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A Malcontent of High Degree
Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Liverpool University Press, 2003)
Edward de Vere (1550-1604) was born great, had more greatness thrust upon him, and achieved obscurity. By birth he held England’s oldest earldom and was one of its richest men. By marriage he was the son-in-law of Queen Elizabeth’s most powerful minister. He was one who, in the natural order of Sixteenth Century things, ought to have become a leading servant of the Crown. His name should feature prominently in every history of the Tudor monarchy.
Instead he accomplished little except the dissipation of his fortune. When he came into his inheritance, the 17th Earl of Oxford (or “Oxenford”, his own invariable usage) was worth, by a conservative modern estimate, £4,000 annually. A contemporary pegged his income at three times that huge figure. (A middle class Londoner could live well on £100 a year.) By the time of his death, his property was virtually all gone. The annual rentals from the remnant may have been no more than £20. The earl lived on a royal pension and his second wife’s fast diminishing income.
While spending himself into penury, Oxenford held no significant public office, saw only brief military service and seldom attended Parliament. During the great crisis of the Armada, he was appointed to command a fortress but refused to serve.  Not surprisingly, he received almost no honors or emoluments from the Throne; the pension granted in 1586 was an act of charity rather than a reward for services. Against this blank record can be set an active sex life, youthful prowess as a jouster, repeated involvement in court feuds and abortive pro-Catholic conspiracies, patronage of a number of mostly minor writers, and authorship of a handful of poems that C. S. Lewis, in his history of 16th Century English literature, described as displaying “a faint talent, but . . . for the most part undistinguished and verbose”.
Oxenford is not the only unmemorable aristocrat of Elizabeth’s reign. A noble of yet higher rank, William Paulet, 3rd Marquess of Winchester, was equally inactive, as were several earls. But no other titled drone is the subject of a 500-page biography. The reason is a bizarre twist of literary history. Three hundred years after Oxenford’s death, he was acclaimed by an eccentric English schoolmaster as the true William Shakespeare. That identification has gradually come to overshadow all of the other candidates put forward by “anti-Stratfordian” cranks, making him, in the words of the Britannica, “the strongest candidate proposed (next to William Shakespeare himself) for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays”. In 1928 an admirer, Captain B. M. Ward, penned a biography that is generally regarded as a moderately good piece of amateur scholarship despite its undisguised determination to paint a flattering portrait. Since then, other Oxfordians have gathered an abundance of material relating to the earl’s life, largely impelled by the expectation that the data would eventually make his identity as “Shakespeare” evident to the world. Building on their labors, and adding prodigious toil of his own, Alan H. Nelson, a Professor of English at Berkeley, has produced a work that tells all, and perhaps more than all, that anyone will ever want to know about Edward de Vere.
While Professor Nelson emphatically denies that Oxenford had anything to do with Shakespeare, his book is not a treatise on the authorship “controversy”, and he only incidentally highlights facts that undermine Oxfordian mythology (such as the linguistic differences between Oxenford’s letters and Shakespeare’s plays). His primary interests are Oxenford’s character and the events of his life, as detailed in his correspondence and other contemporary records. A large part of the text consists of quotations from these documents. Diligent readers will get a lot of practice in construing Elizabethan English.
