Bonner Miller Cutting, daughter of the late Ruth Loyd Miller, Oxfordian-studies pioneer and publisher, is herself an estimable historian with an astounding familiarity with the subject. “The Case of the Missing First Folio” constitutes a valuable contribution to scholarship. Ms. Cutting engages the implications of the House of Anne Clifford triptych as a Jacobean cultural symbol and conversely its, to-now, merely curious omission of the works of the genius behind the stage-author “Shakespeare”.
So notable an absence, with the slightest shift of perspective, gains importance as plausible evidence that Edward De Vere’s biography and work fell into social eclipse during the turbulence of the English Civil Wars. Ms. Cutting’s analysis of one aspect of the era’s “towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste” gives perhaps the first indications that Lady Anne Clifford, who surely knew Edward De Vere wrote the works of “Shakespeare”, could not acknowledge the fact, since he had broken class taboos as a man and aristocrat-artist.
If ever assembled, the true story of De Vere’s career would be infinitely more tragic and humanly richer than the Stratford hoax—a high aristocrat, transfixed by knowledge and art, found a way to change the souls and Soul of his people by revolutionizing the scope and reach of thought through public writing. But increasingly amidst English class strife and repressions, that proved a fatal flaw.
There would have been no such fateful drama for a commoner, were we to retroactively place Shakspere in the same position as author. After all, Ben Jonson’s works were included in the triptych. He was a commoner and a far lesser light than the ‘Star of England’. Yet his work received praise and his master’s—none.
Great Picture” tripych is copyrighted by the Abbott Hall
Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria and cannot be included in the body of
the article. I recommend however that the reader screen the following
Internet website reproductions of it side-by-side with the essay. See:
“The Case of the Missing First Folio” deserves a broad audience. The essay is reprinted by courtesy of the author. All publishing and electronic reproduction rights remain reserved.
Lady Anne Clifford began her last will and testament with this list of her titles and dignities: She was the “Countess Dowager of Pembroke, Dorset and Montgomery, sole daughter and heir to the late noble George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland and by my birth from him Lady of the Honor of Skipton in Craven, Baronesse Clifford, Westmoreland and Vessey, and High Sherifesse by inheritance of the county of Westmorland.”1 To put it more succinctly, she was a triple countess, a triple baroness, and a sheriff. However, for the sake of consistency, throughout this paper this remarkable, redoubtable woman will be called simply Lady Anne.
Born in 1590, her life began in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and spanned nearly nine decades well into the reign of King Charles II. She constructed and restored castles and churches, put up monuments to family and friends, built and funded hospitals and almshouses, compiled manuscripts of record books, family histories, diaries and genealogies. Yet without a doubt her foremost achievement was her ultimate victory in a brutal legal battle to secure, in her own right, the vast Clifford ancestral estates in northern England. Her father had bequeathed these properties to his brother when he died, deliberately disinheriting her through the terms of his will. She was 15 years old at her father’s death, and 53 years old when her cousin Earl Clifford died, and the longed-for properties were finally hers. The three panels of her giant triptych— also known as “Lady Anne Clifford’s Great Picture”—were planned to commemorate these landmark events in her life. We will see shortly how the “Great Picture” became an integral part of her campaign to take charge of what she invariably called the “the lands of mine inheritance” — something that “had been her heart’s wish for as long as she could remember.” 2
Originally there were two of these mighty paintings. Of the two triptychs, only the Appleby Triptych has survived to the present; the other, known as the Skipton Triptych, deteriorated with the ravages of time and is no longer extant.3 A fine discussion of the Appleby and Skipton triptychs is found here with information comparing the paintings. The Skipton Triptych was studied more as it was historically more accessible, and was reproduced in a fine water color (still extant) by George Perfect Harding. Spence concludes that both triptychs were substantively alike, though minor differences did exist. One should be aware of just how enormous this painting is if one should view it today at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, England. The entire painting is nine feet high. The center panel is ten feet wide, and when the four-foot wide side panels are opened, the complete painting spans a show-stopping eighteen feet across!
