Re-Posting No. 16 of “100 Reasons” why the Earl of Oxford = “Shakespeare”: Bertram in “All’s Well That Ends Well”

The leading male character in All’s Well That Ends Well is Bertram, Count of Rousillon, a young French nobleman whose callous self-absorption leads to bad behavior toward his wife. In many respects, Bertram is a representation of a young English nobleman, Edward, Earl of Oxford, whose callous self-absorption led to bad behavior toward his wife.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), author of the “Decameron, On Famous Women”

The play is based on a tale by the great Florentine author -poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in The Decameron, a collection of one hundred novellas that became the model of Italian prose for writers in the sixteenth century.

Illustration of the “Decameron”

A now-lost stage work entitled The Historie of the Rape of the Second Helene, recorded as performed at Richmond Palace on 6 January 1579, might have been an early version of All’s Well, which did not appear in print until the 1623 First Folio.

“All’s Well That Ends Well” in the First Folio of 1623

If the play performed at Richmond was in fact an early draft of All’s Well, observes William Farina in De Vere as Shakespeare, “then perhaps the play reflects de Vere coming to grips with his own bad behavior toward his wife, in which case Bertram would represent Shakespeare’s own unvarnished and unflattering self-portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The early version would have been written solely for Queen Elizabeth and members of her royal court, who would have quickly understood its contemporary allusions and inside jests.

A revised version for the public playhouse in the 1590s may have been the “unknown” Shakespeare comedy to which Francis Meres refers in Palladis Tamia (1598) as Love labours Wonne.

[There is no record of a All’s Well being performed until 1741.]

Following are some of the ways in which Bertram appears to reflect Oxford:

ROYAL WARD

When Oxford’s father died he was summoned to London as a ward in subjection to her Majesty the Queen of England. All’s Well begins when, upon his father’s death, young Bertram has been summoned to Paris as a royal ward of the King of France:

Countess: In delivering my son from me I bury a second husband.

Bertram: And I in going, madam, weep o’er my father’s death anew; but I must attend his Majesty’s command, to whom I am evermore in subjection.

A Scene from “All’s Well That Ends Well”

MARRIAGE

When Vere came of age in 1571 a marriage was arranged between him and his guardian William Cecil’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Anne, a commoner.  Bertram is leaving behind the young Helena, a commoner’s daughter who had fallen in love with him:

“I am undone.  There is no living, none, if Bertram be away.  ‘Twere all one that I should love a bright particular star and think to wed it, he is so above me.  In his bright radiance and collateral light must I be comforted, not in his sphere.”

The King promises to elevate Helena’s family to the nobility so she and Bertram can marry.  In real life, Elizabeth raised up her chief minister from commoner status to become Lord Burghley, so that Anne, who had grown up with Oxford in the same household and undoubtedly loved him, would be of the nobility and able to marry him.

MILITARY SERVICE

Oxford, who had served in the 1570 campaign against the rebelling Catholic earls of the north, nonetheless hungered for more military service but had been kept behind for being too young.  In the fall of 1572, after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre [of Protestants] in France, he begged Burghley to allow him to serve on a ship or abroad “where yet some honor were to be got,” adding he was also “most willing to be employed on the sea coasts, to be in readiness with my countrymen against any invasion.”  He was continually blocked, however, and his complaints are echoed by the Count in the play:

“I am commanded here and kept a coil with ‘Too young’ and ‘The next year’ and ‘’Tis too early’… I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock [a woman’s lead horse], creaking my shoes on the plain masonry [palace floors, instead of rough battlefield], till honor be bought up [exhausted], and no sword worn but one to dance with.  By heaven, I’ll steal away!”

Oxford did “steal away” from England without authorization, in the summer of 1574, but he was forced to return three weeks later.

“The Decameron” by Boccaccio — a hundred stores narrated by seven women and three men during the Plague of 1348

PROMISE

Oxford finally received permission to travel abroad in early 1575 and spent more than fifteen months in France, Germany and Italy, with his home base in Venice.  Back in England, when the earl’s wife revealed she was pregnant, Elizabeth “sprung up from the cushions” and said, “I protest to God that next to them that have interest in it, there is nobody can be more joyous of it than I am!”   A bit later, however, she repeated the promise Oxford had given her “openly in the presence chamber that if she [Anne] were with child, it was not his!” (This is in a letter from Dr. Richard Master, court physician, written to Lord Burghley on March 7, 1575, while Oxford was at the French  court in Paris.)

De Vere had promised the queen that he would not sleep with his wife, just as we find the count saying the same in relation to his wife, Helena:

“Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, I will not bed her … O my Parolles, they have married me!  I’ll go to the Tuscan wars and never bed her … I have wedded, not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal.”  And writing to Helena: “When thou canst … show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’”

BED TRICK

Bertram fathers a son by means of a “bed trick,” a scheme hatched by Helena whereby another woman goes to bed with him and then, in the dark, Helena trades places with her.  In The Histories of Essex (1836) gossip of similar details is recorded about Oxford, Anne and her father:

“[Oxford] forsook his lady’s bed, [but] the father of Lady Anne by stratagem contrived that her husband should unknowingly sleep with her, believing her to be another woman, and she bore a son to him in consequence of this meeting.” [Anne gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth Vere, in 1575.]

Also the Master of the Horse to Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery [who married Oxford’s youngest daughter, Susan], refers in a memoir to “the last great Earl of Oxford, whose lady was brought to his bed under the notion of his mistress, and from such a virtuous deceit she [Susan] is said to proceed.”  [Again, the child was Elizabeth Vere.]

The bed trick also appears in Measure for Measure.

All’s Well includes a backdrop of the wars in the Netherlands between Spain and the Dutch in the 1570s, along with what Farina describes as “enormous amounts of esoteric knowledge regarding the history and geography of France and Italy, as well as Renaissance literature and courtly social customs” — a further link in the chain of evidence pointing to Oxford as the author.

Another source of the play is William Painter’s English translation of Decameron, published in 1566, when de Vere was sixteen and graduating from Oxford University. The earl knew Italian and undoubtedly also read Decameron in its original language, which “Shakespeare” appears to have done — although traditional scholars have been unable to explain how the Stratford man could have read the Italian version.

[This post is No. 73 in 100 Reasons Shakes-peare was the Earl of Oxford]

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