De Vere’s England: “Ye Olde” Tudor Empire Wasn’t Very Merrie
As you read The Shakespeare Mask, keep this in mind: in Queen Elizabeth’s England, things weren’t so merrie.
Even though the queen’s father, Henry the Eighth, wrested control of England’s churches from the Pope, half of England remained Catholic. Priests escaped to France, studied the ways of the Old Religion, and returned to spread what they called the One True Faith. That fueled the furnace of religious resistance even more, and the queen increased her repression.
Into this world entered the plays of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England. He returned from a year in Italy, and his uncle—who arranged the queen’s palace entertainment—asked his bright young nephew to produce for the queen and her court’s enjoyment the plays he’d been writing. Delighted, Edward played the leading roles.
The well-received performances spread to the public theaters then springing up in London, with the author credited as “Anonymous.” Over the next sixteen years, de Vere acquired four acting companies, adult and children’s. Then, in 1588, 131 of the largest galleons Spain ever built entered the English Channel. Spain, the self-proclaimed champion of the Catholic faith, was provoked by England’s execution of Mary, the Catholic queen of the Scots.
England’s position was dire. It had no navy to equal Spain’s, only ships primarily owned by its people, like the Earl of Oxford. Edward, who was descended from the most storied line of nobles in England, outfitted his vessel, the “Edward Bonaventure,” with guns and sailed into battle.
His life was thrown further into convulsion when his wife suddenly died, leaving him and their three girls. Considering the effort they expended to effect a reconciliation following years of estrangement after he wrongly accused her of being unfaithful to him, her death was shattering.
Meanwhile, droughts caused people in the countryside to find work in the cities where bouts of the plague created a demand for workers. Even rich noblemen were suffering when their lands did not produce enough to enable them to maintain their inflated standard of living as well as provide support for their demanding queen.
And the queen created still another group of unhappy people with her sumptuary laws that dictated the number of courses people without a minimum amount of income could eat and even regulated the color of the clothes people wore and the type of fabric they could use. The queen also forbade torture, and that hardly pleased the jailers. But, the Tower of London still remained full of deadly instruments. Even the queen had a personal torturer.
England survived the Spanish invasion but feared a return engagement. The queen initiated England’s first spy service and soon it became a pervasive phenomenon. When her spies assassinated Christopher Marlowe, a bright young playwright, and the palace announced he died fighting over a bar bill, people believed her, but they’d heard the playwright had sometimes been employed as a spy, so they probably concluded he’d learned the secret of how the queen’s counselors framed Mary Queen of Scots. The man knew too much to live.
Speaking of persecuted writers, don’t forget John Stubbs. When he heard the queen was considering marrying a French prince with whom she’d been sleeping, that didn’t bother him. She may have been called the Virgin Queen, but no one took that label seriously. After all, the bedroom of another one of her “favorites” adjoined hers in the palace. But Stubbs wrote in his pamphlet, “The Gaping Gulf,” that marrying a Frenchman was a national embarrassment, and the queen responded by chopping off his writing hand. She also punished the pamphlet’s printer.
Meanwhile, Edward de Vere’s plays increased in popularity even though they sometimes offended powerful ministers. The queen was on his side. Their relationship was close. It had to be for him to have survived what he wrote in “Hamlet.” He accused one of the queen’s “favorites” of murdering his father. He insulted the queen’s prime minister who had been his father-in-law and now was raising his children.
Then, a few years after Edward’s wife died, he fell in love, but the queen did not think the woman was suitable even though Edward wrote heartfelt love sonnets about her. Instead, she chose one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber as his bride. Again, his marriage had been arranged.
Edward was devastated by the queen’s reaction to his lover, but in England, no one defeated Elizabeth. Then, a year after the marriage, his wife became pregnant. He had such high hopes that at last he’d have a male heir that he decided to give his wife an expensive gift. To pay for it, he wrote a poem, “Venus and Adonis,” about his youthful love affair with the queen. He was sure breathless poetry about the queen would sell many editions.
He requested the queen’s permission to publish about such a sensitive topic, but he was not worried about receiving her consent; he knew she’d be flattered, and she was. But her ministers, including Edward’s former father-in-law and his former brother-in-law, now the queen’s new prime minister, refused to approve unless Edward fulfilled a condition. Edward would have to insulate his authorship beyond merely announcing anonymity. Henceforth, he must use a pen name and employ a front man as a “mask.”
Edward agreed, though he knew the consequence of a pen name and employing a “mask” meant one day his name would be buried with his body. So, even though leading literary critics had written that his writing was the “most excellent” of all the nobleman in England if only identity could be made known, now his authorship would be hidden forever under the name and “mask” of the front man he chose, “William Shakespeare,” the virtual illiterate from Stratford.