Unfortunately, we have absolutely no historical information about the painting and production of the triptychs. We don’t even know who painted them, though modern opinion favors Jan Van Belchamp, a copyist associated with the studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck. This is a reasonable assumption as a professional copyist is what Lady Anne needed; all but one of the fourteen portraits to be displayed within the “Great Picture” was to be reproduced from earlier paintings.4 Though the painting is unsigned, it is dated 1646, and the last family event referenced in it occurred the next year in 1647.
The center panel memorializes Lady Anne’s immediate family when her two older brothers were still living in 1590; she points out that she appears there in utero. The right panel represents the young Lady Anne. Here she is “lively depicted” (her words) at age 15 — the crucial point in her life when she became her father Earl George’s sole and rightful heir — in her view of things. The left wing shows the Countess approximately forty years later when the coveted properties, “wrongfully detayned,” were finally hers.
Through the ages, the “Great Picture” has not received high marks for artistic merit. Critics complain about its “undeniable stiffness” and some of the painting techniques are deemed inadequate.5 Yet even so, the surviving Appleby Triptych makes an impressive statement. Quoting an art critic, “no picture of the age aspires to function as a family chronicle and intellectual history in a way comparable to Lady Anne Clifford’s triptych at Appleby Castle.” 6 I submit to you that it is the presence of the books that gives this painting its artistic vitality and its commanding intellectual stature. Moreover, the books are the vehicle through which Lady Anne speaks to us centuries later.
What is striking about this bibliographic display is that there are so many books put on view. Approximately fifty books are depicted, most of them located in the right and left side panels. Some appear loosely shelved, some are on the floor, and others are carefully arranged in the background. They are all boldly labeled to be readily identifiable. Furthermore, in an interesting bit of overkill, the titles and authors are also listed right there in the inscriptions on the triptych!7 It is abundantly clear which authors have been selected to receive Lady Anne’s explicit endorsement. The problem that we will examine today is that Shakespeare’s First Folio — or anything representative of Shakespeare’s work — is missing.
This surprising omission is all the more puzzling because Lady Anne Clifford was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. Her second husband, the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, was one of the “Incomparable Paire of Brethren” to whom the First Folio was dedicated. This simple fact makes her very much an historical person of interest, especially when her excellent education and her life-long interest in literature are taken into consideration. We have here someone who is in the right place, at the right time, and with the right resume to know who Shakespeare was —or was not. We will call on her shortly to take the historical witness stand. In the words of the author of King Lear, she will testify to “who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out.” I suggest to you that Shakespeare is noticeably “out,” and this is a case of conspicuous absence not at all in keeping with the orthodox story of the beloved Bard from Stratford-on-Avon. I’m asking you to be the jury, to listen carefully to the historical evidence, and take note of what Lady Anne Clifford does not say.
In a law review article published in 1992 in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote on the Shakespeare authorship question. In this article, Justice Stevens emphasized the importance of “significant silence.” He discusses “a canon of statutory construction”—in fact the 4th canon of statutory construction —which directs the judiciary to look at the legislative history of an issue. He quotes instances in which legislative silence can be a pertinent factor in cases brought before the United States Supreme Court, making the point that silence is indeed a form of testimony. Justice Stevens relates this canon to what he calls the “Sherlock Holmes principle that sometimes the fact that a watchdog did not bark in the night may provide a significant clue about the identity of a murderous intruder.” Then he compares the dog-that-did-not-bark to a number of absences in the orthodox accounts of “Shakespeare’s” life, most notably, the absence of “Shakespeare’s” library, the absence of mention of books in his will, and the absence of eulogies on his passing. To quote Justice Stevens, “Perhaps the greatest literary genius in the country’s history...did not merit a crypt in Westminster Abbey or a eulogy penned by King James, but it does seem odd that not even a cocker spaniel or a dachshund made any noise at all when he [Shakespeare] passed from the scene.”8 As we shall soon see, the case of Lady Anne’s Great Picture is right on point; posterity is again presented with another case of what Justice Stevens calls the dog’s “deafening silence.”
