THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
(Originally published by Coward-McCann, Inc., New York 1952.
Reprinted with the express permission of Charlton Ogburn, Jr.)
IN THE FOUR REMAINING PLAYS which appeared during Lord Oxford's banishment--always, of course, in an early form, not as the philosophically mature dramas we know today--enough historical allusions were incorporated to provide evidence that they were first written before the summer of 1583. The original references have, in each case, been retained; and this must have been done for the explicit purpose of dating the plays, so that posterity might apprehend their underlying meaning and recognize the period to which they belonged; for in some cases, notably that of Othello, the drama would be actually more appealing if it did not carryall the old cargo of historical symbolism. These plays were intended to be, and positively were, "the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time." And we must accept the author's terms, even if it means having frequently to sacrifice illusion for allusion. There is plenty of illusion left. If the events and the persons of his day could become in the hands of the great conjurer "such stuff as dreams are made on," we who are still being enchanted by the dreams should not complain.
While the dramatist who produced our noblest literature was an inveterate romantic, he was a salient realist, too. No poet has ever said more candidly or precisely what he meant than this one did in both the Sonnets and the plays. Yet there has been a kind of obsession on the part of scholars not to take him at his word but to adumbrate theories and arbitrary schemes for his work, searching both higher and lower than the level of his meaning instead of simply attending to what he says.
One critic has played with the idea that, in Julius Caesar, the dramatist may have "borrowed" from Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humour, because, confused by the mistaken chronology, he did not realize that Every Man Out not only satirizes the elder dramatist as Sir Puntarvolo, but also paraphrases innumerable lines from his plays, including the one in question.
Julius Caesar has it thus (III.2.105):
And from this Jonson derives his line:
This "you know" --which implies, "since you have heard it in the play, Julius Caesar"--is fairly indicative, in itself. Later Jonson uses the words, "Et tu, Brute," showing he has that play in mind. He, of whom Dryden said that he was "a learned plagiary of all the others; you track him everywhere in their snow," was the one who "borrowed"; never the author of Julius Caesar!
In this Roman play, the dramatist followed Plutarch closely, drawing his historical material from the Lives of Caesar, Marcus Brutus, and Antony; but he reshaped the story to his own purposes, concentrating the action, to some extent re-creating the leading characters; and he took large license with the altercation between Brutus and Cassius, motivating it to suit his own designs. All this Oxford was, of course, bound to do, for he was invariably dramatizing current events and persons, including himself. Noteworthy, in passing, is the fact that he omitted any unadmirable traits or actions on the part of Brutus which are recorded by Plutarch: he identified Brutus with himself, endowing him with the ideals and honorable motives he himself would have had.
Caesar's historical remark upon first hearing Brutus speak in public, might well have been made by a stranger who for the first time witnessed the Earl of Oxford's plays at court or at the Blackfriars. "I do not know," he said, "what this young man intends, but, whatever he intends, he intends it vehemently." We may be sure the application was not missed by the lively student of Plutarch.
Julius Caesar seems to be the product of two early plays combined; thus for long stretches during the action of one, certain characters belonging to the other are mute. Mrs. Clark makes out a credible case for the earlier of these plays, The history of Caesar, having been given at Windsor in January 1583. 1 Contemporary events would seem to bear out her findings; for the section having to do with the assassination of Caesar was obviously written after an attempt was made on the life of William of Orange, in Antwerp, in March 1582. This attack of course created widespread alarm in England, disturbing ElizabeTh so profoundly that she spoke of demanding Alen<;on's immediate return, although when 'iValsingham warned her that she would surely h;lVe to marry him if he ever came again, she abandoned the idea. But she apparently liked the play well enough to have it performed at Windsor before she had received the author into her good graces again.
The situation was serious and especially dangerous for Alençon, because the Prince of Orange had been shot while attending the French Duke's birthday party, on March 18, 1582; and if he had not, though gravely wounded, shown great courage and presence of mind, not only Alençon but all the Frenchmen present might have been murdered.
