The Outcast State

Robert Detobel

“The Outcast State: Oxford’s Passion for the Theatre.” 

Was it his love of the theatre that led to Oxford’s “outcast state?”

"Unsent Letter" (Part III)


            Peter, you conclude your article on the Earl of Oxford and the Order of the Garter: “Shakespeare's personal sense of disgrace is found throughout his Sonnets: the poet is barred from “public honour and proud titles” (25), he wants his name buried with his body (72), he knows himself to be “vile esteemed” (121). Shakespeare alludes to the cause of his dishonor several times, most clearly in Sonnet 110: “I ... made myself a motley to the view.” In what follows I take up this thread and will be making an attempt to spin it further.

            I start from the assumption that not only this line in Sonnet 110 but also some lines in the Sonnets 111 and 112 relate to a scandal which led to Shakespeare’s “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and his “outcast state” (29). It was not Shakespeare’s own conviction that others’ opinion bestowed true value on an individual. “And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed, / Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing... No I am that I am.” (121) We may perhaps note the nearness of the thoughts expressed in this sonnet to Othello. “I am not what I am,” Iago says (I.i.65). In the preceding lines Iago has told us why:

            For when my outward action doth demonstrate
            The native act and figure of my heart
            In complement extern, 'tis not long after
            But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
            For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Iago, Othello says, is “most honest”. Actually, Iago proves profoundly dishonest. Yet in a sense, in the dominating sense of “honesty” in early modern times, Iago is honest. Othello is the play in which the words “honest” and “honesty” are sometimes repeated at a drumbeat rhythm. The part of the dialogue between Othello and Iago between lines 104 and 165 in III.iii not only contains six occurrences, its dramatic tension hinges on the different meanings of “honesty”. Othello explains why he takes Iago to be an honest man:

            And for I know thou'rt full of love and honesty
            And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath,
            Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more;
            For such things in a false disloyal knave
            Are tricks of custom; but in a man that's just
            They're close dilations, working from the heart,
            That passion cannot rule. (III.iii.122-3)

Iago can control his passions, conceal his true feelings and purposes, or to use the phrase from Sonnet 94, Iago is “lord of his face”. Self-control, ability to conceal emotions,  passions, was one of the many interrelated meanings of the word “honest”. Its range of meaning was at least as broad as today that of the term “political correctness”. Iago, with perverse irony, gives the term the restricted modern sense:

            IAGO. For Michael Cassio,
             I dare presume that he is honest.
            OTHELLO. I think so too.
            IAGO. Men should be what they seem;
            Or those that be not, would they might seem none!
            OTHELLO. Certain, men should be what they seem.
            IAGO. Why then I think Cassio's an honest man. (III.iii. 129-133).

Because Iago is the lord of his face, weighs his words, he is honest in “men’s eyes”. At some point of time in the 16th century, the notions of “honesty” and “civility” became interchangeable. One of the definitions of “civility” was given by the French 17th-century moralist Pierre Nicole. “In Nicole’s view, civilité is one of those ‘simple laws of decorum, whose authority originates in a consensus among people who have agreed to condemn those who do not obey them... This is why we owe to those around us the civilities laid down by the honnêtes gens, even though they may not be governed by clearly stated laws.” (Domna C. Staunton. The Aristocrat as Art. A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth Century French Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980, p. 131). Translating Nicole’s definition into the language of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we may say that “honesty” and “civility” were qualities assigned by “men’s eyes”. Those who in the eyes of “honest men” did not observe the unwritten laws of social behaviour were excluded from the “honorable company”, in “disgrace”, in an “outcast state”, that is, excluded from the social élite.

            So, Peter, when you write that Shakespeare alludes most clearly to the cause of his dishonor in Sonnet 110, “I... made myself a motley to the view,” it seems not too daring a jump tentatively to construe the line as a reference to “acting in public”. Some lines in the Sonnets 111 and 112 can, then, also be related to the same activity. Sonnet 112 opens:

Your love and pity doth th' impression fill,
Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow,
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?

