In the Shakespeare play All’s Well That Ends Well, the leading male character is Bertram, Count of Rousillion, a young French nobleman whose callous self-absorption leads to bad behavior toward his wife; and in many respects Bertram is a representation of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) when he was a young English nobleman whose callous self-absorption led to bad behavior toward his wife.
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.
A now-lost stage work entitled The Historie of the Rape of the Second Helene, recorded as performed at Richmond Palace on January 6, 1579 might have been an early version of All’s Well That Ends Well, which made its initial appearance as printed in the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in1623.
If the play performed at Richmond was in fact an early draft of All’s Well, observes William Farina in De Vere as Shakespeare [see below], “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 of 1579 would have been written solely for Queen Elizabeth and the privileged members of her royal court, who would have quickly understood its contemporary allusions and jests that only “insiders” could appreciate.
A revised version for the public playhouse in the 1590’s may have been the “unknown” Shakespeare comedy that Francis Meres referred to in Palladis Tamia (1598) as Love labours wonne.
[There is no recorded performance of a play entitled All’s Well That Ends Well until 1741.]
All’s Well is Reason Number 16 why it’s easy to believe that the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) was the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Following are just some of the ways in which Bertram appears to reflect Oxford’s own character and experience:
THE ROYAL WARD
When Oxford was twelve in 1562 his father died and he was summoned to London as a royal ward of Queen Elizabeth, in subjection to her Majesty while in the custody William Cecil, her chief minister; and when All’s Well begins we find that 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.
When Edward de Vere came of age in 1571 at twenty-one, a marriage was arranged for him and Cecil’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Anne Cecil, a commoner. When Bertram is leaving behind the young Helena, a commoner’s daughter who had fallen in love with him, she wails:
“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.”
In the play the King promises to elevate Helena to a title 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
Oxford hungered for 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 that 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 Bertram:
“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 the Queen sent for him on the Continent and he returned three weeks later.
Oxford received authorization to travel in early 1575 and spent more than fifteen months in France, Germany and Italy, making his home base in Venice. Back in England, when Oxford’s wife revealed she was pregnant, Queen 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!” But a bit later she repeated the promise Oxford had given her “openly in the presence chamber,” which was “that if she [Anne] were with child, it was not his!” *
* (In a letter from Dr. Richard Master, a court physician, to Lord Burghley on March 7, 1575, while Oxford was at the French Court in Paris. See Monstrous Adversary by Alan Nelson, p. 122)
In other words, he had promised the Queen that he would not sleep with his wife; and we find Bertram saying 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.’”
THE BED TRICK
In the play Bertram fathers a son by means of a “bed trick” or scheme hatched by Helena — whereby another woman goes to bed with him and then Helena trades places with her. In a book called The Histories of Essex (1836) some gossip of remarkably similar details is recorded about not only Oxford and Anne but also involving her father, Lord Burghley:
“[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 actually gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth Vere, in 1575.]
And in a memoir by the Master of the Horse to Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery [who married Oxford’s youngest daughter, Susan], he refers 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 so-called bed trick also appears in Measure for Measure.
There’s a great deal more about All’s Well That Ends Well, including a backdrop of the wars in the Netherlands between Spain and the Dutch in the 1570’s, 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.”
But I must end this blog post before even attempting to summarize the various other levels and sources and parallels. What’s clear, I’d say, is that we have yet another link in the chain of evidence that Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare.
Here are some links for further information (and delight):
Dr. Michael Delahoyde, Washington State University – you won’t find on the Internet a better synopsis of the entire play from an Oxfordian standpoint.
Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays by Eva Turner Clark – a pioneering work by one of the great Oxfordians, published in 1930 as Shakespeare’s Plays in the Order of Their Writing; third edition in 1974 by Ruth Loyd Miller, another great Oxfordian; Kennikat Press, Port Washington, NY (Go to Minos Publishing Company)
De Vere as Shakespeare: An Oxfordian Reading of the Canon by William Farina; McFarland & Company, 2006 – A good resource for anyone interested in the Oxford theory of authorship, with Chapter 12 devoted to All’s Well That Ends Well.
The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr., published in 1984, with an updated second edition in 1992 – the book that singlehandedly revived the Oxfordian movement.
Dating Shakespeare’s Plays: A Critical Review of the Evidence, edited by Kevin Gilvary, for the De Vere Society, 2010, published in the UK by Parapress – a tremendous new work that may well be an essential guide to the chronology of the plays
(Note: Another source of All’s Well is William Painter’s English translation of Decameron published in 1566, when Oxford was sixteen and graduating from Oxford University; but some details in the play demonstrate that “Shakespeare” had also read the original Italian version. The Oxfordian researcher Nina Green has recently discovered that William Painter was an investor in the Frobisher voyages of the late 1570’s, as Oxford was, and therefore it’s very likely that the two men knew each other.)