EDWARD DE VERE ‘MUSE’ AND FEMININITY
By Charles Graves
How the ‘Muse’ of Edward de Vere’s Sonnets Created Femininity in His Plays
In a multitude of these sonnets we have seen how the author extolled his love for Henry Wriothesley and would employ the ‘muse’ issuing from this love.
But very few commentators have investigated Edward de Vere’s plays to see how this ‘muse’ inspired the personification of the characters or the mysteries of the plots.
In this essay we shall see how, in a deeper sense, the poet’s ‘muse’ was personified in the feminine characters presented, or how the plot itself would unravel according to such a muse.
We have noticed that, in almost all Edward’s plays, it is a feminine character who presents the main challenges within the plot. In a few cases, notably Hamlet, it appears that the spirit of males is predominant from the beginning, but these cases arise because the author must follow closely a pre-determined history (e.g. Hamlet as presented in Holinshed). Wherever possible, it is a feminine personage who ‘sets the tone’ as Cordelia in King Lear, the witches and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Desdemona in her love for Othello etc..
Edward’s muse is not feminine, but is an entity which presents a feminine approach, a feminine point of view. This is no doubt caused by the fact that, for Edward, Henry Wriothesley had become an ‘object for Edward’s love’, or that Edward himself had become a female object for Henrys love. The muse proposed the ‘feminine’ aspect of life because it was a distinctly feminine-oriented muse and not a masculine-oriented one.
Clearly analyzed, all Edward’s plays seem to present the feminine point of view from their beginnings. Even Hamlet’s activities, to a certain extent, are situated within the perspective of his mother – she who cooperated in the usurping king’s plan. She partially caused the ‘revenge’ imposed upon Hamlet under instructions of his dead father. Like Lady Macbeth, she somehow illustrated the dark, subterranean depths into which the feminine aspects might lead the plots, echoing the ‘dark lady’ theme in the Sonnets.
But, all in all, this feminine aspect of the plays, presented by Edward’s muse, is a creative, life-producing element, as with Cordelia and her sisters, Desdemona and her maid, Lady MacDuff, Portia (Merchant of Venice), Ganymede / Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola (Twelfth Night), Elizabeth (All’s Well) or Beatrice (Much Ado).
The male element, in general, follows these women and together with them achieves the final climax of each play, as certainly was the case with Macbeth, Romeo, Othello, Antonio (Merchant), Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), the Count of Rousillon Bertrand (All’s Well) or Benedick (Much Ado). In certain plays, as Love’s Labours Lost or The Merry Wives of Windsor, whole groups of women lead male characters around to the final dénouement.
It is Edward’s muse which accomplishes this, and in the acting and the reading, makes ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays unique. And to neglect this muse, noted so many times in the Sonnets, is to lose a valuable instrument for interpreting the plays.
Of course, to write a play needs more than the ‘muse’, a special feminine / masculine element mentioned in the Sonnets. Also is required a Theme which the poet derived from various sources. These included his experiences in Italy / Illyria / Messina, Sicily in the years 1523-4; also there were the influences from John Lyly and Edward’s other ‘Euphuist’ colleagues who worked with him at ‘Fisher’s Folly’. Moreover, Edward’s Greek and Latin studies at Cambridge were significant sources for his plays. Current events in England and Flanders also were important in writing plays of interest to the viewers.
Moreover, such an author needed real poetic ability, with a large vocabulary, and a group of writers around him to supplement his texts. The poet needed a philosophy of life and death concerning ‘this world and the afterworld’ and an ethical position vis à vis a given theme or to fit a drama of various ‘levels’ (as in tragedy).
Examples of the Muse in Action
This play begins with the encounter of Hamlet with his father’s ghost and Hamlet’s complaint about his mother: ‘O god a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer! Married with mine uncle’
Hamlet likes Ophelia but his main problem is the new husband of his mother and the revenge insisted upon by his dead father. Hamlet’s problem, thus, is the sexuality of others, and not his own. The muse thus treats the well-known epic of Emlet as an occasion to show psychological difficulties of family inheritance and the responsibility of the heir. Although the paternal line is the usurped one, the role of the main culprit – the mother – is underscored. The muse must portray a man’s love for his mother tainted by what he calls her ‘incest in the royal house of Denmark’.
