Reason 67 of 100 Why the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: Following the Trail of Three Plays of King John

PART ONE: John Bale’s “King Johan” & the Earls of Oxford

Elizabeth Tudor embarked on her royal progress in the summer of 1561, less than three years after her ascendency to the throne at age twenty-five, and in early August the court spent a week at Ipswich, where the Queen attended a performance of King Johan (King John), the first known historical verse drama in English and the first play to present a King of England on stage.

John Bale

John Bale

The author, minister-scholar John Bale (1495-1563), had written the first version of the play by 1537 while in the service of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who helped engineer an annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn.  An active member of Cromwell’s stable of propagandists, Bale managed to turn King John – for centuries a despised monarch, who had surrendered England to the power of the papacy – into a Protestant hero.

A quarter century later, in 1561, the daughter of Anne Boleyn was on the throne and her own chief minister, William Cecil, was just as eager to use the stage for Reformation propaganda; and by now Bale had updated his King Johan in time for the arrival of Elizabeth at Ipswich.  A crucial link between the old morality plays and the new style of drama to come later in the sixteenth century, Bale’s version of John’s reign (1199-1216) presented him as a “good” king struggling against the Pope and the Church of Rome on behalf of England – just as Henry VIII had done and as Elizabeth was doing now.

        King JohnReigned 1199-1216

King John
Reigned 1199-1216

At this point Bale was writing plays for John de Vere, sixteenth Earl of Oxford, whose company of actors performed King Johan for Elizabeth at Ipswich.  Jesse W. Harris, in his 1940 biography of Bale, writes that he was “in the service of Oxford, for whom he wrote a series of plays intended for use as Reformation propaganda.”

Elizabeth’s progress continued to the Vere seat of Castle Hedingham in Essex for a visit of five nights (August 14-19, 1561).  In the great hall of the castle, John de Vere’s players again performed for the royal entourage, most likely with plays Bale had written under the earl’s patronage, including his newly revised play about King John.

On hand for the royal festivities was eleven-year-old Edward de Vere, the future seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who keenly watched  the twenty-seven-year-old Queen’s reactions to the performances; and historians of the future may judge whether this moment marks the true birth of “William Shakespeare” – who, after all, would write plays of English royal history mirroring current political issues.



A year later, upon John de Vere’s death, William Cecil had young Edward brought to London as a royal ward of the Queen in his care.  As Master of the Royal Wards, Cecil also “took possession of all the young noble’s assets,” reports Ruth Loyd Miller (1922-2005) in Oxfordian Vistas, adding:

“Cecil, who had standing orders for his agents on the Continent to supply him with copies of books and publications of interest, would not have failed to appreciate the sixteenth Earl of Oxford’s collection of Bale’s dramatic works, and to move them for safekeeping to Cecil House on the Strand.  Even before Bale’s death (in 1563), Archbishop Matthew Parker and Cecil were aware of the value of Bale’s work, and were involved in efforts to retrieve Bale’s manuscripts from various sources.  Undoubtedly ‘Shakespeare’ saw Bale’s manuscript plays, and undoubtedly he saw them through the eyes of Edward de Vere, who owned many of them, in the Library at Cecil House.”

PART TWO: The Anonymous “Troublesome Reign” & Shakespeare’s “King John”

The next phase of this story begins with the formation of Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1583 at the instigation of secret service head Francis Walsingham, who knew the power of the stage as a means of spreading political propaganda.   Edward de Vere, thirty-three, contributed some of his adult players to the Queen’s Men along with John Lyly, his personal secretary, as stage manager.  And among the company’s history plays – up through 1588, when England defeated the Spanish armada and the Pope – was the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John, printed in 1591 as “publicly acted by the Queen’s Majesty’s Players.”