Oxford caused scandal more than once. He was involved in a scandal in 1580 when Gabriel Harvey wrote his satirical poem “Speculum Tuscanismi” on him. Harvey’s satire was what in legal terms was called a scandalum magnatum, slander of a peer. It is unlikely that Oxford personally undertook anything against Harvey. But the satire could be considered as a dishonoring act. Harvey implicitly concedes as much twelve years later in his Four Letters when he writes that “the noble Earl, not disposed to trouble his jovial mind with such Saturnine paltry still continued, like his magnificent self”. But even if Oxford had felt personally injured by Harvey’s mockery, tantamount to an accusation of bad manners (Italianateness, effeminacy), hence of a lack of “honesty”and, by inference, dishonoring, which by his denial Harvey confirms, “whose noble Lordship I protest I never meant to dishonour", Oxford could not personally claim restitution of honour from Harvey. No more than Sir James Croft, controller of the royal household, who thought Harvey’s invective against his “old controller”, Dr Andrew Perne, was directed against him. Croft was no peer but the statute on scandalum magnatum from the time of Richard II (re-enacted and amended first by Mary and then by Elizabeth) assimilated high officers of state and justices as peers and stipulated that the Privy Council could take in charge such slanders. As William S. Holdsworth states in a series of articles on slander and libel in English law history, slander of peers was not an interpersonal affair but an affair of state watched over by the Privy Council. This had not always been so. In medieval times, the scandalum magnatum was also dealt with by the common law courts; with the avenue of the absolute monarchy, the disrespect of social stratifications affected the groundwork of the political order. 

            However, the scandal to which Shakespeare alludes in Sonnet 112 must have been of a more recent date.  In September 1592 Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit caused a scandal. In his preface to Pierce Penniless  Thomas Nashe writes “Other news I am advertised of, that a scald trivial lying pamphlet, called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is given out to be of my doing. God never haue (have?) care of my soul, but utterly renounce me, if the least word or syllable in it proceeded from my pen, or if I were any way privy to the writing or printing of it.” In the letter within Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit one playwright was said to be “given to extreme shifts”. If we understand this phrase as “extreme shifts of temper”, its meaning is a lack of self-control, of not being master over one’s passions – which was “dishonest”, “uncivil”. Moreover, the third playwright was said to live “on so mean a stay”, that is, doing something, playwriting, not compatible with his status or social rank. Henry Chettle, the presumed author of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit reports in his enforced apology  that “divers of worship” declared the third playwright to be honest; their denial “argues his honesty” would be quite pointless and even absurd if the reproaches uttered in the letter had not suggested some sort of “dishonesty”. Chettle was compelled to recant publicly. It seems clear from the wording and tone of his apology that the “divers of worship” forced him and that non-compliance would have resulted in punishment. Yet Chettle seems not altogether certain whether the third playwright felt personally offended, “one or two of them” were offended, he writes. This contention is at first glance a bit mysterious. The more so because Chettle addresses a personal excuse to the other of the two playwrights and even to Thomas Nashe by discharging him from his authorship alleged in some quarters. But no such personal excuse is presented to the third playwright to whose honesty the “divers of worship” testified. The mystery is solved if we assume that the offence to the third playwright was no personal affair but an affair of state, being an offence by a commoner to a peer or some officer of state assimilated to a peer by statute, and  constituted a scandalum magnatum. Then the “divers of worhip” visiting Chettle assumed the same function as those visiting Gabriel Harvey in 1580 after his libel on the Earl of Oxford and his alleged libelling of Sir James Croft. Harvey names two of them: Sir Walter Mildmay, chancellor of the exchequer, and Thomas Wilson, second secretary of state, both members of the Privy Council. George Peele is often mentioned as the playwright in question on the grounds that the letter contains the phrase “were it not an idolatrous oath, I would swear by sweet S. George, thou art unworthy better hap”. But swearing by Saint George, England’s patron-saint, is likely to have been very common, weakening considerably the argument for Peele, whose candidature fails anyway on two other counts . First, the Privy Council would not have intervened on behalf of the commoner George Peele. Then,  Chettle provides another reason to eliminate George Peele. On the one hand, Chettle revokes the blame in the letter by assuring that he considers the “demeanour” of the third playwright “civil”, which is practically the same as what the divers of worship affirmed by calling him “honest”; on the other hand, Chettle writes that he is as civil as “excellent in the quality he professes”. The latter phrase was a current term to designate the profession of actor. The third playwright is thus identified as a man of high rank having at least been acting for a spell of time. From John Davies of Hereford’s epigram “To Our English Terence” we know that acting had been the cause of Shakespeare’s disgrace. Without that, Davies of Hereford informs us, he would have been a “companion for a king”, that is, a courtier not in disgrace at court. And as an aristocrat he would, naturally,  “have been a king among the meaner sort”.  Finally, though Robert Greene was not the author, the scandal was caused in connection with his death and a work foisted upon him. Shakespeare never uses the word “green” other than as an adjective or noun. Sonnet 112 is the only place where it is used as a verb, “o’ver-green”.

