Edward De Vere was the most autobiographical dramatist in history and 'Hamlet' is his most autobiographical work. "Every word doth almost speak" his spiritual name. Virtually every event and character can be identified from his life.
After reconciling with his wife, in 1583, still mourning the death of their son who lived two days, they moved back to his ancestral home Hedingham. He hadn't lived there since childhood.
To give a sense of his wife's emotional state in this phase, I include an elegy she wrote:
The heavens, death, and life have conjured my ill
Here was Desdemona, Juliet, Hermione, Imogen, and Ophelia in one soul.
De Vere had just seen 'Dido' in London, Aeneas' telling of the fall of his lineage among the wreckage of Troy. Aeneas' tale had been haunted by his father's death. Similarly De Vere's mourning for his father was never separate from the theft of the ancient family lands, including Hedingham. He had to sign that estate over to Cecil to hold for his daughters. He had no heir.
Recent news in London said that Katherine Hamlet had drowned herself in a brook. Anna Perenna of Ovid had also. De Vere known as the English Ovid was familiar with the legend. Brooks, becks, streams, and fords figured heavily in his ancestry and titles, and his Unconscious. At Earl's Colne (thatched cottage), their hunting estate one night, he heard the rectory bell toll a single knell. No one was there. His mother had died there. Then, at Hedingham, he encountered his father's ghost. Earl John lay in an unquiet grave.
In this time period, his protector, the Earl of Sussex, Thomas Radcliffe, had died, warning him about "the Beast", Leicester, who had poisoned his rivals, including perhaps De Vere's father, and whose wife was found dead at the foot of a stone stairs.
Also in 1583, his brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie sailed to Elsinore Denmark as an ambassador to the king Frederick II. He encountered a rich barbaric court that celebrated toasts by firing cannon balls into the countryside. There Bertie met two families, the Rosenkrantz's and Guldersterns. One of these made a return visit to England and handed out gold coins to the aristocracy as trade diplomacy. From Bertie's letters home and gossip, De Vere knew everything that happened.
How all these warnings and tidings converged into art, we don't know. But deep change often sends a writer into the past to validate the primal timelessness of his story. De Vere's former tutor Laurence Nowell had custody of the epic 'Amleth'; Lord Cecil had an original copy of 'Beowulf', both of them the ancient Scandinavian background. De Vere was only a few miles from his grandmother's extensive library at Billesley. Exiled from court, bankrupt, dishonored by his affair with Anne Vavasour and the near fatal duels he had had with her brothers, there was plenty to be angry about. 'Hamlet' became the voice and their move the occasion for summing up all he knew, felt, and remembered. He continued to revise it even after it played widely in England. Like Faust and Goethe, Hamlet was himself made immortal. We need only repeat the dramatis personae to prove his identification with the play.
Hamlet remembers Yorick from twenty three years before. Will Somers died when De Vere was ten. This would make Hamlet/De Vere thirty-three, an awkward age for a student just returned from Wittenberg. De Vere was thirty-three in 1583. His father died mysteriously and his rival took over his lands, in 'Hamlet' the whole kingdom. His father's rival's lieutenant married De Vere's mother indecently soon after the funeral. In 'Hamlet', the two are reduced to a single villain, Claudius, the name a reminder of Rome's imperial vice. Gertrude is Margery's fictional equivalent, cold yet pitiful, perhaps permanently ruined by the trauma of her husband's death. One day she had been mistress of a earldom. A day later she was a rightless female auctioned to the highest bidder. Her licentiousness afterwards seems to fit into the syndrome of limerance, being drawn to one's dominating partner. The phenomenon occurs also in Richard III. After killing two children, his threatened rivals, he seduces their mother. She is attracted, submits. This pattern did not disappear with medieval nobility. It continues in the declasse trophy bride.
The usurper's councilor Polonius resembles Cecil so closely it has never been a subject of dispute. Cecil was referred to derisively as "Pondus", aping his ponderous sayings, also Polus because he walked about with a staff. His humped back brought forth the derisive term "The Camel", which appears in 'Hamlet'. In the original version of the play, his name was "Corambis", two-hearted, because Cecil's motto was "Cor Unum, Via Una","One Heart, One Way". This was so flagrant a slur upon the Queen's Chief Minister, the second printing had his name as Polonius, a reference to the backwater kingdom of Poland with another fake Latin ending, meaning roughly Sir Sausagehead.
Further parallels include the reference to shipbuilders in the first scene, since Cecil was trying to build up the fleet in preparation for the war with Spain; the reference to Polonius as a fishmonger, owing to Cecil's attempts to make the citizens eat fish twice a week and prime the fisheries industry; the tiresome precepts, so like Cecil's imitations of Montaigne; the depiction of Polonius as eaten by political worms, since Cecil was born the year of the Diet of Worms; and the never forgotten 'falling out at tennis', recalling Cecil's favorite Sidney running from a duel with De Vere that originated on a tennis court. This interfering martinet finally connives to marry off his daughter Ophelia to the Prince, as did Cecil match his daughter and De Vere. Ophelia is Greek for profit, also meaning indebtedness, a compressed description of De Vere's history with the mercantile Cecil family.