Here the story is taken from Holinshed and the main problem arises with a woman’s frankness about her love for her father (King Lear). Cordelia’s share in the health of Lear’s kingdom is lost and her two sisters profit, but this ruins Lear’s plans for a happy retirement. Edward’s muse sets Cordelia up as a model daughter and Edmond (Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son) as a bad, ungrateful son. Thus the muse elevates the feminine role in contrast to the baseness of the male. Both Gloucester and the king suffer indignities because of Edmond, and they learn the lesson of the importance of women’s honesty.
The play opens with news that Desdemona has decided to marry a sometime visitor to her house – Othello, a ‘Moor’ and an admiral of the fleet of Venice. This official does not please her father but she persists and marries him. Their marriage is finally accepted by the Venetians but its internal love-bond is put into doubt by Iago, playing upon Othello’s jealousy. The muse places Othello under pressure of his ‘doubts’ about his wife’s fidelity. Is a woman to be loved even though the husband is told she is unfaithful? Hence, Edward’s muse once again places a male attitude about a woman as a central theme. Did not Edward de Vere have the same problem when Rowland York insinuated everywhere that Anne Cecil was unfaithful. Although the main theme is supposed to be male jealousy, another important theme is that Desdemona genuinely enjoyed the company of Claudio, her supposed ‘lover’(according to deceitful Iago): A woman can be friends of the opposite sex without necessarily ‘loving’ them.
All’s Well That Ends Well:
The main plot surrounds Helen’s love for Bertram, Count of Roussillon, and how she eventually validated her marriage to him although she was of a lower social status. Here again the plot concerns a woman’s project or attitude, as with Desdemona or Cordelia. Helen has advantages on her side with the king, who appreciates the post mortem advice of her deceased father, a doctor (for more, see below).
This play is opened by the witches of Endor, feminine personages who can predict future events, and Macbeth is influenced by what they predict about himself and his dynastic role. In a way they represent the feminine ‘powers’ related to Edward’s muse. The ‘feminine’ aspect will once again be determinative of a male’s actions and downfall. Macbeth’s wife completes the circle of influences impending upon Macbeth, and this leads to the murder of Duncan and subsequently to other murders (MacDuff family). But Banquo is brought forward as the culmination of Macbeth’s epic, he who was born of a woman by caesarian operation (fulfilling the prediction of the witches of Endor). From beginning to end the feminine element has a decisive influence – i.e. the poet’s muse (his ‘womanish’ love for Henry de Wrothesley) has guided the plot.
Romeo and Juliet:
In the opening lines the Capulet faction speaks of taking Montague ‘maidenheads at the wall’. But the Montagues have Romeo, who falls in love with Juliet, a Capulet girl (against the common wisdom which presumes only conflict between the two families). Thus the plot will surround the success or failure of such an abnormal love-affair. To whom does the author turn for a solution? Although Romeo is in trouble with the authorities for killing Tybalt, Juliet is in difficulty because she must, against her will, marry Count Paris. A solution is found between Juliet and Friar Lawrence, and Juliet agrees to take the dose of ’sleeping medicine’. It is her decision which brings on the final tragedy. Romeo is exiled by others’ decision. Of course, these decisions lead to the tragic death of the couple, and the families are reconciled after losing their beloved children.
The Merchant of Venice:
Here it is obvious that, although Antonio’s ships are unsuccessful in their trading, and he eventually risks losing ’a pound of flesh’, it is a woman who solves the problem between Shylock and Antonio and he is saved. She is Portia, whose ‘pretenders’ provide a major theme for the drama. Here the ‘Muse’ keeps Antonio from a certain death. The plot unravels in such a way that Antonio’s business (cf. Edward de Vere’s small fleet of ships which reach bankruptcy) was preserved by a clever, honest female, using her knowledge of legal procedure: The ‘muse’ could produce miracles.