            Similarly, the lines 1-5 of Sonnet 111 may be related to the theatre:

O for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide,
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,

What is to be understood by “public means”? If we understand “means earned from the public stage”, Oxford must of necessity have drawn some income from the stage. The logical inference, then, is that he was a “fellow”, a “shareholder” in a playing company. Theatre shares were of two types: shares in real property (land and buildings) and a share in the receipts from stage performances based on the contribution to theatre props (books, apparel, music instruments, etc.). In this case, Hamlet’s reply to Horatio acquires an autobiographic meaning:

            Hamlet: Would not this... get me a fellowship in a cry of players?
            Horatio: Half a share.
            Hamlet: A whole one, I. (III.iii.269-274)

For Shakspere of Stratford to be cover for the real shareholder no special contrivance would have been necessary. It could be achieved by the perfectly legal device of the “use” (as it was then called) or trust. Shakspere would then hold the shares “to the use of Oxford”. Putting it another way, Oxford would be the beneficial owner. The “use” or trust required no explicit formula like “to the use of”, or “on behalf of”, etc; it did not even require a written agreement; a verbal agreement was sufficient. The legal situation would then be that Shakspere was the “legal owner” of the shares, meaning the owner at common law; Oxford would be the beneficial owner, the “equitable owner”, that is, Oxford would be considered as the owner in an equity court. Such double ownership was a widespread phenomenon. Thus, the testimony of Cuthbert Burbage in 1635 to the Lord Chamberlain can no longer be opposed to Oxford’s having been a shareholder. Cuthbert Burbage did not need to lie. Shakspere of Stratford was indeed the legal shareholder, but Oxford was the beneficial one.

            This hypothesis has the merit of explaining some paradoxes. First of all, Shakspere, being nearly illiterate, would not have been an appropriate front if he were permanently to reside in London.  But this is precisely what the extant records between 1598 and 1616 tell us: that he had no fixed residence in London and was only an occasional lodger there. From 1603/4 he lodged at the house of the wigmaker Mountjoy; in October 1598 Richard Quiney sent him a letter, but the letter does not show an address. From this and from Quiney’s letter about the same business to Abraham Sturley it can be inferred that Quiney himself brought the letter to the place where Shakspere lodged , asking for it to be passed on to his countryman “Shackespere”. The records also tell us that in February 1598 Shakspere was residing in Stratford. Other records confirm the same for the years 1602, 1605, 1606 and 1611. In Stratford, his illiteracy or quasi illiteracy would be no major problem and more of an advantage: who would be curious in Stratford to know whether he was the great poet if he could hardly write! In London it was different. We must then ask why he was ever in London at all between 1598 and 1604? His two known sojourns in London obviously covering a longer period can be related to two events for which his presence as shareholder was required. The one is the lease of the Globe, completed early in 1599; the other is the new royal charter for the company in May 1603 with his subsequent presence now as a king’s servant in the coronation procession, postponed until March 1604 by reason of the plague. This hypothesis can also explain why in his will he bequeaths a certain sum to his “fellows” for buying a ring of remembrance but does not mention any shares. It would further explain another somewhat strange circumstance which has caused no small embarassment to orthodox scholars.

