Oxford in “Shakespeare Quarterly”: The Dutton Brothers & The Queen’s Men

In the throes of a pandemic comes the Spring 2019 issue of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Quarterly, delayed by problems in manufacturing; but no matter: a quick look at the contents page indicates that one of its articles undoubtedly mentions Edward de Vere.

Matthew Steggle, a Professor of Early Modern English Literature at the University of Bristol, UK, offers a well-researched piece titled “John and Laurence Dutton, Leaders of the Queen’s Men,” unwittingly supplying more evidence that mainstream scholars are inexorably moving “Shakespeare” and the Earl of Oxford closer together. How long will it be before they realize that the two were one and the same?

In addition to supplying new information about the Dutton brothers, Steggle includes the known history that in 1580 they moved with the rest of Warwick’s actors to Oxford’s company; and that “it was as one of Oxford’s Men that Laurence became involved in a brawl at the Theatre in April of that year.” Then in 1583, John Dutton was moved from Oxford’s Men to the newly formed Queen’s Men as one of the company’s founding players

The Queen’s Men soon dominated performances at Elizabeth’s court and began relentlessly touring the country. Steggle reports that the Duttons performed both at court and on tour for the company during that decade; and “between 1588 and 1593 they were co-leaders of the Queen’s Men, the most significant theatre company of its era.” It appears the brothers “were in charge of that company when it produced many of the best-known of its nine surviving plays. And if as is widely thought, Shakespeare was involved with the Queen’s Men in some way in his early career, then he would have had to work with the Duttons.”

I have placed that last sentence in italics to highlight how this conjecture (that Will Shakspere may have spent his “lost years” with the Queen’s Men) is now “widely thought” by current scholars to be true. If past practices are followed, it will not be long before the conjecture is offered to the world as fact.

We have seen this coming ever since Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean published their seminal work The Queen’s Men and Their Plays in 1998, stating: “The plots of no fewer than six of Shakespeare’s known plays are closely related to the plots of plays performed by the Queen’s Men.” They suggest, therefore, that the great author may have acted in those histories in the 1580s and memorized their lines, enabling him to plagiarize them for his own versions in the 1590s!  The young man from Stratford-upon-Avon also may have collaborated on those early plays for the Queen’s Men! After all, how else could he come up with the same plots with similar scenes and even dialogue?

ln his 1928 documentary biography of Oxford, B.M. Ward called attention to the earl’s association with the Dutton brothers. In 1583, when John Dutton was moved into the Queen’s Men, the company made its first court appearance in that Christmas season.  “On January 1st a performance was given by Oxford’s Men,” Ward writes, “and as John Lyly [the earl’s secretary] appears in the Chamber Accounts as payee for the company on that date, there is every reason to believe, with Edmund Chambers, that the play acted was Lyly’s Campaspe. On March 3rd both Oxford’s and the Queen’s men performed; once again Lyly was payee for Oxford’s, and Sir Edmund confidently conjectures that the play acted was Sapho and Phao.”

“It seems unreasonable to suppose that two plays were presented on this day,” Ward continues (with my emphasis). “The most likely solution, therefore, would be that the two companies were amalgamated and rehearsed by Lord Oxford’s private secretary John Lyly, the author of the play. No other adult companies besides these two appeared at Court during this season.”

Ward suggests that Oxford “loaned” Lyly as stage manager and coach for Elizabeth’s new company. Lyly continued in Oxford’s service through the 1580s while also maintaining some “unofficial capacity” with the Queen’s Men. All of this brings Oxford into contact with that same company and its early versions of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Added to this picture is Elizabeth’s grant to Oxford, in 1586, at the height of wartime preparations for the Spanish Armada. The grant consisted of one thousand pounds per year, paid according to the same formula used to provide funds for Secretary Francis Walsingham and his secret service. Among Walsingham’s activities was use of the Queen’s Men for patriotic propaganda and the enlistment of its actors as informants, reporting on what they saw and heard around the English countryside while on tour.

As the Shakespeare scholars make their way down the biographical timeline of Will Shakspere, back down into the 1580s, they keep bumping into Edward de Vere and his associates such as Anthony Munday and Thomas Watson, among other writers including those working with the earl at Fisher’s Folly; and they also keep bumping into those early versions of the Shakespearean history plays. Dare they suggest he collaborated on, say, The Troublesome Reign of King John or The True Tragedy of Richard III?  Once out on a long limb, there is little choice but to keep crawling farther out until it breaks; and when it does, they will fall straight down to where Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the true author of those plays (both early and later versions) has been waiting.


