Novel Oxfords: Two fictive biographies presenting Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare"
Morton, Peter. "Novel Oxfords: Two fictive biographies presenting Edward de Vere as 'Shakespeare.'" Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 6.1-19 URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-2/mortoxf.htm.
The biographer Samuel Schoenbaum once conceded that it is not the number of facts that we have about Shakespeare that is the problem -- it is, rather, "the nature of the record that mainly leaves us dissatisfied."  Many feel that dissatisfaction and, despite Schoenbaum, who was no friend of fictional Swans of Avon, they look to the novelists to help them assuage it. Nor have they looked in vain: O'Sullivan lists 80-odd novels and plays with Shakespeare as a central figure published in the two hundred years up to 1987,  and the total by now must be well over a hundred.  The majority are forgotten, but a few are works of quality in their own right: Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (1964) and Shakespeare's Dog by Leon Rooke (1983); perhaps Bingo by Edward Bond (1974) or even Tom Stoppard's film script Shakespeare in Love (1998).
Fictions portraying other Shakespeare claimants are much rarer. Yet, for the Oxfordians at least, it is becoming obvious that insofar as a case for their man can be made using the primary documents, it has been made. Every fact has been extracted; every speculation, every item of gossip, has been weighed and evaluated. We cannot be absolutely sure that the well of record is dry, but it probably is. Perhaps for Oxford too it is time to take a look at the resources of fiction. "If you want the truth, don't go to an historian," said Gerald Brenan. "Only a novelist can give you that."
Two novels which purport to offer "the truth" about Oxford's career are Andrew Field's The Lost Chronicle of Edward de Vere (1990)  and Absent Thee from Felicity (1975)  by Rhoda Henry Messner. Field is an Australian academic and biographer; Messner has apparently published nothing else.  These two have the field almost to themselves.  The dearth is rather surprising; for, after all, what a story there is in Oxford's life! As Irvin Matus says, the arid Stratfordian records are "hardly a match for . . . a melancholy nobleman, resigned to the offspring of his genius being stepfathered by a bumpkin, roaming through a romantically ruined castle."  Even if we put aside the Shakespeare claim, we can add a lot to Matus' recipe: piracy, street brawling, manslaughter, bankruptcy, seduction, adultery, betrayals, allegations of murder, treason and pederasty, and the imprisonment of hero and mistress in the Tower. Any competent historical novelist ought to be able to make a lively bodice-ripper out of materials like these.
Sad to report, neither Field nor Messner can handle even this basic job. Neither succeeds in bringing alive what must have been a deeply unattractive personality, even though they try to rehabilitate Oxford's terrible reputation, including his betrayal of his Catholic friends and his appalling treatment of his wife and mistress, by using secondary sources friendly to him.  Field gives us an Edward de Vere who is a lovable rogue unfortunately afflicted by fits of manic depression which cause his amorous and financial difficulties. Messner's man is an ineffectual, rather querulous dreamer quite incapable of the gamier activities of Oxford's life, many of which she discreetly omits. In neither case do we see any trace of the bore who spent five of his last years -- the years when he was supposedly writing King Lear and Hamlet -- pursuing government concessions in tin mining.
Nor are our novelists capable of evoking Oxford's milieu. Both have only a shaky grasp on the historical background, although the errors are more glaring in Field's novel, which takes far more risks. The Lost Chronicle represents itself as a 'genuine' autobiography now edited by one "A.F." after "the manuscript . . . was discovered by chance in April 1990 . . . in a secret drawer of a desk." It starts in May 1604  and Oxford, dying of an infection caught when he went to the Globe to watch 'his' Antony and Cleopatra, is scribbling his life story and apologia. Field makes things difficult for himself by having to devise a convincing confessional voice, which presents huge problems of tone, style and especially vocabulary.  Words which he puts into Oxford's mouth like internecine, dramaturgy and bribable date from the age of Dr Johnson, not Ben Jonson. Even more extreme misplacements are reptilian and synchronization, which arrived in the nineteenth century. Tudor doctors did not work from surgeries and no one could admire the tone of an oboe since it had not yet been invented. Field does not quite have Oxford saying "let's do lunch" but he does have him partaking of a wine-soaked lunch centuries before that word was current. On the other hand, Field invents 'period' words. He gives Oxford trouble with something which he calls his urinals -- that is, his bladder; an unnecessary neologism, in fact, for there was an existing noun, reins, for the whole urogenital system. (Shakespeare uses this word.) Field seems to think you can lay on an Elizabethan patina just by spelling refused "refus'd," desperate "desp'rate" or murdered "murder'd" or, even better, "murther'd." The result is a strange jargon that was never spoken in Elizabeth's England or anywhere else:
Like a lonely oak in the middle of a field, I have somehow been attractive to stray birds and lightning strikes. None there are but those who love me and those who hate me, and I have learnt 'till now to live with that and somehow survive in my busy solitude. (187)
Does this sound like Elizabethan prose? Does it sound like Shakespeare's prose? Clearly the muse which inspired the incomparably witty dialogue of Twelfth Night took flight when 'Shakespeare' penned his intimate autobiography. Even the most colourful events of Oxford's life -- his capture by pirates, his sojourn in Venice which he apparently devoted to debauchery, his spell in the Tower -- are told in this same stodgy pastiche. What is puzzling is that a biographer of Field's repute and skill should have considered such an ill-starred task worth attempting.