            In 1600 Henry Evans, a theater manager who in the 1580s had been working with Oxford at the Blackfriars theatre, leased that playhouse from the Burbages. The playwright John Marston had an 1/6 share in it. In 1606 Marston sold his share to Robert Keysar, a London goldsmith who had engaged in the theatre business. Keysar was an insider of the theatre world; he was also friend of the playwright Francis Beaumont. But in 1608 Evans  re-transferred the lease to the Burbage brothers Richard and Cuthbert and Keysar was sidestepped. In 1610 Keysar formed a new company at the Whitefriars playhouse. Keysar seems to have been the driving force behind the undertaking but his name does not appear among the shareholders, one of whom was a certain John Tarbock. In his works The Shakespearian playing companies (Oxford 1996) Andrew Gurr writes, “Tarbock is otherwise unknown. He may have been a front for Keysar, whose name is rather strangely omitted given his control of the enterprise.” (p. 357) Keysar claimed that the stake in the Blackfriars he bought from Marston gave him the right to a share in the earnings and took action. His bill of complaint was directed against the main shareholders of the new Blackfriars company, Shakespeare’s company. In the bill of complaint the shareholders are listed as “Richard Burbage, Cuthbert Burbage, John Heminges, Henry Condell and others.” Number and names of the nameless “others” are known. There were only two, one named Thomas Evans. Of him nothing is known; possibly he was a relative and front for Henry Evans. Henry Evans was of course known to Keysar, but either the evasive Thomas Evans was not known to Keysar or considered by him as an unimportant figure. The only other shareholder at the time Keysar sued the members of Shakespeare’s company was the evasive William Shakespeare. If William Shakespeare actually was a leading shareholder to the same degree as the four men Keysar named, his omission is incomprehensible. If, however, he was just a front man as John Tarbock and Thomas Evans seem to have been, it is no great surprise Keysar did not mention his name.

            If  Shakspere was a front or a trustee for the beneficial shareholder, it is clear why he had to be in London on some occasions, namely at transactions where the physical presence of the “fellow” was necessary. He must then be expected to have come to London in August 1608. But neither in London nor in Stratford does a document exist for that year.

But it is not at all clear why this front or trustee had to be a William Shakespeare. He could have assumed this role independently of his figuring as a playwright cum actor. And this role could also have been assumed by one John Tarbock, another Evans, or anybody.

            The key to the answer why he had to be William Shakespeare might be found in the “motley to the view”. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History G.W. Hegel remarks that Nero’s greatest crime in the eyes of the Romans were his performances as singer and lyre player on the public stage. “The Romans were only spectators, their mind was not engaged in playing.” It is likely that Hegel was reading Tacitus’ Annals when he wrote this comment, more particularly Book XIV in which Tacitus renders a mortifying judgment on Nero for exposing himself to the public view. Tacitus argues that “ no one at Rome of good family had stooped to the theatrical profession during the 200 years following the triumph of Lucius Mummius [145 BC], who first displayed this kind of show in the capital.” But Nero was irresistibly drawn to public performances. In order to give him satisfaction “without the spectacle being public” his two main councillors Seneca and Burrus, arranged for a private space in the Vatican valley. It worked: “Still, not yet wishing to disgrace himself on the public stage, he instituted some games under the title of ‘juvenile sports’.” It worked but it did not work for long. “Soon he actually invited all the people of Rome, who extolled him in their praises... However, the public exposure of his shame acted on him as an incentive instead of sickening him...”. Nero even “applied a compulsion to drive Roman nobles into disgracing themselves on the stage.” Playing in itself was no disgrace to a Roman aristocrat. After his resignation as dictator, Sulla is reported to have delighted in playing theatre. But he only ever did so privately, never in public. The disgracing effect of playing resided in the public exposure.

