“Shakespeare’s Jester” was the Earl of Oxford’s Servant, Robert Armin — No. 75 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere Wrote the “Shakespeare” Works

In the fall of 1947, the pioneering Oxfordian researcher Abraham Bronson Feldman launched a bombshell discovery that the great stage clown Robert Armin, known as “Shakespeare’s Jester,” was an avowed servant of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford; and, moreover, that Armin was at Hackney soon after joining the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and beginning to play Shakespeare’s philosophical fools such as Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night.*
Armin - 2
Feldman discovered the connection between Oxford and Armin in a rare quarto entitled Quips Upon Questions, written by the famous clown and printed in 1600 without his name on it. In his mock-dedication of this work, Armin wrote that on Tuesday, 25 December 1599 (or Tuesday, January 1, 1600) he would “take my journey (to wait on the right Honourable good Lord my Master whom I serve) to Hackney.”

“There was only one literary nobleman dwelling in Hackney” when Armin was playing Shakespeare’s “licensed” or “allowed” fools at the Curtain and then the Globe, observed Feldman, adding that the “Honourable good Lord” at Hackney was definitely Edward de Vere, Lord Oxford.

Oxford had moved from Stoke Newington to King’s Place, Hackney in 1596 with his second wife, Elizabeth Trentham, and their three-year-old son Henry de Vere, the future eighteenth earl. After the victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, he had become a reclusive figure who, most Oxfordians agree, was revising and transforming his previous stage works [performed in the 1570s and 1580s at Blackfriars playhouse and at court] into the plays that began appearing in the 1598 under the Shakespeare name. One of those revised works was As You Like It, with Armin the first actor to play the updated (or newly created) character of Touchstone.

Robert Armin 1563-1615

Robert Armin

As Oxfordian biographer Mark Anderson puts it, the “reasonable inference” is that Armin was “work-shopping” the role of Touchstone at Hackney with the author himself, Edward de Vere – who, we hasten to add, must have been the unseen guiding hand of the Chamberlain’s Men, a.k.a. Shakespeare’s Company, in addition to being its chief playwright. And another reasonable inference is that Oxford was training Armin to create a new kind of clown, more intelligent than the ones previously created by Richard Tarleton and Will Kemp (the latter whom Armin had just replaced in 1599-1600), in the spirit of Hamlet’s advice to the players:

“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”

My opinion is that in the above lines spoken by the prince we are hearing the genuine voice of his creator, the Earl of Oxford, a.k.a. Shakespeare, speaking in the same manner and tone he used when speaking to Robert Armin, who was even then becoming Touchstone.

“Armin is generally credited with all the ‘licensed fools’ in the repertory of the Chamberlain’s and King’s Men,” according to his Wikipedia biography, which lists not only Touchstone and Feste but also the Fool in King Lear and Lavatch in All’s Well That Ends Well, with the added possibilities of Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, the Porter in Macbeth, the Fool in Timon of Athens and Autolcus in The Winter’s Tale. In addition, Armin is thought to have originated the role of Iago, the villain in Othello – indicating the high quality of acting skill he must have acquired.

“Armin may have played a key role in the development of Shakespearian fools,” Wikipedia continues, adding that he “explored every aspect of the clown, from the natural idiot to the philosopher-fool, from serving man to retained jester. In study, writing and performance, Armin moved the fool from rustic zany to trained motley. His characters – those he wrote and those he acted – absurdly point out the absurdity of what is otherwise called normal. Instead of appealing to the identity of the English commoner by imitating them, he created a new fool, a high-comic jester for whom wisdom is wit and wit is wisdom.”

This is all fine, but the Wikipedia writers apparently believe it was Armin who inspired – and even taught – Shakespeare to create such “allowed fools” rather than the other way around. This notion undoubtedly comes from the traditional view of the bard as William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon, the country fellow who would have required such teaching. He certainly appears to be the model for the unsophisticated “William, a Country Fellow” in Act Five, Scene One of As You Like It, when Touchstone tells him (in the voice of the author himself) that “all your writers do consent that ipse is he,” adding, “Now, you are not ipse, for I am he!”

When Robert Armin called himself the “servant” of the nobleman at Hackney, he was talking about himself as one of the actor-servants of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; and we can imagine Oxford and Armin eventually discussing this scene between William the Country Fellow and Touchstone the Clown – a dramatization, to be sure, of the author confronting the man who would be credited with his works in the future, fairly shouting at him that “all your writers do consent that you are not ipse [i.e., he himself], for I am he” – you are not the playwright, because I am!**

“It stands to reason that de Vere was consulting with the players who were bringing [the Shakespeare works] to the world at large,” Anderson writes. “And the Armin example is, so far at least, the closest we have to a gold standard for de Vere’s relationship to the public staging of plays we today know as ‘Shakespeare’s.'”

And that’s also my Reason No. 75 of 100 why Oxford was Shakespeare.

* The paper appeared in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1947, and it is reprinted in My Name Be Buried, Volume Four of Building the Case for Edward de Vere As Shakespeare, edited by Paul Hemenway Altrocchi and Hank Whittemore.

[Feldman’s paper was curtly rejected by two of the best-known scholarly journals in the US and England. The American university publishers of one of these “prestigious” quarterlies devoted to “English literary history” returned it to Feldman “upon the advice of the drama editor.” It would seem that the evidence linking Oxford to Shakespeare’s leading jester was off-limits!]

** I believe Oxford added the Touchstone-William scene after the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601, when, to save the imprisoned Earl of Southampton from execution and gain the promise of his freedom, he made a deal with Robert Cecil that his “name be buried where my body is.” It is also my view that the scene was performed (by Armin as Touchstone, of course) after the 1603 succession of James, when As You Like It was produced at Wilton House in December that year.

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