Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford: the Most Amazing Court Jester: No. 76 of 100 Reasons Why He was “Shakespeare” and the Author of “Hamlet”

“Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

The Shakespeare plays are populated by many truth-tellers wearing the masks of Fools, most played in turn by Richard Tarleton, Will Kemp and Robert Armin, each actor becoming increasingly more sophisticated in his clowning as the author’s characters grew in their complex humanity.
lear's fool

Fools existed from ancient history all the way up to the contemporary jesters of European royal courts. In Shakespeare they appear in all sorts of masks, but what many of them have in common is their ability, within the dangerous setting of the court, to speak truth to power.

Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night are the best-known examples of court jesters or Fools given the authorization to speak freely. [King Lear’s nameless Fool is “all-licensed,” as Goneril puts it.] In our own time, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central may have the most similar function, that is, the job of running spears of truth through the guts of our politicians while making us howl with laughter – a function that even the most powerful officials apparently, if often grudgingly, must allow.

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In the new book of essays A Poet’s Rage, edited by William Boyle, a paper with insight into the Shakespearean Fools, written twenty years ago by his brother Charles Boyle, remains just as important to the authorship debate as it was back then. In a discussion about Troilus and Hamlet as characters, Boyle emphasizes that Shakespeare’s world revolved around the royal court and that his audacious political satire was made possible only by the clever use of thinly disguised allegory.

Number 76 of 100 reasons to conclude that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare” is that he himself, as Boyle writes, “enjoyed the protection of some great patron” [Queen Elizabeth] and was “the most amazing court jester who lived.” And perhaps, he also writes, there is no character called “The Fool” in the play of Hamlet, his most autobiographical character, because Hamlet himself is The Fool.

The Prince of Denmark is an expert at using allegory, the accepted Elizabethan literary device for commenting on the current political scene. He warns Polonius, chief counselor to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, that the players “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time” – that is, the actors and their “harmless” plays are actually pointing to persons and issues of the day. As Hamlet tells Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, the players “cannot keep counsel” but will “tell all.”

hamlet at the play

“Have you heard the argument?” the wary king asks about the play as it proceeds. “Is there no offence in’t?”

“No, no,” Hamlet replies, “they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence I’th’world.”

Probably the most famous example of Queen Elizabeth’s recognition of a royal history representing contemporary matters occurred in 1601, when, several months after the enactment by Shakespeare’s company of the deposing of Richard II, which helped trigger the failed Essex Rebellion against Robert Cecil and other counselors the following day, she reportedly blurted out to her antiquary: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that!?”

Traditional scholars, believing the author to be the Stratford fellow named William Shaksper, have been forced to shy away from seeing Polonius as a satirical portrait of William Cecil Lord Burghley, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth and the most powerful man in England until his death in 1598. The reason, of course, is that for William of Stratford upon Avon to satirize Burghley in such a bold, ruthless manner would have been suicidal. He would have lost more than his writing hand.

The notion that Shaksper was the author “has stymied all reasonable inquiry into Shakespeare’s relationship to the world he lived in and his favorite setting, the court,” Boyle writes – because clearly the author of the Shakespeare works did live in the world of the court and, not surprisingly, he did write about the intrigues of that contemporary world.

And clearly that same author was being protected by the monarch herself – as expressed by none other than Polonius, who urges Gertrude to severely reprove her son the prince: “Look you lay home to him. Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with, and that your Grace hath screened and stood between much heat and him.”

Polonius is referring to the play by which Hamlet has been able to “catch the conscience of the King” by means of allegory – having presented one story that seemed harmless while, in fact, revealing the dangerous news that Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father the previous king. This play at court, for which the prince inserted the crucial lines, is but the latest of his “pranks” that have pushed the chief minister beyond his limits.

But Polonius is also angry, even angrier, at the queen. Unable to accuse her directly, he urges Gertrude to tell Hamlet that his antics will be no longer tolerated; more to the point, the Queen should confess to him that she herself is the reason he gets away with his madcap behavior. She has “screened” her son from the fury of others. She has “stood between” the prince and the wrath of the court against him.

