The Making of a Confirmed Shakespearean I: The First Years

·         “A Desperate Contrivance”: Shakespeare in a Chamber Account. In March 1595, William Kemp, Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare received the payment for two plays performed at court by their acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Why was the then little-known Shakespeare in such fast company? Charlton Ogburn unravels an intriguing tale of chicanery by none other than the mother of Shakespeare’s patron, the Countess of Southampton.

·         Divide and Confuse: Shakespeare in Augustine Phillips’ will. Phillips bequeathed 30 shillings to his  “fellow William Shakespeare.” The will was drawn up in May 1605, more than ten months after the Earl of Oxford's death. This is inexplicable to Ogburn – that is, he couldn’t explain it – so he used a clever way to make it as much of a puzzle to his readers as it was to him. I put together the pieces. 

·         The Longest Ellipsis: “Frontline” and The Shakespeare Mystery. The creators of this mockumentary merged two quotations separated by 33 pages to prove Oxford had written anonymously before he began writing pseudonymously. Called on this, Frontline put up a vigorous defense of its authenticity. A later transcript on Frontline’s website suggests they had a change of mind.

·         From Whole Cloth: A Moth in a Wardrobe Account. In response to my article in The Atlantic, Ruth Loyd Miller sent a letter to the editor taking offense to my description of the way she avoiding saying Shakespeare and his fellow actors appeared in this account as Players specifically essential to her assertion that the lord chamberlain who was the patron the troupe was not Lord Hunsdon but the Earl of Oxford.


I have pondered how different things might have been if, say, I took refuge from a blizzard in an empty cabin high in the Rockies and the only reading matter was the labels on food containers and Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, the gospel of believers in the Lord Oxford – Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford – as the Creator of the plays and poems of William Shakespeare. As the storm raged on for days, I made my way through the containers (and their contents) until all that remained was that book, and began reading. I wonder, would I too have succumbed to its cajoling prose, its array of facts that suggested thorough, authoritative scholarship, its tightly-woven tapestry of “circumstantial evidence,” its insinuating, persuasive conclusions?

I will never know. My introduction to The Mysterious William Shakespeare was quite different. In February 1989 I got an invitation from the Shake- speare Authorship Roundtable in Los Angeles to address its members on the authorship controversy. I was specifically asked to investigate the scholarship that convinced most in its membership that Will of Stratford was not the author and persuaded many of the said most that the Earl of Oxford was. I accepted.

A Shakespearean said that I came to the authorship controversy “from a position of agnosticism.” Agnostic indeed. Not only did I not know, up to that time I did not care. 1989 happened to mark the thirtieth year since my sustained interest in Shakespeare began. Until then my interest was almost entirely in his plays, though I had taken time out to read two biographies within a couple of months of each other in the late 1970s. What I got from those books was nearly all of the facts about the author’s life, unquestioned and unevaluated, that I brought to the authorship issues when I accepted the Roundtable’s invitation.

Seven of the essays that follow are examples of controversialist scholarship and methodology that have come my way, from the first stunning topic up to the more recent. (The most recent are elsewhere on this website.) I came to understand how honest, thoughtful people of intelligence and character are persuaded that William of Stratford cannot have been the author. Had other Shakespeareans had the initiation that I did, perhaps some wouldn’t be quite so ungenerous as they can be in their opinion of those who have lured to the other side.

What was this startling initiation? I give you the Case of – 

The “Desperate Contrivance”: Shakespeare in a Chamber Account

To get an idea of what was in store for me I chose to begin with references to the Earl of Southampton, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s first published works, the narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in which he is identified as the author in the dedications of each. But glancing in the index my eye was drawn to “Southampton, Mary Browne, Countess of, 65-66.” I turned to page 65, where I found the subject was a document very familiar to me, an account with the record of a payment of £20 by the Treasurer of the Chamber of Queen Elizabeth’s household for two plays performed at court during the Christmas festivities in 1594. In modernized English it reads:

To William Kemp, William Shakespeare & Richard Burbage, servants to the Lord Chamberlain, upon the council’s warrant dated 15th March 1595, for two several comedies or interludes shown by them before her Majesty in Christmas time last past, viz, upon St. Stephens Day [December 26] & Innocents Day [December 28].