It’s important, too, to put the Shakespeare First Folio into
its historical perspective. In the introduction to the Norton facsimile
of the First Folio,
Charlton Hinman, the eminent editor himself, makes several
provocative statements, to wit: “The mere presence of Shakespeare’s
name on the title page of such an edition, as the publisher of one
of them [the quartos] tells us,
was enough to ensure rapid sale. But a folio edition of thirty-six
plays was another matter entirely. It would call for a considerable
outlay of capital,
would take a long time to produce (the First Folio was ‘in
almost two years) and would hardly, when finished, be in
great popular demand. It would be too expensive.” Hinman
goes on to say that “quick
returns could not be expected on a large folio priced at
one pound a copy — the
sum, we are told, at which the First Folio was originally
marketed – forty
times as much as the single-play quarto.” The First
Folio was a “decidedly
chancy venture and one not likely to appeal to many publishers
of the time unless” –and do note Hinman’s
some kind of guarantee against disastrous loss could be secured.” Although
Hinman states that “we know nothing of any such guarantee,” it
is an inescapable conclusion that the “paire of brethren” who
bore the dedication were the only parties involved in the
production of the First
Folio who were in a position to bear the cost.9 Moreover,
Pembroke, the older of the “paire,” was
the King’s Lord Chamberlain, and through this office
he was “responsible
for the control of all matters theatrical” among
his many other responsibilities for the court of King James.
Not many years later, his younger brother Montgomery
would hold this same influential position in the court
of King Charles. It seems an unavoidable conclusion that
the certain political connections and
probable financial underpinning provided by the “Incomparable
indispensable in making available to the public the collected
works of William Shakespeare.10
But first things first: At the time when the First Folio was underway, Lady Anne was still married to her first despicable husband, the Earl of Dorset, and her future husband, Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, was still married to his first wife Susan Vere. It is well known to Oxfordians that Susan Vere was the daughter of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford from his first marriage to Anne Cecil. Countess Susan and Earl Philip had ten children; six survived to adulthood thereby becoming Lady Anne’s step-children upon their father’s remarriage to her. It is unknown if Susan Vere and Anne Clifford were close friends, but undeniably they knew each other. Specifically, as young noblewomen in the Court of King James, in 1608 they were cast together in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Beauty, then again the next year in his Masque of Queens.11 The following year they were once again fellow dancers in Samuel Daniel’s masque Tethys’ Festival.
Anne’s husband the Earl of Dorset died in 1624. Philip’s wife Susan died five years later in 1629, and soon after that his older brother Pembroke died leaving him to inherit the great Pembroke title and estates. The wealthy and available widower moved quickly to propose the marriage-merger to the wealthy and available widowed Countess of Dorset, Lady Anne Clifford.
With her marriage to Montgomery (hereafter called Pembroke), Lady Anne was attached to a mind boggling collection of earldoms. Her father George Clifford was the flamboyant 3rd Earl of Cumberland and her mother, Margaret Russell, was the daughter of the Earl of Bedford. In fact, the number of earldoms that Lady Anne had immediate sway over came to seven after her two daughters from her first marriage both married earls. By the end of her life, her extended family included her Bedford cousins, her Clifford cousins, the Pembroke children, the Dorsets, the Thanets, the Northamptons, and the Burlingtons. She was on surprisingly affectionate terms with many of them, and, as might be expected, a thorn in the side of others.
One can hardly find a noble family of great distinction
with whom she did not stand in fairly close relationship.
was on good
Cecils. The Lady Frances, daughter of the Earl
of Exeter, was her son-in-law Thanet’s mother—they
shared grandchildren! The Lady Frances, daughter of Robert
Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, was the wife of Earl Henry Clifford – who
Lady Anne refers to as “enemy” and “opponent” Clifford.
Nevertheless, she was cordial with this Lady Frances,
and eventually stood godmother to one of her grandchildren.12 Additional
noble families through extended kinship included,
on her mother’s side, the Dudleys— via Aunt
marriage to the Earl of Warwick, and the Bourchiers—via
Aunt Elizabeth Russell’s
marriage to the Earl of Bath. Powerful connections
on her father’s side
included the Stanleys — via her paternal aunt’s
marriage to the Earl of Derby, which also provided
kinship to royalty through the great-granddaughter
of King Henry VII. Another paternal aunt connected
to the vigorous Wharton
clan. In fact, Lady Anne highlights the importance
of the family relationships with Warwick, Bath,
Derby and Wharton
with the portraits of these four
aunts bedecking the center panel of her triptych.13
Enough said. It was a formidable list of impressive people who influenced Lady Anne and in turn came within her sphere of influence. This goes toward a major point: Lady Anne was not socially isolated, but someone who can be taken as representative of the attitudes, standards and cultural taste of a broad spectrum of the upper class of the era.
