Why would “Shakespeare” write the flawed play “Cymbeline” at the end of his career? The answer is that he didn’t – Instead, it appears to be one of Oxford’s earliest works … and it’s Reason No. 69 why he was the author

Cymbeline, King of Britaine was one of the eighteen plays in the First Folio of 1623 that had not previously been published.  It was placed at the end, as the final entry in the book; and orthodox scholars figure that Will Shakspere of Stratford must have written it a few years before 1611, when someone described a performance.  Their problem, however, has been trying to explain why Cymbeline appears to be the work of a younger playwright still learning his craft.

Cymbeline-Shakespeare-William-9781903436028“His old skill in uniting a number of narrative strands to form one master plot seems to have deserted him,” Oscar James Campbell wrote in 1966, but the criticism had begun much earlier – as when, for example, Samuel Johnson blustered in 1765:  “To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”

“No one will rank Cymbeline with the greater plays,” Harley Granville-Barker wrote in Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1927-1947.  “It is not conceived greatly, it is full of imperfections.  But it has merits all its own; and one turns to it from Othello, or King Lear, or Antony and Cleopatra, as one turns from a masterly painting to, say, a fine piece of tapestry, from commanding beauty to more recondite charm.”

If these gentlemen could have dropped their late dating of Cymbeline, they would have recognized that this play had preceded those masterpieces of literary and dramatic maturity.  They would have seen that it contains flashes of greatness-to-come while providing “what is wholly absent in traditional biographies of the Bard: evidence of youthful endeavor, the elusive juvenilia,”as Kevin Gilvary writes in Dating Shakespeare’s Plays.

Eva Turner Clark suggested in 1930 that Cymbeline was “no other than the Court drama of December 28, 1578, listed on that date in the Court Revels as The Cruelty of a Stepmother” – which takes us back more than thirty years to when Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford was twenty-eight and becoming intensely involved with playwrights, play companies and plays.

Oxford had returned to England a few years earlier after traveling to Italy.  In 1571 he had married the daughter of William Cecil Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England and the man by whom he had been brought up as a royal ward.  In Italy he learned his wife was pregnant and that there were rumors she had been unfaithful.  Upon his return to England in 1576 he angrily refused to acknowledge his wife or the baby daughter.  In 1581 he was sent to the Tower, after confessing his conversion to Catholicism, but later was released and reconciled with Burghley and his wife.

The Cruelty of a Stepmother of 1578 appears to have been an early version of a play that Oxford revised in 1582 into Cymbeline (with final revisions in about 1590).  And here is Gilvary’s account of the play’s tragic-comic story of Posthumous:

“Cymbeline describes the travels of a youth to Italy; a youth brought up by the most powerful man in the country, whose daughter he married; a youth who, while away in Italy, is persuaded that his wife has been unfaithful and whom he wishes dead; a youth whose spiritual sympathies are with Rome; a youth imprisoned on his return for loyalties to Rome; a youth who later sought and received forgiveness from his maligned wife and his outraged father-in-law.”

Sounds familiar!

The Greek Translation Dedicated to Oxford in  1569

The Greek Translation Dedicated to Oxford in

An important source of Cymbeline is the romance Aethiopica or An Aethiopian History as translated from the Greek of Herliodorus in 1569 by Thomas Underdowne, who dedicated it to Edward de Vere.  The earl was then nineteen and apparently going beyond good taste in “matters of learning,” as Underdowne put it, explaining that for a nobleman “to be too much addicted that way, I think it is not good.”  It appears, however, that Oxford was very much addicted to learning.

“Close examination reveals that Cymbeline was probably influenced by the Aethiopica and was perhaps even a conscious imitation of that of that romance,” writes C. Gesner in Shakespeare and the Greek Romance (1970).  The translation of this Greek romance dedicated to Oxford was reprinted in 1577, when he may well have decided to use its story for a play.  He also would have used the first edition of Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1577, wherein all the source material for Cymbeline was available to him.

But there’s much more evidence that Cymbeline originated from Oxford’s pen in 1578 — for example, the bizarre chapter of the Elizabethan reign during the 1570s when the Queen carried on a long courtship with Hercule Francois, Duke of Alencon of France – an episode providing perfect contemporary stuff for a political allegory, which will be the next Reason to believe Edward de Vere wrote the works of “Shakespeare.”

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This entry is dinamite! Great exposition. Nothing more to say but ‘Bravo!’

    • Thanks, Ricardo!