The would-be assassin was a young Spaniard, a tool of those higher up. He was immediately put to death by attendants, in spite of the brave protestations of Orange, who, rallying after the terrible shock but fully expecting to die, cried out, "Do not kill him--I forgive him my death!" Then addressing the French noblemen, he sighed, "Alas! what a faithful servant doth his Highness lose in me!" But to everyone's surprise, the Prince's wounds did not prove fatal.
William the Silent was the only leader of stature who had arisen in the Netherlands. Like Caesar, he had several times been offered a crown and; like Caesar, had declined it. Both men were surrounded by jealous nobles. Curiously enough, at the time of the attacks on both leaders, a comet appeared, which fact created a sensational effect upon the public of England, already agitated and uneasy, as it had upon that of Rome.
In this year, 1582, the calendar had been rectified by Pope Gregory, the first time it had been altered since Caesar had reformed it. The opening lines of the play show that no regular holiday was being celebrated; it was merely Alençon's birthday, and the people had seized the opportunity to idle in the streets.
Since Alençon's birthday was within three days of the ides of March, the Soothsayer's warning to Caesar would have struck an English audience as representing a dramatic warning to the Prince of Orange:
Strengthening the correspondence is the speech of Casca (I.2.234-5), actually more appropriate to an English than to the Roman ceremony:
Of course it had been a "crown" which Caesar was offered. But to William of Orange, along with the sovereignty of his country, had been tendered the old title of Count of Holland. In England a count, who would have the status of an earl, would wear a "coronet," not a "crown."
Another graphic analogy concerns Caesar's thirty-three wounds, and the thirty-two which ended the life of the Prince of Orange's would-be assassin.
That the British public was familiar with this play by 1592, at least, is indicated by a speech in Thomas Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament) produced in that year:
Julius Caesar was no less than ten years old by then, and still popular, so the public would have caught the allusion. Incidentally, Nashe's play is concerned with Lord Oxford.
Hamlet and Julius Caesar have been called "tragedies of reflection, as distinguished from the tempestuous tragedies of passion." 2 This comment gains weight from the fact that we now know the two plays belong to the same period, both having been first written before the dramatist was thirty-five years of age. In studying the plays and what we can learn of the trend of his life at this time, we can see him gradually working up ro Hamlet. A minor indication is the appearance of the ghost in both these dramas.
When Caesar's apparition appears to him, Brutus says (IV.3.277-9):
(In Plutarch: "I am your evil genius, Brutus.")
And Hamlet is profoundly perplexed as to the nature of the apparition which has visited him.
Not much time elapsed between the original composition of these two great dramas of reflection. In the persons of both Brutus and Hamlet, the author was dramatizing his own character. And now, as if in spite of himself, he was serving up Burghley again.
Having returned to his wife in late 1581, Oxford was no doubt endeavoring to be a good husband and a more satisfactory son-in-law. In the present play, he seems to have hit upon the plan of depicting Brutus and Cassius, the idealistic-philosophical type vis-a-vis the practical (soldier and) statesman, as an opportunity to portray the Lord Treasurer in a fairer light than he might have done heretofore. The two characters leaped to his creative hand. Here were his own salient traits--those which had exasperated Burghley as impractical--offset by those representative of the better side of his father-in-law. It was a God-given chance to do justice to the older man, while demonstrating the basic unassimilable differences between the two types. Of course, it was inevitable that as he got further into the play and deeper into his characters he told more truth about the relationship than he may in the beginning have intended. But who can say what this man's intention might have been--except that it was "vehement"? We can only make out in the brilliant light of his accomplishment the dazzling outlines of his method.