Field is frequently out of his depth with the history of the period, and his Oxford suffers from embarrasssing lapses of memory. At one performance he notices that a "radiant full moon was shining through the thatch" of the Globe (210), even though plays always started in the early afternoon and were over by dusk even in winter. He speaks patronisingly of "Hamnet, the slightly pretentious name of Shakespeare's poor short-liv'd babe" (241), when the boy died in 1596 at the age of eleven and a half: hardly a "babe" in anyone's terms. His most surprising lapse, though, comes when he tells the story of the younger Burbages dismantling "England's first theatre, which I'd helped organize" (209) to take it over the river at the turn of the year 1598/9. To help them, Oxford resurrects their father James, who actually died in February 1597, nearly two years earlier!
Absent Thee from Felicity takes no risks and has fewer blunders, but is the weaker product overall. It is an unsophisticated, third-person narrative which follows Oxford from childhood to his death. Messner's prose is pedestrian, and her dialogue often raises a smile. In 1571 or so, Elizabeth hears that her favourite is writing a chronicle play. "It may be that we can use this fiery ambition of Lord Oxford's," she cries (127). She asks him what it's about:
"An English prince who lives a wild and dissipated life but later reforms to become a model king."
"Good," she said again. "With your poetic bent, my lord, it can be an epic, a paean of praise for England. Will you do it for me?" (129)
"I can try," is Edward's sturdy response; and Henry IV is received with high applause at Christmas 1574. Meanwhile, far away in Stratford, a ten-year-old lad has been decisively beaten to the punch...
Weaknesses of this kind are not the central issue, however. These novels are polemical in that they seek not merely to explain, but to show, how an outrageous hoax was accomplished. Since the claim is extraordinary, it requires an extraordinary demonstration to make it credible. Can fiction provide that demonstration? On the contrary; as we shall see, it is the very nature of fiction that puts the anti-Stratfordian case under unique pressure. That is why these two novels are worth a closer critical look.
The first requirement, getting Shakespeare himself off-stage, requires some sleight of hand. In The Lost Chronicle Oxford's company picks up the "humble-visag'd" booby while on tour, and he comes in handy for minding the costumes, tying up the horses and playing the parts without words. "In time," however, Oxford reminisces patronisingly, "he brought the solid virtues of the country to our enterprise and helped our theatre to survive. . . . No twine was tangled in his simple soul, I think" (196). Messner goes further by virtually editing Shakespeare out of history altogether. One of the most bizarre features of Absent Thee is that this really is Hamlet without the Prince. Her Oxford does hire "an energetic young man from the theatre" to help him; to "run errands, and deal with unruly writers" (252) and we hear that "a few" plays had appeared under "a name of his own choosing, apt but only a temporary device" (268). But that's all. The name of Shakepeare, either in propria persona or even as a pseudonym for Oxford occurs only once in the whole novel, in a list of shareholders of the Globe.
Bringing Oxford to the front of stage to replace him is a different matter. The scale of the problem can be gauged by a reminder that, according to orthodoxy, about 26 of Shakespeare's plays were written before Oxford died in 1604, and about a dozen afterwards. Not a single one of the plays may have been in existence on the day in 1590 when Oxford celebrated his fortieth birthday. So our novelists are first challenged with the task of showing how the writing of the later plays -- including Othello, Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra -- can be crammed into the last Elizabethan years. They have to do this in the very teeth of the evidence. As Matus has pointed out, only the accepted chronology of the later plays can explain their Jacobean flavour, vastly different from the optimistic humanism of the 1590s; and in some cases, especially The Winter's Tale, there is virtually conclusive evidence that they were written after 1604. 