            Rome was a model, THE model, in fact, for west European courtly societies. Indeed, Sir Thomas Elyot shared Cicero’s, Quintillian’s, Tacitus’ views on the proper behaviour of aristocrats; in his Boke of the Governor (1531) , a guide to the education of the aristocracy, he contributed to the shaping of the postfeudal aristocrat. By “governor” is meant a member of the aristocratic class as a political leader under the changed conditions of the early modern centralizing state. His recommendations feature the playing of music. But that the “governor” should not practise like Nero “who all a long summer’s day would sit in the Theatre (an open place where all the people of Rome beheld solemn acts and plays)... It were therefore better that no music were taught to the nobleman, than, by the exact knowledge thereof, he should have therein inordinate delight, and by that be elected to wantonness.” Following Castiglione, he also recommends painting, but not in the way of a common painter or sculptor “which shall present himself openly stained or imbrued with sundry colours or powdered with the dust of stones that he cuts.” Singing is also recommended. But if the child proves great talents at this exercise, “the tutor’s office shall be to persuade him to have principally in remembrance his estate, which makes him exempt from the liberty of using this science in every time and place: that is to say, that it only serves for recreation.” The underlying reason for these limitations is explicitly expressed: not to appear in the public view, “the people forgetting reverence, when they behold him in the similitude of a common servant or minstrel.”

            Finally, a quote on poetry from John Selden’s Table Talk confirms that Roman and English aristocratic rules of behaviour concurred. “Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print verses, ‘tis well enough to make them to please himself but to make them publick is foolish. If a man in a private Chamber twirles his Band string, or plays with a Rush to please himselfe ‘tis well enough, but if hee should goe into Fleet streete & sett upon a stall & twirle his bandstring or play with a Rush, then all the boyes in the streete would laugh att him.” The first part of the statement is probably better known than the second. It is not immediately clear what Selden meant by “bandstring” and “rush”. Thanks to the assistance of Orlaith Kelly a satisfactory explanation seems possible. A “bandstring” might have been a sort of banderole, “a toy with an automatically winding cord by which it is brought back to the hand when thrown”, according to the Webster dictionary. A children’s toy, hence. The rush, then, must be the reed or rush from which children made a flute or pipe. To expose his verses to the public view is as childish and ridiculous for a Lord as to play children’s games in public.

            “Every superior class, even the most secure,” Victor Kiernan writes in his book The Duel in European History (Oxford 1988), “holds over its members the menace of forfeiture of status if they deviate from its prescriptions. Even a Brahmin can lose cast.” (p. 14) Shakespeare, we know, felt out-of-caste, bewept his “outcast state” (Sonnet 29). Forfeiture of status is not the same as loss of title. Title was not the be all and the end all of status. Kiernan also remarks that “niceties of social behaviour were given an importance now scarcely comprehensible.” (p. 48) But behaviour was one of the central elements of the legitimatory ideology of the aristocratic rule. It was important to the aristocratic class as a whole that their members complied with such rules, even if they were “niceties”. Niceties probably always belong to the securing of social domination. Further, “A true aristocracy is far from easy to define, and sixteenth-century conceptions of it were in many ways loose and elastic. A title was one warrant, an estate might be a better one.” (p. 50). Riches and correct behaviour were two aspects stressed by Lord Burghley in his counsels to his son Robert. His son, Burghley entreats, should not take an aristocratic but poor woman for wife, “for a man can buy nothing in the market with gentility”. And among his behavioral prescriptions we find this: “And suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps: for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism”. Hamlet scorned riches and conformity, to which Shakespeare opposed his “I am that I am” (Sonnet 121). The same “I am that I am” that Oxford opposed to Burghley in his letter of 30 October 1584. In another letter to Burghley (3 January 1576) he resolutely opposes the latter’s views on money: “Mine is made to serve me and myself, not mine.”