So this was it? My introduction to the sleuthing of “the greatest detective story there ever was,” my baptism by fire – an entry among dozens just like it, worded in choice Elizabethan bureaucratese? What could be wrong with that?

“William Shakespeare,” that’s what. What is he doing here? That is, what’s a then obscure actor, an “upstart crow” of a playwright, doing in the company of Kemp, the most famous comedian, and Burbage, the greatest actor of the Elizabethan stage, to begin with? And why is this the only time that Shakespeare is listed among the payees for a court performance?

What’s more, in unspecified “contemporary documents” (says Ogburn), the Lord Admiral’s Men are known to have performed at court on Innocent’s Day. What makes a court performance on that day still more improbable is that on the very same day these same “servants to the Lord Chamberlain” are known to have performed The Comedy of Errors for the Christmas revels of the society of lawyers of Gray’s Inn. How can they have been in two places at once? Evidently something suspicious is afoot.

Aha! A clue! The Treasurer of the Chamber at this time was Sir Thomas Heneage, who died seven months later, leaving three years of unaudited accounts and the reckoning for the money in the Chamber treasury. The responsibility for this fell to his widow, who happens to have been the dowager Countess of Southampton, the mother of the very earl to whom Shakespeare’s poems had been dedicated. Fourteen months after his death, the queen sent the bereaved lady a letter regarding more than £528 in treasury funds that were not accounted for. What was the poor woman to do?

Ogburn tells us. With unaudited accounts and an apparent discrepancy in treasury funds, the countess invented payments in the Chamber Accounts, among which was the one to the Chamberlain’s Men. In order to make what Ogburn terms her “desperate contrivance” look on the up and up, she put in “William Shakespeare” as one of the payees. Not only was he known to her from the poems dedicated to her son, she also knew he was “the directing hand in the Lord Chamberlain’s company, the chosen agency by which Shakespeare’s plays were introduced to the company.” In other words, she knew that “Shakespeare” was the semi-secret identity of Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford.

So plain a document, so many doubts, so plausible a tale. It was a textbook example of breathtaking. Can it be that there isn’t something wrong with this document? So began my research. This is what I found.

Let’s begin with the company Shakespeare kept in this account, Kemp and Burbage. Kemp, it is true, was an already popular comedian famed for his jigs; Burbage, however, was previously an undistinguished actor who rose to greatness as the interpreter of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. As for Will himself, in joining this ensemble formed only several months earlier, he became the first resident playwright of an acting company, and it is a good bet that the comedies performed at court were his. Clearly he belonged in this company. Furthermore, while it is a fact that this is the only time Shakespeare was a payee, it is also the only time Kemp and Burbage were payees (a mundane task that was usually performed subsequently by their fellow player John Heminges over the next 35 years). It may be the unique deputation that presented itself to receive the payment for their troupe’s first court performance was in the way of a celebration – the formal arrival of what was to become the greatest acting ensemble of its age, and possibly every other.

What about the “contemporary documents” that put the Admiral’s Men as the troupe that performed at court on Innocents’ Day? The “contemporary documents” actually prove to be only one document, which happens to be this very same Chamber Account. A survey of these accounts reveals that two entertainments or more at court on a single date were not at all unusual. In fact, on “Twelfth Day at night” (January 6) 1601, four troupes appeared at court (the Chamberlain’s, the Lord Admiral’s, the Earl of Derby’s and the Children of the Chapel Royal).

More vexing is whether the Chamberlain’s Men could have played at court and at Gray’s Inn on the same day. Or so it would seem.

Notice that the 1601 account specifies that on Twelfth Day they played “at night,” whereas the 1595 account states the play performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s company was on “Innocent’s Day” only, indicating it was put on during daylight hours. Day and night performances are so defined throughout the Chamber Accounts.