Troublesome Reignof King John - 1591

Troublesome Reign
of King John – 1591

Seven years later, in late 1598, Francis Meres announced in Palladis Tamia that “Shakespeare” was not only the poet of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, but, also, a playwright.  Meres listed six comedies and six tragedies, the latter including “King John” plus five others, all printed anonymously in this order:  Titus Andronicus in 1594; Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and Richard III in 1597; and Henry IV in 1598.

When Meres listed Shakespeare’s play as King John, wasn’t he referring to the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John printed in 1591?  We might well think so, given that each of the other Shakespeare plays listed “for tragedy” was printed without any author’s name.  So why not the one about King John?  Well, the simple answer is because that play’s previous existence in the 1580’s is too early for William Shakspere of Stratford, the traditional author, to have written it.

Therefore, to make things fit, orthodox scholars tell us that Shakespeare’s play of King John was not the one published in 1591, but, rather, the one printed in the First Folio of 1623 as The Life and Death of King John.  It’s a different text, but virtually all scholars agree – if reluctantly – that the great author surely based his own King John on the earlier anonymous one, Troublesome Reign … which means that he must have been guilty of substantial plagiarism!

Oxfordian researcher Ramon Jimenez writes in the annual Oxfordian of 2010 that both the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John and Shakespeare’s Life and Death of King John “tell the same story in the same sequence of events, with only minor variations … The same characters appear in both plays … [and] Shakespeare’s play contains the same scenes in the same order.”

The only logical conclusion is that both plays were written by the same author, who could not have been the Stratford fellow and must have been Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who first appears in this story at age eleven.

Castle Hedingham -- an interior view

Castle Hedingham — an interior view

Jimenez reports “substantial evidence” that “Shakespeare” wrote Troublesome Reign “at an early age” and then “rewrote it in his middle years” to complete the text of King John printed eventually in the Folio of 1623.  And at this point we might be tempted to announce these facts as “smoking gun” evidence of Oxford’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, but we’ll refrain from that temptation while making one other point:

“No scholar has suggested “that Shakespeare depended on or even knew of John Bale’s King Johan,” writes James A. Morey in The Shakespeare Quarterly of autumn 1994, but, it turns out, “The accounts of the death of John by Shakespeare and Bale are significantly alike” and, for other reasons, it does appear that “Shakespeare” must have had firsthand knowledge of Bale’s play performed by John de Vere’s players for Elizabeth back in 1561 … three years before William of Stratford would be born!

No. 66 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere = “Shakespeare”: Part One: He Was a Man of the Theater All His Life

“You are welcome, masters!  Welcome, all! – I am glad to see thee well – Welcome, good friends – O, old friend!  … Masters, you are all welcome! We’ll e’en to’t like French falconers, fly at anything we see.  We’ll have a speech straight.  Come give us a taste of your quality, come a passionate speech!”

Hamlet_play_scene_croppedHamlet loves the players and is first to greet them as they arrive at the castle to perform at Denmark’s royal court.  The prince is overjoyed to see these actors, who are old friends, many of whom he has known since he was a boy.

And it’s a given that the author who wrote those lines was a man of the theater.  The stage was in his bones.  He was at home with plays and players in their magical world.  He made it his business to learn everything he could about the theater, down to the details of entrances, exits, costume changes, musical interludes, sound effects, laughter, tears, fact, fiction – a mix of talents and skills and hard work in service of the powerful art of bringing stories to life on stage through actions and, above all, the power of words.

actors again

But what was the nature of “Shakespeare’s” involvement in the theater?  Was he, as the orthodox scholar tells us, in the same position as the actors who arrive at the court? Was his love of the stage, as we are told, from the perspective of the common players who receive Hamlet’s greeting?  If the writer of this play was one of those actors, as orthodox tradition would have it, would he express his love for his own colleagues through the prince’s point of view?

Isn’t it far more likely that the author himself was of high rank, and that Hamlet’s greeting to the players is a mirror of his own relationship to them?  That the author himself was accustomed to dealing with actors from the lofty heights of a prince?  That the author wrote Hamlet’s lines to the players based on his own experience, using his own sophisticated voice expressing simultaneous affection and condescension?