Yet, early in the sixteenth century Baldesar Castiglione laid the path to the aesthetic self-realisation of the courtier. Castiglione is most concrete in the first book where he describes the ideal courtier’s behaviour. Similes, metaphors, images are mostly taken from the field of the arts: painting, music, dancing. But it would soon become clear that there was no such possibility of aesthetic realisation of the self at the Prince’s court. About 1576 Torquato Tasso wrote in his Dialogue on the Court: “ I see not only the outline of the courtier but his complete picture, his portrait in color. And if that other portrait, by Castiglione, was made for his time, the portrait you have made ought to be prized in these times when dissimulation is one of the most important virtues.” Dissimulation is Iago’s virtue; it is the complement of prudence, which has become the vital virtue of the courtier in Tasso’s time. In his work on the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt has this keen remark that there was one place Castiglione’s ideal courtier could certainly not succeed, namely the very place for which he had been conceived: the court. He would have outshined the Prince, which again would have uprooted the basic conception of a courtly society. Put another way, the one to outshine anything else at court was the Prince, the moon-goddess Cynthia, alias Elizabeth, or the sun king Louis XIV, or to use the allegory of Sir John Davies, courtiers only shone as “a thousand stars” beneath the moon-queen.

            Where else had the perfect courtier an opportunity to realize himself aesthetically? We may hear Søren Kiekegaard another time. In The Repetition, an essay on a young man who has chosen to realise himself aesthetically, Kierkegaard writes: “There is likely no young man with a grain of imagination who at some time has not felt fascinated by the world of the theatre and even would have desired to immerse himself into this artificial reality, to see and to hear himself as a double, to divide himself into the greatest possible diversity and yet in such a way that each diversity is itself a self.” Jonathan Bate’s characterization of Shakespeare within a review of Greenblatt’s Will in the World as a mask covering numerous identities comes close to Kierkegaard’s reflection on the theatre as a place of aesthetic self-realisation. To which place could a courtier resort who wanted to live as the perfect courtier, to live aesthetically – we know that young Oxford was much attracted by that ideal – if the court itself barred him from that? Obviously to the theatre.

If  “public means” is understood as “means from the theatre”, it was from the theatre Shakespeare’s name received a brand. And if he had been acting, there was no way back to the court, the centre of the realm, within which Ben Jonson has the poet Ovid say in Poetaster (IV.ix) “is all the kingdom bounded,/And as her sacred sphere doth comprehend/Ten thousand times so much as so much Place/ In any part of all the Empire else; / So every Body, moving in her Sphere,/ Contains Ten thousand times as much in him,/ As any other, her choice Orb excludes.”

I recapitulate. The letter in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit together with Henry Chettle’s apology indicates that the third playwright was a man of rank not only writing for the theatre, but also acting (“excellent in the quality he professes”). It also indicates that his playwriting and acting had gained a certain degree of public notoriety. To put it another way: that the acting and playwriting man of rank had already acquired a corresponding public image. Given that the man of rank was involved in the theatre, he was in all likelihood the Earl of Oxford. He had himself exposed to the public view, “made himself a motley to the view”, which was incompatible with the status of a courtier, hence his disgrace at court. To find his way back to court, he had to stop acting and to get  rid of that image. In ancient Israelite ritual  this could have been effected by a scapegoat. The high man of rank would have loaded his sins on a goat, which was then let escape into the wilderness. Courtly 16th- and 17th-century also had a suitable ritual: the mask. If Oxford transferred, however formally, the role of playwriting and acting to another, he could hope to become freed of his image in the course of time.