The court in 1594 was at Greenwich Palace, only several miles up the Thames from the River Fleet, which in turn flowed within three-tenths of a mile from Gray’s Inn. An entertaining account of the society’s Christmas revels that year was preserved in the Gesta Grayorum, and in it we learn that the festivities did not begin until nine o’clock “at night,” beginning with speeches, followed by “dancing and reveling with gentlewomen,” and after “such sports” came the finale “a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the players.” In these shortest days of English Decembers, the actors would have had plenty of time to go from a daytime performance at Greenwich to make their booking at Gray’s Inn late into the night.

This leaves the question of the authenticity of this Chamber Account itself. I contacted the holder of the relevant documents, the Public Record Office in London, and had the generous assistance of David Thomas. It turns out that Ogburn’s source regarding the letter from Queen Elizabeth to the countess cited a transcript in the Calendar of States Papers Domestic, which incorrectly assigned it to “39 Elizabeth” (the 39th year of her reign, 1596). The queen’s warrant itself is dated “16 December 38 Elizabeth,” 1595, and the account noted receipt of the £528 on the very next day. There was, therefore, no money owing when the countess submitted the Chamber Accounts, which were formally audited between January and March 1597.

Which leaves the question that this whole tale hangs on: was there ever a discrepancy, a sum of money unaccounted for? The queen’s missive to the countess states that she had made two previous payments totaling some £796, and, declared HRH, “We require immediate payment of the balance of £528. 18 [shillings] 6 [pence] to the treasury of the Chamber.” No hint of a problem of bookkeeping, no suggestion of unaccounted for funds. Simply put, in the quaint ways of Elizabethan England, her late husband’s duties as Treasurer of the Chamber expired upon his death; an interim treasurer had been appointed only days before the queen's warrant and she was merely demanding the lady remit the remaining money in the Chamber treasury for his use.

Before bidding farewell to this account, it is necessary to call attention to a device Ogburn used to make his story plausible; which was to omit a clause in the account which states it was made “upon the council’s warrant dated at Whitehall 15th March 1595.” This is hardly an insignificant or irrelevant detail. The “council” happens to be the Privy Council, and it was this body that authorized the payment. As the lengthy period of the audit suggests, the Chamber account entries were thoroughly scrutinized; for these accounts were formal Exchequer documents to assure the collection of revenues and to prevent fraud. This one, like the rest of its time, was signed by Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Fortescue. The fraudulent claim of a payment made upon a Privy Council warrant is not a thing even a desperate countess would contrive for fear of winding up in far more desperate straits.


Divide and Confuse: Shakespeare in Augustine Phillips’ will

My thoughts then turned to another document: the will of Augustine Phillips, dated May 4, 1605. How would Ogburn explain a bequest to William Shakespeare in a document that was made more than ten months after Oxford died on June 24, 1604?

One thing he would do is identify Phillips as “of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” nothing more. He was probably one of the charter members of this company when it was formed in 1594, and served in it as a player and shareholder. He was perhaps the man who played roles requiring gravitas, for he was chosen to be the spokesman for the company in regard to a command performance of Richard II on February 7, 1601, which was the prologue to the Earl of Essex’s rebellion the next day. When the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were brought under the patronage of King James on May 19, 1603, Phillips is named on the patent; he was still in the troupe in March 1604, where his name is second to Shakespeare’s in the grant of scarlet red cloth to the players for the long-postponed festivities celebrating the coronation of the king. In other words, he was a member of the King’s Men as well the Chamberlain’s. In saying he was a Chamberlain’s Man only, Ogburn gives the misleading impression that Phillips had not been in the company since 1603 and, therefore, didn’t know the real “Shakespeare,” the Earl of Oxford, had since died. To the contrary, he was a King’s man when Oxford died. It is a sure bet he knew who Shakespeare was – and we can be sure that he was alive and well when Phillips drew up his will.

Furthermore, Ogburn seems to be confused by Shakespeare’s place in the will. It is confusion of his own devising. On page 31, with the usual squall of ellipses, his excerpt reads that Phillips “bequeathed ‘unto and among the hired men of the Company of which I am of … the sum of five pounds … to be equally distributed amongst them.’ First of those to be named was ‘my fellow William Shakespeare.’” This suggests that Shakespeare was merely one of the hired men, the occasional actors who were neither in the king’s patent nor shareholders in the company, and was to get an equal cut of five pounds when it was divvied up.

