This post is interim, but I’m going to post it before I take off some time to do more reading.
Reading about spies, wars and political struggles in Breight’s Surveillance Militarism and Drama flies in the face of the orthodoxy that would like us think that a commoner could have written covertly as Shakespeare did under such a regime. Breight’s handling of matters surrounding R2 is minimal, but he does do good work on tracing examples of Cecilian policy through the Henriad. He does not make many points about Shakespeare as a political figure, but he does show that some formerly confusing things about Falstaff and Hal’s actions are clearly consistent with the political realities his book depicts, which I would attribute to someone with insider status in the Cecilian state with a bone to pick. Breight is particularly helpful in giving a new understanding all of the plays from the perspective of realpolitik, what was really going on politically and militarily.
The main thing Breight does for Oxfordians is to corroborate the extremity of Cecilian oppression and censorship, and show what happened in England that made the secrecy surrounding Oxford’s mission as a writer so complex and dire. Breight demolishes the myth of Merrye ole England and details Cecil then Burghley’s methods of surveillance and patronage and tendency toward repeated antagonism, usually blamed on Catholic aggression in order to send the surplus commoners and undesirable elements of society off to war without sufficient provision, enlisting the upper orders as incompetent but greedy henchmen ala Falstaff. It seems to me from reading Breight, that the plays seem to have served as the circuses especially when, eventually, there wasn’t much bread. Breight traces the origins of empire back to the earliest days of Cecil’s debut in government. We have heard of Cecil the evil puppet master, and if Breight’s research holds, it was on a grander scale than most have imagined.
I also read a new article that led to me something else I needed to find and read, another contribution to Essex lore ala R2 and a continuing controversy, a 2013 article by Jason Scott-Warren, of Cambridge, called “Was Elizabeth I Richard II?: The Authenticity of Lambarde’s ‘Conversation’” which directly disputes’ Jonathan Bate’s view of Lambarde, which ended up in Soul of the Age. The usual Bate and switch may be another example of Stratfordians trying to water down period nasties that have been interpreted “ideologically” which means, in part, by anyone, including authorship doubters, saying Shakespeare had an agenda. I am a little on the periphery of this party, so I have to go back and see more about what Bate was responding to, but Scott-Warren does a good job of summarizing the current work, including Hammer, whose take I have discussed previously. He argues with new evidence that the Lambarde exchange remains as meanful as we thought it was, despite Bate’s efforts to disqualify it.
What does this have to do with popularity?
Breight shows the how the commoners were oppressed and murdered wholesale, which makes clear the growing dissatisfaction with Elizabethan and then Jacobean governments under the Cecil-style administrative regime. Shakespeare has become an idolic figure of republicanism/democracy as Will-of-(but-really-not-of) the world, but the whole scenario looks a little different, sympathetic but somewhat contradictory from an Oxfordian point of view.
I do realize I have a chicken/egg dynamic in analyzing the evolution of the term “popularity,” and I plan to deal with that. By reading some of Dickinson’s book on Essex and Chivalry, I have learned a lot about how Essex saw the world, and more about how he assumed the dark mantle of Sidney’s chivalric legacy that totally conflicted with the political system of the new men under Elizabeth. The fake knight had replaced the real in court, but the military reality created abroad was all too real.
Some things I learned: I knew Essex had his own spy network, but Breight explains specifics about how this was complicated by double agents reporting to the PC.
Propaganda was flowing in all directions through the new media of printing and through the unprinted, maleable plays, and the truth was bent so badly out of shape we may never get an entirely clear picture of events surrounding Marlowe (one might suspect that Breight is a Marlovian), Essex, Oxford and others. But if we look at the double-dealing patterns of Cecilian influence and manipulation of people and popular opinion, through the examples of Breight and others, a lot of things begin to make sense.
Bate, Jonathan. Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. New York: Random House, 2009. Print. 249-86.
Breight, Curtis C. Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1996. Print.
Dickinson, Janet. Court Politics and the Earl of Essex, 1589-1601. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012. Print.
Hammer, Paul. ‘Shakespeare’s Richard II, the play of 7 February 1601 and the Essex Rising’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 59 (2008), 1–35 (18).
Scott-Warren, Jason. “Was Elizabeth I Richard II?: The Authenticity of Lambarde’s ‘Conversation’” Review of English Studies (2013) 64 (264): 208-230 Oxford Journals. Web. 15 Jun 2013.
© Michelle Maycock 2014