That is hard enough; most would say impossible. But there is also a problem at the other end. A case can be made for Shakespeare's career beginning as early as 1586 -- the 'early start' position of E.A.J. Honigmann and others -- so a few of the very earliest plays can be perhaps be dated back to the middle or later 1580s without straining too hard. Not many can, however.  Field, in particular, ties himself into chronological knots in trying to back-date the plays. For instance, his Oxford writes The Merchant of Venice in 1580, "in response, as is my custom, to a rough and vulgar play" (175), identified as Marlowe's Jew of Malta. If that disturbing, sadistic play was written before 1580, it must have been the work of a Canterbury schoolboy.
In practice, then, our novelists have to show Oxford or an Oxford circle producing most of the Shakespearean canon in their man's quite well-documented last fifteen years or so, or roughly between the Armada year and the accession of King James. Though this might not be absolutely incredible, it does strain the credulity; and we look forward eagerly to seeing how this feat will be handled.
To manage it, both Field and Messner necessarily get Oxford off to a precociously early start. Each has him writing Romeus and Juliet at the tender age of 12 under the pseudonym of Ar. Br[ooke]. (But the authors cannot explain why the Brooke poem expresses violently Protestant sympathies when their Oxford is a closet Catholic.)  After that, it's straight into the plays. Around the year 1573, Field's Oxford recalls, "we . . . began to nail together the Plantagenet plays" (2) -- plays produced by a "writer's table" (3) comprised, at different times, of Lyly, Kyd, Munday, Greene, Nashe, Peele, Dekker, Marston, Chapman and Marlowe, all presided over by Thomas Churchyard (1520-1604): "I see him now with his long steel pointing needle circling the writers' table and knitting together all the stray pieces so you could not see the join" (3). For one versed in the ways of academic administration, Field has a touching faith in the creativity of committees. However, Oxford also writes alone. As he phrases it in his inimitable style: "In the morning I would write with Churchyard and the lads; in the afternoon, if there was time, I would rewrite by myself and send instructions to Gray's Inn for various necessary researches and texts. Late at night I'd write by myself" (177-8). So he works on, his reward over this period (apparently 1876-86) being "just one perfect line from time to time" (7) enlivened by amorous skirmishes with the Queen: "She quickly recomposed herself, fixed Her clothes and strode into the next room" (33). The prim Messner offers us no such interludes, but her Oxford too recruits the flower of the Tudor theatre-- Lyly, Kyd, Marlowe, Greene, Nashe and Lodge -- to help him cobble together the immortal plays, although again Oxford works solo at times.
So much for how the plays were written. How were they produced? The difficulties of reconciling Oxford's activities with the familiar history of the Elizabethan stage seem to be insuperable. By the time Oxford died in 1604 the Globe at Southwark was the home of the King's Men, the most famous acting troupe in England led by the most famous actor, Richard Burbage; their drawcard was that their resident playwright was Shakespeare, who had been writing exclusively for them over the last decade. If Oxford was 'Shakespeare' either the King's Men were in on the secret, or they weren't. If they were, the novelist has to show credibly how their silence was enforced or why it was volunteered over many years. If they were not, the novelist has to cope with the fact that the Elizabethan theatrical world was a small gossip-ridden milieu and the playwright, whoever he was, was demonstrably a consummate man of the theatre. How then, without arousing suspicion, were these blue-chip texts transmitted from the Oxford circle to the actors? Who prepared the prompt-book from the author's 'foul papers'? Who answered the actors' queries, solved the staging problems, handled the inevitable rewriting during rehearsals? It is one thing to skate over these questions in an impersonal historical narrative; quite another to show them in the "specificity of detail," as Henry James called it, which the novel demands. Neither Field nor Messner even begins to rise to the challenge. We never see either Oxford engaging with the theatrical world. Field has his hero say "I joined in the rehearsals" (147), but we never see him at them. We hear that Messner's Oxford "spent hours of each day with his players" (214) but to show how he quieted the suspicions of the actors, or secured the compliance, is obviously beyond her skill. In fact, her Oxford does not deign even to visit the Globe until the time of the Essex rebellion in 1601!