Ogburn again ponders the will on page 111, where he says Phillips left “a bequest to his ‘fellow’ William Shakespeare among others – whatever construction may be put upon that.” Consider, this is the same man who offers a skillful parse of Ben Jonson’s famous remark in his First Folio eulogy to Shakespeare, “though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek,” which determined that it was written in the “conditional mood … in the conclusion of sentences of rejected condition,” and thus what Ben was actually saying, suitable to the well-tutored De Vere, is “even if you had small Latin and less Greek.” But in regard to the will, Ogburn professes to have been puzzled by what Phillips can possibly have meant by calling Shakespeare his “fellow.” Let’s reconstruct this portion of the will and find out; it reads:

Item, I give and bequeath unto and among the hired men of the company of which I am of which shall be at that time of my decease the sum of five pounds of lawful money of England to be equally distributed amongst them. Item, I give and bequeath to my fellow William Shakespeare a 30 shilling piece in gold. To my fellow Henry Condell one other 30 shilling piece in gold.

This is followed by bequests of twenty shillings a piece to others he also calls his fellows: Lawrence Fletcher, Robert Armin, Richard Cowley, Alexander Cooke and Nicholas Tooley; in addition to a generous bequest of 40 shillings and personal items to his apprentice Samuel Gilburne. The overseers of his will were Heminges, Burbage and William Sly, who were each to receive “a bowl of silver of the value of five pounds.” Of these eleven men, ten are named among the “Principal Actors in all these Plays” in the First Folio (Fletcher was omitted).

There is, after all, absolutely no confusion about whether the Shakespeare in the will was a hired man of the company, as Ogburn would first have us believe. The bequest to the hired men, not one of whom is specifically named, is formally set apart from those to his “fellows” by the word “Item” that precedes a specific bequest to each. Thus, in his two references to the will, separated by eighty pages, Ogburn contrived to omit entirely the fact that Phillips made a specific bequest of a thirty shilling gold piece to “his fellow” Shakespeare. There is then no cause for confusion about what Phillips meant when he called Shakespeare his fellow – he was a fellow actor, a fellow in the Chamberlain’s and the King’s Men, a comrade and an equal – just as there can be no confusion about why Ogburn devised this tangled version of the will.


The Longest Ellipsis: “Frontline” and The Shakespeare Mystery

At about the same time, along came an example of this tactic – in reverse. Whereas Ogburn put eighty pages between his remarks on Phillips’ will, 33 pages were removed from a book in order to make the case that De Vere had to hide his identity as the author of the famous plays and poems, on the PBS Frontline mockumentary The Shakespeare Mystery. It was originally shown on April 18, 1989, and a few days later I had the opportunity see it on videotape. Something in a segment just about halfway through captured my attention. The camera pans around the Round Room of the old British Library, and the voice of Al Austin, the “correspondent” and co-scriptwriter of the program, is heard:

[L]iterary critics of the period called de Vere one of the greatest Elizabethan poets and “the best for comedy.” If he did write comedies and great poems, what happened to them? One of Looney’s [J. Thomas Looney, the founding father of Oxfordianism] disciples came across a possible answer in another old book.

(Close-up of Austin sitting at a desk.) This one. The Arte of English Poesie, written in 1589, thirteen years after De Vere supposedly put down his pen. (Opens book and reads from a page.) It says: “I know very many notable gentlemen in the court that have written commendably and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward, Earl of Oxford” – Edward De Vere. (A page from the book appears on the screen; the camera slowly zooms in on it as Austin repeats pointedly:) “Or else suffered it to be published without their own names.” (“. . . without their own names to it” in the text is then highlighted.)

I stopped the tape, rewound it, and paused when this page first comes on the screen. The last clause Austin “quotes” – “of which number the first is that notable gentleman Edward, Earl of Oxford” – is nowhere to be seen.