Measure for Measure:
In 1592 Anne Bellamy of Uxenden was forced by Richard Topcliffe (the Queen’s torturer) to have sexual relations, which ended in producing Richard’s child. Anne was trying to protect her Bellamy family members (‘recusants’ like Robert Southwell, a Catholic priest involved in the case). Measure for Measure’s heroine
was Elizabeth, sister to Claudio who had gotten his fiancée with child, and the duke’s representative Angelo was forcing her until the Duke intervened. There are also echoes here of Edward de Vere’s own experience in prison for having fathered the bastard Edward Vere on Anne Vavasour (1580). The main protagonists in the Bellamy case and that of Measure for Measure were women threatened with rape by unscrupulous officials.
Two Gentlemen from Verona:
Julia, beloved by Proteus, tears up his letters, but she obviously likes him. The author apparently is able to describe courtly love in the perspective of female opinion.
The Taming of the Shrew:
We do not know which ‘shrew’ might be a model for Katherine in the play, but the Preamble takes us to Warwickshire and the personages of villages near Stratford upon Avon. Christopher Sly, a tinker, residing at a Warwicks inn is treated by noble visitors with a practical joke, that he (does it refer to William Shakespeare’s ambitions?) is a nobleman and that he will be shown all honours including a woman in his bed (who is, in fact, young ‘Bartholomew’ – the name of Anne Hathaway’s brother). Thus, the tinker will see a play about ‘taming of the shrew’ (which may very well refer to William Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway’s shrewishness). The muse of Edward de Vere is alternating in its treatment of Bianca (Katherine’s sister), the image of what is good and beautiful in women, and Katherine who has all that is unlovely in misogamy.
What is the Muse doing here? The author establishes in the Preamble a so-called ‘Dom Christo Vary’ (de Vere) thus placing himself as the real tinker, i.e. Shakespeare (his sosie).
So, looking back on the play he has watched, Christopher Sly can return to his home and deal with his shrewish wife. Edward, thus, will play Christopher Sly (whom he has created as a character in his play) and allow him to give a good life to his shrewish wife. The play seems to reflect Edward’s financing of William Shakespeare’s wife and family (Tapster: ‘your wife will curse you for dreaming here tonight. Christopher Sly: ‘I know how to tame a shrew’).
Edward’s muse (his love for Henry) was able to treat his own major problem. How to remain anonymous and not reveal his ‘feminine’ love for Henry? This feminine love was able, as muse, treat shrewishness because of its own inherent feminine nature. Edward became Shakespeare in this person of Christopher Sly (‘Dom Christo Vary’) just as Shakespeare was a way to hide Edward’s feminine love for Henry Wriothesley. This also occurred when both Venus & Adonis and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ were placed by Edward under the pseudonym William Shakespeare. This pseudonym prevented the public from knowing the author of many Elizabethan plays. But it also gave William Shakespeare of Stratford Upon Avon a means to satisfy his shrewish wife (Anne Hathaway). The result was William’s purchase of houses in Stratford and obtaining a gentleman’s status (no doubt paid for my Edward’s wealth, just as the noblemen in the Prelude to the play paid for various honours for Christopher Sly the tinker.
Love’s Labours Lost:
Biron, the main male character, may quite purposely represent Bion, a bucolic poet of Smyna, who wrote ‘The Dirge of Adonis’ (cf. Edward’s treatment of Adonis in Venus and Adonis). In any case Biron submitted to a regime of celibacy like the dons of Oxford in order to please the Duke of Navarre (Henry IV of France, a Protestant). The regime which excluded the ‘feminine’ was overcome by the feminine in the person of the French Princess and her three maids. Hence, to reject the ‘feminine’ in human life is impossible. This is in accord with Edward’s ‘muse’.
