No. 81 of 100 Reasons why Edward de Vere = “Shakespeare” — a scene of “Twelfth Night” alluding to the ordeal of Jesuit Priest Edmund Campion before his execution in December 1581

“Provide me with ink and paper and I will write!” – Edmund Campion, the Catholic priest who lived hermit-like at Prague, teaching at the Jesuit college, before returning in 1580 to England — where he was imprisoned the following year in the Tower dungeon; and who, brought out for public disputations with Church officials intending to ridicule him, was refused the means of providing written answers

“…the old hermit of Prague that never saw pen and ink…” – Feste the clown in Act Four, Scene Two of Twelfth Night, disguised as a clergyman intent upon ridiculing Malvolio, who, for a prank, is imprisoned in the cellar for being a lunatic – clearly an otherwise “hidden” reference to Campion as well as a bold criticism of the English government’s treatment of him in the fall of 1581

Edmund Campion 1540 - 1581

Edmund Campion
1540 – 1581

Twelfth Night was one of eighteen stage works never printed until the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623. Two decades earlier, in 1602, the law student John Manningham had attended “a play called Twelve Night, or what you will” at the Middle Temple; and therefore most commentators, logically enough, believe this rollicking comedy was written in about 1600.

But once Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford is envisioned writing Twelfth Night in the early 1580s, the same scenes come alive with an array of allusions to contemporary persons and events; and perhaps the most surprising of these allusions remained undiscovered until less than twenty years ago. In the Spring/Summer 1995 issue of The Elizabethan Review, researcher C. Richard Desper reported that one entire scene in the play recreates the Crown’s unfair actions toward Campion, who was tortured and found guilty of high treason before being hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581. [He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1970.]

While it may be shocking to find an allusion to such a serious current event “hidden” within a comedy, the finding by Desper would have been virtually impossible without knowing who was the correct author. Given that William Shakspere of Stratford was only seventeen in 1581 and still in Warwickshire, this allusion to Campion’s ordeal remained unnoticed for more than four centuries. Oxford, however, was thirty-one in 1581 and writing “comedies” for private audiences as well as the court; and given his known sympathies toward Catholics in England, it is not surprising that he would be angry at officials of the Crown and Church of England for staging mockeries and travesties of justice.

Execution of Edmund Campion, Alexander Briant & Ralph Sherwin

Execution of Edmund Campion, Alexander Briant & Ralph Sherwin

In September 1581 the Elizabethan government led Campion from his dungeon in the Tower for public “conferences” in an attempt to discredit him. Scholars and clergymen representing the Church of England were sent to defeat him in religious disputations. In addition, the Crown sought to portray Campion as trying to rouse English Catholics in rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, with the goal of killing her and putting Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

The sessions were rigged and Campion was deprived of any means of preparing a defense. During the third disputation he asked his opponent, one Master Fulke, to allow him access to books containing the teachings of St. Augustine and St. John Chrysoston.

“If you dare, let me show you Augustine and Chrysostom!” he cried out, adding, “If you dare!”

Fulke replied before he could stop himself. “If you think you can add anything,” he said, “put it in writing and I will answer it.”

Campion saw his opening and seized it. “Provide me with ink and paper,” he retorted, “and I will answer it!”

Fulke realized his tactical error. In no way had the government intended to let Campion write out his answers; after all, much of his public success had come from his writings. But now the Jesuit had outwitted his Church opponent, who had been trapped by his own statement that he, Campion, should “put it in writing.”

“I am not to provide you ink and paper,” Fulke replied, thereby denying Campion the wherewithal to write even though he himself had challenged him to do so.

“Procure me, that I may have liberty to write!”

Fulke offered an excuse that completely undermined his challenge to Campion. “I know not for what cause you are restrained of that liberty,” he said, “and therefore I will not take upon me to procure it.”

Edmund Campion as depicted in a 1631 print

Edmund Campion as depicted in a 1631 print

This public exchange, embarrassing to the government, would have been most widely known in 1582, when the “old hermit of Prague that never saw pen and ink” would have been recognized as Edmund Campion. But why would any dramatist in 1600 write and insert an entire scene within a comedy such as Twelfth Night to metaphorically recreate the Jesuit priest’s ordeal in 1581?

The scene as it survived and appeared in the Folio of 1623 begins with Malvolio shut up in the cellar [as Campion was confined in the Tower dungeon]. Feste the clown agrees to disguise himself as “Sir Topas the Curate” or cleric to interrogate the prisoner and humiliate him, as we see in the following dialogue [with key words or phrases emphasized in bold]:

Maria (to Feste): “Nay, I pray thee, put on this gown and this beard. Make him believe thou art Sir Topas the Curate. Do it quickly. I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst.”

Feste: “Well, I’ll put it on, and I will dissemble [disguise] myself in it. And I would that I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.”

[As Richard Desper suggests, the dramatist’s negative opinion about such proceedings is revealed here at the outset. Feste is donning an academic gown to “dissemble” or pretend to have more learning, as the opponents sent to dispute with Campion pretended – when, in fact, none of them had as much learning as he had acquired.]

Feste (continued): “I am not tall enough to become the function well, nor lean enough, to be thought a good student; but to be said an honest man and a good housekeeper goes as fairly, as to say, a careful man and a great scholar. The competitors [opponents] enter.” (Enter Sir Toby)

Toby: “Jove bless thee, Master Parson.”