(Imaginary close-up of Irvin Matus at a desk in the reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library turning the pages of a facsimile of the 1589 edition of The Arte of English Poesie.) “Ah, here it is, on page 16 – ‘I know very many notable gentlemen in the court’ …  ‘written commendably’ ... ‘published without their own names to it’ – that last clause about Oxford is not here! (Begins turning more pages.) “24, 25 …” (More page turning.) “36, 37 …” (Still more page turning.) “Aha! Page forty-nine!” (Come, read along with me – in modernized English):

And in her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly-makers, noblemen and gentlemen of her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found it and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman, Edward, Earl of Oxford [my italics].

This chasm between the quoted clauses was also spotted by Terry Ross, the co-host of the “Shakespeare Authorship Page” website. When PBS announced that The Shakespeare Mystery was to be rebroadcast in April 1996, he wrote to the Frontline website for this program and, after laying out the facts about this questionable quotation, Ross concludes:

The falsified sentence that Oxfordians have created from different chapters of Puttenham is meant to persuade us that Puttenham knew that Oxford had secretly written great literature but had it published under another name. If Oxfordians would actually read Puttenham, they would see he says something very different. Oxford’s name and verse are known to Puttenham, and he is first on the list of “the rest” – that is, of those who[se] poetry is published under their own names.

Indeed, others are named after Oxford on page 49 (in descending order of rank): “Thomas, Lord of Buckhurst, when he was young, Henry, Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Edward Dyer, Master Fulke Greville, [George] Gascoigne, [Nicholas] Breton, [George] Turberville, and a great many other learned gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envy, but to avoid tediousness, and who have deserved no little commendation.” Like Oxford, all of these men were “courtly-makers” whose works had been published. And note that the passage on page 49 begins: “in her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly-makers” (my italics). “Now,” as Elizabeth’s reign entered its fourth decade, and the time Puttenham was writing, he contrasted her court then to that of earlier times in her reign when it was not considered déclassé for courtiers to circulate their writings in print.

Frontline put Ross’s remarks on The Shakespeare Mystery page and responded: “Your criticism derives from an apparent misinterpretation of the three words – with the rest. You are saying these words are referring to the list of ‘learned Gentlemen’ which immediately follows these three words. Whereas, we believe the words with the rest means ‘the rest’ (of those who are publicly acknowledged poets/writers).” It concludes:

And therefore we do not believe the compression of the two excerpts cited changes the meaning of what was written in Puttenham’s (actually Sir John Lumley’s) “Arte of English Poesie.” Both say the same thing: there are noblemen writing good works who don’t dare put their names to it. … FRONTLINE considered using both excerpts but didn’t because they are redundant. To have included both would, if anything, have strengthened the evidence that Lumley thought De Vere’s name as poet and author was being suppressed.

Ross’s response on his own website to Frontline’s belief that it depends on what the definition of what “with the rest” means, is straightforward and to the point: “if there were other Elizabethan poets that Puttenham had in mind, who were they? There is no other list of Elizabethan ‘courtly makers’ in Puttenham.” I will suggest an alternative: the Oxfordians can give us a list of “the rest” – those other known courtier poets whose writings were published by that time but are not found in The Arte of English Poesie. Don’t count on it.

Despite its vigorous defense of the authenticity of Austin’s version, it may be that Frontline ultimately came to agree with Ross. In the transcript of The Shakespeare Mystery on its website, something remarkable has happened to the quotation in question. It now reads:

I know very many notable gentleman [sic] in the court that have written commendably and suppressed it again … or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it.

Yes, that’s all there is. No indication whatever that in the program it was ever said, “‘of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward, Earl of Oxford’ – Edward De Vere.” Just as there was no indication that, when Austin read from the book, 33 pages separated “many notable gentlemen” from Oxford – perhaps the longest ellipsis of all time.

There is something else The Arte of English Poesie has to tell us about Oxford’s real place in the pantheon of Elizabethan literature. On page 51, Puttenham anoints those who excel in particular literary genre. Here we find:

That for tragedy, the Lord of Buckhurst and Master Edward Ferrys for such doings as I have seen of theirs do deserve the highest prize; the Earl of Oxford and Master [Richard] Edwards of her Majesty’s Chapel for Comedy and Interlude.