The men, including the Duke, are asked by the three maids and princess to wait a year before meeting again because feminine wisdom tells them that any men vowed to celibacy for three years (the oath they took together with the Duke) are not dependable.
Edward’s muse (Biron presumably), however, falls in love with Rosalind, one of the maids, and so the muse is conceiving a heterosexual relation and love to satisfy a mocking’ Biron. In a way Biron represents the anti-feminine sides of both Edward de Vere and Henry Wriothesley (who in the early Sonnets appears to be a person who will not settle down and marry and, in contrast to As You Like It and Dr. Doddypoll, four marriages do not take place within the play. Love’s Labours are thus ‘lost’. The loves of women by men remain a kind of fiction and perhaps this is the wish of the muse.
There are many indications in LLL that Edward de Vere is the author: e.g. noting Fauconbridge’s daughter as beloved by Longeville reminds us that the Fauconberg family is an probable ancestor of Edward’s Northamptonshire forbears; that Biron says of himself that he was a ‘domineering pedant’ and rejected ‘boyish love’ (heterosexual love) which seems to fit Edward himself. That he (Biron) was a ‘giant dwarf’, ‘a lord of folded arms’ here underlining the kind of love which Biron had denied himself.
Moreover, some of the red-white contrasts in poetry noted in Edward de Vere’s early poems (under his name) and in his Rape of Lucrece are repeated in LLL character Mote’s poetry (he was servant of Armando the Spaniard). Mote is an intelligent foil to Armando’s (Spanish Armada?) stupid pomposity.
Actually, all the heterosexual love in LLL is castigated at one time or another; the four male characters vow themselves to chastity for a time; they do not achieve their desires for love but must wait a year; Armando’s love for Jacquinetta is incredible, he being a knight. Costard’s love for Jacquinetta is animalistic: much of the raillery or banter between the sexes or about the sexes, is slightly vulgar.
To understand the way Edward’s muse functions in LLL, or should function (knowing that Edward is the author of the play), we ask what does it mean that Biron was known as a ‘mocker’? Does it represent Edward himself? What does the author want Biron to be? The play showed the anomaly of trying to live without women and how to (try to) live with women. A certain poet called Bion of 250 BC, ’the Greek Voltaire’: was he the model?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The background is famous Theseus and his fiancée Amazon leader Hypolita. Hermia is a feminine Hermes (Mercury) - who did many missions for Zeus.
Lysander, whom she loves, was in classical times a famous Spartan general and diplomat. One of the classical Demetrios, born 345 BC, whose parents were poor, became an orator and was very prized in Athens. Hermia is the one who establishes the plot, in her refusal to take Demetrios as husband preferring Lysander. This implied an Athenian judgement leading to the nunnery or death, being an attitude against her father’s wishes.
Again, with Titania, it is the woman who determines the progression of the plot, in her refusing to give ‘the Indian boy’ to Oberon, causing a rift between them (the ’titanes’ were sons and daughters of heaven and earth; Oberon refers no doubt to the Germanic Eburones, a tribe which crossed the Rhine and settled in Gallia Belgica). The question posed at the beginning of the play is: how will the men solve the problems posed by Hermia and Titania?
In the play the author brings together many elements: Athenian and Spartan history; Germanic mythology (Oberon); classical cosmography (Titania); elves and pucks (Scandinavian folklore); and the comic players’ presentation, imitating classical myths as the Thisbe / Pyramus story which echoed Romeo and Juliet, with no tragic end for the buffoon-like actors.
Oberon will retaliate with Robin Goodfellow (a puck) finding a ‘love-in-idleness’ flower to make Titania fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking from her sleep – it was an ass.
Oberon’s ‘drops’ cause such changes in aspects of love (cf. the ‘potion’ of Dr. Doddypoll). Hermia dreams that ‘a serpent’ took Lysander’s heart. She wakes and Lysander is gone (after Helena) - perhaps here is an illustration of the inconsistency of heterosexual love.