Many of the speeches sound as if they had been taken straight from life. How often Burghley must have reproached the proud and recalcitrant Oxford in the fashion that Cassius reproves Brutus (I.2.32-6):
The reply Brutus makes is the essential expression of Lord Oxford:
Many years before, the introspective Edward de Vere had written of Caesar and himself:
The dramatist could well understand Brutus's "covert mind." And he was speaking for himself, a Vere, when he had Brutus say (I.2.88-9):
while the familiar comment upon the Earl's popularity is made in Casca's observation on that of Brutus (I.3.157):
In the matter of Brutus's inability to sleep we are given another example of Oxford's method of merging himself with a sympathetic character. For when Brutus says (II.1.1-4),
and also (II.1.61-5),
the dramatist is talking of his own insomnia. For Brutus did not suffer from sleeplessness, he practiced it. Plutarch says:
But with Lord Oxford sleeplessness was enforced, not deliberate. He shares Macbeth's horror of lying "on the torture of the mind. . . In restless ecstasy." He speaks through the mouth of Prince Hal about it (2 H.IV: IV.5.22-7), and again after the Prince has become King (H.V: IV.1.262 et seq.), when he begins,
reflecting that no king
Sonnets 27, 28 and 61 give a more directly personal statement.
It is the Earl of Oxford's intimate knowledge of horses which Brutus expresses, as Richard II does (V.5.83-94), and the poet of the Sonnets and of Venus and Adonis too, when Brutus says (IV.2.23-7):
Again, it is Oxford characterizing Burghley--not Plutarch Cassius--when Caesar remarks of "that spare Cassius" (I.2.200 et seq.):
(He is "The man that hath no music in himself," described by his son-in-law, Lorenzo.)
This was ever the bone of contention; and the dramatist, under the compulsion of his genius, could not but note it. He even had Cassius express Burghley's sour dislike of his son-in-law's "lewd friends," when he sneers at Octavius Caesar (V.1.61-2):
This was scarcely the criticism the original Cassius would have stressed.
Cassius bids all to dinner, as the hospitable Lord Treasurer was accustomed to do; and it is Elizabeth's shrewd minister who says (I.2.310):
Burghley's hypocrisy, his willingness to fawn upon those in power is not recorded of the historic Cassius; nevertheless the dramatist has him say (III.1.55-7):
Is not this the selfsame William Cecil, the man of "caution and craft," who offered a craven "Submission" to the Catholic Mary Tudor and, in Elizabeth's reign, became head of the Protestant Party? It is dearly not the doughty, somewhat truculent Cassius of Plutarch.
As a matter of fact, the character of Cassius is more drastically altered for the purposes of the play than that of any other. Plutarch says:
While Burghley did unbend with his friends and become loquacious and jocose, he never showed anger and wheedled rather than commanded.
Even in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, concerning which Plutarch offers no particulars, although he says a quarrel did take place, we are presented with Oxford contra Burghley. This dispute is so graphic a revelation of the characters of the two prototypes that we quote it at some length. It opens Act IV, scene 3:
There is nothing of all this in Plutarch. But we submit that it is an extraordinary feat of characterization, almost every point it makes being implicit in the relationship of Lord Oxford and the elder statesman, Lord Burghley. It is realism so honest and so disarming that it seems an inspired fiction. In fact, Coleridge said of this very scene, "I know no part of Shakespeare that more impresses on me the belief of his genius being superhuman." With all deference to one of the greatest of critics, we maintain that, although many scenes do prove his genius to have been superhuman, this seems rather to show it most intensely and supremely human.
To begin with, Burghley was never above "taking," or even exacting, "bribes." That he favored and supported usury we have shown in identifying him with Shylock. We have another glimpse of him in this role when Brutus says, quite in the manner of Antonio:
and in that of Timon as well (IlI.4.94 et seq.):
Of no one in history, perhaps, could it be more truly said than of William Cecil that he had "an itching palm": that he sold his "offices for gold."To have his father-in-law "honour this corruption" aroused the proud young nobleman's indignation and disgust, especially when it was done in regard to his own property.
Cassius warns Brutus, "bay not me . . . you forget yourself." So Burghley must often have been goaded to warn Oxford, reminding him that he, "older in practice, abler. . . to make conditions," knew the world of politics and graft better than a literary man could. And Oxford would have stood up to him, or, like Brutus, waved him away in impatience. While it is extremely unlikely that the Earl e\ier threatened, in so many words, to use the Lord Treasurer "for my mirth, yea, for my laughter," yet they both knew that he would dramatize every act, every sentence, that passed between them, that, even as they spoke together, the poet's creative demon was standing apart and recording with deadly insight the intrinsic nature of them both.