Buckhurst, Thomas Sackville (later Earl of Dorset), had paired with a fellow member of the Inner Temple, Thomas Norton, to write the first English tragedy, which they appear to have called Ferrex and Porrex but is better known as Gorboduc. First performed in the great hall of the Inner Temple in London on January 6, 1562, it also has the distinction of being the first drama in blank verse. It was a sensation in its time. Twelve days after its début it was performed before the queen in venerable Westminster Hall. Sir Philip Sidney proclaimed it to be the exemplar of tragic drama. To modern ears it is a collection of long speeches with a fashionable soupcon of Senecan style. 

Richard Edwards, Oxford’s co-prizewinner for comedy, was the author of Damon and Pythias and Palamon and Arcite, performed in 1564 and 1566 respectively. The identity of “Edward Ferrys” is in dispute, but it is likely that it refers instead to George Ferrers. Ferrers was the Master of the King’s Pastimes in the reign of Edward VI, for which he also devised masques. He made the transition when Mary came to the throne, now called the Lord of Misrule. He may be best known for poems he contributed to Mirror of Magistrates, on the unhappy endings of Thomas of Woodstock and Richard II, and one called The Tragedy of Edmund, Duke of Somerset.

Coincidentally, the only other source for Oxford’s purported dramatic genius, Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia (1598), reinforces his identification with these figures from the primeval days of English drama. Time and again, Oxfordians relate that Meres proclaimed, “the best for comedy amongst us be Edward Earl of Oxford.” What follows is not mentioned. This time we find De Vere in the company of “Doctor Gager of Oxford, Master Rowley, once a rare scholar of learned Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, Master Edwards one of her Majesty’s Chapel.”

Gager, William Gager, during a long residence after his graduation from the university in 1577, wrote numerous plays that were performed there, though only one, Rivales, performed in 1583, was a comedy; the rest were Latin tragedies on classical subjects. Rowley is a mystery. The only Rowley in the registers of Pembroke Hall during the last half of the 16th century is one Ralph Rowley. There is no suggestion he was anything but a student and nothing is known of his writings. Edwards is the same Richard Edwards named by Puttenham.

Meres separates these playwrights from the more modern, prolific and popular ones. Immediately after his mention of Edwards, he turns to the “eloquent and witty John Lily, [Thomas] Lodge, Gascoine, [Richard] Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood; Anthony Munday our best plotter, [George] Chapman, [Henry] Porter, [Robert] Wilson, [William] Hathway, and Henry Chettle” – all, except for Gascoigne, recent or current playwrights for the public stages.

Both Puttenham and Meres place Oxford among the “courtly-makers,” among the university playwrights (including one student), and the playmakers for the revels of the societies of lawyers. It is the kind of company of which Sidney approved. This is definitely not the company of the popular stage, with its daring, experimental, tempestuous practitioners. Oxford is absolutely not in the company of Shakespeare.


From Whole Cloth: A Moth in a Wardrobe Account

In October 1991 I became the recipient of personalized Oxfordian scholarly stylings upon the publication of my article “The Case for Shakespeare” in The Atlantic Monthly feature Looking for Shakespeare. The most energetic and entertaining of these came from Ruth Loyd Miller, best known for her lavish edition of J. Thomas Looney’s seminal Oxfordian work, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

In a letter to the editor, she took exception to my “litany of misinformation about ‘Grooms of the Chamber’ from my chapter ‘Crimson Velvet and Red Cloth[e],’” in her edition of Looney’s book, and specific issue with my comments regarding what she said about the four-and-a-half yards of red cloth issued to Shakespeare and eight other members of the King’s Men in the account of the Master of the Wardrobe for the celebrations of King James’s coronation in March 1604. I had quoted from that chapter of which I wrote she “contends ‘the clothe [sic] was issued to them not as ‘actors’ but as men of ‘The Chamber.’” She returned the favor by quoting my article, stylishly setting off the offending passage as follows:

Plucking words and phrases out of context, Matus subreptitiously [defined as “the concealment of pertinent facts”] writes:

 “The word ‘actors’ is not to be found in the account book, it is true; but beside the names of Shakespeare and his fellows the word ‘Players’ is written, large and grandly.”

