Six Degrees of Shakespeare

Since it lay there for so long with nothing in it, WordPress has inspired me to launch this long delayed blog with an encouraging auto message and the following quote from Shakespeare:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.


Lacking the technical artistry needed to create the header that was originally intended, I will leave the latest mishap in place and move on. The creepy effect of masks, silenced mouths and spying eyes was inadvertent but oddly satisfying as a representation of the Tudor/Jacobian security state. Perhaps it will serve as a good warning because this is a “two-eyed” view of Shakespeare.

The orthodox scholar A.P. Rossiter noted the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s works where “two opposed value-judgements are subsumed, and … both are valid” while the “whole is only fully experienced when both opposites are held and included in a ‘two-eyed’ view.” When it comes to Shakespeare, he tells us, “all ‘one-eyed’ simplifications are not only falsifications; they amount to a denial of some part of the mystery of things.” [1]

The purpose of this blog is to explore and celebrate rather than solve the essential mystery that surrounds Shakespeare. For full disclosure I am an Oxfordian, believing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was behind the works of Shakespeare but this blog does not have a one sided focus. Instead I want to hone in on the connections between the authorship candidates and the gentleman from Stratford-on-Avon who, in one of the “country” spellings that he used to sign his name, was William Shakspere. Since this blog does touch on authorship issues I will use this spelling when talking about the Stratford actor, company sharer and attributed author to avoid confusion.

To avoid the subjectivity of my own point of view, I began to focus not on the authorship candidates but on people who were very close to the nexus where the works originated. These individuals were connected to both Oxford and Shakspere and by a very short extension to other central figures in the authorship debate. The idea was that in looking closely at those whose lives touched on but were not distorted by the glamour of the central mystery that is Shakespeare, we might by seeing what their world looked like come closer to seeing that world as it was, and learn more about our elusive author in the process. The multiple viewpoints also provide a cross hatching of perspectives that can be helpful in understanding the greater picture and even yield new insights. “Six Degrees of Shakespeare” represents the approach of viewing the authorship question in terms of connections but also from multiple angles. Whatever position you take on the authorship question, when we study the stories of the people who shared connections to both Oxford and Shakspere we are assuredly following the author’s gaze.

What I found above all was that the links between these figures tell a greater story, a collective tale of tragedy and triumph that played out there in the shadows of that great Golden Age. A special area of focus will be on one religiously mixed family that stretched from London to the midlands, a clan with multiple social and kinship connections to Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon, as well as the Earls of Oxford, Essex and Southampton. A lot is missed because the gentry of the Shakespearean age, and especially Catholic members of the gentry, generally were only noticed in the history books when they planned to assassinate Queen Elizabeth or blow up the Parliament House. There was plenty of the former and one notorious case of the latter in these otherwise noble and mostly law abiding family lines but the quieter members that are the links between family trees often escape attention.

As an example of this kind of overlooked connection, consider the relatives of Sir Edward Arden of Park Hall. It is well known that Sir Edward Arden was executed and his head stuck on a pike on London Bridge after the Somerville Plot which involved his son-in-law John Somerville who on the way to London with a pistol in his pocket ranted about his intent to assassinate the Queen. Any retelling of this story will also include mention that Sir Edward Arden was the second cousin of the Stratford-on-Avon man’s mother Mary Shakespeare, nee Arden.

Many Oxfordians will know that Oxford’s brother-in-law Frances Trentham was married to Sir Edward Arden’s niece, born Katherine Sheldon, daughter of Sir Ralph Sheldon of Beoley and Anne Throckmorton. Yet how many realize that Arden was also the father-in-law of Edward Devereaux, who became in 1611 the 1st Baron Bromwich Edward Devereaux was a half-brother of the grandfather of Robert Devereaux, the 2rd Earl of Essex so he was the head Essex Rebel’s half-blooded great uncle. The son of the 1st Baron Bromwich was close to the son of the 2nd Earl of Essex, serving as trustee of his estates.

Any one who has studied the period will recognize that Arden was the uncle of the head Gunpowder Plotter Robert Catesby, and the marriage of Catesby’s sister Elizabeth to their second cousin Thomas Wintour, another Gunpowder Plotter, has been reported but not confirmed. Yet the connections of Catesby’s sister Anne are overlooked. Besides being Arden’s niece, Anne Catesby was married to Sir Henry Browne, a half brother of Mary Browne, the Countess of Southampton and her twin Anthony, the 2nd Viscount Montague. That means the Shakespeare dedicatee Henry Wriothesley’s Uncle Henry, raised with his more famous half-siblings at the Montague estate known as “Little Rome”, was a brother-in-law of the chief Gunpowder Plotter. Catesby also joined Essex and Southampton in the Essex Rebellion.

This was just a narrow cross section to show evidence that Shakespeare’s world looks very different when examined from the perspective of the connections in this nexus. As the acting company most closely associated with Shakespeare was hired to stage Richard II on the eve of the Rebellion in order to drum up support for the rebel cause, these are all important connections to consider.

Members of this great and close knit clan were Puritans, conformists and Catholics living in an age of extreme religious intolerance. To note that one or more of their close kinsmen had a hand in nearly every plot, treason and rebellion of the Caecilian Regnum, the period overlapping the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, is to comment on the effect without examining the cause. Oxford’s father-in-law and brother-in-law, William and Robert Cecil, served as the crown’s most powerful advisers in this period that saw increasing oppression and scapegoating of those adhering to the old faith. The epic sweep of that story belongs to the longer project I’m working on. In the blog I will mostly focus on telling up close and personal stories about the people in the nexus between Shakespeare and de Vere, especially where they impact the authorship question, and provide documentation for those links.

I will share the following grid of portraits because it gives a good nonverbal overview of what this blog is about, at least for those who are familiar with the faces of the Shakespearean age. For the faces that you might not recognize, hopefully they will become familiar. Of course many whose faces I wish I could see did not leave a picture for posterity. The pictures are a good reminder that these were all individuals, people living under the unique pressures of an extraordinary period in history. While we’re telling stories that force us to gaze into the dark heart of religious intolerance, scapegoating and social persecution we should accord the respect and dignity due to all sides.

I wanted to begin sharing and documenting some of the information here and and hopefully begin a community discussion about the subject. Whatever your point of view, if you choose civility you are welcome here.

BeFunky_GroupGridB.jpg [1] A.P. Rossiter, “Ambivalence: The Dialectic of the Histories” in Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare, p. 51

Genealogy references are hyperlinked


2 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Shakespeare

  1. Thanks for the link. Not only a great example of civil discourse on the topic of the authorship, it was a fun “little foolery” as the Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin pointed out in the mock trial covered by this podcast. I liked her quote:

    “I take my final refuge in the words of a great jurist Oliver Wendall Holmes: ‘Certainty is an illusion and repose is not the destiny of man’ — nor sadly it seems of women.”

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