[“Robert Persons was a fellow Jesuit who traveled with Campion from Rome to France,” Desper explains. “The two separated to enter England and, for reasons of security, pursued their ministries individually, meeting each other occasionally. Persons, sometimes referred to as ‘Parsons’ and a former classmate of Campion, was in charge of the Jesuit mission to England.”]

Feste: “Bonos dies, Sir Toby: for as the old hermit of Prague that never saw pen and ink very wittily said to a Niece of King Gorboduc, ‘That that is, is,” so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson: for what is ‘that’ but ‘that’? And ‘is’ but ‘is’?”

An engraving possibly of late 17th century of Campion and Briant executions

An engraving possibly of late 17th century of Campion and Briant executions

[In addition to references already mentioned, others occur in Feste’s speech. Desper points out that Gorboduc was a mythical King of England; and Queen Elizabeth was the “niece” of her father’s brother, Arthur, who would have been King of England if he had lived. Meanwhile the phrase “That that is, is” may be taken as “a religious affirmation, just as Campion’s mission to England was a religious affirmation,” Desper writes, adding that his goal was “to affirm the truth [from the Catholic viewpoint] in the face of official displeasure” and despite efforts to force him to deny what, for him, was reality. The phrase also echoes God’s words to Moses, “I Am That I Am.” Given that Campion owed a higher allegiance to God than to the Crown, the phrase “That that is, is” becomes the “essence” of his position vis-a-vis his God and his Queen,” Desper explains.]

Toby: “To him, Sir Topas.”

Feste: “What ho, I say, peace in this prison.”

[In effect, Malvolio is in a “prison” as Campion was.]

Toby: “The knave counterfeits well: a good knave.”

[“Thus it is established at the outset that the playwright regards the conference to be held, like the conferences Campion was brought to, as a sham, a counterfeit, with a knave posing as a learned man acting as the examiner,” Desper writes. Having established the allusions to Campion in Feste the Clown’s opening speech, he notes, “the tenor of the remainder of the scene, in the context of Campion’s imprisonment, becomes apparent. The Clown is seen assuming the role of the learned men to dispute with the prisoner, just as men of learning brought Campion to dispute at the aforementioned conferences.”]

Malvolio (from within): “Who calls there?”

Feste: “Sir Topas the Curate, who comes to visit Malvolio the Lunatic.”

[Desper writes that Feste, posing as Sir Topas the Curate, “proceeds to deal with Malvolio as a man possessed and in need of exorcism, even though, as the Clown, he knows full well that Malvolio, whatever his faults might be, is neither insane nor possessed.”]

As the scene goes on, we can feel the underlying power of the playwright’s anger at what was done to Campion:

Malvolio: “Sir Topas, Sir Topas, good Sir Topas, go to my Lady [Olivia].”

Feste: “Out, hyperbolical fiend! How vext thou this man? Talkest thou nothing but of Ladies?”

Malvolio: “Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged. Good Sir Topas, do not think I am mad. They have laid me here in hideous darkness.”

Feste: “Fye, thou dishonest Satan! I call thee by the most modest terms, for I am one of those gentle ones, that will use the Devil himself with courtesy. Sayst thou that house is dark?”

Malvolio: “As hell, Sir Topas.”

Feste: “Why, it hath bay windows transparent as baricadoes, and the clear stores toward the south north are a lustrous as ebony. And yet complaineth thou of obstruction?”

Malvolio: “I am not mad, Sir Topas. I say to you this house is dark.”

Feste: “Madman, thou errest! I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” [A biblical reference: Exodus, 10:21]

Malvolio: “I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell. And I say there was never man thus abused. I am no more mad than you are. Make the trial of it in any confident question.”

Feste: “What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl?”

Malvolio: “That the soul of our grandam might happily inhabit a bird.”

Feste: “What thinkest thou of his opinion?”

Malvolio: “I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his opinion.”

Feste: “Fare thee well. Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras, ere I will allow of thy wits, and fear to kill a woodcock lest thou dispossess the soul of thy grandam. Fare thee well.”

In the above dialogue, Feste chides Malvolio for not upholding the pagan view of the transmigration of souls; and likewise, Desper points out, Campion was expected to provide answers which, in his own view, were illogical and false but accorded with the needs of those in power. “The playwright thus demonstrates for us the world turned upside-down,” he writes, “with clowns passing themselves off as men of learning, while men of learning such as Campion are pressed to deny what they believe to be true” in order to serve political ends. And in this one scene, he also suggests, the author expresses “his bitterness over the trial and execution of one he saw as an innocent man.”

Was the scene actually performed in the early 1580s? Was it enacted for the Queen? Was it so skillfully hidden within the play that even William Cecil Lord Burghley, architect of the Protestant Reformation, or spymaster Francis Walsingham could have missed the allusions to Campions ordeal, which was their own doing? Isn’t this another example (like the Sonnets) of this author’s ability to create one kind of reality on the surface while another, wholly different world exists within the same work at the same time?

There are more questions than answers, but I suggest that no writer other than Edward de Vere had the ability to create a scene that was so potentially dangerous and get away with it.

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