Matus obviously did not examine the original manuscript book. Had he done so he would have seen the whole account is written in a perfectly grand, perfectly beautiful, clear, professional secretary hand. So much for paleography.

Since Matus made a big deal of the word ‘Players’ appearing beside the names of the nine actors, let us consider why the bookkeeper of the Wardrobe found it necessary to identify the actors by their trade, that, as “Players.” Weren’t these men so well known in 1604 that identification as “Players” would be superfluous? The inference is, though their names are well-known to today’s Shakespearean scholars, they were not so well-known in their own time by the secretaries and clerks through whose hands warrants passed for payment of their fees.

Some deft sleight of mind here. “Paleography” was, of course, never the issue. Nor do I, a today-Shakespearean scholar (nor, for that matter, any today- or yesterday-Shakespearean scholar I know of) suppose this acting company was so well known that it was “superfluous” to identify their profession in this account. It was instead Miller who treated the occupation of these men as superfluous, stating specifically they were not identified as “actors” and making no mention whatsoever that they were identified as “Players” specifically.

The real question is, then, why did Miller make a “big deal” of these men appearing in the Wardrobe account as “men of  ‘The Chamber,’” nothing more? The answer has to do with the name they were known by before they came under the patronage of King James: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

Shakespeareans hold that the lord chamberlain of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was the lord chamberlain of the royal household, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, until his death in July 1596, upon which his son George assumed his father’s title as well as patronage of the players. Oxfordians ask: might not Lord Chamberlain’s Men be just a shortened version of their patron’s ceremonial office, Lord Great Chamberlain of England? Can you guess who the Lord Great Chamberlain happened to be? (Hint: Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford.)

According to Oxfordian mythology, upon the accession of King James, the gracious earl ceded patronage of his acting company to his monarch. But, in the coronation proceedings in 1604, Miller surmises the impecunious lord was short of servants for his “double duties” as Lord Great Chamberlain, carrying the sword of state before the king (which was in fact carried by the Earl Marshall, Edward Somerset, fourth Earl of Worcester) in his triumphal procession through the streets of London, as well as for his service as Master of the Office of the Ewrie, which entailed serving water to the king before and after the banquet.

In her letter to The Atlantic Miller wrote that in her Looney volume, “The thrust of my article was this:”

The nine actors were furnished the red cloth (livery) as they were assigned to the entourage of some nobleman or officer of State. I suggested that nobleman was the premier nobleman of the realm, the Earl of Oxford.”

Of course there is not a shred of evidence that they were “assigned” to anyone other than their patron, King James. But that’s not quite all. In that article she was somewhat more specific. Regarding Oxford’s double duties, she wrote:

Therefore, would it not be reasonable to suppose that when Lord Oxford needed extra servants to assist with special duties relating to the Office of the Ewrie and of Lord Great Chamberlain, particularly during the coronation festivities, he would call on those ready at hand – men from his companies of actors? [My italics.]

Since you asked, Dr. Miller, no! First of all, for ten months the nine players had been “his Highnesse servants” (as they are called on the title page of the first edition of Hamlet in 1603). Second of all, the facts suggest that Oxford had no acting company whatever at the time of James’ accession to the English throne.

There is a reason Miller referred to Oxford’s “companies of actors”. Earlier she stated, “during the first year of the new reign, there apparently was an amalgamation of the acting companies of Lords Worcester and Oxford. These were merged into Queen Anne’s Men.” The inference appears to be this was the other of the acting “companies” under Oxford’s patronage, in addition to the one performing under the abbreviated name of Lord (Great) Chamberlain, which the earl could dip into when he needed extra servants for his double duties. Except Miller’s facts about the amalgamated troupe are wrong.

The first year of James’s reign began upon Queen Elizabeth’s death on March 24, 1603. However, the amalgamation of the acting companies was recorded on March 31, 1602. By August the troupes had parted company, for we hear the Earl of Worcester’s company alone was performing at the Rose playhouse, and it was as Worcester’s Men only that they became the servants of James’s queen Anne. In other words, Oxford’s company was defunct at least seven months before the reign of King James began.

