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Rumors of disaster, premonitions of war

by Tom Goff

This article was first published in the Summer 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

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Supporters of the seventeenth Earl of Oxford’s claim to the identity of playwright “William Shakespeare” have often shown how much the Shakespeare plays — perhaps the history plays above all — reflect sensitive awareness of Elizabethan politics, scandal, and intrigue. (Hamlet says as much when he avers, in Hamlet 2.2.520, that the players “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.”) In their magnum opus, This Star of England, Oxfordians Dorothy Ogburn and Charlton Ogburn, Sr., inform us that the two famous opening lines spoken by “Rumor” in Henry the Fourth, Part Two -

Open your ears, for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?

– should help alert us to the play’s many topical allusions. “Rumor’s” words, say the Ogburns, were prompted by actual events of Elizabeth’s reign, most of them occurring well before Shakspere the Stratfordian could conceivably have taken a part, real or fictitious, in writing the Shakespeare plays.

In 1585 and ’86 the Babington plot [To unseat Elizabeth and enthrone the Scots queen in her place] was brewing; and the fumes of treachery and rebellion darken the atmosphere of this drama. Rumor was rife. The Fugger News-Letters, reporting to the Continent on current affairs, were full of sensational surmises and scandals. (Ogburn, 723)

The Ogburns also list the Throgmorton plot [another anti-Elizabeth conspiracy]; the presence of Spanish spies in England’s ports; allusions to Sir Philip Sidney and the British campaign in the Low Countries; and Philip 11 of Spain’s anger over his portrayal by English dramatists among the ingredients which served to keep Shakespeare’s dark brew at a rolling boil. (Ogburn, 703,723-726.)

With this in mind, we may be able to date 2 Henry IV’s Induction –where “Rumor” first appears– to the middle or late 1580s; nor is this all the information. If we turn the leaf of history one year past the Babington plot, to early 1587, we may find evidence allowing us to date 2 Henry IV’s opening to that very time: about a decade before the “consensus” date assigned it by Stratfordian tradition (1597-98, according to Barnet, xii). The implications –favorable to the Earl of Oxford, unfavorable to William Shakspere of Stratford– seem unmistakable once we read just how ominous and widespread were the whispers in and out of London in the early months of that year, according to Queen Elizabeth’s recent biographer, Carrolly Erickson:

In January of 1587 fresh alarms swept the country. Rumors sprang from one another, creating unprecedented panic and breeding ever more fantastic news of imagined events.
The Spaniards had landed. They were at Milford, thousands strong, their huge cannon rumbling through the Welsh countryside and their grim legions of cutthroat troops marching ever closer to the capital.
The north was in revolt. It was a rising as stubborn and as ill-disposed toward the queen as the rising of 1569, only this time the Spaniards would aid the rebels and nothing could stop them.
London was in flames. The queen — was she still living, or had she been assassinated, as some said? — had had to flee. In all the confusion, [Mary] the queen of Scots had escaped. She was on her way to the northern rebels. Spaniards were moving toward the burning capital, their crested helmets silhouetted against the red glow of the night sky. Surely, these were the last days of the world. (Erickson 362.)

To appreciate the aptness of the play’s Induction to its time, we need only compare these tidings of 1587 with “Rumor’s” wild stories (28-32) of King Henry’s and Prince Hal’s supposed deaths in 1403 at Shrewsbury:

… my office is
To noise abroad, that Harry Monmouth fell
Under the wrath of noble Hotspur’s sword;
And that the king before the Douglas’ rage
Stooped his anointed head as low as death.

[If critics are in less than perfect agreement that the work of "Rumor, painted full of tongues" (st. dir.) may help pinpoint the Induction to circa 1587, it may be because the poet was worried lest audiences read, between the lines, too many "surmises, jealousies, [and] conjectures” (116) for their own good or the realm’s security: the substance of the Shrewsbury rumors is related in a mere four and a half lines. The author had the sense to sway audience opinion subtly, too; without blatant manipulation. But one thing is clear: nothing is said in Holinshed or Hall — the poet’s primary historical sources — of such rumors sweeping England directly after the battle of Shrewsbury. The passage is evidently the playwright’s addition.]