Oxenford’s life will be of greatest interest not to literary scholars but to historians of society. He was a paradoxical figure: of elite social status but economically distressed, religiously ambivalent and politically alienated. Despite being a third generation Protestant reared, after his father’s premature death, in the household of the firmly Protestant William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and married to Burghley’s daughter, he showed up from an early date on continental lists of Englishmen thought to be well disposed toward the Old Religion. His closest friend for many years was his first cousin Lord Henry Howard, younger brother of the Catholic Duke of Norfolk. The pair may have plotted to spring the duke from jail in early 1572 to forestall his execution for treason. Dispatches from the French and Spanish ambassadors report the young earl’s offers to render ill-specified but apparently disloyal services to the Catholic cause. None of these schemes came to anything, and there is no sign that Elizabeth’s government had any suspicion of them until, in December 1580, moved by either fear of exposure or a personal falling-out with his co-conspirators, Oxenford made a dramatic public confession. He revealed that he and three companions Lord Henry Howard, Charles Arundel and Francis Southwell had secretly converted to Catholicism, spied for France and Spain, and engaged in other seditious activities. The objects of Oxenford's betrayal responded with a barrage of slanders about his private life: drunkenness, sodomy, sorcery, atheism, sexual depravity and more. (The book’s title is taken from Arundel’s description of Oxenford as “my monstrous adversary, who would drink my blood rather than wine”.) All of the principals were relegated to prison for a while, but the investigation petered out, leaving behind only a record of colorful, though not necessarily reliable, charges and counter-charges that Professor Nelson expounds in fascinated detail. After that, Oxenford kept away from conspiratorial politics until the last days of Elizabeth’s reign, when he tried to stir up resistance to the accession of James I. He was ignored as a bibulous, bankrupt windbag, and James did not pay him the compliment of taking his opposition seriously.
Closer to home, Oxenford had a habit of feuding, often violently, with other courtiers. The best known of these encounters was his famous “tennis court quarrel” with Sir Philip Sidney. The most audacious was his defaming of the Earl of Leicester, then briefly out of favor with the Queen. The gambit turned out badly, because Her Majesty, however angry she might be at her favorite, would not tolerate others’ attacking him. The most prolonged was a deadly vendetta with the kinsmen of his mistress Anne Vavasor, a lady-in-waiting whom he abandoned after the birth of their son. Oxenford himself was wounded in one of the frays, and several men were killed. The earl also played a first or second-hand role in a number of other murders and violent assaults.
The capstone of his political discontent, and the finis to his public career, came in 1588, the Armada year. His standing, at a low ebb following his admission of disloyalty and the scandal of his relationship with Miss Vavasor, had begun to recover. He was reconciled with his wife after a seven-year estrangement, received a military command in the Netherlands (the first responsible post to which he had ever been appointed) and gained a respite from money woes through the grant of a royal pension of £1,000 a year (revocable at will, to prevent him from improvidently selling it for a lump sum). A useful indicator of his position among the elite is the record of nominations for the Garter, which were made by the knights of the Order when a vacancy occurred. Each could nominate three men of the rank of viscount or above for the honor. [1] Until 1580, Oxenford regularly gained the votes of a majority of the nominators. Then, in the next four elections, he got none at all. In 1585 rehabilitation began, when he was named on the ballots of five of the 13 members who voted. In 1588, before the crisis, he got three of seven possible votes.
As the Spanish fleet approached and it became obvious that England’s survival as an independent nation was at stake, Oxenford volunteered for military duty. He was appointed to govern Harwich, a key fortress that would have been a post of great importance and danger if the Spanish had landed. He refused the commission. Professor Nelson attributes this action to personal pique at the army commander Leicester, whom he had tried to ruin a few years before, rather than to lack of patriotism, but that was no mitigation to contemporaries. With an isolated exception years later, after the accession of King James, he never again received a Garter vote.
For propagandistic reasons it was important to show that all of England had rallied behind the established order Burghley devised what Professor Nelson demonstrates was a fictitious account crediting his son-in-law (and various other absent lords) with valiant service in the fleet during the war’s climactic battles. The elite knew better. Worse yet for Oxenford, his wife died shortly before the Armada sailed, weakening his ties to Burghley, though the couple’s three daughters (raised by their grandfather) remained a bond. The last 16 years of his life are a repetitious tale of financial expedients, pleas for offices, monopolies and profitable leases from the Crown (always refused), litigation to recover alleged ancestral rights or fend off creditors, and, near the end, a farcical return to the ineffectual plotting of his youth.
All was not quite hopeless. A second marriage, to a rich widow, cushioned insolvency and produced a male heir to the earldom. His daughters found suitable husbands through the good offices of their grandfather. Now and then, he was tapped for some service that required no discretion, such as sitting on the commission that condemned the Essex conspirators. He was allowed to exercise his hereditary office of Great Lord Chamberlain at King James’ coronation, and the new king continued his pension. It was a quiet ending for a turbulent spirit. When he died at age 54, he seemed like a much older man.
