As I've posted before, I've been so busy at work that I've had much less time to devote to finally finishing Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper than I hoped at the beginning of the year. However, I am now definitely in the home stretch. It's about time! Nearly all the research in this book was completed between 2007 and 2009. However, one of my favorite things about the case for Sackville is how it continually surprises and enlightens me. The biggest surprise of all was the possible relationship between Sackville and the play All's Well That Ends Well. When I began writing the chapter below, I nearly ended it in a few sentences that would basically have said that All's Well That Ends Well neither strengthens nor detracts from the case for Sackville. However, I had a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I was missing something, because the Oxfordians have always argued for this play as a semi-autobiographical tale about Oxford's unhappy marriage to Anne Cecil. When I began looking into this possibility in more depth, I was surprised to find that All's Well constitutes one of the strongest arguments in favor of Sackville's authorship. Here's my draft argument -- all comments welcome.
All’s Well That Ends Well
All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating plays from an authorship perspective. Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, it acquires a new meaning and interest with Thomas Sackville as the author. He may have written this ‘problem play’ with a specific purpose: to encourage Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, to reconcile with his wife Anne Cecil, daughter of Lord Burghley (the queen’s top advisor) during their scandalous five-year marital separation between 1576 and 1581.
All’s Well That Ends Well was a singularly obscure play in its time. No Elizabethan or Jacobean topical allusions to the play survive, nor do any records of contemporary play performances. The play contains no late Elizabethan or Jacobean slang, nor does it allude to any contemporary events or literature from the 1590s and early 1600s. Nothing is known with any certainty about when it was first written. First printed in the 1623 First Folio, All’s Well That Ends Well’s first recorded performance was not until 1741. The 1623 text is corrupt in many places, and appears to have been imperfectly printed from an imperfect revision. The play’s erudite style, continental flavor, and literary isolation suggest it may have only been performed before the Elizabethan court, and not in the public theatres.
All’s Well That Ends Well is traditionally assigned a composition date of 1604 or 1605, based on complex and contradictory evidence. However, one feature of the play points to a much earlier first composition date: its anomalously high percentage of old-fashioned rhyming couplets (19%) compared to Shakespeare’s Jacobean average (5%). All’s Well That Ends Well is generally viewed as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays,’ since its complex and shifting tone undercuts the supposedly comic plot, and its abrupt happy ending fails to persuade or satisfy.
In brief, All’s Well That Ends Well tells of the trials and tribulations of a young couple: Bertram, Count of Rousillion, who becomes a ward of the King of France after his father’s death, and Helena, the daughter of a famous physician, whom Bertram’s mother the Dowager Countess adopted after her father’s death. Helena passionately loves Bertram, but learns that he doesn’t return her love after she heals the King of France of a seemingly hopeless medical condition. The King had promised to reward her with any husband of her choice, should he be cured by her ministrations. Helena chooses Bertram, but he is so appalled at being forced to wed a commoner, no matter her beauty and virtue, that he cruelly abandons his bride before consummating the union. Bertram vows to his friend Parolles, “Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, I will not bed her…Oh my Parolles, they have married me! I’ll go to the Tuscan wars and never bed her…I have wedded, not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal.” Bertram sends word home from Tuscany that he will never acknowledge Helena as his wife unless she accomplishes two seemingly impossible tasks: returning to him his family ring which he always keeps on his finger, and bearing a child of his loins despite his refusal to share her bed.
The determined and loyal Helena, a “jewel,” follows Bertram to Florence, where she discovers that he has been seeking to debauch a widow’s daughter, the virginal Diana, with promises of his faithful love. Helena persuades Diana to procure Bertram’s treasured ring for her, and arranges to disguise herself in bed as Diana, where she surrenders to Bertram and becomes pregnant with his child. Soon after, Count Bertram hears the false news of Helena’s death and returns to the court of France, where he obtains royal consent to marry the daughter of Lord Lafew. Unbeknownst to him, Helena, Diana, and her widowed mother had secretly followed him back to France. Together they provide proof of his escapade in Florence before the King. Bertram denies the whole episode, but no one is fooled. Chastened, he agrees to convert his hate for Helena into love, and the court of France rejoices at the happy news.
Did Shakespeare really fail to realize that All’s Well That Ends Well suffers from a fatal flaw—the fact that the play doesn’t end well at all? Given the author’s remarkable psychological perspicuity, this seems unlikely. Instead, All’s Well’s unsatisfying ending is far more likely to have been a deliberate authorial choice. The key questions are: why did Shakespeare choose to make the lead male character, Bertram, Count of Rousillion, such a despicable cad? And why did he fail to make Bertram’s last-minute conversion from hatred to love for his wife Helena believable?