Castle Hedingham -- an interior view

Castle Hedingham — an interior view

“Shakespeare” and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford lived in the world of the theater; and this fact is Reason No. 66 to conclude they were one and the same.  But unlike the conjectural flights of Stratfordian biography, all pieces of information about the earl’s connection to the stage are documented facts; and for Oxford, it began when he was a young boy and his father’s company of players — who traveled the countryside in summer, performing in courtyards and inns –arrived at the castle for the winter season to provide entertainment for the long cold evenings.

In the graveyard Hamlet learns that the skull in his hands was that of the King’s jester, Yorick, whom the prince had known during his boyhood.  The jester used to give him rollicking piggyback rides filled with laughter; and the memory is engraved in Hamlet’s mind and heart:

Olivier as Hamlet, with the skull of the jester

Olivier as Hamlet, with the skull of the jester

“Alas, poor Yorick!  I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy!  He hath borne me on his back a thousand times!” 

Edward de Vere most certainly recalled those evenings warmed by flames in the great stone fireplace while the guests of the castle sat around the long table, all keeling over with laughter, as the prince recalls while speaking to Yorick’s skull:

“Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

Part two of this Reason will look at the basic facts showing that Oxford, just as we would expect to find about the author of Hamlet, was a “man of the theater” from the beginning to the end of his life.

The TV Documentary Correspondent for “The Shakespeare Mystery” Now Brings Us a Novel about a TV Documentary Correspondent Making a Documentary in Search of the True Shakespeare

Just finished reading The Cottage, a new mystery-thriller novel by Alan K. Austin — and I zipped through those 217 pages so fast it’s a shame the guy didn’t write it twice as long.  One essential key to any good novel, it seems to me, is to tell it through the sensibilities of some larger-than-life central character…

Alan K. Austin

So Al Austin, the great investigative reporter and correspondent for documentary films who gave us The Shakespeare Mystery broadcast on Frontline (WGBH – PBS) back in the 1990’s, brings alive a fellow named Jack Duncan, a likeable guy whose various strengths and weaknesses keep competing with each other to determine his destiny, and who also happens to be … a great investigator and correspondent who sets off to create a documentary film that might as well be called “The Shakespeare Mystery.”

Austin takes us on the roller-coaster ride of Jack Duncan’s journey to England where he visits a number of places including Stratford upon Avon, birthplace of money-lender William Shakspere, whom academia still calls the greatest writer of the English language; and Castle Hedingham in Essex, birthplace of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, the true poet-dramatist who adopted “William Shakespeare” as a pen name.

Along the way we can feel that we’ve put ourselves in good hands.  Why so?  Well, to put it simply, we can be confident that the author of The Cottage knows what he’s talking about – he’s been there, as the saying goes.  We have no doubt that Austin is opening a window on the world of the documentary filmmaker, where he once lived and worked and earned his living.   Not to mention, of course, that in various ways through Jack Duncan he must be giving us more personal pieces of himself, small and large.

Castle Hedingham, where Edward de Vere was born and raised until age twelve in 1562, when he became a royal ward of Queen Elizabeth (who had visited the castle for five days the year before) in the custody of William Cecil, her chief minister and the future Lord Burghley

And come to think of it, this aspect of writing is one of the bedrocks of the Oxfordian case for Shakespearean authorship – the fact that within the great poems and plays we can see large and small aspects of Edward de Vere’s character and life and even, if you will, pieces of his soul.  We’re talking about some magical combination of experience plus imagination and, in this case, we’re discussing “genius” as well – but please, no miracles!

Austin is also opening a window on the world of the Shakespeare Authorship Question that he himself had investigated, to such great effect that the Frontline documentary did more for the Oxfordian cause than anything since publication of The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in 1984.  (It may be that the film attracted even more favorable attention, given the size of its audience and the power of its impact.)

