“Macbeth” is No. 86 of 100 Reasons Why the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

The official record states that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford died in 1604. Was the play “Macbeth” inspired by the Gunpowder Plot against James I and Parliament in 1605 and the subsequent treason-and-equivocation trial of Jesuit priest Henry Garnet in 1606, thereby ruling out Oxford as the author? The answer, in a word, is …. No!

An enormous amount of work on “Macbeth” – all pointing away from that oft-repeated dating of the play – has been done by traditional scholars and Oxfordian researchers alike. Among the latter, Richard Whalen has compiled powerful arguments in both a paper published in the 2003 issue of “The Oxfordian” (available online) and in the second edition of “Macbeth” (under his editorship) as part of the Oxfordian Shakespeare Series.

Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart, 2007)

Lady Macbeth and Macbeth
(Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart, 2007)

No. 86 of these 100 reasons to conclude that Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare” is the evidence, as Whalen writes, “that it was Oxford who wrote and rewrote Macbeth many years before James became King of England.”

1567: The Murder of Darnley
In February 1567, when Oxford was not yet seventeen, the Elizabethan court learned that Henry Stewart Lord Darnley, husband of Mary Queen of Scots and King Consort of Scotland, had been assassinated. Darnley’s death at Kirk o’ Field was preceded by gunpowder explosions beneath the room where he slept; he and his valet escaped the blasts only to be strangled to death; and later their bodies were found in the orchard, mysteriously surrounded by a cloak, a dagger, a chair and a coat.

Oxford, enrolled at Gray’s Inn for law, was still a royal ward in the custody of William Cecil, whose informants in Scotland were sending streams of updated intelligence. Young De Vere had a ringside seat as the gruesome details became urgent topics at court and Cecil House. Cecil’s vision for military security called for a peaceful Scotland sympathetic to England, but now that country was on the brink of civil war.

Contemporary Sketch of the Darnley murder with  "floating dagger" at top right corner

Contemporary Sketch of the Darnley murder with “floating dagger” at top right corner

Darnley’s assassination reportedly had been engineered by Mary’s chief advisor and lover, the ambitious Earl of Bothwell. Other intelligence held that she was the responsible party, having lured her husband into a vulnerable position on the pretext that the “wholesome air” would be good for his health – a notable detail of Macbeth. Cecil’s agents sent a sketch of the crime scene, circulated in Scotland, showing a gate and Darnley’s body and a “floating dagger” – key features of the Shakespearean play.

Agents reported that Mary had been so traumatized by fear and horror that she had fallen into a trance – not unlike that of Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play. Then came news she had married Bothwell, the murderer, and that many assumed they had planned it together – ready models for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who plan the murder of King Duncan. Soon enough Mary was forced to abdicate and her baby son by Darnley, born in 1566, was crowned James VI of Scotland.

Plays of Seneca such as Agamemnon and Medea had recently been translated at Cambridge, where De Vere had received an honorary degree. “Most of the Elizabethan writers of tragedy are purely Senecan in their use of rhetoric, of violent action, and of horror,” writes Eric C. Baade, editor of Seneca’s Tragedies (Classics of Greece and Rome series, 1969), “and even the works of Shakespeare, which transcend all influences, show strong Senecan elements.”

1568: “The Tragedy of the King of Scots”
On March 3, 1568 an anonymous stage work The Tragedy of the King of Scots [now lost] was performed for Queen Elizabeth by the Children of Her Majesty’s Chapel – a boys’ company of which Oxford would become the patron. The murdered monarch might have been the ancient Macbeth or “any other King of Scotland,” Charlotte Stopes writes in Shakespeare’s Industry (1916), indicating the play could have been an early source of Shakespeare’s play. “It might even have represented the death of Darnley,” she adds.

Given that Oxford had been privy to new translations of Seneca’s bloody tragedies, and now to the real-life Senecan horrors in Scotland, wasn’t he as likely as anyone to write such a topical play for the Queen?