Whenever any difference arose between the two, Oxford would have harked back to Burghley's withholding of his funds while he was traveling on the Continent, simply through penury and disapproval of an extensive journey.
This had never ceased to rankle. It had been a contemptible advantage for Burghley to take. Cassius's retort that he did not deny the gold is Burghley protesting, blaming the miscarriage upon Oxford's agent, the "fool that brought my answer back." When plaintively he chides Brutus for harping on his faults, making them "greater than they are"--and no one can say Oxford has not harped on them--the latter replies that he does not "till you practice them on me," and he will not be wheedled into saying that he loves the old hypocrite. "I do not like your faults," he insists bluntly.
Then Cassius embarks upon his eloquent wail of self-pity, than which nothing could be more characteristic of Burghley--as has been clearly shown in his letters, notably the one to the Queen of April 23, 1576. And it is surely not the doughty old Roman soldier who cries out against having all his "faults observ'd, Set in a note-book, learn'd, and conn'd by rote, To cast into my teeth." This could of course be figurative, were it not so appositely literal. That Lord Oxford kept a notebook is attested many times. Not only does Hamlet, who is the Earl himself through and through, cry (I.5.107),
but in his own person, in the Sonnets, he speaks to the Queen about "tables" she has given him (122) and also advises the Fair Youth to use a notebook (77):
This was the gist of Burghley's complaint, the core of his fear; and well it might have been. For so ruthless was the poet's creative impulsion that he set down even this complaint and this fear. Perhaps it is safe to say that, had there been no other reasons for his enforced anonymity, he has given us a sufficient one in these two candid lines of Cassius's speech. "The Great Lord Burghley" was not the man to allow posterity to receive a realistic version of his character. With his magnificent efficiency he arranged it so that the Earl of Oxford should go down in history not as a great dramatist and poet but merely as "Burghley's ill-conditioned son-in-law"; and it may even have been this same far-seeing minister, willing to "honour corruption," so craftily "able to make conditions," who conceived the idea of the hoax which his grandchildren dutifully perpetrated: "a fraud," in the words of Henry James, practiced "upon a suffering world." It is interesting that someone in a high place saw to it that Julius Caesar was never published before it appeared in the First Folio.
Habitually Lord Oxford's anger flared up and spent itself in words, Like Brutus, he bore
Cassius offers his hand. Brutus, truly generous and spontaneous, says, "And my heart too." For the time being, all is superficially smoothed out and, on Oxford's part, forgiven. But Burghley was neither spontaneous nor magnanimous. He was the Fox, full of craft. The two men were fundamentally incompatible. Soon they would be back again where they had started, and Oxford would be recording the irreconcilable once more.
It may be that Lord Oxford made additions to this play at the time of Burghley's death. One, in which he calls Cassius "thou noble Roman" (V.1.111), is fullof name-clues; it might indeed be said to be E. Vere's farewell:
In spite of all differences, Oxford's final feeling--and this would seem to be attested in his letters--was one of family loyalty, perhaps of some contrition, a generous tolerance, and even of affection.
They were great men both: one a highly effective statesman, the archetype of the Philistine; the other an idealist, a supreme dramatist and poet. One has given the world the version it is willing and happy to take, a story of successful mediocrity. How shrewd he was! How slyly he would have relished the sight of his dupes swallowing his story and even twisting themselves into contortions to justify it. The other, "arm'd so strong in honesty," has told the truth. Characteristic of him was the prophetic wisdom of the lines (III.2.76-7),
So has it been with Oxford. But he also knew that
1 Hidd. All; pp. 366-7. Her interpretation of the Feuillerat record is too detailed to repeat here, but it is convincing. back
2 Dowden: Intra. to Sh.; p. 75. back