Today such a scheme looks incredible. But many historical matters are incredible if we look at them with the eyes of our own time. It seems opportune to repeat Victor Kiernan’s observation that “niceties of social behaviour were given an importance now scarcely comprehensible.” Conversely, we may conceive that other things were then thought of so little importance as to now be scarcely comprehensible. “Dissimulation is one of the most important virtues,” Tasso wrote. If in courtly societies, dissimulation was one of the most important virtues (one can read the same in The Art of English Poesie, 1589), then, logically, it was not thought an important virtue to unveil a dissimulation; dissimulation had a high social acceptance. It is, precisely, how in 1547 the French author Philibert de Vienne described courtly society in his Le Philosophe de la Cour; which in 1575 was translated into English by George North as The Philosopher of the Court. The fortunes of both the original and the English translation offer a marvellous illustration of how the “mask”, of how outer appearances were considered far more important than inner convictions.

Deviations from the standard, Philibert de Vienne tells us, are tolerated provided they are done “masked and disguised”. Vienne’s treatise was intended as a sarcastic eulogy of the philosophy of the court. The leading idea, which here and there transpires clearly enough, is that the philosophy of the court is a perversion of humanist philosophy. Starting from Cicero’s De officiis Vienne redefines Cicero’s categories : prudence, justice, magananimity, liberality from the courtly point of view. What is justice? Vienne answers: “... with regard to contracts and commerce with others, one ought to take to heart the maxim not to do any tort to another, understanding that if the tort is covered and concealed by some verisimilitude of reason (for we are not wont to look so closely at things)...that is something very laudable.” A semblance of truth was sufficient to be socially accepted and even laudable. What is prudence? Prudence at court consist among others of “the art of dancing all dances: double and simple brawls, almains, volta... galliard...”. And the critics of this philosophy of the court are challenged: “Where are now the fools who pride themselves of their imperfections and good heads (as they say) and who, in order to be living men, would do nothing as their heads think good? They should be sent to the misanthrope Timon and driven out of our company. The gentleman-courtier is not guided by his self: if it is necessary to laugh, he laughs; if to be sad, he weeps; if to eat, he eats; if to fast, he fasts. In short, he is ready to please men, though his personal feeling were totally absent from it... at any rate, one has to adjust to the others, to accustom himself to doing like them and bear a happy facial expression to it.” The contrast to Shakespeare’s sonnet is striking, save that Philibert de Vienne is giving his positive counsels sarcastically.

But this sarcasm was not seen by everybody in France. And even less so in England. Given Vienne’s caustic assimilation of the ancient virtue of prudence with dancing at court, one man to whom it would have been imprudent, if not offensive, to dedicate the English translation of the book in 1575 is Sir Christopher Hatton, of whom  Sir John Perrot had said that he danced into royal favor by means of the galliard. But the dedicatee was Hatton! That's not all!! According to Gabriel Harvey (in his Letter-Book) , the book was not seen as a satire but as a useful guide to correct social behaviour. “And now of late forsooth to help countenance out the matter they have gotten Philbert’s Philosopher of the Court, the Italian Archbishop’s [Giovanni della Casa], Castilio’s fine Cortegiano, Bangalasso’s Civil Instructions... Guazzo’s new Discourses of courteous behaviour...”etc. Vienne’s satirical treatise was mentioned in the same breath as serious works on education and correct behavior by Guazzo, della Casa, Castiglione.

Social interaction in a courtly society was mainly between “masks”. If Oxford was acquiring a public image of a playwright and actor, he could transfer that image to another, provided not that it was most carefully concealed but only given a verisimilitude, signaling that he took distance from this image. This is perhaps vaguely alluded to in 2 Henry IV (V.i), “William Visor of Woncot... an arrant knave.” But how it worked in the society of the time is best explained by Touchstone to the country bumpkin William in As You Like It (V.i): “To have is to have: for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other... For all your writers do consent that ipse is he. Now you are not ipse, for I am he.”

We now come full circle. If Oxford had acquired a public image of playwright and actor, had “made himself a motley to the view”, he had to unload this image by loading it on another. There was no need of conspiracy, not even of meticulous concealment, verisimilitude was enough. The mask of the motley is brought to view in the First Folio. It is better known under not so good a name: Droeshout “portrait”.