The Shakespeare Histories as “Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy” — Lily B. Campbell’s Work is No. 79 of 100 Reasons Why Oxford was the Author

For a couple of centuries it was generally accepted that Shakespeare had no interest in the issues confronting England in his time; but in 1947 there appeared a bombshell book entitled Shakespeare’s “Histories” – Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy by Lyly Bess Campbell, Professor Emeritus of English at UCLA, putting forth the radical idea that the great author’s history plays were mirrors in which Elizabethans could perceive the contemporary political problems they were facing.

book of lily campbell

Miss Campbell comes out swinging. Her first victim is Professor Mark Van Doren of Columbia University, whom she ridicules for postulating that Shakespeare “does not seem to call for explanations beyond those which a whole heart and a free mind abundantly supply.” It’s a “heartening conviction,” she quips, “that John Doe has only to reassure himself about the wholeness of his heart and the freedom of his mind to undertake to interpret Shakespeare. Any heart and any mind will do.”

Then she holds H.H. Furness up for scorn, citing his statement in the New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare in 1919: “I cannot reconcile myself to the opinion that Shakespeare ever made use of his dramatic art for the purpose of instructing, or as a means of enforcing his own views, any more than I believe that his poetic inspiration was dependent on his personal experiences.”

These are comforting thoughts, Miss Campbell wryly notes, for writers and critics alike – that whatever the great author wrote had nothing to do with his personal experiences and convictions! And just think – Shakespeare himself had no interest in the problems of contemporary politics!

Lily Campbell begs to differ: “I do not believe that a poet exists in a vacuum, or even that he exists solely in the minds and hearts of his interpreters. I do not believe he can write great poetry without conviction and without passion. I do not believe that his reflection of his period is casual and fragmentary and accidental. Rather, it seems to me the poet must be reckoned a man among men, a man who can be understood only against the background of his own time…”

Richard II  1367 - 1422

Richard II
1367 – 1422

Looking at the history plays without any authorship axe to grind, Miss Campbell sees that “Shakespeare” deliberately used history to set forth the great political problems his day, such as Queen Elizabeth’s lack of an heir and her unwillingness or inability to name a successor. For example, plays like King John and Richard II revolved around issues of legitimacy and the possible need to depose a weak monarch for the sake of England’s health and survival. And as Queen Elizabeth herself remarked, six months after the Essex Rebellion of February 8, 1601, “I am Richard II, know ye not that!?”

Miss Campbell in 1947 was breaking through the traditional image of the author. I have no idea whether she knew about the 1920 identification of Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare,” but if not her argument is the more powerful – that in fact the great poet-dramatist was deeply, passionately concerned about the country and, yes, about the Tudor dynasty.

This view had already been confirmed a quarter-century earlier, when J. Thomas Looney pointed to Oxford, thereby identifying a high-ranking nobleman and member of the House of Lords, a courtier who had been a royal ward of the Queen under the guardianship of her powerful chief minister, William Cecil Lord Burghley (later his father-in-law) and one who – while obviously obsessed with poetry and plays, with the power of the printed word and the stage – was demonstrably involved in crucial affairs of state.

Henry V 1387 - 1422

Henry V
1387 – 1422

If Oxford was the author of King John, Richard II and Henry V, to name three of the several histories covered by Miss Campbell, then “Shakespeare” was not just a concerned observer of the great issues of his day, but, indeed, a participant in them. As Chesterton noted, “Men can always be blind to a thing, so long as it’s big enough,” and Looney, by identifying Oxford, was pointing to an author whose world was larger than that of the Stratford man in every way.

The overall implication of Oxford’s authorship is so enormous, in fact, that even Oxfordians can be blind to it: we are not talking about switching one name for another, or one writer for another, but, rather, about the seismic shift from a man born in a small market town in the countryside to a man raised by blood to inhabit the palace and be part of THE GOVERNMENT – as if the author of popular political novels in the U.S. turned out to be a top official of the C.I.A. or State Department, and who had been filling his works with thinly disguised, inside information that had never gotten into the official record.

[In the case of Edward de Vere, we have the amazing story of a man who, in the 1570s and 1580s, led a renaissance of English literature and drama, helping to rouse unity in the face of foreign invasion; but who, in the 1590s, found himself adopting the pen name “Shakespeare” in a power struggle against the entrenched Cecilian control over the government and over the queen herself. In the early stages, Oxford had been working on the same side as Burghley and spymaster Walsingham, within the government; in the final stages, however, he was in a power struggle (behind the scenes) with Principle Secretary Robert Cecil to determine who would control the succession to Elizabeth on the throne.]

William Cecil 1520-1598 Robert Cecil 1563-1612

William Cecil 1520-1598
Robert Cecil 1563-1612

Here is Oxford as a young man:

24 November 1569, to William Cecil, in reference to the Northern Rebellion of Catholic earls: “And at this time I am bold to desire your favor and friendship that you will suffer me to be employed by your means and help in this service that now is in hand … now you will do me so much honor as that by your purchase of my license I may be called to the service of my prince and country…”

And here with my emphases added to some of the words that “Shakespeare” uses in similar ways —

September 1572, to Wm. Cecil Lord Treasurer Burghley, in reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants in France: “And think if the Admiral in France was an eyesore or beam in the eyes of the Papists, then the Lord Treasurer of England is a block and a cross-bar in their way, whose remove they will never stick to attempt, seeing they have prevailed so well in others. This estate hath depended on you a great while, as all the world doth judge, and now all men’s eyes … are, as it were, on a sudden, bent and fixed on you as a singular hope and pillar …

[“…shame to your estate, an eyesore to our solemn festival” – Taming of the Shrew; “His brandished sword did blind men with his beams” – 1 Henry VI; “… who, like a block, hath denied my access to thee” – Coriolanus; “Any bar, any cross, any impediment” – Much Ado About Nothing; “They will not stick to say you envied him” – Henry VIII; “…for on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state” – Hamlet; “…why such unplausive eyes are bent on him” – Troilus and Cressida]

“I am one that counts myself a follower of yours now in all fortunes, and what shall hap to you, I count it hap to myself … Thus my Lord, I humbly desire your Lordship to pardon my youth, but to take in good part my zeal and affection towards your Lordship, as on whom I have builded my foundation, either to stand or fall … I shall be most willing to be employed on the sea coasts, to be in a readiness with my countrymen against any invasion.”

When the young Oxford was prevented from a military career, his service soon took the form of literature and drama. In the process he created a robust language and cultural identity that helped give England a new sense of national pride. Miss Campbell noted that “each of the Shakespeare histories serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth’s day and in bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors.”

Lily Campbell’s view of the Shakespeare histories as “mirrors of Elizabethan policy” is no. 79 of 100 reasons why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was the man who wrote them.

Lily Campbell Biographical Synopsis

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