Though quite certainly her impeccable credentials place her at the top of the social register, this is not entirely what makes her such a good historical witness. It is her lifelong interest in literary pursuits that commands our attention. Moreover, as we shall soon see, she herself chose to showcase this very erudition in a manner that cannot be ignored.
As Lady Anne’s education is central to this case, let us examine this aspect of her background more closely. Lady Anne’s mother, the Countess of Cumberland (hereafter called “Countess Margaret”) hired the poet-historian Samuel Daniel to provide her daughter and sole heir with an education “not just equaling but superior to that [which] her male contemporaries received at the university.” It was a lofty directive, and according to Lady Anne’s biographer Richard Spence, the beloved teacher of her youth developed in her “a familiarity with the most widely studied works of her time.”15 There should not be the slightest possibility that Lady Anne was simply unaware of Shakespeare’s existence or unable to comprehend his literary significance.16
It is perhaps another indication of Daniel’s influence that,
in 1620, Lady Anne commissioned the monument to Edmund Spenser in
in Westminster Abbey, paying the noted
mason Nicholas Stone the tidy sum of forty pounds for the project.
In fact, her monument to Spenser attracts all
the more attention because, in the words
of a commentator, it would have been more appropriate for someone
above Spenser’s station in life. Over three
decades later in 1654, she did precisely
the same thing for Samuel Daniel. Again, the monument that she commissioned
for him on a wall in the Beckington
church was “superior to that which
his social position merited.” Described
as a “recognizable bust,” it
was “the first monument in the
county designed in a fully understood classical
taste. For not only are there volutes and
garlands and an open segmental pediment,
but the man represented … wears
a kind of Roman toga and a wreath.”17
Before we proceed any further, I’d like to expand on my article published in Shakespeare Matters, and provide more background information on the events that led up to Lady Anne’s commissioning the Great Paintings. Historians give her the credit for the great legal victory that brought her the Clifford estates, and certainly it was her indomitable strength of will that made the difference. Yet a closer look reveals that it was Lady Anne’s mother, Countess Margaret, who did the heavy lifting, especially in the early stages. Countess Margaret took it badly when her estranged husband, Earl George, did not provide for Anne as his heir. Moreover, he broke the original entail from centuries earlier when he directed the property to his brother instead of leaving it to Anne, his only surviving child. What is known as “breaking the entail” was a significant legal point of controversy: when King Edward II awarded the property to the Cliffords, the entail directed the inheritance to “heirs general,” rather than to “heirs male”—so that the property would stay in the direct line whether the heir was male or female.18 When Earl George died in 1605, Countess Margaret moved quickly to file the law suits and the “submissions” necessary to support her daughter’s claim to the property. She hired the best lawyers London had to offer, and did much of the laborious research herself. The case was impressively argued with evidence from inquisitions, exemplifications of grants, charters, abstracts from wills, pedigrees and analogous cases. If it sounds complicated, it was. When all is said and done, it seems assured that without her mother’s efforts to keep the law suits going in the proper legal timeline, Lady Anne would hardly have stood a chance, her great courage notwithstanding, of regaining her father’s estates.
There’s a wonderful story on point about Countess Margaret. In 1614, she came to London to be with her daughter as the birth of Anne’s baby was imminent. At this point, the legal battle that she had been directing had been on-going for nine years. Countess Margaret took the opportunity to visit the Tower of London to continue her research in the great repository of the Chancery records. Unknown to her, the Tower officials were closing up early that day, and either she did not know that, or they did not realize she was still there. Whatever, she was accidentally locked overnight inside the Tower of London! By the time she was released the next day and made her way to Dorset House, the baby was born, and both mother and child were doing well.19 In addition to her researches in the Tower of London, Countess Margaret frequented the chambers at Westminster where the records of the Exchequor were kept, and she sought out vital documents in the Quo Warrento records which were in the custody of the Treasurer and the Chamberlain.20
Mostly Lady Anne just persevered. Two years after Countess Margaret’s unexpected sojourn in the Tower, King James took it upon himself to intervene and stop the legal bloodbath. The King sought to arbitrate a settlement called the King’s Award. The terms of it were a disaster for Anne, and had she signed it, it is thought by her biographers that the Clifford properties would have been lost to her forever. The pressure on her to sign and to accept the terms of the award was intense. The King, the Archbishop of Canterbury, her husband Dorset, and many other notable personages demanded that she sign. Her husband Dorset was eager to collect, on her behalf of course, the 20,000 pound settlement promised in the Award.