Erickson’s account continues (362):

The whirl of rumor engulfed the court. The image of a realm in chaos shimmered in the air like a horrifying mirage, unreal yet threatening. Elizabeth fought toward her decision [to execute Mary, Queen of Scots], pressed as much by the wildfire of panic as by the urgent necessity for action…

By the first of February 1587, Elizabeth was ready to sign Mary’s death warrant (363), and to face the Spanish Armada, which Drake was very shortly to beard at Cadiz (365); but she would have been the last person to wish it said she had acted out of panic or had been guided by rumor. At about this time, the monarch decided to take one, possibly two firm actions to stem the unprecedented flow of scandal, gossip and prophesying which was contributing to sap the loyalty and morale of her people.

First, a stern proclamation was issued against the circulating of rumor. Dated February 6, 1586 [-87], it is epitomized (in the authoritative Bibliography of Royal Proclamations of the Tudor and Stuart Sovereigns) as follows:

Rumors have been spread in many shires, and put into ‘simple billettes’ in writing, raising ‘huies and cries’ without warrant and causing extraordinary watches. The inventors, and those who spread them, are to be severely punished, and Constables are to be responsible for their spread unless they find the author. (Steele, prod. no. 792.)

As a glance at the Bibliography will confirm, if Shakespeare was inspired by a royal proclamation it was very likely this one; the relatively few similar ones issued during Elizabeth’s reign were meant to deal either with printed libels in book or pamphlet form (not with crude or ‘simple’ billets); or with specific slanders and libels aimed at targets like Lord Buckhurst (Steele nos. 775, 769, 909).

Second, at this point the queen may have asked a great playwright to help quell the rumors by inserting a cautionary pronouncement into a new –or perhaps already existing– play. If Oxfordians have rightly analyzed the chain of causes and effects involved, Elizabeth had just secretly placed her preeminent court dramatist –Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford– on the royal payroll the previous June (Ogburn, 688-689), authorizing him to write plays which could entertain courtier and commoner alike while expressing the royal will in matters of order, obedience, and that “…degree… / Which is the ladder of all high designs” (Troilus 1.3.101-102). Enabled by a pension of a thousand pounds per annum — granted him under mysterious circumstances — to produce one or two plays a year (Ogburn 19, 402), he may have been working, by February 1587, on both Henry V and 2 Henry IV, given that Henry V also seems to date from the period directly following the queen’s grant to the earl by Privy Seal Warrant (Clark 772-790, Goff 74-89). At any rate, though de Vere seems not to have adopted the pseudonym “Shakespeare” irrevocably until circa 1598 (Ogburn 744-749), he may well have thought himself a theatrical “spear-shaker” in the queen’s service from the time of his annuity. Certainly his Induction to Henry the Fourth, Part Two reads as if composed expressly to identify, even to crush, “Rumor’s” immediate challenge to Elizabeth’s authority”:

… I speak of peace while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world.
And who but Rumor, who but only I,
Make fearful muster and prepared defense
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? (9-15.)

It may be possible to trace the specific connections to early 1587. First, more than one plot on Elizabeth’s own life had been made lately under the “smile of safety,” including that of William Parry, member of Parliament and employee of the trustworthy Sir Francis Walsingham (Erickson 357-358); traitors Rowland Yorke and Sir William Stanley smilingly surrendered important English outposts in the Netherlands to Spain; and whether Elizabeth herself thought so, many about her believed the ongoing Spanish peace negotiations a humbug, according to Ridley, 275 (events were to prove that opinion correct).

