Oxford’s Military Knowledge: Re-Posting Reason 51 Why he was “Shake-speare”

“Warfare is everywhere in Shakespeare, and the military action in many of Shakespeare’s plays, and the military imagery in all his plays and poems show that he possessed an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of warfare, both ancient and modern.” – Charles Edelman, “Shakespeare’s Military Language” (2000)

The Elizabethan army in Ireland

Edelman’s book provides “a comprehensive account of Shakespeare’s portrayal of military life, tactics and technology and explores how the plays comment upon military incidents and personalities of the Elizabethan era.”

How do orthodox biographers imagine Shakspere of Stratford accumulating such “extraordinarily detailed knowledge” of warfare and military matters? Is it through  automatic assimilation, by which all intricacies are miraculously absorbed into the very fiber of his being and translated into the dialogue of characters in his plays?

“Shakespeare expresses the courtier-soldier’s point of view too clearly and naturally and displays far too familiar a grasp of military methods, objectives and colloquialisms not to have acquired this knowledge through serious study – plus firsthand experience – of the arts of war,” Charles Barrell writes. “No such study and experience can be documented in the career of the Stratford native.”

At issue is “information” as opposed to innate genius – the former term defined (by my dictionary) as knowledge “communicated or received concerning particular facts or circumstances,” or otherwise “gained through study, research, instruction, experience.”   The great author’s information about military life was not genetically inherited; it was acquired. He draws upon his wealth of information not in any calculated way but, rather, spontaneously, during the white heat of composition, and employs it for various purposes the way an artist will mix paints on his canvas.

On and on come the military terms in the plays, as in 2 Henry IV,  for example, with words such as alarum, ancient, archer, beacon, beaver, besonian, blank, bounce, bullet, Caesar’s thrasonical brag, caliver, captain, chamber, charge, cavalier, chivalry, coat, corporal.

“In every outstanding instance of specialized knowledge,” Barrell notes, “Oxford’s personal familiarity with the subject can be categorically documented; and this is particularly true in respect to ‘Shakespeare’s’ fund of military information.” The earl unquestionably acquired information about “military life, tactics and technology” in ways such as these:

Horatio Vere
(1565-1635)

*  Oxford’s cousins Horatio and Francis Vere, known as the “Fighting Veres” for their exploits as soldiers, may have been the models for the soldiers Horatio and Francisco in Hamlet.

Francis Vere (1560-1609)

* Oxford’s brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby d’Eresby, devoted his life to the political and military service of Queen Elizabeth.

*  When the Northern Rebellion of powerful Catholic earls began in November 1569, Oxford at nineteen requested military service, which was granted in the spring of 1570, when he served under Sussex. The chief action he would have seen was the siege of Hume Castle, whose defenders surrendered to avoid any further bombardment – an episode that calls to mind the siege of Harfleur by Henry the Fifth.

Hume Castle

*  Oxford was champion of his first tournament at the Whitehall Tiltyard, in May 1571, performing “far above expectation of the world” in front of Queen Elizabeth and the royal court.  He blazed his way “with fiery energy,” contemporary Giles Fletcher wrote, summoning “a mimicry of war” as he “controls his foaming steed with a light rein, and armed with a long spear rides to the encounter … Bravo, valiant youth!  ‘Tis thus that martial spirits pass through their apprenticeship in war … The country sees in thee both a leader pre-eminent in war, and a skillful man-at-arms…” A decade later, in January 1581, Oxford prevailed as champion of his second and final such tournament.

*  In August 1572 he played the starring role in the staged military battle at Warwick Castle, leading 200 armed soldiers of one fortified position against those of another; and the contemporary account of this extravagant and realistic entertainment supplied the kind of military terms to appear later in the “Shakespeare” plays:  “battering pieces … chambers … mortar pieces … assaults … calivers … arquebuses …”

The Defense of Militaire Profession was published in 1579, “wherein is eloquently shewed the due commendation of Martiall prowess, and plainly proved how necessary the exercise of Armes is for this our age.” It  was dedicated by its author, Geffrey Gates, “To the Right honorable Edward de Vere, Earle of Oxenford.”  The publisher, John Harrison, would later issue Venus and Adonis in 1593 and Lucrece in 1594, introducing “William Shakespeare” by way of the dedications to Southampton, with both narrative poems having been personally overseen by the poet.

*  On June 25, 1585, Oxford wrote to Burghley asking for a loan to help in his suit for a military command in the Netherlands in England’s impending war with Spain. In this letter he launched into a Shakespearean string of military metaphors, writing, “For, being now almost at a point to taste that good which her Majesty shall determine, yet am I as one that hath long besieged a fort and not able to compass the end or reap the fruit of his travail, being forced to levy his siege for want of munition.”

(“Munition” was not a common word at the time, but “Shakespeare” used it more than once, as when Gloucester in 1 Henry VI declares, “I’ll to the Tower with all the haste I can/ To view the artillery and munition” [1.1])

*  Later that summer, Oxford (at age thirty-five) was commissioned to command a company of horse in the Low Countries.  “Five or six thousand English soldiers have arrived in Flanders with the Earl of Oxford and Colonel Norris,” came one report in September.  A month later, however, the queen commanded Oxford to return home and sent Leicester, who, having maneuvered his way into replacing Oxford, would proceed to disgrace himself by his behavior in Holland.

*  Oxford was reported among the many “honorable personages” in the summer of 1588 who “were suddenly embarked, committing themselves unto the present chance of war” when the Spanish Armada arrived on its mission to crush England.  Apparently Oxford’s ship was disabled, because he went directly home for his armor, and even his enemy Leicester reported that “he seems most willing to hazard his life in this quarrel.”

How did “Shakespeare” acquire his military knowledge?  The life of Oxford provides the most plausible answer. Immediately inside the cover page of The Defense of Militarie Profession is the coat of arms usually used by Oxford, with his earldom motto VERO NIHIL VERIUS (“Nothing Truer than Truth”) displayed along the bottom.

On the first righthand page begins the dedication “TO THE RIGHT honorable, Edward de Vere, Earle of Oxenford, vicount Bulbecke, Lord of Escales and Baldesmere, and Lord great Chamberlaine of England.” It continues: “It hath been an old controversy in the opinion of the English nation what profession of life is most honorable in worldly states…”

 

De Vere not only acted as the writer’s patron, but also financed the publication; beyond that, he took great interest in this work and likely contributed a great deal to it behind the scenes.

Back in November 1569, when the Northern Rebellion had begun, Oxford wrote to Cecil asking for military service against the powerful Catholic earls of the north.  To the nineteen-year-old earl, such service was the most honorable course.  He told his guardian that at this time I am bold to desire your favour and friendship that you will suffer me to be employed by your means and help in this service that now is in hand.”

He reminded Cecil that “heretofore you have given me your good word to have me see the wars and services in strange and foreign places … Now you will do me so much honour as that by your purchase of my License I may be called to the service of my prince and country …”

In September 1572, after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacrre of Protestants in France, Oxford wrote to Burghley saying he would be eager to serve the Queen on the Continent: “I had rather serve there than at home where yet some honor were to be got; if there be any setting forth to sea, to which service I bear most affection, I shall desire your Lordship to give me and get me that favour and credit, that I might make one.  Which if there be no such intention, then I shall be most willing to be employed on the sea coasts, to be in a readiness with my countrymen against any invasion.”

Oxford never lost his eagerness to serve as a military man, always connecting that activity with honor.  It is easy to imagine him composing Hamlet and having Ophelia cry out,

O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,

The expectancy and rose of the fair state!

Edward Earl of Oxford was all that and much more.

(Note: This post is now No. 59 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford.)

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