Anne wrote to her mother that she would not sign off on the King’s Award “no matter what misery it costs me.” And misery is what she got. With the cash in mind, Dorset was merciless. In an act intended to humiliate her, he dismissed her household staff, leaving her unattended and stranded. He cancelled the jointure estates that he had settled on her when they married, removing the income that would be her safety net if he died. Then ratcheting up the pressure even further, he took custody of their only child, her not yet two-year-old daughter, and hustled the little girl away to his brother’s house. Still she refused to sign and relinquish her claim to the Clifford lands. The terms of the King’s Award were finally put into effect by compulsion.
Ultimately, Lady Anne’s tenacity and endurance did pay off. Although her longevity was the primary factor in winning back her father’s properties, the long years of legal maneuvering put her in a stronger position than a woman might otherwise have been in to retrieve the properties she considered rightfully hers. She had endured decades of disgraceful, vicious treatment and had emerged victorious in an awesome struggle for dominance. It only makes sense that she wanted the world to know of her triumph. But her personal victory could not have come at a worse time. As previously noted, the year was 1643 and “the world” was at war.
At this point Anne had been married to her second husband the Earl of Pembroke for 13 years, but they had been estranged for most of them. Nevertheless, in wartime her safe-keeping was part of his noble duty. At his behest, she took refuge at Baynard’s Castle, the fabulous London property belonging to the Herbert family. Pembroke apparently regarded Baynard’s as his most defensible stronghold, moving his household goods—furnishings, silver, gold plate, tapestries, art collection and other valuables—from Wilton House to Baynard’s early in the conflict. It was a real win-win deal for both of them. Anne had a safe, comfortable refuge, and Pembroke had a house-sitter—or rather a castle-sitter—to watch over his valuable property.
She remained at Baynard’s, the “House of Riches” as she called it, for seven years from 1642 until the summer of 1649 when the war ended. Of course she did not spend the war years “in idle cell,” but characteristically spent the time after 1643 preparing for a triumphant entrance to her newly acquired Northern castles and manor homes, in anticipation of the time when it would be feasible to assert her acquisition in person. And this is where The Great Picture comes in.
The painting would seem to have been inspired by Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s masterpiece of her second husband Pembroke and his first family painted a decade earlier for the wall of the Double Cube Room of Wilton House.21It has been suggested that Anne might have had a hankering to out-do the Earl of Pembroke’s Great Picture, even as she was living at his benevolence in the luxury of Baynard’s Castle, his magnificent London safe house.
Moreover, the inspiration of her mother was ever-present in her thoughts. Lady Anne correctly anticipated that she would have a struggle with her tenants once she journeyed north and asserted her seigniorial rule over her northern properties. A similar problem — that of collecting the rents from the tenants — had beset Countess Margaret when, at the death of Anne’s father, she came into her dower properties located in Westmoreland. It had taken Lady Anne nearly 40 years to attain ownership of the property; receiving the income she was due could be almost as formidable a problem. There were likely to be hundreds of law suits; the 800 tenants living on the Westmoreland properties alone – not to mention her other newly acquired estates — could be rather unruly. According to her biographer, as part of her campaign to get control, she had learned from her mother the importance of “holding herself up as a model to be admired and followed.”22 The two triptychs that she commissioned were a vital part of this master plan.
A detailed examination of every inch of the Appleby Triptych is warranted but beyond the scope of this presentation. Needless to say, a lot of information and imagery can be conveyed in a painting covering 162 square feet of wall space. A brief survey reveals fourteen figures, related inscriptions, coats of arms, memorabilia, jewels, armor, furnishings and the like, all bordered by several dozen shields with accompanying biographies going back six centuries.