Why did someone with Oxenford’s advantages achieve so little in an era when so much was expected of the aristocracy? Unlike the Marquess of Winchester, he was not unambitious. He may have been incapable, but we do not know that, because he was never given the opportunity to exercise whatever talents he had. Professor Nelson finds the answer in his rejection of the fundamental tenet of the aristocratic ethos:
Oxford neglected to serve others for the simple reason that his first aim in life was to serve himself. Of his estates he wrote to his father-in-law, the famous Lord Burghley:
I have no help but of myne owne, and mine is made to serue me, and myself not mine.
That is to say: I have no resource but my own properties; they are meant to serve me, I am not meant to serve them.
Feudal rank was theoretically based on the very opposite principle: that noblemen held property first by royal grant and then by inheritance precisely in exchange for service. Movers and shakers of the Elizabethan age embraced this principle with zeal. Some, like Sir Francis Walsingham, happily bankrupted themselves in the effort. Others, including Lord Burghley and Sir Christopher Hatton, accumulated apparent wealth, but gave such bountiful service that by any reasonable measure they were under-compensated for their pains.
But that is to describe Oxenford’s alienation rather than explain it. Were the roots of his extraordinary selfishness (also on display in his extant poems) purely personal and idiosyncratic, or did he fall away from the ruling ideal of his class out of revulsion from the religious or political order? Curiously, his earliest published poem opens with lines that could easily be read as rebuking upper class parasitism:
The laboring man that tills the fertile soil,
And reaps the harvest fruit hath not indeed
The gain but pain, and if for all his toil
He gets the straw, the lord will have the seed.
The manchet fine falls not unto his share;
On coarsest cheat his hungry stomach feeds.
The landlord doth possess the finest fare;
He pulls the flowers; the other plucks but weeds.
The mason poor that builds the lordly halls
Dwells not in them, they are for high degree;
His cottage is compact in paper walls,
And not with brick or stone as others be.
The idle drone that labors not at all
Sucks up the sweet of honey from the bee.
Who worketh most, to their share least doth fall;
With due desert reward will never be. . . .
Was this an insincere elaboration of a commonplace (going back to a Vergilian epigram)? Or a perpetual adolescent’s absurd self-pity? Or the wakening conscience of a premature radical? There is no easy way to tell. The evidence is patchy and incomplete. Yet it is more nearly complete for Oxenford than for any other upper class malcontent of the Tudor era and may well repay deeper exploration, for which Professor Nelson’s volume will be an essential reference.
To most readers, the motive for taking up Monstrous Adversary is to find out what it says about the theory that Oxenford was “Shakespeare”. As already noted, the issue is discussed directly hardly at all. In a few places, the author seems to go out of his way to avoid Shakespeare-related topics. To take one instance, his account of the proposed marriage between the Earl of Southampton and Oxenford’s daughter Elizabeth, to which mainstream scholars as well as eccentrics see allusions in Shakespeare’s sonnets (not my own opinion), is succinct to the point of obscurity. Still, the evidence marshaled here, while not proving that Oxenford could not have written Shakespeare’s works (his character flaws are no disqualification; there is not much correlation between virtue and genius), is hard to reconcile with the standard Oxfordian case.