Second, Oxford’s words about “fearful muster and prepared defense” apply pretty closely to England in January 1587, with the Spanish armies not yet engaged –that is, on or about the British coasts and waters themselves– and the muster-rolls filled with men apt to tremble at a danger anticipated but not yet seen. The suspense lingered through the very eve of the Armada’s attack; Howarth, 90-91, reports that,

Ashore in 1588, the English waited for the armada, not in panic, but certainly with healthy apprehension. They had heard the kind of rumours one might expect, half bred by fear and half by propaganda: that the armada had orders to kill all Englishmen except boys under seven, that it was led by Inquistadores and laden with instruments of torture; that it carried nooses to hang the men and scourges for the women; and, most ingenious of all, in a report from one of [ex-ambassador Don Bernardino de] Mendoza’s men in England, that it was bringing two or three thousand wet nurses to suckle the infants orphaned by the massacre.

What could even the queen’s greatest poet do against such talk? Evidently he tried his best to counter it: Oxford was assuming more than a little poetic license in asserting that what looked like war was “no such matter” (Induction 15), with the Armada in open preparation; but his intent would have been to scotch the persistent rumors, not to report the literal truth.

But what was the “other grief” (13) with which the present year was pregnant, if not war? Here and elsewhere, one suspects that the queen’s relations with her playwright were often less than easy (often the case with patron and artist –Michelangelo and Pope Julius II come to mind); and if Elizabeth Tudor was displeased at all with 2 Henry IV, it could have been due to that faintly ominous mention of “some other grief,” with its words addressed to her private understanding. For Elizabeth was faced with a harrowing decision, one momentous enough to contribute in removing Charles I from his throne some sixty years later: whether to execute Mary, Queen of Scots. It is at least likely that when “Rumor” noises it about that “the king [Henry IV] before the Douglas’ rage / Stooped his anointed head as low as death” (31-32), the dramatist’s thoughts were occupied more with the work of a headsman’s axe upon the execution block than with the action and aftermath of war to be treated in the play at hand. [Whether we are entitled from this surmise to date the Induction's composition more precisely, who can say? The proclamation against rumor went forth on February 6, 1587 (February 16 N.S.), while Mary was executed (Ridley 262) on February 8 (February 18 N.S.); certainly the lateness of year made Oxford's pregnancy metaphors appropriate, since English custom decreed that it was still 1586 until March 25 (Ridley, x). But whatever the state of his Induction at the fateful time, the poet --who was not among the ten persuaded by Burghley to sign Mary's death warrant (Looney 1.302)-- was probably determined to keep his original thoughts on the matter.]

If the queen was not offended by Oxford’s apparent reference to her impending act of regicide — she could have thought the poet meant something else by that “other grief,” a dearth of corn and other foodstuffs in some counties being one possibility (Hurstfield 275, Steele no. 791)– she could well have been pleased by her chief peer’s prompt poetical action for stifling loose talk: the powerful effect produced in the theatre by a good actor playing “Rumor” is apt to make us forget how quickly “Rumor’s” efforts are brought to grief. Lord Bardolph enters with wild tidings of victory for Hotspur and Douglas (2 Henry IV 1.1.11 -23); but then Travers and Morton enter by turns with gradually worsening — though truthful — news. And that is about all “Rumor” accomplishes. We are also to grasp the point that it is the triumphant government army, not the rebel force, which has firm possession of the truth. How foolish of you, my countrymen, Shakespeare seems to say, to place your trust in idle, easily disproven gossip, which scatters through the air at the first puff of wind!

So we leave Elizabeth and Shakespeare at this moment in history, regarding each other’s work –with what mixture of sympathy and disapproval we may never be able to say. But in using the braggart “Rumor” to ironic purpose, the world’s greatest dramatist seems to tell us of his, Shakespeare’s, perfect assurance in affairs of state: assurance possible only to an eminent courtier like Edward de Vere. Ultimately, much of his confidence may have been due to whatever trust he now won in the queen’s eyes, for helping put an end to dangerous rumor when England’s morale most required steady and confident courage. As he was to write elsewhere (King John 5.7.117-118),

naught shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

Copyright (1989) by Thomas A. Goff

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