All’s Well That Ends Well provides an essential clue to Bertram’s identity in a brief exchange between the court Clown and the Dowager Countess of Rousillion. After Bertram flees to Tuscany to escape his marriage to Helena, the clown says, “I take my young lord to be a very melancholy man.” Surprised, the Countess asks why. The Clown replies that Bertram’s habit of song reveals his melancholy:
Why, he will look upon his boot and sing; mend the
ruff and sing; ask questions and sing; pick his
teeth and sing.
The Clown then mentions for no apparent reason, “I know a man that had this trick of melancholy, sold a goodly manor for a song.” This can only be an allusion to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550—1604), who granted the composer William Byrd a thirty-one year lease to his property Battails Hall in 1574. (The lease was meant to take effect after the death of Aubrey Vere, Oxford’s uncle.) Byrd subsequently composed a rousing battle song, “The Earl of Oxford’s March.”
After Aubrey’s death in 1580 there was a legal wrangle over Battails Hall, and Oxford ended up selling it to William Byrd’s brother John for four hundred marks. Even though Oxford never technically gave Battails Hall to William Byrd “for a song,” and Byrd never enjoyed the use of his lease to Battails Hall, their original arrangement is the only Elizabethan equivalent to a melancholy lord selling “a goodly manor for a song.” Chattering members of the court would surely have gossiped about Oxford’s extravagant gift to Byrd, which can loosely be viewed as selling a manor house in exchange for “The Earl of Oxford’s March.” Shakespeare’s allusion to Oxford would have been instantly recognizable to members of the court in the late 1570s and early 1580s, but would have been totally obscure for late Elizabethan and early Jacobean public theatre audiences.
From the Clown’s close association of the “melancholy” Bertram with a “melancholy” man who “sold a goodly manor for a song,” it seems clear that the author of All’s Well That Ends Well meant to equate Bertram with Oxford in the minds of a court audience. The connection is strengthened by many unusual biographical parallels between the two men’s lives (Attribute X of the glass slipper). Just as Bertram became a royal ward of the French court after his father died, Oxford became a ward of the English court after his father died when he was twelve. He was raised in the household of William Cecil, whom Queen Elizabeth elevated to the peerage as the first Baron Burghley in February of 1571. On December 19, 1571, the twenty-one-year-old Oxford married Burghley’s daughter Anne Cecil, who had just turned fifteen. On Anne’s side it appears to have been a love match to the lord she grew up with (as Helena grew up with Count Bertram). On Lord Burghley’s side, it was a marriage of social ambition (to have his common-born daughter marry into the second oldest earldom in the land was a great achievement). And on de Vere’s side, this wedding was evidently a calculated financial decision (the extravagant Earl was already heavily indebted and needed Burghley’s wealth behind him).
The marriage was an unhappy one from the beginning. Like Bertram, Oxford longed to leave his native country and embark on foreign adventures, but was forbidden to do so by his monarch. In July of 1574 he briefly fled to the Low Countries, but an old friend, Thomas Bedingfield, was sent to retrieve him. Oxford was so reluctant to bed Anne that she had to personally intervene in the sleeping arrangements at Hampton Court before the Queen’s arrival in early October of 1574 so that he might be enticed to sleep with her. “The more commodious my lodging is, the willinger I hope my lord my husband will be to come thither,” Anne wrote, “thereby the oftener to attend her Majesty.”
In late January or early February of 1575, Oxford left England for around fifteen months to travel in Italy. Before giving him permission to depart, Queen Elizabeth asked Oxford in front of her Presence Chamber if he were sure that Anne was not pregnant. He replied before the whole gathered company that “if she were with child, it were not his.” However, in early March, a Dr. Richard Masters examined Anne, who had been feeling extremely sickly, and confirmed that she was indeed pregnant. When Dr. Masters reported this to Queen Elizabeth, she asked how Anne “did bear the matter.” He replied “that she kept it secret four or five days from all persons, and that her face was much fallen and thin, with little color.” When she was “comforted and counselled to be gladsome and to rejoice,” Anne cried “Alas, alas, how should I rejoice seeing he that should rejoice with me is not here, and to say truth, stand in doubt whether he pass upon me and it or not.” Dr. Masters deeply regretted that “after so long sickness of body, she should enter a new grief and sorrow.”