At the end of the play there are three happy marriages, two brought about by Oberon’s efforts (rectifying Robin’s faults) but in fact there is a fourth, major one, the reconsiliation between Oberon and Titania after she gives up the ‘Indian boy’ to Oberon. So Edward de Vere receives his Henry de Wriothesley (‘Titania’s son). The two women who, by their resistance, occasion the plot, are Hermia (who wants Lysander for her husband) and Titania (who wants the Indian boy as servant). In fact, Hermia’s wishes are fulfilled, as are Oberon’s (Edward de Vere, a partially feminine person). The only couple not to marry are Thisbe and Pyramus, who die. But they are ‘the play within the play’ and not serious characters.
Much Ado About Nothing:
Here we have echoes of several features of the life of Edward de Vere, poet. Its setting – Sicily - was known by him during his visits to Italy in the 1570s. Moreover, ‘Beatrice’ was the heroine of Dante (an Italian) and ‘Benedik’ no doubt refers to the Italian St. Benedict. The play has echoes of the Euphuist movement to which Edward belonged. It was founded by the books on Euphues by John Lyly. This movement tended to see the ambiguity in men’s sexuality (based upon Euphues trip to England coming from Italy encountering many ‘tempests’). The anomaly of male interests in the opposite sex and vice versa is one of the main themes of ‘Much Ado’.
On one occasion Edward was seen walking on the Strand in London in ‘womanish’ (i.e. Italian) fashion and dress. Hence, the Italian Renaissance and its artistic expression was akin to Edward’s view of life. So Beatrice treats men in a masculine way and Benedik treats women as if he did not know their sex. These anomalies provide much of the content of Edward’s Muse which represents the love of a man for a younger man, yet can stimulate various types of relations man-woman, woman-man. That is the genius of Edward’s muse.
The result of Much Ado is that both men-women love affairs (Hero-Claudio; Beatrice-Benedik) end happily but the actors for the ‘good’ (who believe Hero is innocent of the charges Don John managed to have contrived against her good faith) are the ambiguous lovers Benedik and Beatrice and not the duped ones (Claudio, Don Pedro and others). The author certainly sees many dangers in men-women relations, and these are the main themes of Much Ado up to the end. Edward’s muse first presents them, then solves them for a happy end.
The Merry Wives of Windsor:
Edward does not very much like pompous knights and stupid justices. He will use Page and Ford, especially their wives, to humble these. Slender (of the juridical group) will not marry Anne Ford. It is Fenton (a gentleman) who shall succeed in this. But the persons leading the revenge against Falstaff’s ‘greasy sexuality’ will be women of intelligence and ingenuity. Even Mistress Quickly (who knows Anne Page’s secret love for Fenton) will participate in the scheme to ‘demask’ Falstaff. Women will become ‘elves’ and ‘fairies’ to punish Falstaff at the oak tree. He has ‘horns’ but they prick him lightly with their fairies’ knives. The author is calling into question brute male sexuality in a convincing way, using feminine devises.
All’s Well That Ends Well:
Here is a story that fits Edward’s muse very well – a woman in love with a Count who spurns her and goes off to war (cf. Edward’s relation to Henry Wriothesley, his ‘loved one’, who often does not return this love). But Helen’s love for Bertram, Earl of Rousillon, wins in the end, as he is tricked in Italy to lie with his own wife in bed.
What about those miraculous cures which Helene offers to the king (secrets of cures she inherited from her father, a doctor from Narbonne)? These are the cures which Edward’s noble status (as a Count) were being brought by ‘Will’ (the name the queen had given Edward as a poet) to heal the ills of England. That this story took place in France and Italy hid the allusions, namely that true love was being hindered in England.
The main problem in this play was that the duke could not marry the woman he loved – Olivia. She kept him at arm’s length. What was the solution? A shipwrecked woman (Viola) appeared dressed as a boy and fell in love with the duke, but performed his wooing of his favorite (Olivia). Viola’s shipwrecked brother Sebastian appeared ‘out of the blue’ and wooed Olivia, which she appreciated. The duke began to like his ‘boy servant’ Viola (the king was slightly bi-sexual in this?) and Olivia and Sebastian loved as a heterosexual couple.