Once Oxford is viewed as the author, it becomes clear that Hamlet is his most self-revealing character and that the Court of Denmark represents the English court. There can be no more doubt that Polonius is a caricature of Burghley, who was Oxford’s father-in-law, or any question that Gertrude represents Elizabeth. And from there it’s a very short step to the recognition that, in fact, the Queen of England had protected Edward de Vere in the same way, having “screened and stood between much heat and him” – primarily because of his satirical comedies and other truth-telling plays, performed at her court from the 1570s onward.

Elizabeth wanted – demanded – such entertainment. The female monarch who loved the cruel spectacle of bear-baiting was the same powerful woman, with absolute rule, who feasted upon Oxford’s stinging portraits of the members of her court – not to mention his various characters in which she could recognize herself as well, usually in the form of a flattering portrait. Her Majesty encouraged Oxford to function as her “allowed fool,” as Olivia calls Feste the clown in Twelfth Night. Telling Malvolio to shake off Feste’s barbs, she reminds him that the jester uses his biting wit because she allows him to do so: “There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail.” Olivia has given Feste permission to slander others; and because her command is law, it follows that Feste’s slander cannot be slanderous.

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When Malvolio has gone, she turns to Feste and pretends to scold him: “Now you see, sir, how your fooling grows old, and people dislike it.” Eva Turner Clarke observed in the 1930s that “although Olivia likes his nonsense, she makes a mild protest for the sake of the victims who do not.” In Clark’s opinion Olivia’s term “allowed fool” is “an expression 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.”

Hamlet is a prankster, jester, clown; he is a Court Fool with permission to say what he likes, even to put on plays that tell the truth about royal crimes. Gertrude has given him the freedom to criticize or make fun of high-ranking persons, right up to the King himself, without suffering repercussions.

The prince – and by extension his creator, Oxford – is a political satirist who displays far more daring than that displayed by the comedy writers and performers of Saturday Night Live, given the harsh punishments of the Elizabethan age. Having easily led Polonius into revealing his hypocrisy, Hamlet exclaims in an aside: “They fool me to the top of my bent!” — translated by the Riverside Shakespeare editors translate as: “They make me play the fool to the limit of my ability!”

So the character who speaks with the playwright’s most authorial voice actually describes himself as the Court Fool – a role that Edward de Vere is on record as playing at the Elizabethan royal court, from his high-step dancing for the Queen to his early signed poetry to his reputation as “best for comedy” for the court stage, his playing of the lute and singing for Elizabeth, and so on, not to mention a number of escapades for which, otherwise, he would have been punished.

[A few examples: he got away with planning in 1571 to rescue the Duke of Norfolk from the Tower; the queen forgave him for racing off to the Continent in 1574 without authorization; he twice refused her command in 1579 to dance for the French delegates on hand to negotiate the Alencon match; and so on.]

Jacques speaks of himself as a Fool in As You Like It and seems to come mighty close to how Oxford would describe himself, in a speech I always find to be both somewhat frightening as well as thrilling:

I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please, for so fools have…
Invest me in my motley, give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

The Wikipedia list of Shakespearean Fools does not include Prince Hamlet, undoubtedly because he is also the protagonist and of such importance that he can easily be overlooked; but the list does include the following Fools, each of whom, no doubt, represents yet another aspect of their creator, Edward de Vere, the Jester or Allowed Fool at the Court of Queen Elizabeth:

Touchstone in As You Like It
The Fool in King Lear
Trinculo in The Tempest,
Costard in Love’s Labours Lost
Feste in Twelfth Night
Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice
Lavache in All’s Well That Ends Well
A Fool in Timon of Athens
Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Thersites in Troilus and Cressida
Clown in Othello
Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Euphesus in The Comedy of Error
Speed in Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Gravediggers in Hamlet
Citizen in Julius Caesar
Pompey in Measure for Measure
Clown in The Winter’s Tale
Grumio and The Taming of the Shrew
The Porter in Macbeth
Peter in Romeo and Juliet
Cloten in Cymbeline
Falstaff in Henry IV.

Well … of course … Falstaff!

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