The “Bed-Trick”: Re-Posting No. 36 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

“[Oxford] forsook his lady’s bed, but the father of the 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.” – Thomas Wright, The History and Topography of Essex, 1836, discussing Oxford in relation to his wife Anne Cecil and her father, Lord Burghley.

Measure“[T]he last great Earle of Oxford, whose lady [Anne Cecil] was brought to his Bed under the notion of his Mistris, and from such a virtuous deceit she [Susan Vere, Countess of Montgomery, Oxford’s third daughter, but probably meaning to identify his first daughter, Elizabeth Vere] is said to proceed.” – Francis Osborne, Esq.,Traditional Memoirs of the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth & King James,1658.

These two reports, while differing in their particulars, both assert that de Vere was the victim of a “bed-trick” perpetrated by his wife Anne at the bidding of her father, Burghley – the same situation “Shakespeare” immortalized in no less than four of his plays – All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Hampton Court Palace

The “bed-trick” was a popular stage convention by the end of the sixteenth century, but the evidence is that “Shakespeare” employed it earlier than any playwright of the English renaissance; when Oxford is viewed as the author, the dates of composition go back even earlier.

Whether the incident actually happened or Oxford merely thought so, the story as told separately by Wright and Osborne probably stems from the royal visit to Hampton Court Palace in October 1574. When the schedule for the queen and her entourage became available, Anne, Countess of Oxford, requested additional lodgings she might entice her husband to join her. She wrote to Sussex, Lord Chamberlain of the Household:

Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (1526-1583)

“My good Lord, because I think it long since I saw Her Majesty, and would be glad to do my duty after Her Majesty’s coming to Hampton Court, I heartily beseech your good Lordship to show me your favour in your order to the ushers for my lodging; that in consideration that there is but two chambers, it would please you to increase it with a third chamber next to it … for the more commodious my lodging is, the willinger I hope my Lord my husband will be to come hither.”

Oxford was in Italy the following September when he received a letter from Burghley telling him Anne had given birth to a girl, Elizabeth Vere, in July; later, upon learning of court gossip that he had been cuckolded, he came to doubt he was the father and separated from his wife for five years.  Had he really been deceived in a bed-trick according to the “stratagem” devised by his father-in-law? In that case, the girl was his natural child; the other possibility is that Burghley concocted and spread the bed-trick story to cover up the fact that, at his bidding, Anne had become pregnant by some other man, a radical explanation put forth by Ogburn Jr. in 1984:

“I strongly incline [to the explanation] that her father was determined as far as humanly possible to ensure the continuation of the marriage and the status of his descendants as Earls of Oxford.  Three years had passed since Anne’s and Edward’s wedding and still there was no sign of issue, while it had now become impossible any longer to deny his son-in-law a Continental trip from which, given the hazards of travel, he might not return.  Thus, exploiting his daughter’s uncommon filial submissiveness and the argument that a child would be the surest means of binding her husband to her, he overcame her compunctions and resistance and brought her to accept service by another male and one of proved fertility …”

[Note: Oxford may have given voice to the idea of Burghley’s involvement in Anne’s pregnancy and deception by means of Hamlet’s remark to Polonius: “Conception is a blessing, but [not] as your daughter may conceive — friend, look to’t.” (2.2) — Curiously, the Folio version of Hamlet includes the word “not,” while the 1604 version omits it.]

Cover of Wright’s History of Essex – 1836

In Shakespeare” Identified, J. Thomas Looney saw Bertram in All’s Well as virtually a self-portrait of de Vere – but it was only after his 1920 book was in manuscript that he discovered Wright’s claim that Oxford himself had been deceived by a bed-trick. The excitement he feels is palpable when introducing “what has been the most remarkable piece of evidence met with in the whole course of our investigations: a discovery made a considerable time after this work had been virtually completed.” He continues:

“This evidence is concerned with the play, All’s Well; the striking parallelism between the principal personage in the drama and the Earl of Oxford having led us to adopt it as the chief support of our argument at the particular stage with which we are now occupied … [Chapter X: “Early Manhood of Edward de Vere”]. What we have now to state was not discovered until some months later:

“In tracing the parallelism between Bertram and Oxford we confined our attention to the incidentals of the play, in the belief that the central idea of the plot — the entrapping of Bertram into marital relationships with his own wife, in order that she might bear him a child unknown to himself — was wholly derived from Boccaccio’s story of Bertram. The discovery, therefore, of the following passage in Wright’s History of Essex furnishes a piece of evidence so totally unexpected, and forms so sensational a climax to an already surprising resemblance that, on first noticing it, we had some difficulty in trusting our own eyes.

“We would willingly be spared the penning of such matter: its importance as evidence does not, however, permit of this,” Looney added, with what Ogburn describes as “quaint Victorian delicacy” in the face of scandalous matters.  After citing the passage from Wright’s History quoted above, he continued:

“Thus even in the most extraordinary feature of this play; a feature which hardly one person in a million would for a moment have suspected of being anything else but an extravagant invention, the records of Oxford are at one with the representation of Bertram. It is not necessary that we should believe the story to be true, for no authority for it is vouchsafed … In any case, the connection between the two is now as complete as accumulated evidence can make it.”

