Re-Posting No. 21 of 100 Reasons Why Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford: “Suspicion and Jealousy”

When first learning about Edward de Vere and his relationship to “Shakespeare,” I was startled to see a letter written by his wife Anne Cecil in December 1581.  Oxford had flown into a rage in 1576 over court gossip that he was not the father of the baby girl (Elizabeth Vere) to whom she had given birth the previous year, when he was in Italy.  Besieged by doubts, and furious that the scandal had become “the fable of the world,” as he wrote angrily to Ann’s father Lord Burghley, he separated from her and refused to acknowledge the child.

Othello and Desdemona

Now, five years later, husband and wife had begun to communicate again, and Anne wrote to him from the Westminster home of her father, pleading:

“My Lord – In what misery I may account myself to be, that neither can see any end thereof nor yet any hope to diminish it – and now of late having had some hope in my own conceit that your Lordship would have renewed some part of your favor that you began to show me this summer…”

What did this remind me of?  Where had I heard this before? She continued:

“Now after long silence of hearing anything from you, at the length I am informed – but how truly I know not, and yet how uncomfortably I do not seek it – that your Lordship is entered into misliking of me without any cause in deed or thought.”

The first quarto of “Othello” – 1622, one year before the First Folio of plays appeared

Of course: Desdemona, the suffering wife of Othello. Anne’s letter continues:

“And therefore, my good Lord, I beseech you in the name of God, which knoweth all my thoughts and love towards you, let me know the truth of your meaning towards me, upon what cause you are moved to continue me in this misery, and what you would have me do in my power to recover your constant favor, so as your Lordship may not be led still to detain me in calamity without some probable cause, whereof, I appeal to God, I am utterly innocent.”

I had played the part of Cassio in college, but now the final scenes came back to me with sudden vividness: the way Desdemona was so baffled by Othello’s suspicions and accusations; how she begged him to reveal the torturous contents of his mind; how she was so helpless in the face of his blind rage; how she was left to merely plead her innocence, plaintively telling Iago, the very manipulator who had roused Othello’s jealousy in the first place:

“O good Iago, what shall I do to win my lord again?  Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven, I know not how I lost him.  Here I kneel: If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love either in discourse of thought or actual deed … comfort forswear me!  Unkindness may do much, and his unkindness may defeat my life, but never taint my love.” (4.2)

Yes, I thought, Anne could have been saying the same words. If Oxford was Shakespeare, I mused, then Anne’s statement “I am utterly innocent” from the depths of her heart echoes in the play when, after Othello strangles Desdemona to death, Iago’s wife Emilia shouts at him: “Nay, lay thee down and roar, for thou hast killed the sweetest innocent that e’er did lift up eye!”  When Iago stabs Emilia, she cries to  Othello again before dying: “Moor, she was chaste!  She loved thee, cruel Moor!” (5.2)

Suspicion and jealousy run through other Shakespearean plays such as Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale.  Hamlet turns on his fiancé Ophelia, distrusting her and complaining that “the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness.”  The prince is coming unglued, with young Ophelia crying out, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (3.1) Anne wrote to her husband again in December 1581:

“Good my Lord, assure yourself it is you whom only I love and fear, and so am desirous above all the world to please you…”

She died less than seven years later, at thirty-one, having suffered emotional strains we can only imagine.  Oxford had had his complaints about Anne siding too much with her father, much as Hamlet reacts to Ophelia’s spying on him for her father, but he may well have blamed himself for his wife’s early death.  Once the earl is understood as the author, he may be seen drawing upon these upheavals in his own life, including his remorse, for portrayals of Desdemona’s plight and, too, Ophelia’s madness and apparent suicide. When Hamlet sees her brother Laertes leap into her grave, he holds nothing back: 

“What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis?  Whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers?  This is I, Hamlet the Dane!”  [He leaps into the grave with Laertes; after they nearly fight] “I loved Ophelia!  Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum!” (5.1)

Ophelia as played by Helena Bonham-Carter in the Franco Zeffirelli film of “Hamlet” in 1990

The prince’s grief, anger, rage and guilt are all palpable as he challenges Laertes:

“What wilt thou do for her? … Woo’t weep?  Woo’t fight?  Woo’t fast?  Woo’t tear thyself?  Woo’t drink up eisell?  Eat a crocodile?  I’ll do’t!  Dost thou come here to whine?  To outface me with leaping in her grave? … Nay … I’ll rant as well as thou!” (5.1)

During the final scene of Othello, I never failed to experience a wave of gutwrenching emotion as the Moor begs for any crumbs of sympathy or empathy before taking his own life: “Soft you; a word or two before you go.  I have done the state some service, and they know’t – no more of that…” (5.2)

We might well hear Oxford speaking of his own service to the state — as a playwright and patron of writers and acting companies performing around the countryside, rousing national unity against the coming Spanish invasion, which England survived in the summer of 1588, just a few months after Anne’s death. The power of the stage was apparent when young men of widely different dialects, religious views and social status came to London to join in common defense of their country. Othello continues:

“I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.  Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinable gum…” (5.2)

I believe we are listening to Oxford’s own grief over the wreckages of his past – another reason to believe he wrote Othello, which was printed for the first time in 1622, a year before publication of the First Folio of thirty-six plays.

(This post is now No. 74 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford.)

 

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hank, I just admire your work and insights so much! Thanks for the light you are shedding.

    • Thanks very much, Bob — much appreciated, especially coming from you!

  2. I’ve recently wondered if, perhaps, young Anne Cecil had made known to her father that she loved his ward, Edward, leading to him (William Cecil) using his legal authority regarding the marriage-powers he had over De Vere to force Edward into marrying her . . . a daddy’s gift to his girl, if you will. If such was the case, then maybe Cecil never would have had Edward marry Anne otherwise. I suspect — but, of course, cannot prove — that Anne truly loved Edward prior to their marriage, and maybe even begged her father to marry her to the man of her dreams, a prince (otherwise) out of her star. In ALL’S WELL, it is the girl Helena who pursues a marriage with Bertram, out of genuine love of the disdainful ward.
    I have a hard time believing that Anne’s father would have forced his daughter to marry Edward if she had not truly wanted to be Oxford’s wife in the first place. Sure, he was a calculating, scheming politician, but I just can’t see him forcing his daughter to marry a man she didn’t want. Cecil (probably) wanted the best for his daughter, and — like many fathers before him and since — was powerless to deny her most fervent wish.
    If, indeed, Anne truly was deeply in love with and devoted to Oxford, then his suspicions of her alleged infidelity, and the 5 years of estrangement that ensued, must have been sheer hell for her. And I can just imagine the proud Earl, in time, coming to realize just how horrible his treatment of her was, and — wracked with guilt over it — trying to find a way to castigate himself for it, especially after her untimely death.
    It is all-too-easy to believe that Oxford wrote the “Shakespeare” dramas. And, although his writing ability was greater than everyone else’s, it makes me rather dislike him — as a man — to a certain degree, at least insofar as his treatment of his Countess goes. And, I have no doubt, he would wish for posterity to judge him harshly for it. That’s why he would’ve written a play like OTHELLO in the first place! Not to have a “hit” play, but to shrive his guilty soul, to transform a tragedy of his own making into a revelatory work of dramatic art.


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