  2. Nice work! One wonders about the editing choices of the First Folio, especially the ordering of the plays, and whether this was deliberately placed at the end to throw light on its beginnings 45 years earlier.

    • That’s an interesting question and wonder if any in-depth studies have been done re: arrangement and order of the plays. Most critics seem to feel it shouldn’t be labeled a tragedy but, rather, a romance. In any case it could be what you suggest, while those who can’t see the light are stuck viewing the play as near the end — so the picture we get is of this great author winding down, or breaking down, collaborating with inferior writers, forgetting his own skills, heading back to the countryside (with trunk loads of manuscripts?), and generally fading away — whereas the truth appears to be quite the reverse, with Oxford working on parts of Hamlet and other plays and perhaps shaping up the architecture of the sonnet sequence, right up to the end. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Just a week ago I read a critic saying that Cymbeline is not the usual great Shakespeare piece of work. I reckon I’ll send him this link for him to see the reason 🙂

    • Let us know what he replies:-)

      • Alas, I was wrong. Now that I double-checked, I saw that the actual play was Timon of Athens.

  4. Whittemore, talking on Oxford/Shakespeare’s first places, I know “Pericles” was not added to the First Folio. Why do you think it wasn’t?

    • Ricardo probably can say more than I can. Is it a “hot” play with suggestions the government doesn’t like? The riddle about incest? Pericles missed F1 and F2 and finally got into the second edition of the third Folio of 1664, after the Puritan suppressions ended. That’s a long time. But the only authoritative text is the quarto of 1609 — which did not, in my view, come from the “grand possessors” but, like Troilus of 1608 (and Lear of 1608?) and the Sonnets of 1609, came from Southampton. Not sure why the timing. First version was probably in the 1570’s. The scene of the tournament is very much like the ones Oxford took part in. “A gentleman of Tyre – my name, Pericles; my education been in arts and arms; who, looking for adventures in the world…”

  5. Sorry to diverge from the matter but can we just come back a little in time? When I asked you and you let clear that Southampton knew his true parents and the true meaning of “Venus and Adonis”, what could have been the meaning of “Lucrece”?

    A man raping his friend’s chaste wife… you suggested some time ago it could have been a violent self-portrait of Oxford and Elizabeth was Lucrece, then her suicide was a methaphor to she denied her bastard by the earl. But who could have been the husband? Leicester? Leicester and Oxford were not friends, they hated each other.

    As I said you once, back to the end of December 2012, in your post about Shakespeare’s anonymity, I believe in a theory which say Trentham and Southampton were lovers, a theory born from an interpretaton of “Willobie his Avisa”. You said this thoery was an error and you advised me De Luna’s opinion, but I found it more strange and doubtful (I told you why in that post).

    I don’t think Trentham did bed Southampton, like in “Avisa”, she remained faithful to her hasband Oxford. But I think Trentham could have been Lucrece, too. Oxford and Southampton were friends, like Tarquin and Collatine; Lucrece was chast even after her marriage, while Trentham must remained virgin until she married Oxford; Southampton’s passion for Trentham and sharing of blood with Elizabeth Vere could have been the reasons to disdain a marriage with her.

    My theory is that Oxford wrote “Venus and Adonis” to Southampton in 1591-92, to remind him of his blood and the importance of imortalize it. In this time, Southampton was courting in secret the fair and already married Trentham. By 1593, Oxford published “Venus and Adonis” and discover Southampton’s courtship and Trentham’s pregnancy (almost in the end). Trentham gave birth to Oxford’s son and the earl must have suspected of the boy’s true parentage. Was it his son or his grandson? He start to wrote “Lucrece” when he discovered the child was of his own. With the theatres closed, he had so much time to wrote “Lucrece” and “Willobie his Avisa”, both about his wife alleged adultery and faithfulness.

    • I forgot to say: I think Oxford wanted us to think Lucrece was Elizabeth by calling her chaste and talking about red and white (Tudor Rose’s coulors). But the friend and the husband as Southampton and Oxford changes a little my vision about Lucrece as the Queen…

  6. I think the reason why Cymbeline is the last play in the 1623 Folio is that Pembroke and Montgomery the Folio promoters did not want lessons from the play learnt: the play finishes with reconciliation with Rome which arguably might have appealed to a young Oxford. Contrast the first play The Tempest where the full malignity of the Spanish Italian noble class is displayed – just what P and M wanted everyone to take on board

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