Although Anne was terrified that Oxford would not accept her child as his own, when he first learned of Anne’s pregnancy in mid-March he wrote to Lord Burghley thanking him for the news and expressing pleasure at knowing he would soon have an heir. Oxford waited anxiously for news of the baby’s birth, finally receiving a letter from Burghley on or shortly before September 24 that his daughter, Elizabeth, had been born on July 2—nine months after he shared Anne’s bed at Hampton Court. He immediately wrote back to his father-in-law from Padua to acknowledge his receipt of the news: “Having looked for your Lordship’s letters a great while, at length when I grew to despair of them I received two packets.”
It is surprising, one must admit, that Anne’s pregnancy was first confirmed only four months before Elizabeth’s official birth date. Women typically notice that their menstrual cycle has stopped within two or three weeks after pregnancy, and begin visibly showing in three to four months rather than at five months. It is also odd that Anne appears to have been emerging from a period of morning sickness in early March, which typically subsides after the first trimester of pregnancy.
While returning to England from Italy, Oxford passed through Paris in March of 1576. There he met with his man Rowland Yorke and caught up with the latest court gossip, including a rumor that Anne had given birth to another man’s child. He may have also begun to suspect that Elizabeth’s real birth date was in September, not July. On April 4, 1576 Oxford wrote to Burghley to declare his “misliking” of the situation with Anne. Back in England on April 27, he declared to Burghley his intention to shun Anne’s presence until he could satisfy himself that she had not cuckolded him: “I must let you understand this much: that is, until I can better satisfy or advertise myself of some mislikes, I am not determined, as touching my wife, to accompany her.”
This letter marks the beginning of Oxford’s five year estrangement from Anne. On July 12, 1576, Oxford gave Burghley permission to bring Anne to court only on “condition that she should not come when I was present, nor at any time to have speech with me, and further that your Lordship should not urge further in her cause.” The following day he wrote to Burghley in outrage, having learned of a rumor that Burghley intended to bring Anne to court that same day, with the intention of begging Queen Elizabeth to intervene in their marital crisis. “I understand that your Lordship means this day to bring her to the court and that you mean afterward to prosecute the cause with further hope. Now if your Lordship shall do so, then shall you take more in hand then I have or can promise you. For always I have and will still prefer mine own content before others.”
It is difficult to overstate the degree to which this scandal over Anne’s possible adultery and baby Elizabeth Vere’s questionable status would have titillated, troubled, and preoccupied the members of the court throughout Oxford and Anne’s separation. Oxford was one of the land’s preeminent peers; Anne was daughter to its chief political minister. During the years they were apart, emerging tidbits of news and gossip about the situation would have created a thrilling five-year soap opera. Had Anne committed adultery? Was Burghley’s granddaughter Elizabeth a bastard? Would Oxford ever return to his wife? Who was lying to whom, and why? Among the swirl of rumors, a preferred explanation began to emerge for how the virtuous Anne became pregnant by a man who refused to bed her: she had used a “bed trick” (traded places with another woman in her husband’s bed) to bear him a child and secure his love, just as Helena deceives Bertram with a bed trick in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Contemporary gossip about Anne’s bed trick is not recorded in Elizabethan documents, but it survives in two slightly garbled later accounts. The scandal was first set down in Traditional Memoirs of the Reigns of Q. Elizabeth & King James I, by Francis Osborne (1593-1659). Osborne, who served as Master of the Horse to Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery—the husband of Oxford’s youngest daughter Susan—describes Susan as “that daughter of the last great Earl of Oxford, whose lady was brought to his Bed under the notion of his Mistress, and from such a virtuous deceit she is said to proceed.” (This gossip must have originally pertained to the circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth, not Susan’s.) And according to Thomas Wright’s History of Essex (1836), the Earl of Oxford destroyed his estates as an insane act of revenge upon Lord Burghley and his daughter Anne. “According to this insane resolution, he not only forsook his lady’s bed, but sold and wasted the best part of his inheritance.... The father of the Lady Anne, by stratagem, contrived that her husband should, unknowingly, sleep with her, believing her to be another woman, and she bore a son to him, in consequence of this meeting.” (Again, this must refer to Elizabeth’s birth, not that of a son.)
To summarize, the most significant biographical parallels between Bertram and Oxford are as follows: the clown in All’s Well associates the “melancholy” Bertram with a “melancholy” lord who sold a goodly manor for a song (Oxford); Bertram and Oxford become wards of the court after their fathers’ deaths; both grow up in the home of their future wife; both are unhappily wed to a commoner whom they disdain, and whose bed they shun; both run away without royal permission to a foreign country after their marriages; and both have a wife who uses a bed trick (or was rumored to use a bed trick) to become pregnant with their first child.
In addition to these strong similarities, All’s Well contains two additional indications that Bertram was created to lampoon the Earl of Oxford. First, even though Bertram is a French Count, he is twice described as a “French earl” and a “young earl.” Second, when Bertram finally converts from hatred to love for Helena in the final scene, he speaks just one line and falls silent (a particular challenge for actors who wish to make Bertram’s conversion seem credible): “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.” Setting aside the question of whether Bertram’s change of heart is sincere (the word “if” bodes poorly), his use of the phrase “ever, ever” may be significant. Edward de Vere was prone to ostentatiously punning with his name and Latin motto, and “ever” is a contraction of “E. Ver.”
Proponents of the Oxfordian theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s works have long maintained that All’s Well That End’s Well is a semi-autobiographical play, and that Oxford wrote it as an apology to his wife Anne for his callow behavior to her during the early years of their marriage. However, Oxford’s extant letters and writings do not show him capable of the sort of searching self-reflection needed to lampoon himself on stage in such a naked, painful fashion. Also, if Oxford wrote All’s Well as an act of penitence, wouldn’t he have made Bertram’s profession of love for Helena convincing in the play’s denouement?
In an essay printed in the journal Baconiana in February of 1933, Henry Seymour, a proponent of the theory that Francis Bacon (1561—1626) was the real Shakespeare, proposed instead that All’s Well was written to shame Oxford for his poor treatment of Anne. Seymour found it a mark of Shakespeare’s genius that he lampooned Oxford in All’s Well using an existing story from Bocaccio’s Decameron involving a bed trick, with small but key alterations:
If, as I suggest, All's Well was written to hold up to immortal scorn that prolifigate courtier of Queen Elizabeth, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, without laying himself open to such a charge, then in adapting the earlier Italian story (which fitted, by a curious coincidence, the circumstances of Oxford's life), he exhibited much greater genius than if he had drawn out an entirely new plot. All that we have to do is substitute England for France and metamorphise the French characters into the real personel of the English Court of the period, and the rest falls into its correct perspective. To the outer world the comedy was a mere episode of French life, but to those able to pierce the veil it was something very different.
All’s Well That Ends Well makes even greater sense if Thomas Sackville, rather than Francis Bacon, wrote it as a searing dramatic bill of indictment against the Earl of Oxford and his humiliating treatment of Anne Cecil after their marital separation in April of 1576. Sackville demonstrated great poetic ability in his youth (the same cannot be said of Bacon, although he was a great essayist and natural philosopher), and he may have written a version of the play between 1576 and 1581 when its message would have been most relevant and useful.
Sackville presumably intended to encourage Edward de Vere to reconcile with his wife Anne Cecil, as he finally did in 1581, by exposing his ignominious and callous behavior towards her before the court. In addition, All’s Well may have been intended to rehabilitate Anne Cecil’s reputation, as it provides a virtuous explanation for how “Helena” came to be pregnant with her husband’s child even though he vowed not to sleep with her. To give himself plausible deniability, Sackville worked closely from an existing plot involving a bed-trick from the Italian writer Boccaccio’s Decameron.
If Sackville wrote All’s Well as an early work of court propaganda aimed at Edward de Vere, the reason why Bertram abruptly and unpersuasively converts from hate to love for Helena is that Sackville had already given up hope on “Bertram’s” redemption, and knew that deep and undying love between this pair was not in the cards. Instead, he had a far more modest goal: bringing “Bertram” and “Helena” back together in a semblance of marital concord. The title phrase “all’s well that ends well” was intended to convey a specific message to Oxford: all can still end well, and the court will forgive you, if you stop accusing Anne of marital infidelity and move back in with her.
This scenario explains why the unlovable Bertram is such an unsatisfactory love interest for Helena: the author wanted him to come across as a snob, a liar, and a cad. He intentionally portrayed Bertram as a rash, unbridled, lascivious, vainglorious character whose own mother is so disgusted by his contemptible behavior that she disavows any maternal responsibility for him: “he was my son; / But I do wash his name out of my blood.”
The above scenario doesn’t need to be correct for Thomas Sackville to have been Shakespeare, since the case for Sackville works equally well if he first wrote All’s Well That Ends Well in 1604 or 1605, in line with scholarly tradition. However, it does offer powerful new insights into the play’s likely meaning and significance. What appear to have been authorial mistakes or oversights when All’s Well is viewed from the lens of William Shakespeare’s authorship are instead revealed to have been deliberate authorial choices meant to help resolve a real-world problem when viewed from the lens of Sackville’s authorship.