1577: Raphael Holinshed and his “Chronicles”
The main source for Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the 1577 edition of Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed, dedicated to Cecil, who had become Lord Burghley and Oxford’s father-in-law in 1571. Back in July 1567, when Oxford had killed an under-cook while practicing his fencing, Cecil had called upon “Randolph” Holinshed to serve on the jury that ruled the victim had run upon the point of Oxford’s sword, committing suicide. Alan Nelson, De Vere’s Stratfordian biographer (Monstrous Adversary, 2003), has no doubt it was Holinshed the chronicler (whom he calls Cecil’s “protégé”) on the jury.

Holinshed's "Chronicles" 1577

Holinshed’s “Chronicles”

Oxford and Raphael Holinshed were both connected to Burghley and would have known each other early on; and the young earl’s interest in history would have made him extremely curious about the chronicler’s work-in-progress. [Oxford’s uncle Arthur Golding had written to him in 1564 about “how earnest a desire your honor hath naturally grafted in you to read, peruse, and communicate with others as well the histories of ancient times…”] So it stands to reason that he was privy to the Scottish history for Macbeth in Holinshed’s Chronicles while Holinshed himself was writing it!

The historical Macbeth, who died in 1057, led a rebellion against King Duncan and defeated him at Dunsinane. He ruled Scotland for the next seventeen years until he was defeated and killed by Malcolm’s rebel forces. Holinshed’s work was by no means the original source; he derived Macbeth’s story from Hector Boece’s History of Scotland, a Latin chronicle published in 1526 and translated into the Scottish vernacular in 1535 by William Stewart, who embellished it with details drawn upon directly by the author of Macbeth.

1570: Personal Experience in Scotland
The author of Macbeth knows so much about Scotland that he must be drawing from personal experience. “I must consider the strong evidence of Shakespeare’s acquaintance with the scenes he described,” Stopes writes. “No Englishman who had not visited Inverness, and experienced the unexpected mildness of its northern climate, would have thought of describing it as pleasant, delicate, or of noting the martins and their nests…

“Nor would he have changed ‘the green lawn’ of Holinshed and ‘the pleasant wood’ of other writers into the blasted heath near Forres, as the spot where the witches appeared, unless he had seen some such moors lying gaunt and terrible, as witnesses of past winter storms. I can hardly imagine an Englishman who had not visited Scotland dreaming of using the peculiarly Scottish idiom ‘How far is it called to Forres ?’ It is possible, and even probable that Shakespeare visited Scotland…”

Edward de Vere spent several months in Scotland during 1570, serving under the Earl of Sussex in the military campaign against the Northern Rebellion of powerful Catholic earls, who had planned to bring their armies down to London — in order to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who had become a captive in England after fleeing Scotland in 1568.

1572: Assassination and Massacre in France
Critics have compared Lady Macbeth with Catherine de’ Medici, who plotted with Catholic noblemen in France to murder her wedding guests in August 1572, triggering the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestant Huguenots and their leader, Admiral Coligny, as noted by the University of California:

“It is quite likely that details of the murders by Shakespeare’s Macbeth were taken from accounts of this massacre. Like Lady Macbeth, Catherine de Medici was the driving force behind the King of France, her son, when he approved Coligny’s assassination, as Lady Macbeth forced Macbeth to kill Duncan … Catherine de Medici used a church bell as the signal to kill Coligny. In the play, Macbeth has Lady Macbeth ring a bell as a signal to kill Duncan … The neurotic reactions of King Charles IX after the Massacre resemble Macbeth’s neuroses …”

Oxford was on progress with Elizabeth when, in September, they learned the full details of the massacre. He wrote to Lord Treasurer Burghley, “I would to God your Lordship would let me understand some of your news, which here doth ring doubtfully in the ears of every man, of the murder of the Admiral of France,” continuing in a highly emotional state about the tragedy and pledging his complete support.

Edward de Vere was learning about the assassination and massacre in detail when this very possible contemporary source of Macbeth was sending shock waves through the English court. In his letter he compared Burghley to the slain Coligny: “And think, if the Admiral in France was an eyesore or beam in the eyes of the Papists, then the Lord Treasurer of England is a block and a crossbar in their way.”