From 'Amleth' De Vere took the royal vendetta, from 'Beowulf' he borrowed poison, swords, and the dying-speech motif. But none of this tells what 'Hamlet' is about: his high birth, his orphaned state, the morally-void cannibalism of his class, the ultimate sacrifice of the House of Oxford to the rising money-based economy–it meant the end of the feudal age. Though he was the brilliant and gifted genius produced on its cross-currents, a Renaissance Man, how was he or anyone to live an honorable life in this bestial world? Like De Vere, Hamlet was the last ancient and first modern man. He personified tradition, aristocracy, the higher pitch of the human instrument re-sounding the celestial spheres. "The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center/ Observe degree, priority, and place/ Insisture, course, proportion, season, form/ Office and custom, in all line of order" (Troilus and Cressida, I, 3, 87-) He would not give up honoring the perfection that existence is.
Hamlet also was De Vere the philosopher who corresponded with and visited Sturmius, one of the greats of that era. In 'Hamlet' he asked all the right questions: what is death?; what is the physical realm?; what is the basis for the human soul?; when knowledge means nothing, is there anything more?
Doubt thou the stars are fire?
His summing-up, much of it made available to England by his own sponsorship, starts with "Hamlet's Book", 'Cardanus Comforte', a key to understanding the play:
This prospect Hamlet expresses as:
To die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep to say we end
Similarly, where Cardanus says:
"A man is nothing but his mind: if the mind be discontented the man be all disquiet though all the rest be well."
"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so...Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprise of great pitch and moment..turn awry and lose the name of action." ('Hamlet': II, 2)
Where Cardanus assures, "Good and evil Fortune imparteth nothing to blessed life," Hamlet concludes to his friend Horatio, "Thou hast been a man that hath taken Fortune's buffets and rewards with equal thanks." ('Hamlet': II, 2)
So death is a journey; and existence is ruled by Fate accepted evenly, and thus subtly met and dissolved of its power to strike fear. Life is brief, the gods obscure. Then what is our earthly matter, this "quintessence of dust" we inhabit so briefly? De Vere answers this through the philosophy of his faithful secretary Nicholas Hill, the Laughing Philosopher, who feared no hardship. He modified Democritis's theory that all life is formed of atoms, adding that they never disappear but enjoy infinite existence once set in motion. He immortalized matter, implying a corresponding immortality of matter's energy, the invisible sense that is more than instinct or hunger, perhaps the soul?. Hamlet refers to it when trying to lift his mother from her corrupted weakness:
Sense sure you have,
The idea is very close to the unlocalized moral sense Descartes declared is germane to human nature. When his mother cannot throw off her paralysis, Hamlet implores:
O throw away the worser part of it
In a play thought cynical and religiously blank, this is a mystical declaration for moral action and its redeeming power. It all but repeats the words of Christ, "go and sin no more". To De Vere the ground of being that animates the potentially human soul is this binding energy to right action, a subset of the ordered forms of the universe. The American Founding Fathers referred to it as "sacred honor", needing no God-figure for support. In fact, De Vere voiced the word 'honor' in his plays 690 times. Fully a quarter of the underlined passages of his Geneva Bible (viz. Stritmatter) he incorporated, invoking new language, into the works of "Shakespeare". To return to the initial question of this discussion, De Vere's moral conviction is, even when knowledge as compass fails, the impulse to right action remains, or in Christ's example, unconditional love, the potentiality of humanity most like the divine.
These things may be true, but they are also too late in Hamlet's fate to live out. 'Too late' is the precondition of tragedy. De Vere saw more tragedy than the sad vindication of his protagonist, bathing his dying honor in blood. At the center of the play is the playlet, the recital of Troy's destruction and fall. This image was De Vere's primary historical archetype which cast deep meaning upon his own life and time. Like Achilles' shield, the tale of Troy is both past and present, dead yet on-going reality. His childhood fixation with history proved apt. Man's fate, personal and collective, is his tragic drama. Great civilizations are sacked. The Vandals and criminals move in with their devolving minds and motives:
So shall you hear
In that chaos, Hamlet can only ask his loyal friend to aid him after death, "things standing thus unknown", and bring his cause to fruition. His appeal is so close to Revelations 14:13 and Ecclesiasticus,(Psalm 38, footnote c) it could not be co-incidental: "Write. Blessed are the dead, which hereafter die in the Lord. Even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors, and their works follow them". And "[W]e patiently ...trust that God will clear our cause and restore us to our right." (Roger A. Stritmatter, 'Edward De Vere's Geneva Bible' quoted in Mark Anderson, Shakespeare By Another Name, App. A, p. 391-2) This was the basis in faith and language for De Vere to say through Hamlet, "Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied..." He relied on his friends and through them upon providence, "a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them though we will."
It remains to be proven whether his cause and self shall be reported aright. However those were not his last words to future time. 'The Tempest', his final play, gives evidence of how he came to face that horizon. As though Philoctetes himself, Prospero the Magician says:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
So asking for, he gives grace, and the final benediction to earth are his simple Anglo-Saxon words, "Be free, and fare thou well!"