Marliss C. Desens writes in The Bed-Trick in English Renaissance Drama (1994) that this plot device appears in at least forty-four plays of the period, but also that “an examination of English Renaissance dramas shows that bed-tricks were not being used on stage prior to the late 1590’s” and, more specifically, that the bed-trick “begins appearing in plays starting around 1598.”

So, if Oxford was “Shakespeare,” we can say with virtual certainty that in the Elizabethan reign he was the first to incorporate it, and, too, that he did so after being a victim of it in real life, or believing he was.  Oxfordians date the original versions of the plays far earlier than the orthodox dates dictated by the life of Shakspere; in the case of the four plays with bed tricks, here are the differences:

All’s Well That Ends Well – Traditionally to circa 1604; Oxfordians to 1579-80

Measure for Measure – Traditionally to 1603-05; Oxfordians to 1581-85

Cymbeline – Traditionally to 1610; Oxfordians to 1578-82

The Two Noble Kinsmen – Traditionally to 1612-13; Oxfordians to 1566, revision in 1594

Here is another example of how the Oxfordian context stands previous scholarship on its head. The view of “Shakespeare’s” creative process, and its journey over time, is transformed. It’s no wonder the academic world has such built-in resistance to seeing, much less accepting, the change of paradigm.

[This reason is now No. 75 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford.]

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There would be no problem with the traditional dates. The Earl lived about 17 years in excile, he did have time to write them.

  2. An excellent and well-documented argument for Oxfords authorship as Shakespeare based on the notion that you cannot escape writing from your own experience. One can imagine the state Oxford was still in, on his return from Calais after having been informed in Paris, of Anne’s -supposed – cuckoldry, on the 10th or 11th of April 1576, when he was subsequently captured and robbed by the Dutch pirates, Watergeuzen,

  3. Did Oxford really believe he was the victim of a “bed trick” (impossible in real life), or did he merely tell people he was such a victim?

    If, as I suspect, he knew he was NOT such a victim, then WHY in the world would he have told people otherwise? Also, why then would he ever have reconciled with his wife, Anne, if she had been willingly unfaithful to him?

    Yet he did, so Anne must have persuaded Oxford that her first pregnancy was beyond her control. (And they did have two other daughters of undisputed paternity together.)
    So her explanation to him must have been both shocking and yet so powerful as to make Oxford believe it.

    Whatever she told him was undoubtedly the truth.

    In time, Oxford not only came to believe her, but eventually sympathized with her, and (note that the “bed trick” in Shakespeare’s plays does not appear in print until 1598, the year of Burghley’s death and a decade after Anne’s death) finally wrote about it.

    Charleton Ogburn’s explanation is right on: Around Christmas 1574, Burghley inveigled his daughter to submit to his plan to ensure the continuation of the line.

    Burghley’s “bed trick” ruse/explanation was absurd. But only something unspeakable could years later have prompted Oxford publicly to pretend otherwise.

    So,who could it have been?

    A certain scene from a famous 1974 movie comes to mind:

    • Great comment, Paul. The scene is great, too. My take on the situation itself is that Queen Elizabeth gave birth to a son by Oxford in May/June 1574 and that Burghley was reacting to the threat of Oxford having his marriage to Anne annulled. The marriage had not been consummated. So in October 1574 at Hampton Court he is either led into a “bed trick” and unwittingly impregnates Anne or eventually adopts the “bed trick” as his explanation to cover for her. Whatever the case, Burghley would have gotten him, or kept him, stuck in the marriage.

      If Ogburn and you are correct, this could explain his apparent deep sympathy for Anne and even his apparent guilt for having accused her of being unfaithful. And it would explain Hamlet’s biting remark to Polonius that “conception is a blessing,but as your daughter may conceive — friend, look to’t.” And then it would explain Hamlet’s killing Polonius without any remorse.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Further, this explanation tells us why Oxford years later would have urged Southampton (Oxford’s son by the Queen) to marry Elizabeth de Vere, ostensibly Oxford’s daughter by Anne.

        (On the surface, even by the more unusual customs of the time, a half-brother and half-sister marriage would have been unpalatable to many, including apparently Southampton himself!)

        But this problem is solved if, in fact, Southampton and Elizabeth de Vere were not blood relatives at all – if they did not share a biological father.

        The marriage arrangement Oxford was pushing on Southampton becomes much more psychologically plausible if this theory is correct.

        Otherwise, we are left with a very distasteful situation, at least.

  4. […] To learn more about the Earl of Oxford, his first wife, Anne Cecil visit Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog. […]

  5. Could have been gossip in the court by those who knew the plays were really about Oxford and assumed the “bed trick” in the play was something that really happened to him? Also it’s possible she was faithful and the kid was produced by artificial insemination. Lord Burley probably would have much preferred such a trick as to having her mounted by a stud like a thoroughbred horse. He could well even have arranged for one of Oxford’s floozies to make sure the unwitting sperm donor was Oxford himself. Groupies do this kind of stuff to famous people these days, not beyond possibility no one could think it up back then either.

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