Note: Here is what our mainstream brethren might read to see the latest scholarship on this issue from a point of view other than their own: the splendid work of Ramon Jimenez published in 2018:



Shakespeare and the “Black Hole” of Stratfordian Biography … A Paradigm in Crisis

Along with the several other Oxfordian colleagues at the Folger Library’s recent conference on the “problem” of Shakespearean biography, I kept saying I was “bemused” – that is, in the sense of being lost in thought, preoccupied, on the edge of confusion and bewilderment. The latter feeling came from the continually reverberating thought: “Can they be serious? Don’t they realize the ‘problem’ is simply that they have the wrong author? How can they go on like this?

And then, of course, came the continual realization that they can go on like this precisely because they are insulated from reality and constantly reinforcing that insulation among each other. Behind it all is money, prestige, reputation, career, camaraderie, being accepted, even being famous – and behind that is the terrible unspoken fear of looking out the window and catching a glimpse of the teeming life of Elizabethan politics and power as well as pervasive state control … that is, the kind of world in England that Prince Hamlet inhabited in Denmark.

Oxfordians at the Folger: Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter & Hank Whittemore

Oxfordians at the Folger: Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter & Hank Whittemore – Photo by Bill Boyle

A common theme among the Oxfordians was, “We are in the Twilight Zone,” but I became fond of murmuring that we were unlikely visitors to the constructed stage set of The Truman Show, in which all the players (in the Jim Carey movie) are totally unaware of living within an ongoing fictional universe. They are dealing with the “problem” of relating the banal biography of William Shaksper of Stratford to the glorious Works of Shakespeare, recognizing, publicly and collectively, for the first time, that they have a dreadful “black hole” on their hands.

If I were one of them giving an extemporaneous comment I might stand up and say something along the following lines:

“Fellow Stratfordians!

“We are gathered here at the Folger Shakespeare Library on this historic occasion to finally admit that all we really know for certain about William Shaksper in relation to the plays is … nothing. Yes, we link him to the Shakespeare name on the poems and plays, but beyond that we have no information except for anecdotal material, which, we now understand, is without any documentary foundation. All we have is inference and indirection!

“So, therefore, do we look outside the walls of this Truman Show to see whether we might be living in a fictional world? Do we dare look out the window at, say, the Earl of Oxford using “Shakespeare” as a pen name in 1593, at the age of forty-three? Do we want to recognize Prince Hamlet as the author’s closest self-portrait? Do we want to realize that Hamlet represents Edward de Vere?

“No, we do not! We are going to stay right inside this bubble, symbolized by this theater inside the Folger, and discuss how to keep on spinning straw into gold. We can make him a Catholic, to one degree or another. We can give him plenty of collaborators, one by one, thereby expanding his ‘biography’ by ever-increasing additional lives. We can posit that others read Italian and Greek sources for him; we might even have him use special reporters traveling to Italy and returning with information for him. We can give him an incredibly rich life with Anne Hathaway, who might have been … Portia in The Merchant of Venice??? And of course we have the whole new field of ‘historical fiction’ that Professor Stephen Greenblatt has virtually opened for us with Will in the World.

“The emptier the life of our man, the greater our freedom to manufacture one for him. His life is, in fact, a BLACK HOLE. It has always been a reconstruction after the fact – we have reinvented him over and over. The very lack of his identity is the perfect container for what we put into it!”

Whoa, wait a minute now, it seems that I have begun to actually quote the speakers at this conference. The common theme is that Shaksper’s life has been perceived as not sufficient to explain the glorious writings: “What we know is banal – we have historical records of the greatest banality — and it amounts to too much minutia. We have a haunting sense of ABSENCE in that life. If he wasn’t Shakespeare, we wouldn’t care to talk about him.”

I wanted to raise my hand, of course, and yell out, “That’s because he WASN’T Shakespeare!”

“We have information of the wrong kind,” it was said. “We can start with him being born with the Folio, in 1623, seven years after his death, and so begins an AFTER-LIFE.” And what a great after-life that is, I thought, as I lapsed into further bemusement.
“We have a genuine need to understand the relationship of his life and work, but we need to speculate. We can knit together scraps of information … We used to believe the text was sufficient unto itself ….”

Okay, I can’t go on much longer right now. They are trying to stay within the traditional paradigm, thrashing about to make it work, but the very fact of having a conference on the Problem of Biography is direct evidence that the paradigm is in trouble. It’s trembling, as if an earthquake is coming. There was recognition that the howling of Lear was outside the walls of this Truman Show … that there is some great storm of an emotional life beneath the works, which this current paradigm cannot explain.

“There is a large universe that is unknown to us,” said Joseph Roach of Yale, who may have been the best speaker of all, since he seemed to refuse to join the game of trying to make sense of the very small universe of the current paradigm. He added, “Shakespeare’s life is in his plays.”


(Meanwhile I’ll try to write again when more of the bemusement wears off.)

“Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” – Historic Conference at the Folger Library – Does it Signal that the Current Paradigm is in Trouble?