Then, finally, the largest question of all: Why? What purpose did this hoax serve, who benefited from it, and how was it maintained when the immediate need had passed? Here, potentially, the novel should come into its own. The description and analysis of motive is its metier. But our novelists contradict not only each other, but even themselves, in explaining why Oxford adopted the Shakespeare guise at all. According to Field, Oxford was forced to adopt a pseudonym by his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, for fear of being found to be writing "instant sedition" (34) by Elizabeth. But later on she has to find out anyway, to reward him; and because she goes on using him ("I need your plays and so does My factious kingdom" ) the disguise seems to become redundant.
Messner starts from the opposite end: her Oxford is on the Queen's payroll for "stir[ring] up the patriotic fervour of her subjects" (233) -- services which a nobleman must necessarily render anonymously because of the 'stigma of print.' Some plays are fine patriotic propaganda, of course; but they do tend to dwell unwholesomely (from the official viewpoint) on intestine strife and dubious successions, and to portray characters like Thersites, Timon, Hamlet and Falstaff who are hardly mouthpieces for the Tudor party line. Thus Walter Raleigh to his friend:
"Good God, Oxford," he burst out, "did you show these at Court? I'm beginning to think your plays have caused half your troubles. If you bellow so at the Queen and howl calamity like Jeremiah to the Israelites, what do you expect but banishment. . . . You're a menace, man!" (214).
Though quaintly expressed, this is so true that one wonders why, if she had been financing a patriotic fervour
committee, Elizabeth did not ask for her money back. 'Shakespeare' as the Queen's own PR playwright really won't do any more than 'Shakespeare' as a reformed rabble-rouser.
At least our novelists' problems with motivation cease in 1604. It is telling that both of them chose independently to cast their novels in a biographical form. It lets them evade altogether the issues posed by the publication of the First Folio in 1623, by which time Oxford, the Cecils, father and son, and Shakespeare were all dead. Why should the nominal editors have maintained such an elaborate pretence? It becomes even more absurd when we consider that, out of Field's and Messner's Oxford circle, one, Anthony Munday, died as late as 1633 and the other, Ben Jonson, lived on until 1637.  These two spent their old age in a totally different world from that of their maturity. By this time Elizabeth's successor James was also dead and Charles I had been on the throne since 1625. Why should the Caroline court have cared about the political and diplomatic concerns of Elizabeth and her long-dead ministers enough to force silence on those survivors? And if there were no enforcement, but rather a pact, why would tough, proud, obstreperous Ben Jonson, who fiercely upheld the status of playwrights, have taken such a delicious secret to his grave? As Thomas Pendleton has said wittily, an aged Jonson who was happy to gossip about the late Queen's gynaecological problems was not likely to have died with the inside story of the hottest theatrical intrigue of the century left untold. 
In conclusion, both The Lost Chronicle and Absent Thee from Felicity fail on every level -- as renditions of a supreme genius; as a convincing picture of the Elizabethan theatrical milieu; and especially in bringing something vivid and credible to the anti-Stratfordian case. But both are interesting and instructive failures. In attempting to dramatise the unacknowledged truth about Oxford, both actually reveal the weakness of the case. For nothing is more revealing of the cracks and gaps in the Oxfordian claim that the cruel searchlight of fiction. The novelist has a traditional obligation towards the reader: "to make you hear, to make you feel; but above all to make you see." Here we see nothing, nothing but confusion; not only or chiefly because Field and Messner lack the artistic skill, but because their case is so specious that no imaginative reconstruction can make it plausible. Although there are plenty of biographical and psychological facts for the imagination to work with -- far more than there are for Shakespeare -- they just cannot be made to jell.
- It is true that, as O'Sullivan says, Shakespearian fictions "often invoke - and even embrace - the very legends that scholarship has sought to discredit."  But in the hands of a master that hardly matters. After all, legends cling around a figure because at some level they are satisfying. The reason why, say, Anthony Burgess's Stratfordian Nothing Like the Sun is so impressive and credible is not simply that Burgess was a highly gifted novelist who soaked himself through and through in the period and the plays. It is because the familiar biographical details, skimpy though they are, have an intrinsic coherence to them. They hold together; they sustain each other. They make a resilient frame on which can be woven a good deal of speculation -- admittedly colourful speculation, but by no means incredible. Burgess's fiction explains more; he does not have to expend energy, as these Oxfordian novelists have to do, on explaining away. Brenan's epigram -- that it is only a novelist can give you historical truth -- has an unexpected application here. These two fictions do indeed offer us truths, but they are not ones which can offer any comfort at all to the Oxfordian party.