A. L. Rowse (1903-1997), historian and Stratfordian biographer of Shakespeare

Along the way in Austin’s novel we can see reflections of some familiar figures – for example, in the marvelously drawn character of Dr. Lester Crowne, an authority on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age modeled on the late A.L. Rowse, whose appearance in Austin’s documentary for Frontline supplied one of its many memorable moments:

“The Earl of Oxford was quite talented, he knew Italian, been to Italy,” Rowse said on camera, “and he wrote just a few poems, he never wrote a single play, and he really became a most frightful lightweight.  He was married to the daughter of the great Lord Treasurer, whom he treated awfully badly.  Because in point of fact he was a roaring homo, as Marlowe was and as Bacon was.  I mean it was perfectly obvious William Shakespeare’s plays are full of passionate appreciation and feeling for women, where the Earl of Oxford had none.  Neither had Christopher Marlow – Christopher Marlowe was only interested in the boys, and Francis Bacon had no interest – he was also another homo.  And William Shakespeare you might say was almost abnormally heterosexual – he was only interested in the girls.”

[I must interject here that I always suspected that Dr. Rowse was a closet Oxfordian — that he knew, consciously or perhaps just beneath his conscious mind, that Edward de Vere was the true author.  My reason?  Well, for one thing, he made sure to know everything he could about the earl.]

It was a wonderful speech that made most Oxfordians laugh out loud, given their knowledge that Edward de Vere had been (1) cited as the most excellent of all the courtier poets, (2) named as “best for comedy” among contemporary English playwrights and (3) punished harshly by the Queen for having carried on a secret love affair at Court with one of her Majesty’s own Maids of Honor, Anne Vavasour, who gave birth to their illegitimate son – not quite the usual behavior of a “roaring homo,” as Dr. Rowse told viewers.

Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), author of “The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality”

In the novel Al Austin cites a few Oxfordians by name, among them the late Ogburn Jr., whose strong emotions rose to the surface:

“I think Hamlet was Oxford, and I don’t see how anybody who knows anything about literary creativity can fail to say that the author, whoever he was, has given his picture as Hamlet.  This is written from the inside – things happen in Hamlet not according to a preconceived plot, but as they do in life … I know what it cost him to write these plays.  I know what it cost him to have to give up any hope of being acknowledged as the writer.  God, you read the sonnets, you see it: ‘Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.’ That’s a tragic cry for a man …”

You can read the entire transcript of “The Shakespeare Mystery” online.

But for sheer reading pleasure, you can bring The Cottage with you this summer on vacation and take Jack Duncan’s journey with a great cast of characters, lots of mystery and suspense, some nifty insights as well as information within a fast-paced yarn, and – oh, yeah, loads of laughs!

The Second of 100 Reasons Why Oxford was Shakespeare: Uncle Golding & Ovid!

“Ovid, the love of Shakespeare’s life among Latin poets, made an overwhelming impression upon him, which he carried with him all his days: subjects, themes, characters and phrases haunted his imagination. The bulk of his classical mythology came from the ‘Metamorphoses,’ which he used in the original as well as in Golding’s translation.” –A.L. Rowse, “Shakespeare, The Man” (1973)

I’ve always loved this one.  It was one of the first things I’d tell people around the dinner table, whether they gave a damn or not:

The favorite classical source of the author “Shakespeare” was the literary work of the ancient Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 18).   As our two experts (quoted above) tell us, he drew upon the stories and rhythms and language of Ovid, from the original Latin text and, heavily so, from the English translation of the Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding (1567).  And this same Golding was the young Earl of Oxford’s uncle, living under the same roof with him at Cecil House in the early 1560’s, just when the translating of Ovid’s 15-book masterpiece would have been carried out!

“I mean … come on,” I’d say at the dinner table.  “Ain’t that a hoot? Why are you all looking at me like I’m speaking a foreign language?  Oh, well…”

A lot of times these things are astounding only because of the way in which you come upon them.  In this case, the British schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney put forth hypothetically that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) wrote the Shakespeare works, which are filled with material drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in both the original and the Golding translation of the 1560’s — and then he discovered that Oxford had been physically present at Cecil House in London during the 1560’s, when his Uncle Golding had been acting as his “receiver” for financial affairs and apparently translating the Ovid work.

Hedingham Castle (what’s left of the original), childhood home of Edward de Vere

(John de Vere, the sixteenth Earl of Oxford, died in 1562, when his twelve-year-old son Edward, the future seventeenth earl, left his home at Hedingham Castle in Essex and went to London to live as a royal ward of Queen Elizabeth in the custody of her chief minister William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley.)

I say Golding was “apparently” translating the Ovid because it’s far more likely that it was done by the young earl himself.  Golding was a puritanical sort who translated Calvin’s Psalms of David (which he dedicated to Oxford, his nephew) and would not have been crazy about translating Ovid’s tales of passion and seduction and lovemaking as well as incest by pagan gods and goddesses.  No, he was in every way incapable of it.

Here’s what I wrote about this in 1996, viewing the teenage Edward de Vere as “the young Shakespeare” at work:

“J. Thomas Looney used the phrase ‘long foreground’ for Shakespeare’s formative years, a period of necessary artistic growth and development which has always been totally missing from Stratfordian biography.  Unless he was a god with miraculous powers, the sophisticated English poet who wrote ‘Venus and Adonis’ went through much trial and error, creating a
substantial body of apprenticeship work beforehand.  By all logic Shakespeare must have begun translating Ovid in his earliest years, becoming thoroughly grounded in his old tales.  He would have labored over the original texts and ‘tried on’ various English nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, inventing new ones along the way; and in the process he would have acquired his astounding vocabulary of some 25,000 words, more than twice the size of Milton’s.”

The ancient Roman poet Ovid

And here is what Looney wrote in 1920 about the nature of some “discoveries” such as this one about Edward de Vere and Shakespeare’s favorite poet Ovid:

“The force of a conviction is frequently due as much to the intrinsic value of the evidence.  For example, when a theory, what we have formed from a consideration of certain facts, leads us to suppose that certain other facts will exist, the later discovery that the facts are actually in accordance with our inferences becomes a much stronger confirmation of our theory than if we had known these additional facts at the outset.  We state this principle in matters of science when we affirm that the supreme test and evidence of the soundness of a scientific theory is its power of enabling us to foresee some events as a consequence of others.  The manner, therefore, in which facts and ideas have been arrived at becomes itself an important element in the evidence.”‘Shakespeare’ Identified, 1920

“Shakespeare” Identified by J. Thomas Looney, 1920

So that’s the second of the first 100 reasons I conclude that Oxford was Shakespeare…

If there was any evidence of this kind in the life of William Shakspere of Stratford, would there be an authorship question?  I doubt it.  But such is the power of traditional thinking that, despite the fact that such evidence exists in Oxford’s life, the academic folks in the ivory tower won’t even consider it.

Another thought — which I should bring up in a separate blog, but I’d rather deal with it right here.  The orthodox camp loves to say that the doubters of Shakspere’s authorship are “creationists.”  Well, that’s ridiculous.  If anything in that metaphorical equation we’re evolutionists. The biblical creationists came first, as did the traditional Stratfordians; the evolutionists came later, just as we Oxfordians came later.

Stratfordians, echoing creationists, believe in the miracle of genius when it comes to Shakespeare’s vast knowledge and skill; we Oxfordians, echoing evolutionists, know that such amazing knowledge, skill and insight can be acquired — even by a genius — only through long development based on much learning and experience and painfully acquired artistic growth.  That they would stoop to calling us a name that should actually be applied to themselves is a measure of their growing desperation…

Cheers from Hank!

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