1574: Supper with Lady Lennox
Lord Darnley was the eldest surviving son of Mathew Stuart, fourth Earl of Lennox and Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. When Darnley was assassinated, Lennox was the most ardent pursuant of justice against Bothwell and other lords who had conspired in the murder.

Although Lord and Lady Lennox are never mentioned by Holinshed, both appear in Macbeth [Lady Lennox is in the First Folio text, but editors have removed her as insignificant]. And just as the contemporary Lennox demanded justice for the murder of his son, Lennox in the Shakespeare play is a pivotal character who gradually questions Macbeth’s tyrannical rule. Giving voice to the anger felt by other Scottish nobles, he prays that “a swift blessing may soon return to this our suffering country under a hand accursed!”

Darnley’s father Lord Lennox was killed in Scotland in 1571, possibly also the victim of assassination. In his diary Burghley recorded that on September 19 and 20, 1574, he held supper parties at his Theobalds estate attended by Oxford and Lady Lennox, who would have had much to say about her son’s assassination.

1575: The French Royal Court
Oxford spent most of March 1575 in France, where he was presented to King Henry III, the fourth son of Catherine de’ Medici. Three years earlier, Henry was involved in the plot for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Once again Oxford was brought into personal contact with individuals linked to an event perceived as Shakespeare’s contemporary source for Macbeth.

1588-89: Assassinations in France
Henry III of France, whom Oxford had met in 1575, assassinated the Duke of Guise, on December 23, 1588. The weak son of Catherine de’ Medici had lured the popular Guise to his Chateau of Blois, while his mother was inside – and once inside he was murdered by the royal guard. [The King himself was the victim of an assassination on August 1, 1589, naming Henry of Navarre his successor before he died.]

Catherine de' Medici  1519 - 1589  (Portrait by Francois Clouet, 1515 - 1572)

Catherine de’ Medici
1519 – 1589
(Portrait by Francois Clouet, 1515 – 1572)

Oxfordian scholar Eva Turner Clark, in Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays (1931), observed “many points in common” between the Killing of Duncan by Macbeth and the murder of Guise by Henry III, leading her to believe the play was written in 1589, shortly after the King himself was murdered. She cites “the power and influence” of Catherine De’ Medici, who was inside the Chateau of Blois in France when the murder took place, just as Lady Macbeth is in Macbeth’s Castle in Scotland during the murder of Duncan.

The fact that “Macbeth” was never printed until the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623 may be a sign it was never written to flatter King James at any time, especially after he became King of England in 1603. For one thing, given that his father had been strangled to death in 1567 and his captive mother Mary Stuart had been beheaded in 1587, James was understandably terrified of assassination or any kind of violent death, and probably would have fled from the theater!

Also, the orthodox idea that the play was based on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 becomes absurd under examination. As Richard Whalen writes, that event allegedly involved a plan “by a gang of Roman Catholic radicals – none of whom was in any position to take power – to massacre the whole government of Great Britain, including King James, in a gigantic explosion of gunpowder under Parliament during a ceremonial meeting in broad daylight. Thousands might have been killed. In contrast, Macbeth, ambitious to gain the throne, stabs his guest, King Duncan, in the night while he sleeps alone in his bed. The two regicides could hardly have been more different.”

What about the charges of “equivocation” – dissembling under oath, to avoid the sin of lying – against Father Garnet in 1606 and the appearance of that term in “Macbeth”? “Although equivocation and witchcraft certainly influenced the playwright,” Whalen writes, “neither was specific to the early 1600s. Equivocation had been notorious for years. A decade earlier, it was a principal accusation in the trial of Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest … Similarly, witchcraft and witch hunts were notorious long before James became King of England.”

Moreover, Whalen observes that it “strains belief to suggest that an English actor/playwright would celebrate the new Scottish king of England by writing a gloomy, violent, bloody tragedy depicting the assassination of a Scottish king that is instigated by witches. That’s not the way playwrights, especially commoners, celebrate their monarchs. Nor is it credible that the king’s own acting company would dare to perform it. There is no documentary evidence that James ever saw the play, read it or even heard about it, much less felt celebrated.”


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