1. S. Schoenbaum, 'All That is Known Concerning Shakespeare'. In Ronald Dotterer, ed. Shakespeare: Text, Subtext, and Context. London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989, p.25.
2. Maurice J. O'Sullivan, "Shakespeare's Other Lives", Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987), 133-153.
3. The Library of Congress catalogue lists another 28 items under "Shakespeare--Fiction" not found in O'Sullivan, and even that is not a complete list.
4. Full title: The Lost Chronicle of Edward de Vere: Lord Great Chamberlain, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Poet and Playwright William Shakespeare. All quotations in the text cite the Penguin edition of 1991.
5. Full title: Absent Thee from Felicity:The Story of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Shaker Heights, Ohio: Corinthian Press, 1975. All quotations in the text are to this edition.
6. Nothing else appears under that name in either the Library of Congress or the British Library catalogues.
7. They are Richard Kennedy's Deep Cover (1995) and Stephanie Caruana's Spear Shaker (1994). The scripts may be found at http://www.dramex.org/plays/scripts/deepcover.txt and http://www.dramex.org/plays/scripts/spearshaker.txt respectively.
8. Irvin Leigh Matus, Shakespeare, in Fact (New York: Continuum, 1994), p.22.
9. Field lists three books by J. T. Looney, B.M. Ward and Charlton Ogburn as his sources, but oddly gives only the titles, not the authors' names.
10. The month is given as May, and we see the autobiography being written between then and June 1604, when Oxford died. His creator seems badly confused about dates. In the opening pages Field has Oxford refer to the Queen's death "two years ago" (10). By the time the Queen actually had been dead for two years, Oxford could not have referred to it as he was dead himself. The Queen had died 14 months before, on 24 March 1603. Worse, Oxford refers to himself in this same May as "fifty-two and [I] can see Death watching me through the window-pane" (155). The dying Oxford's memory must be failing badly if he has forgotten that he had celebrated his 54th birthday a month earlier.
11. There only twelve known surviving English autobiographies written before 1660, and only one of these is, in the modern sense of the word, 'personal' in tone. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), p.155.
12. Matus, p.165. For the evidence about The Winter's Tale see pp.155-6.
13. Using a procedure first employed in Eva Turner Clark's Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays (1931), Oxfordians have attempted to get around this by examining lists of titles of anonymous early interludes, revels and masques and identifying them with one or another Shakespearian play. Field uses this dubious procedure without any hint that there is no reason to match any of these titles with a play, nor to attach Oxford's name to any of them.
14. Field's Oxford has also forgotten that the Brooke "childish play" (183), as he calls it, is not in fact a play but a narrative poem.
15. Field gives Jonson no part in his writers' circle, but Messner has Oxford sparring frequently with him and helping him to write Sejanus.
16. In a review in Shakespeare Newsletter (Summer 1994). Text available at http://www.clark.net/pub/tross/ws/pen.html
17. O'Sullivan, 133.
- Bond, Edward. Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.
- Burgess, Anthony. Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare's Love Life. London: Heinemann, 1964.
- Caruana, Stephanie. Spear Shaker (1994). http://www.dramex.org/plays/scripts/spearshaker.txt
- Clark, Eva Turner. Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays; a Study of the Oxford theory Based on the Records of Early Court Revels and Personalities of the Times. New York, W. F. Payson [c1931].
- Field, Andrew. The Lost Chronicle of Edward de Vere: Lord Great Chamberlain, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Poet and Playwright William Shakespeare. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.
- Kennedy, Richard. Deep Cover (1995). http://www.dramex.org/plays/scripts/deepcover.txt
- Looney, J. Thomas. "Shakespeare" identified in Edward De Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. NY: Frederick A. Stokes [c1920].
- Matus, Irvin Leigh. Shakespeare, in Fact. NY: Continuum, 1994.
- Messner, Rhoda Henry. Absent Thee from Felicity:The Story of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Shaker Heights, Ohio: Corinthian Press, 1975.
- Rooke, Leon. Shakespeare's Dog. NY: Knopf, 1983.
- Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1984.
- O'Sullivan, Maurice J. "Shakespeare's Other Lives." Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987), 133-153.
- Schoenbaum, Samuel. "All That is Known Concerning Shakespeare." Shakespeare: Text, Subtext, and Context. Ed. Ronald Dotterer. London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989.
- Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
- Ward, Bernard Mordaunt. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604, From Contemporary Documents. London: John Murray, 1928.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).