Dozens of Shakespeare scholars and students will be in Washington, D.C., at the Folger Shakespeare Library this week for a two-day series of lectures that may come to be seen as truly historic. The topic of the conference, after all, is Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography

Did we know that the orthodox community has acknowledged a “problem” in the first place? The Folger’s online blurb calls the conference a “rigorous investigation of the multiple – and conflicted – roles biography plays in the reception of Shakespeare today.”

The Folger Shakespeare Library - Washington, D.C.

The Folger Shakespeare Library – Washington, D.C.

Some one hundred and forty persons have reserved seats to attend the lectures, to be held inside the Folger’s Tudor-style theater; and at this point enrollments are closed. The collaborative research conference, funded by the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), will begin Thursday evening with Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York, delivering Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture 2014, entitled Shakespeare, Biography and Anti-Biography.

According to the overview of his talk, “The biography of Shakespeare is a paradox. Is he our greatest author precisely because we know so little about him, and his life remains a mystery? Shakespeare is at once a figure of cultural saturation and an indefinable enigma,” the overview continues. “We see him everywhere, yet we keep on looking for more … Do we feel our lack of knowledge so painfully because it relates to a figure we care so much about?”

Folger Theatre

Folger Theatre

Professor Cummings will discuss “the problem of writing the life of Shakespeare in terms of documentary history and its haunting sense of missing links,” suggesting that perhaps “the reading of a writer creates a life of its own, somewhere between writer and reader, in the mystery that constitutes the act of literature.”

This may be an unspoken acknowledgment that life inside the paradigm of tradition is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. My only comment right now is that, in my view, escaping this purgatory will require its inhabitants to step outside the current paradigm. Only then will it be possible to look around to see what’s in the new landscape.

A conference schedule posted in December (but which I can no longer find at the Folger website) states that the goal is to pursue “a fresh critical evaluation of the aims and methods of literary biography.” An acknowledged problem is that “textual analysis” within the academic establishment “often denies biography and explanatory force, while popular conceptions of Shakespeare look to biography precisely for insight into the works. In the standoff, the genre of literary biography is lost as a subject of serious inquiry.”

Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere
17th Earl of Oxford

Here we might discern some pressure from those of us who view Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author – pressure to find new ways of using the Stratford paradigm to gain explanations and insights. We can predict some interesting attempts in the coming years to achieve such results – for example, attempts to bring in more writers with whom Shakespeare allegedly “collaborated” on his plays. When the real-life stories of these writers are added to the wholly inadequate life of William Shaksper, think of the possibilities for more and different “traditional” biography!

“A cadre of influential scholars, many of whom have written biographies of Shakespeare, will focus discussion” on topics such as:

• The distinctions between authorship and agency
• The interpretations of documentary evidence
• The impact of methods of dating texts on an understanding of Shakespeare’s life
• The broadened context for that life of a more robust understanding of theatrical activity
• The possibility that biography is itself a form of historical fiction

All this is certainly interesting for anyone involved in the authorship question, and we owe thanks to the NEH and the Folger Shakespeare Library for holding the conference. In my view, however, these lectures signal that the current biographical paradigm is beginning to fall apart – whether or not the participants realize or acknowledge it.

Within the current paradigm there are too many anomalies – things that don’t make sense — too many holes. I believe that, without anyone saying it aloud, we are moving away from the orthodox view and into a turbulent but healthy (and long overdue) middle period of chaos, argument, confusion and shifting views — to continue for probably a long time until a new paradigm is finally adopted.

On Friday there will be talks on:

The Genre of Literary Biography
(Lawrence Goldman, Professor of History at the University of Oxford; and Ian Donaldson, Emeritus Professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne)
The History of Biographies of Shakespeare
(Jack Lynch, Acting Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University; and Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theatre and English at Yale University)

Graham Holderness

Graham Holderness

Rethinking the Documentary Evidence
(Graham Holderness, Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, speaking on “Everyone and No-one: Fact, Tradition, and Invention in Shakespeare Biography”; and Lena Crown Orlin, Professor of English at Georgetown University)

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt

On Saturday there will be talks on:

Biography, Theater, History
(Lois Potter, Emerita Ned B. Allen Professor of English at the University of Delaware; and Margeta de Grazia, Emerita Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania)
Who Are We Looking For? (Portraiture)
(Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Sixteenth Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery; and Julia Reinhard Lupton, Professor of English and Interim Chair at the University of California, Irvine)
What Do We Expect of the Author?
(John Drakakis, Professor of Literature and Language at the University of Stirling; and William H. Sherman, Professor of English at the University of York)

Katherine Duncan-Jones

Katherine Duncan-Jones

Where Are We Now?
(Katherine Duncan-Jones, Professor of English at the University of Oxford, with a talk entitled “Full Circle: Biography and Literature”; and Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, and author of Will in the World (2004), whose topic is “Stories about the Dead”)

I’ll report back any answers to “Where are we now?”

But just to have the question put forth in this setting is, as mentioned, truly historic.

%d bloggers like this: