A famous modern poet used to sacrifice every year a Statius to Virgil’s manes; and I have indignation enough to burn a D’Ambois annually to the memory of Jonson.
John Dryden's poor opinion of Chapman's most famous plays is not widely shared, these days.
Connecting Oxford to Jacobean drama is a Labour of Hercules for Oxfordians, given that he died in 1604 before Jacobean drama had much to distinguish it from Elizabethan drama. Yet in a unique passage in Chapman's Jacobean drama The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois, the Earl himself is criticised and even rebuked on stage.
This is a rather extraordinary occurrence if you believe Oxfordian tales of censorship and the stigma of print. Their entire authorship case requires Oxford to hide behind an allonym for the offence of a few dim resemblances between Polonius and Cecil, so what can they mean, ignoring Chapman so disrespectfully taking the mickey out of the Earl, without even disguising his name, in a long and critical passage? Off with his head, surely?
The play is a sequel to Bussy d'Ambois, entered in the Register in June 1607 by the Children of St Paul's but which later found its way into the repertoire of The King's Men who acted it at court in the 1630's. It forms part of four plays written by Chapman about 16c events at the French court. Two of these were banned and then censored to remove the offending treatment of the French Queen. So how did the critical representation of the Earl survive?
Bussy is a dangerous, self-taught radical in the service of the Comte de Guise.
Fortune, not Reason, rules the state of things,
Reward goes backwards, Honor on his head,
Who is not poore is monstrous; only Need
Gives forme and worth to every humane seed.
He might not sound like the sort of hero you'd expect in the dreams of a backward-looking aristocrat, pining for a peasant to flog or an under-cook to stab. 'Who is not poore is monstrous' is hardly De Vere's philosophy as Chapman himself will point out in a later scene. This shouldn't disqualify Oxford as a potential author in Oxfordian attribution studies. Using a bit of reverse psychology, it might be the Earl himself, playing a variation on his favourite theme, 'everyone hates me but owes me a living'. Reculer pour mieux sauter.
At the climax of the first play, Bussy is killed by a Jacobean staple, the vengeful, cuckolded husband.
There is evidence that the source material for this murder was not available to Chapman at the time of writing. Intriguing then, that we have here an Oxfordian grail, a play with elite knowledge of goings on at court, the French court too, at the time of the French Suit for Elizabeth's hand, favoured and supported by Oxford. And good reasons why playwrights might not have had access to descriptions of events accurately described on stage.
The plots ring quite a few more Oxfordian bells. In the two Bussy plays, Bussy takes £1,000 (bing) to do some henching for noble born Frenchmen one of whom, with the extensively researched surname of Monsieur, turns out to be the Duc d'Anjou (bing) who wanted to marry Queen Elizabeth (bing). But Bussy wasn't born to follow. He kills a couple of people in a duel (bing), abandons his wife (bing) has an adulterous affair with a woman close to The Queen (bing), messages are exchanged by friar post (bing) go astray (bing). His lover is tortured by her husband, Bussy is warned by the ghost of the friar (bing) and finally comes off worst in another duel (bing), making the mistake of taking a sword to a gunfight. Finally, at the insistence of an otherworld shade (bing) Bussy's semi-fictional brother Clermont steps up to the plate and revenges Bussy's murder (bing, bing, bing).
Here's the passage in which Oxford features as quoted by Hank Whittemore1 and Richard Whalen2 in their articles on the subject. Professor Nelson quotes the same passage in Monstrous Adversary. Clermont relates an anecdote which took place in Burgundy (bing, bing) and names Oxford unequivocally:
In Germanie a great and famous Earle
Of England, the most goodly fashion'd man
I ever saw; from head to foote in forme
Rare and most absolute; hee had a face
Like one of the most ancient honour'd Romanes
From whence his noblest familie was deriv'd;
He was beside of spirit passing great,
Valiant, and learn'd, and liberall as the sunne,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of publike weales;
And t'was the Earle of Oxford: and being offer'd
At that time, by Duke Cassimere, the view
Of his right royall armie then in field,
Refus'd it, and no foote was mov'd to stirre
Out of his owne free fore-determin'd course.
I, wondring at it, askt for it his reason,
It being an offer so much for his honour.
Hee, all acknowledging, said t'was not fit
To take those honours that one cannot quit
A flattering portait preceding a rebuke. The Earl is being criticised for being too haughty to take the trouble to displace himself to accept the honour of reviewing Duke Casimir's troops. There's more to it, of course. Chapman goes on to spell out the unpleasantness and possible offence created by the Earl's ungracious lack of condescension, leaving no doubt that Oxford's determination to avoid reviewing Casimir's troops is an insult:
And yet he cast it only in the way,
To stay and serve the world. Nor did it fit
His own true estimate how much it weigh’d,
For he despis’d it; and esteemed it freer
To keep his own way straight, and swore that he
Had rather make away his whole estate
In things that cross’d the vulgar, than he would
Be frozen up still like a Sir John Smith,
(His countryman) in common nobles’ fashions,
Affecting as the end of noblesse were
Those servile observations
This is high energy criticism of a top nobleman on a public stage. Exactly the sort of thing Oxfordians claim was impossible without anonymity and protection.
Chapman, a key worker in the the theatre business had no thought that Oxford might be playwright.
Despite the host of biographical cues and the very inviting possibility of autobiography, Whittemore doesn't attempt to place the play in the Shakespearean canon. For Oxfordians in the Hank Whittemore camp, everything is explicable if you accept that Chapman is here rewriting Hamlet, which, as they all know, is in turn a biography of the Earl. And, of course, there's always the fact that Earl might not be cunning enough to criticise his own person on stage. And any flattery of Oxford, even accompanied by criticism, is always acceptable, wherever it might be found.
Nor does the idea that all these connections might suggest Oxford authored the play appear to cross Whalen's mind. Flying in the face of Oxfordian certainty that biographical similarities provide the best clues, he does not press the claims suggested by literary biography, despite strengthening them by discovering multiple instances of Oxford in Chapman's work, as himself, as Bussy, as Monsieur d'Olive, Lemot and so on. And when it comes to the black eye Chapman appears to be handing Oxford, Whalen actually beefs up the authenticity by waxing lyrical upon the wildly conflicted nature of De Vere. He falls short of drawing any of the biographical conclusions to which Oxfordians leap when it comes to Will's work. He comes up with the idea that 40% to 50% of artists suffer from 'mood swings' and bi-polarity, then treats us to a couple of pages of Nichomachean Ethics, pining over the great-souled but complicated man. Then there's a brief reference Lord Byron, a bit of sighing over his extravagance, the detection of similarities to Hamlet's mood swings and a bit of Oxfordian verse he thinks relevant:
Sitting alone upon my thought in melancholy mood. . . .
You might be excused for thinking you can hear Will (and Chapman) sniggering at this point.
What the two Oxfordians don't do is explore why Chapman has brought the Earl on stage in the first place. This is soluble, like most narrative mysteries, by taking a step back and looking at the context. A few lines earlier, the character Clermont cues up the anecdote by tying it to an earlier point he was making:
Cler. As the world esteemes it.
But to decide that, you make me remember
An accident of high and noble note,
And fits the subject of my late discourse
Of holding on our free and proper way.
What Clermont and Bussy are looking for are a set of good reasons for doing something bad. Clermont has the same problem as Hamlet, he's stuck with a revenge task that he didn't ask for, doesn't want and would like to rationalise away until he is prompted by an apparition from the underworld. Whilst this isn't a direct comparison between Hamlet and an Earl too lazy to inspect an army, we are heading in that direction.
Cler. Shall we revenge a villanie with villain.
Char. Is it not equall?
Cler. Shall wee equall be with villaines?
Is that your reason?
Char. Cowardise evermore
Flyes to the shield of reason.
Now we're really starting to sound like Hamlet, eh Hank?. Or maybe not. Oxford's reasons for holding to his course were pathetically selfish and insulting to a high military official of a foreign government. Chapman's motive for portraying them on stage can only be to deprecate the vanity of a certain type of aristocrat.
Without indulging in more unnecessary gyrations, there are three conclusions we can draw about the anomalies this play raises.
- The first is that Oxfordians are not serious about the role of literary biography in attribution. They apply it only where it suits them. Chapman's French plays not only equal Shakespeare's in the quantity of biographical resemblances, they also exceed them in including elite knowledge which might only have been available to Oxford. The detailed knowledge of Bussy's demise had no printed source at the time of publication. And the Casimir incident took place thirty years before the play was registered and can hardly have been well-known outside those who actually witnessed it. Sir Philip Sidney may have got wind of it through Casimir and retailed it to Oxford's disadvantage but unless Chapman was actually travelling with Oxford, it's hard to explain how such a detailed anecdote could possibly have got into the play. Yet in plays which should be the ne plus ultra of biographical similarities, they see no temptation to attribute the work to Oxford. This could be because of the documentary record but they show little enough respect for that normally. More likely, it is as a result of their inability or even unwillingness to generalise their 'theory' and 'methods' and this may also account for their failure to engage in the currently fashionable game of analysis of collaborative contributions. Or, possibly, it could be a result of two other permissible conclusions.
- Jonson and Chapman spent time in jail for scoffing at the Scots. Not permissible in 1605 and two of Chapman's French plays were banned and then gutted for being nasty about the French Queen. Yes there was censorship. Yes there were penalties. Yet the Oxfordian idea that no one could criticise the high and mighty on stage, creating a need for anonymity for aristocratic authors, is given the lie by Oxford's extended presence in The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois, which has no performance difficulties associated with it.
- The most damning conclusion, however, is that it is crystal clear, in a long and detailed contemporary reference to Oxford, that Chapman, a key worker in the the theatre business had no thought that Oxford might be playwright. There isn't a scintilla of allusion to the idea that the man described dodging an honour might be someone known on Bankside as anything other than a old, upper-crust, loose cannon.
Chapman is not the age's greatest humourist but not even he could not have resisted a knowing wink with the Earl himself, practically on stage.
If there had been anything worth winking at.