Which leaves the question as to whether Oxford can ever have been the Lord Chamberlain who was the patron of Shakespeare’s company to be answered. A good deal of solid, documentary evidence refutes this; I will cite just two examples here. As mentioned earlier, Henry, the first Lord Hunsdon, died in July 1596, and when this company, now under the patronage of his son, next appeared at court, the Chamber account entry records a payment

To John Heminges and George Bryan, servants to the late Lord Chamberlain and now servants to the Lord Hunsdon, upon the Council’s warrant, dated at Whitehall 25 December 1596, for five interludes or plays showed by them before her majesty [my italics].

As Oxford was quite alive at the time, he evidently cannot have been the late Lord Chamberlain. That they were now the servants to Lord Hunsdon leaves no doubt this reflects their continued patronage by the Hunsdons, father and son.

To put this beyond all doubt, in early 1597 an edition of Romeo and Juliet was published. The title page states this was the play “As it hath been often (with great applause) played publicly, by the right Honorable the L[ord] of Hunsdon his Servants.” For, although George Carey inherited his father’s title and his players, the office of lord chamberlain was conferred upon William Brooke, Lord Cobham. Cobham, however, died in March 1597 and the vacant office was then given to Hunsdon. Thus, when Romeo and Juliet, “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended,” was printed in 1599, the title page states that it was “acted by the right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain his Servants.” (See pages 225-28 of my book Shakespeare, In Fact.)

All of which is apart from the obvious fact that it is improbable the full title of a nobleman’s ceremonial office of Lord Great Chamberlain would have been abbreviated, not least of all for the very reason that this would have caused confusion with the functional household office of Lord Chamberlain held by mere barons. This is supported by the sole play for the public stage by a company under Oxford’s patronage that is known to have been put into print. On the title page of this play, The Weakest Goeth to the Wall, the troupe is identified as that of “the right honourable Earle of Oxenford, Lord great Chamberlaine of England his servants.”

Oh, by the way, if that was indeed “William Shakespeare” who marched by the side of the Earl Marshall as he carried the sword of state before King James; if that was “William Shakespeare” who lorded over the decanting of water to the king; who was the William Shakespeare that headed the list of Players in the Wardrobe Account?

Perhaps Miller will get some solace out of knowing she was right about one thing. At the time I wrote The Atlantic article I had not seen the Wardrobe Account document, which I remedied during a visit to the Public Record Office in London. After viewing the entry of the players, I randomly put in my thumb – and pulled out a plum. My talented digit had taken me to page 43, where there is an entry (“written in a perfectly grand, perfectly beautiful, clear, professional secretary hand,” of course) The Eury, which allotted Oxford’s servants in this office “Skarlet Red cloth” for precisely three yeomen, two grooms, two pages. Evidently his needs, and the size of his retinue, had been formally determined.

Clearly, Miller’s fabrication is made of whole cloth. And it is full of holes.

Chamber Accounts. Wills. Wardrobe Accounts. Twenty pounds. Four- and-a-half yards of cloth. What’s all the fuss? Why do Oxfordians delve so deeply into what are after all little more than beautifully penned formal documents? Why do I go to such lengths to refute them? Good questions.

The answer is that Oxfordians’ desperately need to link De Vere with the acting company with which the name of Shakespeare is intimately linked. They need to do so because, in addition to the published plays, the name Shakespeare appears in numerous documents that indicate his personal involvement in the acting company of the Lord Chamberlains and King James. They therefore struggle to find a way to explain how a nobleman became synonymous with players for the public stage, to explain how he could be the Shakespeare who was so active in the affairs of a company of actors, and why it became the exclusive conduit for his works, a unique arrangement at the time. Such documents are all they have to conjure some connection between William Shakespeare of the Chamberlain’s / King’s Men and the Earl of Oxford. “Out of doubt and out of questions, too, and ambiguities,” they do not.

©2003, 2004 Irvin Leigh Matus


PBS Frontline transcript of The Shakespeare Mystery

Terry Ross’s letter to Frontline and Frontline’s Reply

Terry Ross: “Frontline’s Response -- and a Reply”

Please visit Part II:  Upon the Publication of Shakespeare, In Fact