Of course, as stated earlier, the books are the most striking feature of the triptych. They have evoked much commentary over the centuries and were most recently discussed in Edith Snook’s Women, Reading and Cultural Politics in Early Modern England. The author notes that the books in the triptych are there to “confirm her class position and substantiate her identity as a landowner.”23 Certainly these PowerBooks showcased the exceptional erudition of the seigniorial mistress of Appleby and Skipton Castles when she received visiting nobility, gentry, officials, clergy, and even her tenants. That she intended her Great Pictures to be viewed by many and “appraised approvingly”24 is exactly the reason why the absence of Shakespeare is puzzling. On this point more will be said shortly.
But first let us take an overview of the books that are there. Complete lists are provided in both Williamson’s and Spences’ biographies,25 and for a detailed account of the title, authors and content, I recommend the fine essay by Graham Parry found in Art and Patronage in the Caroline Court. Along with three obligatory Holy Bibles, the heavy hitters appear on the Lady Anne’s putative shelves: Plutarch and Ovid are among the ancients, Chaucer and Castiglione are among the greats of more recent centuries. It is, however, the contemporary English writers that deserve the most scrutiny. Starting of course with Edmund Spenser, there is a solid line up of the Romantic school of writers, in fact the hangers-on of the Sidney crowd. To be sure, some are more talented than others. Beginning with Spenser and going down the line, one finds Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, George Herbert’s Poems, and scraping the bottom of the barrel, Sir Fulke Greville’s Works. One might note that Greville’s primary contribution to the literature of the age was his hagiography of Sir Philip Sidney, in which he perpetuated a variation of the infamous tennis court quarrel between the “worthy” Philip Sidney and the “notorious” Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.26
As with the Sidney cluster, other inhabitants of the shelves are closely associated. Ben Jonson shows up with his Works, and his literary circle is represented with his mentor William Camden’s well received Britannia. Jonson’s cohort from his Mermaid Tavern days,27 the great preacher John Donne, is represented twice, both with his Poems and his Sermons. Donne’s close friend Sir Henry Wotton is present with his book on architecture. Of course it is the inclusion of Ben Jonson, the editor of Shakespeare’s First Folio, that makes the absence of Shakespeare all the more imponderable.
In short, the denizens of the triptych are the writers for whom Lady Anne felt a warm personal inclination or those who were generally politically acceptable. Phrased more diplomatically by biographer Spence, here was a woman who “recognized the dues of friendship” while she “kept abreast of current political and religious issues.” Of course her beloved teacher Samuel Daniel makes an appearance with two books, his Chronicles of England and All the Works in Verse, plus he is singled out for an additional tribute with a background portrait and a laudatory inscription. It would seem that William Shakespeare would fit quite comfortably among such distinguished company, perhaps next to Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, or maybe in between John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays and John Gerard’s Herbal, works that he made use of as building blocks for his own masterpieces.
Ever-mindful of the academic niceties, scholars tip-toe around Shakespearean irregularities. Again, the historiography is consistent. Biographer Holmes does not comment on the absence of Shakespeare’s by-line, but infuses a Shakespearean quotation into his discussion of the books, a handy device that gives Shakespeare a presence which in fact he does not have.28 Biographer Spence is more forthright. He notes the “lacunae,” then by way of explanation surrounds the apple with a few oranges. But at least he noticed:
“Political and personal reservations”? Indeed. The account of William Shakespeare’s life written by Sir Sidney Lee for The Dictionary of National Biography offers this assessment: “The highest estimate was formed of Shakespeare’s work by his contemporaries, by critics as well as playgoers.” Noting the popularity of Hamlet, he goes on to stress Shakespeare’s “literary power and sociability.” Lee states that “Elizabeth quickly showed him special favor” and insists that “until the end of her reign, his plays were repeatedly acted in her presence.”30 Moreover, it is well accepted that “Shakespeare” enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, and Lady Anne’s second husband and his brother “prosequuted both [the plays], and their Authour living, with so much fauour,” if those words in the First Folio introduction can be believed. The absence of “Shakespeare” in Lady Anne’s "Great Picture" should be a disconcerting signal that there is something wrong with the traditional story. Therefore, I suggest we consider thoughtfully the biographer’s comment and search for an author omitted because of a “political or personal” reservation.
