of Abraham Fleming, one of the earl’s secretaries and literary protégés.  Was it in Edward de Vere’s own hand?  Or perhaps Fleming had copied it from his master’s original manuscript or from dictation.  Given that Oxford would be cited in the 1580s as “best for comedy,” it appears this was one of his plays and he was making fun of Hatton, strictly for the merriment of the Queen and insiders at the court.  Alas, however, Peck never published his second volume and those papers from Fleming’s folders are missing.

Only after 1920, when John Thomas Looney identified Edward de Vere as “Shakespeare,” would anyone have likely wondered about the earl’s “pleasant conceit” in relation to the Shakespeare plays.  Only then would anyone have realized, surely with sudden excitement, that the earl’s “pleasant conceit” must have been the earliest version of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, and that the character of Malvolio is no less than a blistering, hilarious caricature of Christopher Hatton!

twelfth-nightOne of the amazing aspects of the Shakespeare authorship question is that within each play is an entire world, which, however, remains invisible until returned to its true context of time and circumstance.  Suddenly the curtain opens on Twelfth Night and we see the world of the English royal court in the 1570s and 1580s.  Now we can see Malvolio-Hatton in relation to Olivia, who represents Queen Elizabeth, and Edward de Vere portraying himself as Feste, the jester or clown in service to Olivia-Elizabeth, who calls him her “allowed fool” – an expression, Eva Turner Clark wrote in 1931, which “Elizabeth probably applied to Oxford, for he would never have dared to include the many personal allusions in his plays had not the Queen permitted, even encouraged, him to do it.”

Traditional scholars still view this comedy as written circa 1600, with a performance at the Middle Temple in 1602 recorded as “a play called Twelve night or what you will.”  But it was never published in quarto and appeared in print only as part of the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623 – a sign it was one of Oxford’s “comedies” that began, in its earliest form, as a “private” entertainment at court.  As such it would have contained material that, if printed too soon, would have been embarrassing to either Elizabeth or King James and to various noble families whose relatives had been satirized.

Elizabeth & Courtiers

Elizabeth & Courtiers

I have often imagined the performances during the 1570s and 1580s within those Elizabethan palaces – Whitehall, Richmond, Greenwich, Nonsuch, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and so on – as being staged for a small but powerful group of “cousins” who have been stranded there by a snowstorm (or some other disruption) for several days.  In that context, Oxford was providing much needed entertainment by mercilessly “roasting” many of these same well-known individuals, among them Hatton and even the Queen as well as himself; and much later he would have revised these political satires, adding new layers of material, for public consumption.

This is just the beginning of Reason No. 68 to believe Oxford was Shakespeare; more to follow.

Endnote:  Oxfordian researchers have done a ton of work on the subject of Twelfth Night in the context of its authorship as by Edward de Vere, in works such as:

Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays (1931) by Eva Turner Clark; third revised edition by Ruth Loyd Miller, editor, in 1974, pp. 364-392

This Star of England (1952) by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn, pp. 266-294

Shakespeare by Another Name (2005) by Mark Anderson, pp. 69; 153-156

De Vere as Shakespeare (2006) by William Farina, pp. 82-87

(Other sources to be added in Part Two)

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Whittemore, I find this curious: if Oxford was Feste who could have been Sebastian and his twin? If ever they were inspired in reality…

    • Yes, Francisco, curious. Well, first, Sebastian may be Oxford and Viola his “twin” sister Mary Vere; unless we are back in that era when possibly Edward Manners was born Edward de Vere’s twin and Oxford is alluding to this for the Queen’s attention. I have no idea. Sebastian has only 124 lines in the play (Feste has 308 lines), but clearly he is Oxford when Olivia decides out of the blue that they should be married, and he agrees, saying, “And having sworn truth, ever will be true.” But it’s a thankless role, it seems to me — except for that same scene, (act 4, scene 3) which starts off with Sebastian’s soliloquy. Oxford is surely Feste (and Fabian, together?).

      What is your take on it?

      • Could really Viola be Manners? Then who was Orsino? We have to put in our minds Orsion was in love with Olivia-Elizabeth.

        Curious… we have records of a play performed in 1580. This play as been identified as inspiration for The Twelfth Night. To be inspiration, is plausible (I think) that both play shared three main characters who former a love triangule: A man in love with a woman; a female messenger dress of the opposite sex and in love with the passionated man; and the object of the first’s desire, in love with the female messenger believing in a lie.

        The play in 1580 coincides with Hatton’s ascending but who could be in love or flattering Elizabeth by this time that was not Hatton? I think it was Walter Raleigh. After all, he and Oxford had a conflit because of Elizabeth’s attention. This is a historical fact. Then who could be Viola?

        Viola is certainly someone who gets close to Olivia-Elizabeth, someone so close to whom Orsino-Raleigh a very strong trust and in the end fall in love and marry her. Could she be Elizabeth Throckmorton? She was one Maid of Honour of the Queen, so she was close to her. She married in secret Raleigh in a marriage which cause the disgrace of both.

        Yet the marriage was in 1591, not in 1580. But I think Throckmorton was the inspiration to Viola was the 1580 play was rewritten. After all, in Twelfth Night, Elizabeth-Olivia is mourning for her brother’s death. Of course 151-1602 was too late to relate Edward VI’s death. However, William Cecil died in 1598 and he was very close to Elizabeth since they were children (he was 13 years older than her but everyone knows how close they were to each other since Elizabeth’s first years and the rest of her life).

        Could Elizabeth covetous Throckmorton and Oxford be her twin? No. I think Oxford was begin Feste and Sebastian at the same time. The twins could have been an excuse for the apparation of Oxford was Olivia-Elizabeth’s lover/husband in the play. The play must have been rewritten, I think, in the begining of 1601, not much time after the Essex Rebellion. In this time, Oxford was rewritten too plays about his affair with Elizabeth, his royal blood, Southampton’ right to be king and he was defaming her in plays and sonnets (for exemple: in “Hamlet”, where she is confronted with the matters of incest and adultery, acused by her son of such crimes).

        This is all my idea of Twelfth Night.


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