Edward’s muse probably was shown in its most perfect dress in this play – with its success of ‘cross-dressing’ in the person of Viola. Yet the heterosexual love of Olivia is also expressed here vis à vis the other aspect of Viola’s family - namely with her brother Sebastian.
In a subordinate plot Sir Toby Belch marries Olivia’s maid Maria. He is the most improbable husband (a drunkard and womanizer) yet Maria likes him. It is a bit strange for his type to love a woman, yet such appears in Twelfth Night. That Viola and Sebastian escaped from drowning and come from another country by boat situates them as deus ex machina for the duke’s eventual pleasure. Here is Edward’s quite Euphuistic contribution to English society. Euphues also came from ‘another country’(Italy) and interreacted with English society is a particular way in that his sexuality was ambiguous.
The role of the ruler or monarch in Edward’s plays is usually without any sexual content. Rulers are ‘above the fray’. They often participate in the solution of difficult interpersonal relations between the sexes. We note in this category Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Othello, Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. Only in Love’s Labours Lost is the ruler implicated himself in the ambiguities of sexuality and here we believe the Duke’s attitude is overshadowed by that of Biron.
What proofs do we have that Edward de Vere, an Earl and high official of Britain, was ‘feminine-oriented’? (1) The Sonnets, if they were of Edward, show definitively a love of the poet for a man; (2) Edward de Vere displayed in his dress and plays an Italianate / Renaissance persona which could have been looked upon in Britain as ‘feminine’. (3) Edward demonstrated a ‘Euphuistic’ approach to sexuality i.e. a certain ambiguity similar to that which Euphues, a personage of John Lyly, showed in his visit to England; (4) the role of women in the plays is quite determinant (as shown above).
Does illustrating the ‘femininity’ of the Earl of Oxford weaken our case against the Stratfordians? That Edward was heterosexual is very well illustrated in the Sonnets, in those poems dealing with ‘the dark lady’. He also fathered several children with Anne Cecil – his three famous daughters. Also, he could do well in a tournament, and aspired often to a military career.
But even so, as a poet he quite extolled the feminine in his plays as we have shown. He expressed a side of his personality (the feminine side) as a certain kind of ‘muse’ in his works (as he described it in the Sonnets). His muse was feminist since it was an expression of a particular kind of ’feminine’ love of a man for his ‘beloved’ (another man).
This perspective helps our ‘Oxfordian’ cause by underlining the love being expressed in the Sonnets, which does not seem appropriate for Stratfordian William Shakespeare. No such ‘loved one’ has ever been found except for an improbable Stratfordian assertion it was Henry Wriothesley, which seems impossible due to the immense gap between these two person’s social status. Also the Italian Renaissance context of much of the materials in the ‘plays of William Shakespeare’, a man who never went to Italy, is significant. In contrast to the various ambiguities, as we have shown, in the sexual relations of various characters in ‘Shakespeare’s plays’, the person William Shakespeare of Stratford Upon Avon, a onetime actor but later merchant of malt, seems to be a rather prosaic son of a glover or forester, mainly interested in his personal financial and social success.
Thus our approach, by underscoring the special bi-sexual aspects of Edward de Vere’s personality, does not harm our elevation of him as the real author of Shakespeare’s works, but asks the Stratfordians how they can explain these aspects in the Sonnets – was William of Stratford a bi-sexual? In general, they would deny it excluding all the proofs evident in many sonnets. Thus their case would be limited. Apparently no obscure ‘beloved’ of William has ever been revealed nor has any ‘dark lady’. The Sonnets, therefore, are an essential part of the Oxfordian case as is an assertion that Edward de Vere loved Henry Wriothesley - who was his ‘beloved’ in the Sonnets.
ADENDA TO 27 ESSAYS
Photograph: Hedingham Castle, Essex, by Derek Voller