The essence of the “Oxenford-was-Shakespeare” argument is that the author of Shakespeare’s works “had” to possess various qualifications, such as extensive formal education, legal learning and intimate familiarity with Italy, that the Stratford glove maker’s son lacked and the 17th Earl supposedly enjoyed. An e-mail that I received recently from an Oxenford enthusiast rebuking my blinkered views characterized his hero as “a singular real honest-to-goodness child prodigy, scholar, and man of privilege, enriching experiences, immense education, and visible attainments”. Except for “man of privilege”, all of that is rather exaggerated. Oxenford’s formal education consisted of about five months as a boarder at Queens’ College, Cambridge, when he was eight years old (not an unusual arrangement for young noblemen). The shortness of his stay is possibly related to repeated assessments for the repair of broken windows in his room. He never took a B.A. None of his private tutors singled him out as an especially able student. Their combined efforts were unable to instill in him facility with standard English; to the end of his life, his letters were marked by East Anglian dialectical peculiarities. The M.A.’s that he received in his teens from Cambridge and Oxford were honorary, among many such degrees bestowed upon the Queen’s entourage during royal visits to the Universities. His enrollment in Gray’s Inn, the equivalent of a modern law school, at age 16 was nominal (like that of many other young gentlemen). So far as can be determined, he never attended lectures, owned law books, or displayed any legal learning. The passing bits of Law Latin in his letters are frequently mangled.
He traveled abroad only three times in his life: an unauthorized excursion to France and Flanders in 1574, a 15-month sojourn in France, Italy and Germany the following year and two months on military service in the Netherlands in 1585. If, as Oxfordians typically insist, Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate detailed knowledge of Italian geography, language and customs, Oxenford, as their putative author, must have been a very diligent and observant tourist during his single visit to that country. His letters home and other extant data strongly suggest otherwise. The highlight of his time in Italy seems to have been a dalliance with a famous Venetian prostitute, and his principal souvenir was a handsome choirboy whom he took on as a servant and brought back to England.
In short, Oxenford had an ordinary education, supplemented by limited foreign travel. He was not the polymath of Oxfordian fantasy. Nor does the extensive surviving correspondence from, to and about him indicate that he had much interest in literature. If Shakespeare of Stratford had written over 70 letters and never once referred to poetry or drama, but instead had devoted page upon page to land sales, monopolies, office seeking and tin mining schemes, Oxfordians would declare their case against his authorship conclusively proven, yet they are unfazed by the nature of their own candidate’s correspondence.
The closest that the earl gets to the stage is as patron of two theatrical companies, neither of the first rank, and employer of John Lyly (best known for giving euphuism a name but also a playwright). The former role was perfunctory: Actors used the legal fiction of being servants of great lords in order to forestall charges of vagrancy by local authorities who disliked their trade on moral and religious grounds. The patron rarely did more for the company than lend it his name. In Oxenford’s case, Professor Nelson has discovered one possible intervention in behalf of “his” players (lobbying, without success, for permission for them to perform at Cambridge) but little other contact. The Stratford man - an actor, shareholder in the era’s leading troupe, and part-owner of Blackfriars and the Globe - was far more immersed in the theatrical milieu.
In the wider world of literature, Oxenford played a minor, though not completely negligible, part as a literary patron. He was the dedicatee of about 30 books and at times provided financial support or employment to John Lyly, Thomas Churchyard, Anthony Munday and perhaps others. Except for Lyly, most of the writers with whom he was closely associated were hacks, so he cannot be said to have done much to foster Elizabeth’s Golden Age. It is also unclear to what extent patronage corresponds to real enthusiasm for literature. Judging by number of extant dedications, Oxenford ranked far behind Burghley (nearly 100 dedications) and the Earl of Leicester (114), neither of whom is known to have been a keen reader of belles lettres.
Finally, touching most closely on the authorship question, are Professor Nelson’s observations concerning Oxenford’s acknowledged poetry. J. Thomas Looney, the first Oxfordian, initially identified Oxenford as Shakespeare after reading a few of the earl’s poems (plus others that were misattributed to him) in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. They sounded like Shakespeare to Looney’s ear, but Professor Nelson’s closer analysis shows how little similarity truly exists.
The most obvious area for comparison is quality. Professor Nelson doesn’t dismiss Oxenford’s verse out of hand. “Oxford’s poems are, above all, astonishingly uneven. The best, though few, are fine indeed, while the worst . . . are execrable.” Among the “fine” he counts “The lively lark stretched forth her wing” (8) [the Arabic or Roman numbers after the poems’ opening lines are those assigned by Steven May in his edition of Oxenford’s verse] , “When wert thou born, desire” (11) and “Winged with desire” (12). He also notes two that have stood the test of time and kept a place, albeit minor, in the canon: “My mind to me a kingdom is” (II, not certainly by Oxenford) and “Were I a king” (16).
