“Bottom’s Dream”: Re-posting No. 40 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

A multifaceted reason to view Oxford as “Shakespeare” involves the time frame within which the works were created. Most, if not all, of the Shakespeare works were originally written ten or more years earlier than generally supposed.

Oliver Chris & Judi Dench as Bottom and Titania in Peter Hall’s 2010 production at the Rose Theatre, Kingston

Studies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, reveal that its first version may have been a court masque parodying the farcical French Match (1578-1581), when marriage negotiations between Elizabeth (as Queen Titania) and Hercule Francois de France, the Duke of Alencon (in the character of Bottom, disguised as an ass) were in full swing. But Shakespere was only seventeen in 1581, still very much in Stratford and not yet married, leading most scholars to date the original composition of the Dream no earlier than 1594.

One result of that myopia is that few, if any, books about Shakespeare have anything to say about a connection between that masterful romantic comedy and the French Match.

The fact that “William Shakespeare” first appeared as a writer in 1593 is a problem for the mainstream scholars all by itself. It means the very first publication by the young man from Stratford was a highly sophisticated, cultured narrative poem, one of the best ever written in England.

The orthodox view requires the original writing of Dream to fit within the dates of Shakspere’s life, forcing most scholars to place the start of its composition in 1594. Really?  Was our struggling young playwright creating A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the public playhouse? No. “The almost universally held belief among critics” is that the play “was written for a private performance, clearly a part of the festivities attendant upon an aristocratic wedding,” writes Oscar Campbell in The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966), who also states:

“The only existing text is the version of the comedy designed to be presented in the great hall of an Elizabethan gentleman’s country house, or possibly at the court, on an occasion at which Queen Elizabeth may have been present … [Virtually all scholars acknowledge Queen Titania as a portrait of Elizabeth] … Many weddings of the nobility solemnized about the years 1594-1596 have been suggested as the occasion for which the play was written.  One considered most likely by many historians is that of Elizabeth de Vere, the daughter of the earl of Oxford, to the earl of Derby, which took place on January 26, 1595.”

Greenwich Palace, where the wedding of Lady Elizabeth Vere and the Earl of Derby took place

Now, let’s get this straight: a young man from Stratford-upon-Avon, a commoner near the start of his London career as an actor-playwright, creates a play not for the public theater, but for a private wedding of the nobility.  He includes a major female character, Queen Titania, representing Elizabeth Tudor, and has her fall in love with an ass!  Moreover the play is performed in front of that same female monarch, who is known for her extreme vanity, along with the full court at Greenwich Palace!

If we remove the constricting timeline of the Stratford fellow’s life, it becomes possible to look clearly at the evidence of the Dream as a masterpiece that was revised two or three times, according to changing circumstances, over more than a dozen years, from the Alencon affair that reached its climax in 1581 to a wedding at court in 1595. “Tips of the iceberg” keep appearing to indicate this “hidden” history of the play, and Campbell is honest enough to mention some of these anomalies, as when he writes: “Certain textual inconsistencies indicate that the play as we have it has been revised, and that the lines which deal with the fantasy form only one of two textual layers” (emphasis added).

The easiest way to eliminate the mystery is to realize that the first text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was an Elizabethan version of a Saturday Night Live skit, written by thirty-year-old Oxford in 1580. He was then still in the highest favor of Elizabeth (though not for long); he and John Lyly were presenting plays for aristocrats at the private Blackfriars and at court. Eva Turner Clark suggests that the earl produced Dream as a masque (probably for the Blackfriars audience, poking fun at both Elizabeth and Alencon) in 1581, before presenting it in a more complete form for the queen during the Christmas season of 1584. Then he would have revised the play again in 1590s, for performance during the Greenwich festivities celebrating his daughter’s marriage to the earl of Derby.

Titania courts Bottom while he wears his ass’s head.  Bottom repeatedly refers to “monsieur,” a comical (and mispronounced) reference to Alencon, who would not yield to the pressures on him to leave England, just as Bottom says: “I see their knavery; this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could.  But I will not stir from this place … !” (3.3) And Titania cries: “My Oberon! What visions have I seen!  Methought I was enamored of an ass!” (4.1)

When Alencon finally left the country in early 1582, writes Clark, “he realized that his dream of being Elizabeth’s consort and sovereign of England had come to an end, just as Bottom’s dream of a life in fairyland had ended.”

[The above post is the version as edited by Alex McNeil for 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford (2016), in which it now appears as Reason 67.]

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[Oxford was publicly in favor of the Alencon match, along with William Cecil Lord Burghley, the Queen’s chief minister – both realizing that the prolonged “love affair” would keep France from an alliance with Spain and give England time to prepare for the inevitable Spanish invasion by Armada.  In private, Oxford was surely against the match.]

 

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