Most of the events in this novel happened and were derived from the biographies of Edward De Vere (17th Earl of Oxford), William Shaxper of Stratford, Ben Jonson, William Cecil (Lord Burghley), Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Robert Cecil and others. The story line was constructed from actual events and linked together the same way a forensic scientist builds a compelling case based on evidence.
Some events in the book were dramatized to blend with fact. For example, we know that during a performance of All is True, The Globe caught fire and burned to the ground, but we don’t know whether Shaxper was prepared to make a speech naming the real author and confessing his own role as front man. Yet we do know that after the fire, Shaxper went home to Stratford and never wrote (or took credit for writing) another play again.
On writing dialogue for historical characters, George Bernard Shaw once said that he preferred not to write what he thought the characters had said, but rather, what he thought they would have said if they had known what they were really doing. Retrospect and the judgment of history conspire to allow us to speculate on a character’s thoughts, emotions and deeds. A writer builds well-constructed scenes that show characters involved in the roles they played as history unfolded. As you read this novel, step into the shoes of Lord Oxford, William Shaxper, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson and others so that you can imagine how you would have performed if you had been that person.
The title of this book comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania and Oberon engage in a bitter custody battle over a little changeling boy. In English folklore, a changeling is a sprite that is left in exchange for a human child. The phrase “A Fault Against The Dead” comes from Claudius’ attempt to convince Hamlet that excessive grief over the death of his father is misguided. Orphaned at age 12, young Oxford personally suffered such pangs of grief at the sudden death of his father.
Meg and Pinch are fictional characters based on composites from the Shakespeare plays.
The Shakespeare Mysteries by Peter Kline is a major source of the research used in this book. Since J. Thomas Looney’s Shakespeare Identified and Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, a huge amount of material has been discovered about Lord Oxford’s life and early literary pursuits. The University of Massachusetts was the first academic institution to award a PhD for research beyond the scope of the traditional Stratfordian viewpoint. This degree was awarded to Roger Stritmatter for connecting underlined passages in Lord Oxford’s Geneva Bible with specific lines in the Shakespeare plays. This Bible resides at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., where Stratfordians make it available only to visiting scholars and for occasional exhibitions, where its timeworn crimson cover is closed, preventing further scrutiny by a curious public.
Lord Oxford’s life is well documented. From the time he was four and a half years old, he was educated by Sir Thomas Smith in the full spectrum of subjects studied by the nobility in Renaissance England. At 12, he endured the sudden and traumatic death of his father, followed by the hasty remarriage of his mother. When his older half-sister sued to nullify his inheritance and have him declared a bastard, he wrote a poem (still extant) expressing his fear over the loss of his good name. As an orphan, he became a royal ward in the home of Sir William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s powerful advisor. Cecil kept a tight hold on Oxford’s fortune and eventually married his daughter to him, most likely to secure himself some noble grandchildren and increase the family fortunes when he became Lord Burghley by virtue of his daughter’s union.
But Lord Oxford’s outrageous behavior and flamboyant antics caused serious problems for Lord Burghley. For example, the robbery Oxford staged at Gad’s Hill is described in The Famous Victories of Henry V (with precise details known only by its “anonymous” author) and in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. This robbery is the subject of a still-surviving letter written by the victims to Burghley complaining of the unsavory conduct of Oxford’s yeomen who had attacked them. Modern Shakespearean commentators never acknowledge the existence of this letter as a key source for the first scene in Henry IV, Part I because it represents a personal experience from Oxford’s life reflected in a Shakespeare play. There are many other such connections. And as we all know, scandals among the rich and famous are reason enough for a cover-up, especially among disapproving relatives, the Queen of England and the government itself.
Lord Oxford wrote poetry and produced masques in the Elizabethan court. By all accounts he was an excellent musician, dancer, champion of the tilt-yard, scholar and philosopher. Childhood samples of his literary efforts still exist. Many books were dedicated to him, and he was praised as a writer in The Arte of English Poesy and The English Secretary. Perhaps this public exposure, not desirable for a member of the nobility, is another reason for the use of a pseudonym.
William Shaxper of Stratford left us no known early writings. Except for one well educated son-in-law, his family was illiterate. His sketchy biography has been based on supposition and speculation, much to the chagrin of English teachers and students who have had difficulty associating the grain merchant from Stratford with the authorship of the world’s greatest plays. Shaxper’s possible kinship to Lord Oxford through Elizabeth Trussel, wife of the 15th Earl, was suggested by Ogburn. It’s easy to see that family loyalty would empower Shaxper to protect his noble kinsman Oxford. Surely, the work enabled Shaxper to earn a profitable living and secure some shares in the playhouses.
Even at the time, Ben Jonson and his contemporaries doubted Will Shaxper’s authorship of the plays -- and they said so, in writing.
In conclusion, it is important that we connect an author with his or her work, especially in terms of Shakespeare and the world’s greatest plays. In doing so, we show students that writers create within the context of their experience and environment. Learning, thinking and writing merge, and the result is a completely unique individual perspective. This can be seen in John Steinbeck’s empathy with migrant farm workers, Mark Twain’s steamboat life on the Mississippi, Emily Dickinson’s reclusive spiritual reflections and Harper Lee’s childhood brush with racism. An author’s life experience is the framework for a literary masterpiece.
For many years, academics have tried to forbid close scrutiny of the Shakespeare authorship, using vitriolic attacks against those who would know more. But like glaciers melting after thousands of years revealing artifacts buried long ago, the true biographical connections of the 17th Earl of Oxford to the Shakespeare canon are open to discovery.
The best secrets are yet to emerge, whether the traditionalists care to admit it or not.
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