A large proportion of the others, however, run from mediocre to bad, marked by awkward phrasing, lame rhymes, jog-trotting meters, thumping caesuras, tiresome alliteration, the insertion of meaningless words to fill out lines, and other faults of what C. S. Lewis labeled the “Drab Age” of English verse. Shakespeare is not unblemished, but his slips are rare, while Oxenford’s are almost as frequent as his beauties. Where Oxenford’s versification is not flawed, it is still much different from that of Shakespeare. The one is fond of fourteeners and poulter’s measure (nine of 20 certain and likely poems); the other scarcely ever employs them except for comic effect and writes overwhelmingly in iambic pentameter, which appears in only a minority (seven of 20) of Oxenford’s pieces.
The most striking contrast lies in the treatment of love. Oxenford’s poetic persona is monotonously self-regarding: Women exist for his pleasure or as trophies to brandish in the faces of rivals; when they are no longer useful or do not wish to be used, they become nuisances to be either forgotten or punished. This view of the fair sex is very clear in the famous echo poem, “Sitting alone upon my thought in melancholy mood” (I), in which a woman identified as Anne Vavasor laments her desertion by the poet. Steven May, Oxenford’s modern editor, doubts that the poem is really by Oxenford, and Professor Nelson shares that skepticism, but Oxfordians unanimously defend the attribution, and it does have contemporary evidence in its favor. Assuming it to be Oxenford’s, its message is chillingly plain: I treated this gal like dirt, and she’s still crazy about me. The man takes it for granted that the woman cannot escape his spell, and he exhibits not a tinge of sympathy for her plight.
The echo poem is not an aberration:
‘A crown of bays’ (3) grudgingly compliments a rival in love, but complains against the woman who rejected the poet, making him want to ‘hide myself from shame’; . . . ‘I am not as I seem to be’ (5, a variant on Petrarch’s Sonnet 102) laments the misfortune ‘That forceth me to love my foe’; while ‘If care or skill could conquer vain desire’ (6) browbeats a beloved who alone among her sex disdains the gifts of Venus, Juno, and Pallas. ‘My meaning is to work what wonders love hath wrought’ (7) muses ‘why men of wit have love so dearly bought’ observing that ‘love is worse than hate, and eke more harm hath done’: but there is no escape, so that the poet is like a cruel judge who embraces the very crime he punishes in others. The last of these early poems, ‘The trickling tears that falls along my cheeks’ (9), ends with a prayer that the tables may be turned: ‘And let her mourn, and none lament her need’:
And let all those that shall her see,
Despise her state and pity me.
Nor for Oxford Sir Thomas Wyatt’s gentle recognition that unrequited love is the lot of all; no, this poet hates the woman who has dared to reject him, and hopes the rest of the world will hate her too.
Though it is not unthinkable that the man who expressed those sentiments also created Shakespeare’s great heroines, the thought does not arise naturally. To careful students of the evidence concerning the 17th Earl of Oxenford’s life, it will not occur at all.
Even before its publication, various Oxfordians denounced Monstrous Adversary as a “hatchet job” and asserted that its modus operandi was to undermine Oxenford's Shakespearean credentials through an ad hominem assault. If one’s standard is the picture painted by Ward, Charlton Ogburn père et fils, Roger Stritmatter, Richard Whalen and other uncritical admirers, those are reasonable complaints. From a less partisan perspective, the biography is fair-minded. It is not Professor Nelson’s fault that his subject’s weaknesses overshadow his virtues or that, born with every prospect of success, he squandered his opportunities, leaving to posterity an interesting example of how to not to succeed in the Elizabethan Age.
[1] For a useful account of how the garter elections were conducted, written by an Oxfordian, vide Peter R. Moore, “The Earl of Oxford and the Order of the Garter”.
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