As Lady Anne was the step-mother of Oxford’s grandchildren, there might have been room for rancor within the family. A likely cause of friction could have been the fact that Pembroke settled on his second Countess, Lady Anne, the property that King James had given his first Countess, Susan Vere, as a wedding present. Alienating his first wife’s property could cause some serious ill will between his children and their step-mother. That’s personal.
Taking a broader perspective, the triptychs would be perceived
as the physical embodiment of Lady Anne’s great patrimony.
As such, the shields and inscriptions bordering the center
panel carried the chain of title, proclaiming the legitimacy
of her claim to the lands that made her rich. The appearance of the books
enhances the themes wealth and authority. As Edith Snook points out in
her aforementioned study, in early modern England books signaled
wealth and power.
The sheer number of them in the triptych made a statement which was all
the more impressive because books were costly and “ordinary
men, even professional men, would not be able to afford so
If the orthodox story of Shakespeare’s life is true, one is left to wonder why Shakespeare would not have been an excellent fit in the triptych’s bibliographic portfolio. Is not the Shakespeare canon the very soul of High Culture? Surely the Pembrokes’ patronage of Shakespeare’s First Folio, plus the effort and expense associated with its production, would lead us to believe that it would have been a most worthy selection. But should not something representative of Shakespeare’s work, if not the First Folio itself, have made an appearance on the Countess’ symbolic shelves? She could have placed a favorite quarto, say, Romeo and Juliet next to Don Quixote, or showcased one of Shakespeare’s great lyric poems if her taste ran to verse rather than drama. After all, his Venus and Adonis and his Lucrece enjoyed public acceptance and critical acclaim, or so we are told in the DNB by Sir Sidney Lee.
Aye, but there’s the rub. As egregious as the omission might appear by today’s conventional wisdom, leaving out Shakespeare must have been the right thing for an insightful – and politically correct—person to do in the middle of the 17th century. The surviving triptych serves as a looking glass into the past. It is an historical mirror reflecting the attitudes and tastes of Stuart culture and society, a social structure of which Lady Anne was an integral part.
The heart of the problem has been correctly assessed by many Oxfordians starting with Eva Turner Clark’s Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays and, most recently, well covered by Mark Anderson in his comprehensive biography Shakespeare By Another Name. As “Shakespeare,” Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford wrote about the people he knew. Given that he was born into the aristocracy, it was the high born of the land whose pathways in life crossed his, and not often pleasantly according to orthodox historians. As Shakespeare, the “slings and arrows” that he hurled at many in the Court of Elizabeth made for such good copy, but did not endear him to his fellow peers of the land.
In an article published recently in the Washington Post, Roger Stritmatter notes the “audacious liberties” taken by the author of Hamlet.33 When one considers the fact that it was flat illegal to put on the stage thinly veiled characterizations of public figures, Stritmatter asks how the dramatist responsible for Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Twelfth Night came to escape the punitive measures inflicted on other writers, e.g. Thomas Nashe, John Marston, and Ben Jonson just to name a few.34 Even the placid Samuel Daniel was called before the Privy Council to account for treasonable implications in his milquetoast and forgettable play Philotas.35 In stark contrast, the author of Richard II seems to have danced through the raindrops.
By the next generation when Lady Anne’s triptychs were underway
in the mid-1640’s, the Civil War was going strong. It was a
time of violent social revolution in which both the monarchy and
the aristocracy were fighting
for their very survival. In his massive tome The Crisis
of the Aristocracy, Princeton University historian Lawrence Stone states
that during this time
of Revolution, “the stock of the aristocracy was lower
than it had ever been before or was to be again for centuries.”36 It
was a viable possibility
works of Shakespeare could impact the outcome in this struggle.
If the identity of
the writer was revealed, the identities of the people would
fall into place. As Mark Anderson points out, the “Shakespeare
ruse” was “a
subterfuge that distanced the scandalous works from its primary
subjects: the queen and her powerful inner circle of advisors.”37 Many
a reputation might be tarnished, perhaps beyond redemption.
For an aristocracy
under pressure, the Shakespeare Canon was simply not an acceptable
public relations piece.
When it came to “Shakespeare” and his work, it’s
easy to understand the general spirit of cooperation among
the aristocracy in maintaining
a dignified silence.38
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